The Pollution of Racism: What White People Can Do About Racism

Pollution Of Racism
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).

I love my job with Mission Year.  I get to speak to several different groups all over the United States, as well as travel with Shane Claiborne as he speaks to folks as well.  One thing I have noticed over the years is that more and more people are getting interested in serving the poor.  It seems just like yesterday that the concept of looking after the widows and orphans (serving the poor) was a radical concept that not a lot of people actually practiced in the Church.  Today things are different.

More and more preachers are speaking about God’s heart for the poor, people in the Church are doing more service projects among the poor and people everywhere are asking how they can begin serving Jesus as ordinary radicals among the poor.  The Scriptures tell us that pure and faultless religion is about caring for the orphans and widows as well as keeping oneself from being polluted by the world.

As good as it may be that folks are noticing the orphans and widows, we are also told to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.  I once had a shirt with a quote by Dom Helder Camara, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” It seems to be getting easier to find ways to talk about and to serve the poor and yet we ignore (or are ignorant to) the many polluters in our world that are creating the widows and orphans in the first place.  Jesus taught us that life is about loving God and loving our neighbor… I would like to suggest that anything that hinders our relationship with God or neighbor is a polluter that needs to be dealt with.  Caring for the widow and orphan is important but we also need to deal with the pollution (injustice) that keeps them in poverty.

Also by Chris: The Myth of the Melting Pot – What White People Can Do About Racism

One of the greatest polluters in our society that needs to be addressed is racism.  Honestly as a white guy that grew up in the white enclave of Huntington, Indiana, I never thought racism was a major issue in our society and particularly in the Church.  It wasn’t until I moved out of the enclave and into Philadelphia that my eyes were opened to the reality of racism that still exists in our society today.

As a white guy growing up in a small, predominantly white, town (98% white) I interpreted racism as some sort of “mean act” done to someone because of the color of their skin.  It wasn’t until I came across the book, “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum that my definition of racism broadened a bit.  She makes the distinction between prejudice and racism.  She says that prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion usually based on limited information (see p 5-6).  Racism on the other hand is a system of advantage based on race (see p7).  There is much more involved with racism than being mean or calling people names… racism involves an unjust system.  She also makes a distinction between active and passive racism.  I already knew about active racism… KKK rallies, Jim Crow laws, Sundown towns, etc; but it was passive racism that got my attention.

A couple years ago the Mission Year participants had just finished reading Tatum’s book and we were going to discuss them after watching the movie, American History X. The movie shows the result of active racism as white and black folks battle each other.  After the movie an African American Mission Year participant said that the movie was dangerous!  He went on to say that it was dangerous because not a single person in the room (mostly white) was “racist like that.”  He said the movie showed active racism and because most white people do not “act like that” or harbor mean feelings towards African Americans that they think they are off the hook when it comes to racism.  He continued by referring to the many subtle acts of racism that makes life difficult for him such as being followed in stores, questioned excessively by the police, ignorant (not necessarily mean) comments by white folks, etc.  It was his passionate diatribe against racism that opened my eyes to the system of advantage based on race.

Brave New Films

Sure slavery is over, Jim Crow is history, and the KKK is obsolete; but racism still exists in our society today.  Racism as a system of advantage based on race is manifested in the prison system where 727 of every 100,000 white folks are in prison while 4,777 of every 100,000 African Americans are imprisoned (see Michelle Alexander’s incredible book, “The New Jim Crow” for a detailed analysis of this).  The system also rears its head in how immigrants are treated and laws are used to marginalize them (see Matthew Soerens and Leith Anderson’s book, “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate”).  Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in his book, Racism Without Racist, also talks about the housing market in light of racism when he writes, “Blacks and Latinos also have less access to the entire housing market because whites, through a variety of exclusionary practices by white realtors and homeowners, have been successful in effectively limiting their entrance into many neighborhoods” (p.2).

Also by Chris: The Great White Hope – What White People Can Do About Racism

I would not consider myself a social activist and I do not have any desire to stir up trouble.  I just cannot simply sit back any longer as I have seen this system of advantage have an effect on my neighbors.  One of the most exciting things we are working on in Philadelphia is called Timoteo, a flag football ministry for young men that allows us to mentor, as well as help some get into college, get employment, etc.  A couple years ago I had the opportunity to bring several of these youth from Philadelphia (mostly Latino and Black) back to the white enclave of my birth.  With the exception of one man trying to get us to leave his neighborhood during a food drive, they were treated very well.  But I can’t help but wonder how they would be treated if they were to actually move there?  Just a couple years ago a fundraising letter was sent to the local community from Huntington University.  On the cover of the mailer was a group of seven foreign exchange students (only one being white).  The mailer was sent back to the University with the following handwritten note, “No money from us as long as you insist on having the Univ. filled with the likes of those in this picture!  It will be the ruin of the University and of our town.” (It should be noted that the only white student on the mailer was cut out of the picture when it was sent back).  Yes, racism is a pollutant in our society.

