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The racism of anti-racist training

The trending redefinition of racism is both false and deeply patronizing

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at a tribute to Toni Morrison. Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer

The racism of anti-racist training
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Leaked documents from AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications company, reveal what the company offers as resources for employees to join the fight against racism. The suggested material argues that “American racism is a uniquely white trait,” and “Black people cannot be racist.” Such “anti-racist” training has swept through the world of business, entertainment, government, education, and virtually all other American institutions in recent years, including Christian institutions.

One factor that leaves many sitting in silent self-censorship through such training is a redefinition of “racism” itself. Many assume the traditional definition of racism as a matter of discriminating against others based on their race. Yet, in 1970, a white scholar named Patricia Bidol-Padva formulated the definition of racism not as prejudging people based on pigmentation but as “prejudice plus power.” This Bidol-Padva redefinition forms the unquestioned premise of such bestselling books as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Christian bestsellers, like Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. It is the working definition of sociology departments and virtually every diversity, equity, and inclusion seminar in the world.

Racism is indeed the kind of prejudice that corrupt power structures can enforce with devastating and dehumanizing results, a fact that William Wilberforce, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and many other Christian heroes in the battle against racism understood well. But the new definition of racism goes much farther. It is not that prejudice may be enforced with power. Prejudice must be enforced by power to count as “racism.” This is where problems arise.

If power is essential to racism, then sociologist Michael Eric Dyson is right when he informs us that “racism presupposes the ability to control a significant segment of the population economically, politically, and socially by imposing law, covenant, and restriction on their lives. Black people ain’t had no capacity to do that. Can we be bigoted? Yes. Can we be prejudiced? Yes. Can we be racist? No.”

Let’s assume that power is an essential property of racism. It follows that Hitler, as he sat powerless in a prison cell before the rise of the Third Reich, was not racist when scribbling away the anti-Semitic screed of Mein Kampf. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was not racist when he declared, “White folks are going down. And Satan is going down. And Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through!” When you can show animus toward others on account of their race and not count as a racist, we have entered a 1984 world of Newspeak.

This raises another problem with the trending redefinition of racism: Who determines how much power is sufficient for one’s prejudices to count as racist? Was it possible for black people to be racist when Barack Obama was leader of the free world for eight years? Kamala Harris, Ta-Nehisi Coates, LeBron James, and Ibram X Kendi hold tremendous cultural power, as do many other black influencers. The so-called “black vote” in America has been a powerful factor in the outcome of national elections. The assumption that white people hold all the power is not merely false but false in a deeply patronizing way to people of color.

Moreover, the so-called “anti-racist” ideology itself wields massive power in our nation’s public schools, media, entertainment, government, and corporations. Citing a litany of recent sociological studies, Musa al-Gharbi points out that “evidence is growing that many fashionable formulations of ‘racism’ (and anti-racist activism) may be directly pernicious for people of color. ... There are very well-established and highly-adverse impacts of the psychological (and even physical) well-being of people of color when they perceive more racism, racial inequality, and discrimination.” Ian Rowe, CEO of a network of black charter schools, points out the real-world effects of such anti-racist propaganda: “If you’re a kid and you keep hearing over and over and over that because of your race these are the outcomes that you’re going to have in your life, it’s really hard to feel a sense of personal agency.”

Why is there such an aggressive push to indoctrinate people with the Bidol-Padva redefinition of racism? If people still understood racism as prejudice-plus-pigmentation, it would be obvious to virtually everyone just how blatantly racist much of today’s so-called “anti-racist” training truly is. As Christians, will we simply go with the flow and promote racism under the banner of “anti-racism,” or will we live to heed Scripture’s commands to “show no partiality” (James 2)? May God grant us the courage to expose “anti-racism” as the racist ideology it is, an ideology rooted in prejudice plus both pigmentation and power. In other words, may God grant us wisdom and courage to hate racism in every form—even when it is presented as “anti-racism.”

Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

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