Putting racism, white supremacy, and white privilege in context

A group of students went to write positive messages on snow on cars following the racist comments that were written. Photo Credit Katelyn Bosch
A group of students went to write positive messages on snow on cars following the racist comments that were written. Photo Credit Katelyn Bosch

On Sunday, Nov. 22, two members of our community wrote “white power” and drew a swastika in the snow on a car. Many members of our community condemned these actions as hateful and totally incompatible with our mission. In some ways, that’s the easy part. What has been more difficult is to acknowledge that what occurred was not an isolated incident, a freak occurrence in an otherwise loving and inclusive community. While few members of this community openly espouse white supremacy, many members of our community continue to deny white privilege. It must be clearly stated that those who deny white privilege functionally believe in white supremacy, whether they have the courage to write it on a car or not.

In his remarks on the incident, President Le Roy rightly identified the statement “white power” and the swastika with white supremacy and the ideology that shaped Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, chattel slavery in the U.S. and the Jim Crow South. He focused on two scriptures, the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and Jesus warning that before we remove the splinter in the eye of the other we ought to attend to the plank in our own (Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42). He did this largely in the context of not demonizing those who committed these acts, and that is an appropriate concern. Christians should never reduce anyone to the worst thing they have done. None of us stands innocent before the Lord.

However, we should never mention Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa or the Jim Crow South without identifying the connections to us here at Calvin College and the brutality right here in Grand Rapids. Nazi Germany took the Eugenics movement championed by academics and social workers in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century to its logical conclusion. Many of the architects of apartheid in South Africa were Dutch and Reformed. In fact many of them used Calvinist theology to justify their system. White supremacy created slavery and Jim Crow, but when it was combined with its Calvinist cousin Manifest Destiny (see the work of the late Richard Twiss or Mark Charles), it also created Michigan. The land on which Calvin College sits was stolen from what our own Declaration of Independence termed “the merciless Indian savages” by the Treaty of Chicago in 1821. The Ottawa and the Pottawatomie were given a few thousand dollars in yearly payments and access to a blacksmith and a teacher on the north side of the Grand River in exchange for everything south of it all the way to Chicago.

When we imagine white supremacy primarily as something “out there” that’s incompatible with us “in here,” we ignore the plank in our own eye. Calvin College would not exist without racism. To put it in the words of Calvin’s own “From Every Nation” (FEN) document, “the early builders of the Christian Reformed Church and Calvin College benefited from this racial differentiation, and in the process they inherited a national legacy of white privilege and the subjugation of people of color.”

At the same time, I have to respectfully disagree with President Le Roy’s assertion that we are all racists. I, Joseph Kuilema, am certainly a racist. As a white male, I benefit tremendously from institutions and systems that have been built by and for people like me. This is how the social sciences define racism, not as merely the product of prejudice, explicit or implicit bias, but a system of power based on the invention of the “white race” by people in power. By this definition, we are not all racists. We all have prejudice, we all have implicit biases, but the social science literature, and Calvin’s own documents, are clear about what racism is. To return to the FEN document, “Racism has often been associated primarily with personal prejudice and bigotry — destructive attitudes and behavior by members of one race toward those of another. This is certainly an important dimension of the problem. Racism involves much more than this, however. At its profoundest and most consequential level, it takes the form of a systemic and institutionalized misuse of power.”

So let’s talk about racism, but let’s actually acknowledge what that means. It is so much more than hateful words on the back of cars. Racism built America and its systems and institutions. Those systems and institutions, from Congress to Calvin College, tend to disproportionately benefit white people because that’s who built them. If, as a white person, you refuse to acknowledge this privilege, you are asserting that the game of life in America is inherently meritocratic, that it is a fair game, that those who try hardest win.

Here’s the problem: if it’s a fair game, how come certain people tend to win so much more often?  Why was the median net worth of White families in 2013 (~$142,000) 13 times higher than African American families (~$11,000) and 10 times higher than Latino families (~$13,700)? Why are African Americans and Latinos disproportionately incarcerated? Why are so few Fortune 500 CEOs people of color? Why do so many faculty, staff and students of color leave Calvin College?

As a white person, you can choose to believe the game is fair. You can choose to believe that you have no privilege. You can see what happened on November 22 as the splinter in the eye of two misguided students. But if you do so, you ignore the plank. If the game is fair you are assuming that white people are simply better at it. You are assuming that while racism is ugly, it has no real power; it doesn’t hold anyone back. You are assuming white supremacy.


EDITORS NOTE: The picture to this article was changed due to the original picture being easily taken out of context. The picture of President Le Roy at an assembly was of him encouraging those present in the chapel to raise their hands if they were committed to standing against racism following the incident of racist writing in snow.  The current picture is also of the incident described in the article. A number of students went to the same parking lot were the racist comments were found on cars to write their own positive messages.