When talking about things like slavery or segregation, we can call the acts of these things sins. But it would be hasty to conclude that every effect streaming from those sins are inherently wrong. Conversely, this does not mean that if slavery produces a good effect, slavery therefore must be a good thing. Slavery remains a very bad thing, especially in the case of a Jim Crow south—regardless of whether or not it produces positive effects.
What is our responsibility when it comes to dealing with these effects, if any? And who is “our” or “we” in the context of this question? Who is to take responsibility here? Who is to blame if “they” don’t take responsibility?
For the sake of brevity, let’s focus on one primary effect that seems to be prevalent within the present discussion. To be as helpful as possible, let’s define white privilege as those benefits enjoyed by those who have had their inalienable rights properly recognized by governmental authorities and the general economic marketplace within any given context. We have not defined inalienable rights, and that may be beneficial for understanding my thought. Inalienable rights are those rights God has graciously given mankind at creation. These are codified in the 6th commandment in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and in the U. S. Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Humanity possesses these rights in virtue of their human-ness. God has created us with these rights. Inalienable rights are incapable of being “alienated, surrendered, or transferred” according to Merriam-Webster (cf. inalienable).
White Privilege: Who Are “We,” and, Are “We” Culpable?
Christians are not responsible for every effect of sin.
This means that white evangelicals are likewise not responsible for every effect of sin. And this means that any group within white evangelicalism is not responsible for every effect of sin; and it certainly means the government or corporate America cannot be responsible for every effect of sin.
For the sake of simplicity, and for advancing the discussion within the sphere I am most familiar, let’s define “we” as white Reformed evangelical Christians. I think this is specific enough for our purposes here. Are white Reformed evangelical Christians responsible for dealing with white privilege as it has been defined above? Are we culpable for this specific effect of past sins? If there are brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering within our churches, the entire local church is obligated to respond to them, not because they’re black, but because they are brothers and sisters in Christ. But this is not what we are addressing here.
We need to ask, Is it bad that white privilege exists in the way we have defined it? Before your jaw drops at that question, remember our definition of white privilege. This privilege is the result of rights all people have, or should have. These are rights which have been prevented or made unrecognizable among certain groups throughout human history, especially African Americans within the relatively recent past. But now, black Americans generally have these rights recognized and they possess the potential to exercise them.
We can confidently answer that it is not bad for white Reformed evangelicals to have these inalienable rights and to benefit from these rights, God has ordained that all people should have these rights. Would it be wrong for white Reformed evangelicals to deny others these rights? Of course!
But we are dealing with this issue under the assumption that these rights were deprived in the past. In our day and age, within the United States of America, there is no systemic institutional deprivation of these rights to African Americans. Or at least there’s no evidence supporting that claim. There may be a person or group here or there that attempts to steal these rights from others. But this is not now happening in a general sense. These are isolated instances, and we think of them as general occurrences because of they way they’re reported in the media (cf. Thomas Sowell on the Intelligentsia in his book, Intellectuals and Race).
For example, if blacks on average were compared to other countries in the world, they would have the 18th highest GDP (Race and Economics, Ch. 1, Williams) . No people group on the planet has seen the growth that American blacks have seen over the last 50 years. This statistic alone presents problems for the notion of systemic deprivation of black rights. If we were to add in Asian Americans, things get even more interesting.
Let’s take mortgage loans as another example. Nevermind the fact that the people actually writing these loans rarely ever see applicants face-to-face; the allegation is that banks discriminate based on race and favor white Americans over blacks, generally.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, whites are granted home loans twice as much as blacks, but is that because of discrimination? Well, what about Asian Americans? They are granted home loans twice as much as whites (Intellectuals & Race, Ch. 1, Sowell)! So, this cannot be a result of the white privilege as construed by some.
Another factor is that mortgage applications are either accepted or denied based, at least mostly, upon credit score and income. Blacks tend to have lower credit scores than whites, and whites—statistically—tend to have lower credit scores than Asian Americans. (That blasted Asian privilege!)