In the days ahead I would like to walk through a few stages of reconciliation that we teach in Mission Year for our white identity training.  With this blog I hope to help those, particularly living in white enclaves, to see a broader reality of racism.  Racism involves more than being mean or prejudice, it involves a system that all of us are a part of one way or another.  We may not have been the ones to create the pollution, but we must be the ones to begin cleaning it up!

Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.

“What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr.  Through this blog series he hopes to touch on lessons learned from his journey of living in a small predominantly white town in Indiana to living in a city where white people are currently the minority.

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About the Author

Chris Lahr

Chris LahrChris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.View all posts by Chris Lahr →


    Thanks Chris for this article. I have been saying for a while that it is time that Christians deal with continued racial segregation (particularly in our churches) and racial inequality inside and outside those buildings. It is hard to get people to talk about though. White privilege often blinds us to the reality of inequality and an unjust system and we often find ourselves hiding behind a “anyone can do anything in America” philosophy or trying to solve the issue by broad assumptions about how “all people are God’s people”. We never actually deal with structural issues or face our own privilege as whites in the mirror. 

    (As a grad student in sociology, let me say I am impressed with the  Bonilla-Silva reference on a Christian site!) 

  • S-jhbl

    Well written, but I get the feeling that “racism” is being discussed here as a “whites only” problem.  It is a universal sin, present in all cultures.

    • Anonymous

      You’re right–it’s not a whites-only problem, but I don’t feel we’ve successfully dealt with the systemic issues that have arisen out of the failed race relations between blacks and whites that are rooted in our history.  I’m not blaming whites for all the racism, but for some of us–like myself–what has been experienced by whites has been real.  Let’s deal with it and then move out from there to all peoples.  

  • Anonymous

    Boy, does this resonate with me!  I just left a predominantly white church after 12 years of some of the behavior that was mentioned in the article.  I just had enough of trying to overlook, forgive and pray about behavior that was insulting and disrespectful.  Much of it was due to people’s ignorance lack of exposure to African-Americans, thus, I don’t think some of them were even aware of how insulting they were being.  For instance, I invited a black friend once to an event.  On Sunday, a white parishioner walked up to me and asked me why the two of us looked so much alike.  I just shrugged it off, but really, how do you answer something like that?  I toyed with the idea later of making something up about us being genetically made that way.  But really, how should I have responded?  I’m sure I’m to blame for some of my experience because I didn’t want to rock the boat and make people uncomfortable, although I had been made uncomfortable on many occasions.  I also didn’t want my feelings to be poo-pooed, which I felt they would have been.  In hindsight, maybe by not raising it as issue, I didn’t give the church the opportunity to work on an issue.  Unfortunately though, after 12 years of this and much more hurtful experiences, I just decided to call it quits.  Even after making it into a leadership position, I had someone once ask me when I was planning a going away party for a pastor, “How do you know how to do all of this?”  I mean, it was a party for God’s sake!  What’s so amazing about that?  Would a white counterpart have been asked the same thing?  At other times, I saw people’s reaction to me change on a dime after meeting me and then finding out that I had attended seminary, worked a corporate job and lived in an affluent neighborhood.  I can only assume because I didn’t fit a stereotype  that suddenly made me “acceptable”.  How hypocritical, particularly in the Church.  I’d still like to think we accept people as they are and not decide whether or not to associate with them or trust them based on their credentials or lack thereof.

    • chris lahr

      Thank you so much for your reply.  It’s a shame that too many white folks will simply say you are being too sensitive… you are not.  Thank you for sharing, your voice is an important one.  I pray that God continues to use your voice along life’s journey.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks, Chris.  Blessings.  :)

    • chris lahr

      Thank you so much for your reply.  It’s a shame that too many white folks will simply say you are being too sensitive… you are not.  Thank you for sharing, your voice is an important one.  I pray that God continues to use your voice along life’s journey.

