White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity
- By Robert P. Jones
- Simon & Schuster
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael deHaven Newsom
- August 19, 2020
An important look at the theological underpinnings of racism and race relations in America.
White Too Long is a wonderful book. Along with being required reading for white Americans (its intended audience), it’s also a resource for Americans of color, if only to learn about the contours of white America’s dialogue on race.
This is a book about doing: about seeing, remembering, believing, and marking. It is about white Christian Americans locked in a tight embrace with white supremacy, reinforcing and maintaining it, backed by a Christian theology that came into full flower in the years leading up to the Civil War.
White supremacy persists even as the instruments of racial oppression have evolved, moving from slavery to an American serfdom, to spatial segregation and discrimination practiced on a large and unremitting scale, the knee always on the necks of Black people.
These structures form the common thread, the unchanged meaning, of white supremacy from the introduction of slavery into Virginia in 1619. Black bodies, Black minds, Black families and institutions, and Black wealth are and have been the target, the fulcrum by which white supremacy manifests and perpetuates itself in America.
White Too Long is also about telling and reckoning, about acts of kindness, community, and memory by small numbers of white people, the doing of which may or may not count for much now, but which might lead to the dismantling of structural and institutional racism, thus bending the long arc of the moral universe toward justice.
Right now, acts of protest by people of color and sympathetic whites have taken on some of the sacred, monumental icons of racism, toppling statutes commemorating Confederate military and political leaders, pushing at least one into the waters of oblivion. And this multiracial coalition increasingly calls the police, the thuggish enforcers of white supremacy, to account for the killing and maiming of Black people and other people of color.
Not surprisingly, the book takes the form of a sermon delivered by author Robert P. Jones, a Southern Baptist theologian. But Jones is also a skillful number-cruncher, having degrees in the seemingly disparate fields of religion and computing science/mathematics. The book is also a hymn calling on white Americans to purge themselves of what Jones calls “the disorienting madness” of white supremacy.
One of the great strengths of this sermon lies in the fact that Jones draws on his own personal history along with a masterful mix of careful historical research and sophisticated statistical analysis to make a compelling case for the ugly truth of that tight embrace. The white Christian defense of slavery morphed into the Lost Cause that still bedevils us, and white American Christianity has undergirded the latter with as much vigor as it did the former.
Jones argues that both white American Protestants and Catholics drink the fetid waters of white supremacy. Important differences in systematic theology exist between the two Christian denominations, although, in practical terms, those differences may not count for much. That said, the time has come for Catholic theologians to address the question of the possible role of Catholic doctrine in the alignment of racism by white Catholics.
Some might say that in the quest for acceptance in a white, Protestant empire — America — white Catholics learned how to mimic, echo, and embrace white Protestant racial views, whether or not systematic Catholic theology gave any justification for doing so. But helping white American Catholics confront racism may require careful attention to Catholic doctrine as it might pertain to race.
A second major question surfaces, one that Jones carefully notes but does not probe: the complex relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic laity, between the Universal Church, the diocese, and the local parish.
The larger context of White Too Long matters. Nearly 60 years ago, a white college chaplain at an overwhelmingly white college presented a challenge to students attending what amounted to a weekday-morning assembly: Would the white students stand up to racist jokes or other derogatory remarks uttered in a gathering of white people? The chaplain insisted that they must.
The question raised back then has taken on a wider ambit in the present age. Two books come to mind by white writers concerned about, among other things, dialogue among whites on the matter of race. They are Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (2018) and Jonathan M. Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland (2019). And one must surely add Jones’ earlier book, The End of White Christian America (2016), which sets the stage for White Too Long.
In the end, the most stunning thing about White Too Long is Jones’ utter dependence on James Baldwin, one of the most important African-American writers, for moral guidance and inspiration. Indeed, the very title of this book comes from a piece Baldwin penned in 1968. In addition to reading White Too Long, white Americans should read everything Baldwin wrote on the matter of race — a mix of righteous rage and the healing power of love — and let him be their moral mentor, too.
Michael deHaven Newsom is a retired law professor and the author of a number of law-review articles on America as a Protestant empire, and an article deconstructing Justice Clarence Thomas. He has a forthcoming novel, The Road to Green Hill, the story of the first 30 years of the life of a Georgia slave boy.