Dear Niecie,

It’s been too long since I’ve heard from you or written. I was glad to talk with your mom and see that she’s doing well with the new cancer treatments and to hear you’re doing well in school. I praise God for that.

I was also in turns a little amused and a bit shocked to hear about the run-in you had at a recent protest. I guess you’ve discovered that “racist” is a loaded term! There’s no longer any safe way to use the word, unless the person uses it of himself.

In fact, we’ve entered a time when any use of the term excites anger, confusion, feelings of abuse or manipulation, and a fair amount of eye-rolling. It’s become more difficult to prove that racism exists, not because the evidence isn’t there but because the term has been so misused and over-used for so long now. There’s a cultural backlash. No one likes to be called a “racist.” It’s become one of the ugliest labels you can use. The racist receives no respect from anyone. They are now reviled in much the same way they once reviled others. So it’s at once a powerful and a hated word. My dear niece, use it as sparingly as possible that you might label only when necessary and that it might retain its proper force.

That means we have to know a racist when we see one. And since being thought of as a racist is such a hated thing, many people work really hard to hide their true selves in order not to be labeled. Everyone want’s “plausible deniability.” The basic posture is defensive, evasive and even confrontational. If you don’t want another experience like that last protest, then learn how powerful that term is and learn how to identify a racist.

So, what is racism and who are the racists?

Racism is an effect of the fall of man into sin. When our first parents took fruit from the forbidden tree, defying God and risking life, part of the effect was an alienation from God and an alienation from one another. One specific form that alienation takes is racism. Because the fall touches all of humanity, racism is universal in extent. So mankind—even though related by descent from our common parents—lives in a chronic state of alienation and hostility until redeemed by Christ.

Racism depends on the false notion that there are biological races. Though disproven by genetic science and by good theology, people commonly believe that humanity can be separated into distinct racial categories based upon physical traits like skin color, hair texture, etc. Even some who know that the scientific basis for races is non-existent like to cling to the category as a “social construct.” But the pseudo-scientific quest for racial classification was in reality the sin of racism seeking scientific legitimacy and I fear much the same can happen with this “social” rendering of “races.” For racism wants to assign hierarchical worth and attributes to physical features—whether or not the science supports it. So white skin becomes more valuable than black, kinky hair worse than straight, and so on. That system of “racial” (it needs to be put in quotes as a reminder that what we’re talking about doesn’t really exist) hierarchy gets codified in social customs and public policy. And so it also gets transmitted as a philosophy and lifestyle to successive generations. This commitment to the supremacy of one group over another gets received as birthright and used as currency. Racism is an insidious and irrational disease rooted in our sinful natures.

The racist person suffers from this disease—in either benign or full-blown malignancy. I hope you see that this general definition of racism and racist applies equally to all of humanity without regard to skin color. To be a racist simply requires that you admit the idea of race and then you assign value and hierarchy to it. To assert “Black people cannot be racist” is, in fact, a racist counter-racist delusion. It assumes the moral superiority of Black people. But Black people can be as racist as anyone else—and some are. No one is exempt from this disease, though some have more virulent forms than others. Though many whites throughout history tried to climb to the top of the “racial” pyramid and plop themselves down as kings of the hill, you can find people of every background sitting up there with them.

Yet one can be a racist without being the group occupying the top step of the racial pyramid. One of racism’s most subtle and sinister victories has been to convince the racially oppressed that they are either all their racist oppressors believe about them or that by virtue of their oppression they are superior to those that hinder them. They thus accept racist ideology as an oppressed person and commit themselves to both racism’s continuance and their own subjugation—showing again the utterly serpentine irrationality of sin.

So it’s paramount that we learn to identify the racist thought, racist attitude, racist action, racist policy, and racist person. And it’s important that we know whether we’re dealing with a racist person—someone whose pattern and habit of life is committed to racial supremacy and superiority—or with a racist incident. For in a given incident anyone can act or think in a racist way, but that may not define the pattern of their lives. Do you see why this requires studied care?