    • Lara

      beautifully written!  thank you so much for sharing. I feel that most people who are in situations like you were do not feel like they should say anything b/c they do not want to be labeled as a radical, or angry, or even reverse racist.  it is similar to how i feel when i want to make comment that may label me as a feminist or a liberal.  i don’t know many people who appreciate being labeled. you are right that people are ignorant and maybe if you had said something it could have changed something for the better, but it could have also changed it for the worse.  my hope is that through dialogues like this we can come to learn new ways of talking about these things with all people, even ignorant people.  how to take a stand in a way that is loving and not self-righteous. Unfortuntely I do not think it matters how much love you have when you take a stand, there will always be people who view you as self-righteous, and I guess that may be their defense mechanism for not dealing with their own stuff. WHo knows?  But it certainly does not do any good to do nothing. We are all broken people! I believe through being open about our brokeness and accepting of others that there is hope!

      • Anonymous

        Thanks, Lara.  

    • Jennifer A. Nolan

      You should have left that church a lot sooner than you did!  What took you so long?!  “Overlooking,” “forgiving,” and “praying about”  chronically evil behavior just doesn’t cut it, sister; this is why the great medieval theologians listed “admonishing the sinner” among the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.  Just a few days ago, on another Christian blog, some woman pleaded with her fellow commenters not to exclude a “disruptive” young cerebral-palsy patient from church services; the problem with churchgoers who would excude either you, other racial minorities, or the disabled from God’s table is that they are deliberately flouting the Gospel.  Those of us who have been hurt by this disobedience should shake the dust off their feet, and move to warmer, more Christlike spiritual climes.  Period.

      You had every right to take offense at their insults.  Please, don’t grow a big head, but don’t hide your light under a bushel basket, either.  The Kingdom is for those who will grant others their right to exist; obviously, your former fellow congregants couldn’t extend that minimal courtesy to you. 

      • Anonymous

        Hi Jennifer.  Part of why I stayed as long as I did is because I did enjoy the church and out of 1,000 people, I didn’t get this treatment from everyone.  I also didn’t want to be reactionary and leave at the first sign of ignorance.  What really drove the nail in the coffin for me was the treatment I received last year while serving as an elder and running a search committee.  I was disrespected by fellow elders, slandered by one and generally undermined by those who felt they knew what was best for the church (I’m giving you the nutshell version here).  Add to that the question whether or not women elders were biblical after I had served for 2.5 years, was just too much and contributed to the overall tone of the congregation which by then I had endured for 12 years.  It’s unfortunate because there are some really godly people in this church who accepted me and I think genuinely loved me and hated to see me go, but it became more than I could bear. 

        • Jennifer A. Nolan

          Hi, Pat.

          I apologize for my earlier comment.  Now that you’ve explained your position, you look less like a patsy than I thought.  I’m glad you found some real friends at you previous church, and I’m sorry those troublemakers forced you to leave.  This whole business reminds me of that picture of the white mob at Woolworth’s in Mississippi, pouring cream and sugar on that innocent black teenage girl — and her two young white sympatizers.  I wish more whites and macho men were like those sympathizers.  Again, sorry for being so snippy; justice is harder to fight for than it looks from outside the situation!

          • Anonymous

            Thanks; no need to apologize, though.  I know the situation just brought out your feelings towards stupid behavior.  Believe me, I had days of rage myself while I was there.  

          • Jennifer A. Nolan

            Thanks for your answer, and may you enjoy many years in your new faith community!!

  • Not too long ago, I was thinking about this a lot, in reference to how diverse American culture is. And how diversity is not just a label we can place on something from the outside-looking-in, seeing that there are more than 3 or 4 racial groups accounted for in a community, therefore that community is diverse. Diversity has an individual aspect of openness and acceptance as well.

    A thought experiment to gauge our diversity as a nation and/or the presence of racism… we tout our laws and the strides we have made in legislating diversity and legally ending racism, the hope of the civil rights movement was that with legal representation and legislated rights would come a change in attitude towards our differences… if we were to drop all race specific laws and programs (affirmative action, etc…) from law, would an openness and acceptance prevail, or would racism creep back into a more powerful position?

    Personally I believe, for many of the same reasons that the author of this post argued, that racism is still present and we haven’t ‘successfully’ legislated equality, and that there needs to be a new effort reinvigorated, a new movement that seeks to change hearts and not just laws.

    • Keith

      Really? Really? Jonathan? Really….your last paragraph is so disturbing that it offends me and should offend every tax paying citizen in this country. We havent done enough?? REALLY?  Well Mr. “young and nieve” what would you propose??? Take away all the money and distribute it equally? Maybe ‘steal’ it from those who work and ‘give’ it to those who do not? Oh, Im sorry that is already happening so from what universe are you from brother? You say change laws to change hearts? Now that is laughable. Tell you what, there is a great experiment just waiting to happen in the Muslim world. Lets see you tackle that one :) Put your efforts into a cause that hasnt had thousands of laws past and trillions of dollars and has failed miserabley. These bleeding hearts on this page annoy me and need a good dose of reality.

