‘It’s a Sin Problem, Not a Skin Problem’: On God and Racism

I am not a believer anymore. Yet it hasn’t been so many years that I don’t understand the appeal in attributing racism to sin. This is a common sentiment when American Christians admit racism is still a significant societal problem, coming in the form of something like “Only the Lord can change hearts” or “It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem.”

Putting aside whether a deity exists and whether he, she, or it happens to be the one Christians believe in, it is obvious that were all to live by the “Do unto others” maxim found in Matthew the world would be a much more decent place. The same can be said of “Wish for others what you wish for yourself” (Islam’s Hadith), which came long after Christ, or “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself” (Confucius), which came long before. Imagine a world where well-to-do whites didn’t go about pretending blacks were lazier than whites, because if they were poor or a national minority they wouldn’t want to be vilified. Imagine if police officers always gave people (children) like Tamir Rice an opportunity to surrender, rather than opening fire immediately, because that’s what they would want if roles were reversed. This would do immense good in ending racism and racism’s effects, and is a noble goal for religious and areligious alike.

However, the idea that one just needs to “find Jesus” and pray the racism away somewhat implies that non-Christians and atheists are a much larger part of this racism problem than true believers — indeed delaying progress on eradicating racism. That may not be on anyone’s mind, but it follows rather basic logic. Given that there is no actual evidence Christians are less racist than nonbelievers (it may actually be the opposite, though other factors like political ideology are also involved), not much more needs to be said to address any who take this implication seriously — except perhaps that 70% of Americans call themselves Christians and 23% call themselves non-religious, meaning the policeman who guns down an unarmed black person or the employer who tosses aside a résumé because it has a “black” name at the top are more likely to be Christians than anything else. Just by sheer numbers, racist incidents will involve more Christians than nonbelievers. But I suppose one could simply say many who call themselves Christians are not “true” Christians, not seeking the Lord earnestly, not praying specifically to dispel their racist attitudes and those of others, and so on.

In any case, the main point is this: While the “Do unto others” maxim is what all should strive to live by, and those who find the Lord could in fact help in the fight against racism if they take that maxim more seriously than they used to, addressing “sin” cannot eradicate racism.

Why? Well, a sin is considered to be a conscious decision. It is a personal choice to violate a deity’s law, whether it’s telling a lie, committing adultery, or going before the altar of God with a disability, flat nose, or scab. If you had a subconscious sexual attraction to someone even though you’re married, that could not be called a sin — you wouldn’t even be aware of it! Not if we’re using the generally accepted definition of sin, anyway.

When we talk about racism, we are not just talking about conscious racism. The white person who thinks to herself that blacks by nature are less intelligent or more aggressive than whites is consciously racist. She believes there’s something fundamentally different about the nature of people who don’t look like her. The person who does not believe these ideas of white superiority is not consciously racist, but can still hold subconscious anti-black biases. Subconscious fear of blacks, as well as notions of laziness or lower intelligence, is something that infects the subconscious of nearly all white people and even some black folk, according to psychological research. People who believe they have no biases — liberals and conservatives alike, believers and nonbelievers alike — are often surprised to learn that they actually do at a subconscious level (they learn through tests like Harvard’s Project Implicit). Subconscious racism, or implicit biases, is not something people have control over or are aware of, until scientific methods are used. It has many predictable effects; for example, studies show white policemen are quicker to shoot armed blacks than armed whites, and decide faster to spare an unarmed white person than an unarmed black person. When people act on implicit biases, they have no idea they are doing so.

The problem with “It’s a sin problem, not a skin problem” is then obvious. If your behavior is driven by subconscious fears or beliefs or desires, being beyond your very awareness, the behavior cannot be called a sin, because a sin by definition is a conscious choice. When an employer who rants to friends or muses to himself about supposed African American laziness throws out a black applicant’s résumé, that’s a sin. But when an employer who believes there really is no difference between blacks and whites besides skin tone and hair texture benignly passes over a black applicant’s résumé due to subconscious anti-black biases, that cannot be called a sin.

One might wish to simply redefine sin to include the wickedness of subconscious thought. After all, it’s “the fallen nature of man” either way. And that is fine, though there would remain a difference between conscious sin and subconscious sin. Does God punish people for beliefs they don’t know they have and cannot control? Like his existence, that is something we cannot know for sure. But I suppose a true believer can try to pray the subconscious biases away.

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