I would generally class people into one of four categories. There is first of all the conscious racist. They actively commit themselves to racist ideology. They may be skinheads, or they may be as respectable as judges. Some people think the racist is the backwoods hillbilly full of ignorance. But that’s a stereotype believed in large measure because, again, everyone wants to maintain respectability. So it’s convenient to limit ugly outward racism to other socially despised people. But respectable racists walk freely among us, using the cloak of respectability to hide the worst of their sin. But we may know them because sooner or later they tell us they’re racists. They’re chomping at the bit to tell us, like Jack Nicholas’ character in A Few Good Men.

Second, there are the unconscious racists. These are folks who harbor all kinds of racist attitudes and beliefs but genuinely don’t know it. They’re blind to the ways racist assumptions wriggle like worms into their hearts. We know they are racists because their words reveal it. As our Lord put it, our words reveal what’s in our hearts, and sometimes that’s our racist bias. When you point it out, they’re often defensive. The defensiveness is sincere insofar as they don’t know they have the disease. They can’t bear to think such awful thoughts of themselves. They fear admitting racism is the worst possible thing. The sad tragedy, of course, is that they don’t recognize that actually continuing in unchecked prejudice is really the worst possible thing. Less defensiveness would actually free them more fully from the thing they hate.

Third, there are those who think they’re racists but probably aren’t. These are the falsely accused. They judge themselves too harshly and are unable to properly assess their motives. They think a racist incident (racist thought, speech, action or feeling) makes them racist persons. Unable to untangle the incident from the person, they live under illegitimate guilt. The same illegitimate guilt can be induced by manipulative and spurious charges of racism. Some call this “white guilt.” But it doesn’t belong uniquely to whites. Remember, the fall affects us all.

Fourth, there are—praise God—persons who are not racist and know they’re not racist. They recognize the difference between an incident and a person, and they and others can testify to a pattern of life largely free from sinful bias. When talking about these things, we must not fall into the trap of forgetting such people exist. But we must also resist two other things: letting real racists parade in this category and letting non-racists think that simply not being racist is enough. The non-racist, the true humanitarian, must be the greatest allies in actively opposing hostility, hatred, and injustice. They must be brought to see that their inaction in the face of present evil makes them complicit in the evil. Righteousness is a positive, active thing. We need active resolve to do what’s right if we ever hope for righteousness to reign.

Now, the hard part and the necessary part is to not blur the categories. That’s how good people get hurt and bad people get away. Thinking the “respectable” committed racist is a non-racist only allows him or her to spread their disease without diagnosis. And calling the person who wrongly judges themselves a “racist” does more to harm those with sensitive consciences and to weaken good-hearted support than just about anything you could do.

Begin with the incidents. Outward speech, actions and policy are easier to identify. Be sure not to castigate the person when it’s only appropriate to speak of the incident. That specificity is your friend, and it helps to reveal other friends. Persons opposed to racism will generally oppose racist incidents. Strive to only make legitimate and defensible linkages between incidents. That, too, requires care. Not everything that seems related is. But when you can link incidents, do so. It helps to establish patterns of individual behavior or systemic bias. When those patterns are demonstrable, then you can speak with passion about people and systems. Don’t hesitate to do so, but be prepared to defend the evidence for the pattern.

Honestly, everyone will have motives to resist your implying a racist pattern exists. The racist persons will not want to be exposed. Many good people will not want to think such ugliness exists in them or in the institutions they love. Self-interest wars against indictment. But trust that your patience, carefulness and the mounting moral pressure of conscience will begin to distinguish the willfully racist from those that can be won to righteousness.

What you should keep in mind, Niecie, is that you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. We are unable to completely hide the root of our souls. Sooner or later our natures present themselves. Careful, patient observation of our own hearts and the actions of others will in time reveal the truth.

Bottom line: use the term “racist” sparingly. But when you must, use it confidently and redemptively. Far too often people throw away other people with the term. They write them off. So “racist” becomes a final pronouncement rather than an invitation to be different, better, free. When you use the term, give it the ring of an invitation to an important meeting where the hopeful and the broken might find help. As Christians, we want people to hear an invitation to repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ, who in the cross reconciled believers to God and to one another. We want them to hear a call to that fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, where sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. If ever “racist” could sound redemptive, inviting to restoration, then we’ll be speaking in the most Christian way to one of the wickedest heart diseases ever. I pray you and I can learn to speak that way.

With all an uncle’s love,