  • Erin Thomas

    Hey Chris,
    Great comments/article. I really appreciated it. I attend a predominantly white church in a community of multiculturalism, especially a large aborginal/First Nations community. For centuries/decades, the First Nations people of Canada (I’m from Alberta) have been seen as inferior and the church/gov’t has sought to either obliterate the tribes, ‘convert the red out of them’, or somehow dehumanize our First Nations people further by placing their children in white foster homes, allowing the judicial system to continue in their racial profiling (“Indians are drunks… Indians are dirty… Indians get everything free already so they’re lazy and irresponsible…etc), or — as you said — simply being simplistic in our interpretation of reality and claim “Racism no longer exists. If you say it does, you’re the one being racist to innocent people”.

    Christians, by and large, are afraid of First Nations’ traditions. While some rituals are tied to spirituality, not every single thing is yet this is how aboriginal life is portrayed. Christians fear the dancing, the chanting, the drumming when often times these are celebrations of community and welcome, rather than idolatry. When we see Christians in Africa dancing in their traditional garb, singing in their native tongues and dancing traditional dances, we clap for joy and feel the Spirit ‘moving’. When First Nations’ people do so likewise here, people are immediately on guard and often refuse to even hear translations of the chanting or meaning of the drumming. Dress in a suit/tie, THEN we’ll know you’ve given up all of your ‘false gods’! So sad… why is it okay to appreciate international expressions of worship to God, but we stomp these beautiful expressions out when they are right before us?

    • Thank you for your post, love it.  I long for Revelation 7 when every nation and tribe are represented around the throne of God.  I have a feeling it will be a little different than sitting in pews and singing from a hymnal.  God created all people in His image and in every culture there is something unique that reflects the reality of God.  

    • Keith

      I am replying here, not necessarily to Erin’s comments but to the article since I could not post a comment for some reason.
      First of all, there are so many errant statements in this article that it really reaks of a guilt complex so many white people have adopted. You state that racism is causing blacks to be held back when in reality they have much more opportunity than I, as a white male, have today. Affirmative action, totally Black colleges, minority based programs at every level and yet… still complain and moan about how unfair life is for black people and for immigrants. This is really comical considering the amount of money that is thrown at minority programs from education to the ‘racist’ affirmative action programs that America has given to these segments of the population. Immigrants??? Now that one a joke. I think that allowing all of the illegals in this country to leech off of our system should make you take a second look at your comment but alas…you have been bitten with the same old tired arguement that I sick and tired of and so is most of America.’
      Housing??  What do you think caused our financial collapse over the last couple of years??  Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac??? ring a bell in the old attic??  Every attempt that we have made to “level the playing field” has backfired and has just led to pouring money down the drain. You cant legislate people’s feelings and you cant exhonerate the past by throwing money and programs at the problem. Take a hard look at Detroit. Your arguement doesnt hold water there as it has predominatley become minority and illegal aliens. The place looks like a Hiroshima. We threw money at that problem and they appreciated it so much they tore it down…..schools, housing, you name it.
      Its time to stop playing the blame game and giving those who would use your arguement as leverage to continue to suck the life out of America.
       I have news for you…..we dont have the money anymore and somebody better start telling the truth instead of laying down the red carpet of guilt and repentance.
      You are not solving anything….you are an enabler who lends the crutch of entitlement and self pity. I seem to remember in the Bible at some point where if you ‘didnt work’ you ‘didnt eat’

      • aaaaaargh

        Geez….I’m not even sure where to start.  I’m not sure why you’re even reading this blog, but on the other hand I’m glad that you are.  Hopefully the message will start to influence you subconsciously despite your protestations.  The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

      • ZZ

        1) Affirmative Action has done more to benefit WHITE WOMEN than any other minority. 2) HBCU’s (those “totally Black colleges”) were started when people like me couldn’t get into the Dukes/Harvards/Ole Miss’s not because of intelligence, but because of our skin. Also now-a-days those HBCU’s have ” affirmative action” programs in an attempt to attract white and other culture students. A White/Euro. Am. student can get accepted with a lower GPA than an Black/Afr. Am. student.
        Where I agree with you… You can not legislate feelings or love for your neighbor. … I also agree that we need a different tactic than guilt. Guilt causes resentment from those who don’t care and a undue burden on those who do.
        The Bible DOES say if you don’t work you don’t eat. But what do you do when people won’t hire you because of the way you look (the color of your skin, the texture of your hair ) ? Or when there are no jobs in your neighborhood? When I get to Heaven, Jesus has some explaining to do!

