Ahmaud Arbery, a twenty-five-year-old African American man, was jogging near his home on February 23, 2020. He was running in Satilla Shores, a community near Brunswick, Georgia, when he was confronted by two armed men in a pickup truck. Arbery was shot and killed.
Charges of racism have pervaded this tragedy from its inception. The two men who confronted Arbery are white. No arrests were made or charges filed until over two months after the shooting, when a video of the attack was made public.
Many have asked if the same delay would have occurred if a white man had been the victim. The shooting highlights “a unique anxiety that has long troubled countless runners—running while black.”
Racism in America
In 2019, Pew Research Center reported that “a majority of Americans say race relations in the United States are bad, and of those, about seven-in-ten say things are getting even worse.”
A generation after the 1954 Brown school desegregation decision, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, racial discrimination continues in our country. According to the FBI, 60 percent of hate crimes are motivated by race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
Racism and indigenous Americans
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”
By this definition, mistreating people of a particular race is “racism” to the degree that the perpetrator considers his or her victims to be racially inferior. We find such attitudes on the part of Anglos toward non-Anglos since Europeans first landed in the New World.
Many European explorers characterized the indigenous peoples they encountered as “heathen” and considered their race and culture to be inferior by nature. Many claimed that such people could be transformed by the introduction of Christianity and European customs.
One colonist described native Americans as “having little of Humanitie but shape, ignorant of Civilitie, of Arts, of Religion; more brutish than the beasts they hunt, more wild and unmanly than the unmanned wild Countrey, which they range rather than inhabite; captivated also to Satans tyranny in foolish pieties, mad impieties, wicked idlenesse, busie and bloudy wickednesse.”
Racism and Africans
Many who supported the enslavement of Africans likewise viewed them as inferior to white people.
An Anglican minister in Barbados claimed that “Negro’s were Beasts, and had no more Souls than Beasts.” Africans were considered intellectually and morally inferior to whites; some declared that they were descended from apes.
Such horrific claims were used to justify the system of chattel slavery (the personal ownership of a slave) that enslaved millions of Africans. Many slaveholders convinced themselves that slaves, due to their supposedly inferior nature, were better off and better cared for in bondage than in freedom.
This racist ideology led directly to America’s “original sin,” the institution of slavery in the New World. The first group of African slaves—four men and women—arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Planters quickly realized that enormous profits could be gained from importing enslaved laborers.
Africans could be made to work much longer and harder in the fields. Since they were so far from Africa, they could not easily escape and return home. In addition, African slaves came from a variety of nations and cultures and thus could not easily communicate with each other to organize resistance.
Most slaves came from West Africa, where some tribal leaders were willing to capture and sell other Africans for profit. Slaves became especially important to the economy of the South, where the climate and topography were more suitable for tobacco and cotton plantations.
By 1860, the United States was divided into “slave” and “free” states. That year, census takers counted 3,950,540 slaves in America.
While the Declaration of Independence claimed that “all men are created equal,” the US Constitution determined that enslaved persons would be counted as “three-fifths of all other Persons” for purposes of government representation and taxation (Article I, Section II, Paragraph III).
The Constitution permitted importing slaves until 1808, with a tax of $10 per slave (Article I, Section IX, Clause I). And it required those living in free states to return escaped slaves to their owners (Article IV, Section II, Clause III).
Slavery was legal in America until 1865 and the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) guaranteed the same rights to all male citizens; the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) made it illegal to deprive any eligible citizen of the right to vote, regardless of color.
However, segregation in schools was not made illegal until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Racism and Asians
Asian immigrants have faced racial prejudice in the US as well. Those who came to America to work in mines, farms, and railroads were willing to accept lower wages, which enraged white residents.
As a result, Asians became the victims of riots and attacks. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Asian Exclusion Act barred additional immigration. These acts also declared Asians ineligible for citizenship, which meant they could not own land.
Studies show that racism persists in America:
- People with “black-sounding names” had to send out 50 percent more job applications than people with “white-sounding names” to get a callback.
- A black man is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop and six times more likely to go to jail than a white man.
- If a black person kills a white person, he or she is twice as likely to receive the death sentence as a white person who kills a black person.
- Blacks serve up to 20 percent more time in prison than white people for the same crimes.
- Blacks are 38 percent more likely to be sentenced to death than white people for the same crimes.
Racism persists in America’s churches as well:
- Only 32 percent of white pastors strongly agree that “my church is involved with racial reconciliation at the local level.” Fifty-three percent of African American pastors strongly agree with this statement.
- Only 56 percent of evangelicals believe that “people of color are often put at a social disadvantage because of their race.” Eighty-four percent of blacks agree with this statement.
- A recent study showed that 81 percent of America’s Protestant churches are composed of one predominant racial group.
- While 90 percent of Protestant pastors say their congregation would welcome a sermon on racial reconciliation, only 26 percent say leaders in their church have encouraged them to preach on the subject.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was right: Sunday morning worship services are still the most segregated hour in America.
Dr. Jim Denison is the CVO of Denison Forum. His Daily Article and podcast globally reach over 200,000 subscribers. Dr. Denison guides readers to discern today’s news—biblically. He is the author of multiple books and has taught on the philosophy of religion and apologetics at several seminaries