Income plays a large role as well—not necessarily in how much a person makes, but in how their debt-to-income ratio (DTI) looks to the lender. Lenders typically will not lend to a person who has a DTI of over 25%. If the DTI is around 50%, then most banks will not even consider the application. So, there are a number of confounding variables when considering why whites are approved twice as much for home loans than black people. There are other statistics we could talk about and other societal phenomena we could bring up, but for the sake of brevity, I need to move into the question of culpability.
Are white, Reformed, evangelical Christians responsible for the effects of past sins which is, in this case, white privilege as we have defined it?
The short answer is, no.
I do not believe that white Reformed evangelical Christians are doing anything wrong by taking advantage of their God-given inalienable rights. I also do not think that blacks, in any general sense, are now being deprived of these rights as they were in the 1800s, to use one example. And there is simply no evidence to suggest there is any systemic prevention of these rights for blacks currently. There are often statistics cited in support of such claims, but those statistics usually only cause more questions to arise.
For example, if someone simply cited the statistic about how black Americans are twice less likely to be approved for a mortgage loan than white Americans, we need to ask the simple question: Is this happening because of their skin color? And when we begin to answer that question, we start to find out that there are actually a number of things playing into that statistic. Not only this, but to cite only the statistical average of blacks and whites is unhelpful and divisive from the get-go. It purposely works to spotlight the tension which already exists there. But if Asian Americans are brought into the statistical picture, it can be quickly seen that this is not only a black/white issue, but an economic issue that involves more than just looking at blacks and whites.
So, white Reformed evangelicals enjoy benefits of rights they have as humans. Blacks also have these rights and can take advantage of them just as whites can. Blacks now have the potential to enjoy the same benefits whites and Asian Americans do.
As mentioned earlier, Walter Williams discusses the unprecedented economic growth of the black community over the last several years. This growth is due to at least two things: (1) the recognition of black rights; and (2) the desire of those within a black community to survive and thrive by taking advantage of their God-given right to do so.
Whites, in any sense, are not responsible for paying reparations to the black community. There are certain adverse effects which come with reparations. The Native American community has actually suffered more as the result of welfare systems and reparations. Shawn Regan writes:
Chief Justice John Marshall set Native Americans on the path to poverty in 1831 when he characterized the relationship between Indians and the government as “resembling that of a ward to his guardian.” With these words, Marshall established the federal trust doctrine, which assigns the government as the trustee of Indian affairs. That trusteeship continues today, but it has not served Indians well.
The U.S. Government has, since 1831, managed Indian economic affairs. Underlying this thought process, Regan writes, is the idea that Native Americans “are not capable of owning or managing their lands.” This land is distributed by the government as a type of “reparations” to the Indian peoples. Indians do not have to live on this land, but they are incentivized to do so. Depending on the land arrangement, some Native Americans qualify for free land and some qualify for regular income paid by the government. This has enabled a state of welfare. Reparations do not have a great track record of assisting communities with overcoming socioeconomic struggles.
Blacks, in fact, have demonstrated that sheer willpower to survive and thrive has been the greatest antidote to social and economic obstacles, as is demonstrated in Williams’ stats. Ironically, this is only an instance of a group of people taking advantage of their God-given rights and abilities to achieve great things within an incredible short period of time (remember, in 2008 alone, black Americans earned $726 billion).
In the next article, I will address more isolated issues which need to be addressed by the church. While we have concluded that there are no systemic deprivation rights happening to blacks in America on a grander scale, it cannot be denied that injustices do happen. Here it is where we need to put to death the hasty generalizations and take up the sword of distinctions. When we make careful distinctions, common within the scholastic methods, we can make progress in this discussion. The more careful we are with our language, the better we can get along. As mentioned previously, hasty generalizations will kill race relations. We need to be careful to mark out instances of injustices and respond to them properly, and we need to realize that hasty generalization is almost never helpful in any situation. Except where generalizations can be justified, they ought to be avoided.