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  • Robert speedy Gonzales

    It is amazing to me as first a Christian and second a supposed higher life form that all can be resolved by DOING what JESUS said  is our greatest commandment from human to human!!!  ” Love your neighbor as yourself. ”  Maybe if we don’t believe or follow the first and greatest commandment “Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” we can’t and won’t get over what is blantant SIN! 

  • Keith

    Chris, The more I think about your article the more I realize how misguided your reasoning is. If you read some of the posts below you will realize that America has done a great job of victimizing black people in the minds of whites. There is NO boundaries by which blacks are being held back. NONE. There is not one place in America where a black student that works to succeed cant find that success with financial and social help. It is a farce. Quite the contrary, white people are being shoved aside to fill job vacancies with minorities who are less qualified and do not deserve it. Most of this is happening in the government sector where pay scales have escalated to the point that they are paid well above the private sector. I have friends, and so do you, who have had to hire someone because of the racially biased laws under affirmative action and they will tell you first hand that they have people who cant even fill out paperwork who are paid very good salaries.
    I believe this mentallity you possess is very detrimental to the overall good of America. You give merit to unsubstantiated complaints and therefore fortify bogus attitudes from years of embracing the “victim” mentallity. Our children are being taught that their parents and grandparents were ‘bad’ people because of the past which is total bs.
    How about concerning yourself with the poor…ALL the poor and quit putting labels on the rest of us. Your column is bull. Respectfully 😉

  • Anonymous

    white identity training…ahhh, that is a good one. :)

  • Doane

    I look forward to reading your blog about passive racism. I agree that the system is the problem, especially when it allows a few to discriminate against specific people.
    (Those who cannot see that are blind to reality or self-centered.)
    By the way, the figures for whites and blacks in prison are both shameful. We should not have so many people in prison.

    • Yes it is.  For more info on this Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” is a good one.  Thanks for sharing.

  • Love this! I posted about this on my blog (which is not read by hardly anyone) to have a stranger tell me to “turn down” my “racism meter.” I was commenting about how I didn’t think racism was a current problem until I began to see it clearly (through treatment my black kids get and many friends who are Haitian and other nationalities). I grew up in a white community, too, but I am mom to Haitian children and friend to people from many nations here in my new town. The first time we brought Haitian friends to our American church (because we’d been asked to start a bible study and thought to do so at our church), a white friend observed a woman shake hands with all of those around her but snub the Haitians next to her. It sadly doesn’t strike some as racism, but it hurt my friends.

    • Anonymous

      Kris, as an African-American, I’ve found many people need a personal experience with the topic before they will believe it’s real.  That’s actually true of most things.  Somehow we just don’t want to believe it’s as bad as people tell us.  That’s why I’ve given up trying to make a case for it because the conversations usually are filled with the usual justifications and I just end up frustrated.  

      At the predominantly white church that I recently left, I was one of a handful of people of color.  I can recount numerous instances of insensitivity.  One that comes to mind that didn’t have to do with me directly was the Sunday that I shared with my class that a Muslim co-worker had asked if he could come to church with me sometime.  I shared this naively thinking that people would be as happy about it as I was.  Instead, one woman said (without missing a beat), “As long as he doesn’t bring a gun.”  The whole room erupted into laughter and then they were off and running talking about profiling.  I was stunned.  I ended the discussion by telling them that profiling was a sensitive topic for me.  Thankfully, the lady who made the comment realized I was offended and apologized, but I will never forget that.    

      • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Pat68, though I’m sorry that they happened. I was one who needed a personal experience to really get it. I think I knew because of what friends said (I played college basketball and was part of a more diverse team than I’d experienced back home). But it wasn’t until my kids came home and I developed deeply personal relationships with Haitian and other international friends that I saw with my own eyes. And I’ve cried with a middle school kid who survived the earthquake in Haiti to come here to face ugliness for not speaking English properly (yet). I’ve also called on fast food restaurants with big “Help Wanted” signs, talked to managers and heard that they needed someone right away. I brought down a soft-spoken, kind, English-speaking High Schooler to fill out an application and meet the manager. Suddenly, they didn’t need someone so fast. The sign is still out. I could go on, but I don’t think I can share anything that would suprise you. Thanks for your reply again. Peace.

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