The news is out: [(Bloomberg Opinion) — Robert P. Jones is founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the new book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” Jones, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, has a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University. His book is a powerfully detailed history, not a polemic. I interviewed him, via email, last week. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Wilkinson: “Racism” is a popular subject right now. You use a term — in the book’s title and throughout the text — that has sharper edges and fewer ambiguities: “white supremacy.” That’s a phrase Americans typically associate with the Ku Klux Klan or other fringe groups. Yet how “fringe” is white supremacy to American culture?
Jones: Properly understood, white supremacy is not fringe at all but actually has framed the entire American story. For most white Americans, the term primarily evokes white sheets and burning crosses — extremist images, mostly from a bygone era. But white supremacy is not just, or even fundamentally, about individual acts of racial terrorism. Its more powerful expressions are built, over generations, into the way society is organized: which neighborhoods were open, which jobs were available, what political power was allowed, and what laws were applied to whom.
If we reexamine the plain meaning of the phrase, its continued relevance comes into view. Even rearranging the words — from “white supremacy” to “supremacy of whites” — gets us to a clearer meaning: the belief that white people’s superior nature and divinely favored status entitles them to hold positions of power over Black and other nonwhite people.
A dizzying array of resources across multiple fields of human inquiry has been deployed to defend this belief. By far, the strongest were theological arguments that presented white supremacy as divine mandate. Particular readings of the Bible provided the scaffolding for these arguments. Black Americans, for example, were cast as descendants of Cain, whom the book of Genesis describes as physically marked by God after killing his brother, Abel, and then lying to God about the crime. In the white Christian version of this narrative, the original ancestor was a Black criminal, and modern-day dark-skinned people continue to bear the physical mark of this ancient transgression. This story implied that Blacks likely inherited both their purported ancestor’s physical distinctiveness and his inferior moral character. These teachings persisted in many white Christian circles well into the 20th century.]
Supremacist, not white, is one the words I used in my books to describe the Christian God. The day must come when the racism of religion is exposed for all to see and explained to whoever still doesn’t get it. Meanwhile, I will use stick figures, if needed, to explain it to the uneducated morons who persist on dwelling in the religious plantations. Now, more than ever, religion must not be allowed to slip through the cracks; religion must be held accountable for the hatred, racism, genocide, violence that are its core values.