On the August 9, 2021 edition of Apostolic Life in the 21st Century, David K. Bernard, the General Superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, addressed the question “Is Critical Race Theory compatible with Christianity?” Even though I disagree with many of his theological positions, generally speaking, I have found Superintendent Bernard to be thorough in his answers to the constituency of my former ministerial organization. But in this instance, his answers were less than credible as he misrepresented Critical Race Theory and attempted to white wash our nation’s problematic history of racism.
Bernard opened his podcast with the verifiably false claim that Critical Race Theory hasn’t been adequately defined. Any number of periodicals, books, or leaders on the subject would have revealed that the concept has been a part of scholarly interest for over four decades. Had Bernard attempted to do so, a simple google search would have yielded definitions of CRT from numerous reputable sources.
My simple google search yielded this from Education Weekly:
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others. A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas.”
Bernard fails to acknowledge the central claims of CRT by suggesting that some view the concept as a racism that only exists “in the hearts of some people”, but doesn’t mention the central tenet that the social construct of race is embedded in our institutions and culture, perpetuating its continued harms to Black people in the United States.
Bernard then launches into a defense of America’s history on race by pointing out that slavery and segregation have been abolished, and that if American history is going to be taught correctly, then it must be done in a way that acknowledges the good as well as the evil, and that white children must not be made to feel guilty for the sins of their ancestors. Bernard insists that all of this is counterproductive to progress in the United States and that we should focus on unity instead of revisiting the problems of the past.
Throughout his eleven-minute response, Bernard attempted to defend his position with several examples including that Africans were sold into slavery by other Africans, that many white people fought and died on the side of the Union to end slavery, and that most white people in early American history didn’t even own slaves. While acknowledging that there are still issues of inequality that persist in the United States, Bernard’s central thesis seemed to be that the United States wasn’t an evil nation when it comes to the question of race relations because of its commitment to democracy and fidelity to the Constitution. Of course, Superintendent Bernard either forgot or simply failed to mention that the Constitution endorsed slavery and only counted them as three fifths of a human being while initially extending voting rights to white males exclusively.
Bernard doesn’t mention that Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, along with a majority of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, with Jefferson fathering children by his slave Sally Hemings. These facts are omitted by Bernard, apparently because they don’t support his mantra that “All have sinned.” A statement that while theologically true, is contextually an abdication of responsibility. It is an abdication of responsibility because as a white person, Bernard, (as all of us who are white in America) enjoys a status that isn’t applied equally to everyone.
Bernard attempts to debunk the claim that “Black people can’t be racist” by conflating the nature of racism and personal prejudice. While true that all people, regardless of color, are capable of individual acts of prejudice and bigotry, racism however, is imbued with political and cultural power, a power that has historically and institutionally belonged to white people in America. Bernard, in one breath insist that institutional and cultural racism in America doesn’t exist, but in the next breath falsely claims that CRT teaches that the injustices of racism should be countered with “discrimination against white people.” If his fear is that this false claim about CRT could become a reality, then he is acknowledging that institutional and systemic racism already exists as wielded by white notions of normative culture. Of course, Black people aren’t seeking revenge, but only equality, or in the words of Dr. King to make good the “check that has come back marked insufficient funds.”
Bernard seeks to reduce the long and complicated history of the United States on race relations, to the evils of slavery which he says was remedied by the Civil War and the Civil rights movements of the 1960s. But in doing so he fails to understand, that the United States unlike other historic cultures that endorsed slavery, did so on the basis of melanin alone, redefining what it meant to be Black (and white) in the world. This is a concept that has been lamented throughout our history in the eloquence and actions of Fredrick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis with a host of contemporary prophets like Ally Henny, Jemar Tisby, Corey Leak, and countless others on the front lines of this continuing struggle.
The irony of two white men, one of which leads a predominantly white Pentecostal ministerial fellowship, dismissing a tool of empowerment for the Black community because it infringes on their fragile notions of white comfort is rich indeed. Especially considering that global Pentecostalism owes its existence and continuing influence, in no small measure, to the efforts of William J. Seymour, the Black son of Louisiana slaves and humble pastor of the famed Azusa Street Mission of 1906 Los Angeles. But sadly, whiteness appropriated and gutted Seymour’s vision of an integrated church as well. I grew up in the United Pentecostal Church and had a front row seat to the problematic nature of this fellowship’s approach to race relations, and judging by David Bernard’s answer on this matter it is evident to me that very little has changed.
David Bernard’s assessment of racial reconciliation totally misses the mark of the teachings of Jesus to be a good neighbor like The Good Samaritan who took responsibility for one who was robbed and left for dead. Please notice that in the story that Jesus told (recorded in Luke 10:25-37) that the Samaritan, although not directly responsible for the injury and theft of the one left half dead, assumed responsibility as someone who “Loved his neighbor as himself.” As white Americans, we may not be directly responsible for the theft and injury historically endured by our Black counterparts, but we do continue to benefit from a culture that preferences our color by every statistical measurement. From personal wealth, to education, to incarceration rates, collectively Black people in this country have been left “half dead” and in many instances of police brutality, completely dead. It behooves us as white Americans to acknowledge the injustice and take steps to dismantle its existence in order to stop it from further harming Black people. On this point David K. Bernard misses the mark as a leader. Bernard’s remarks are at best insensitive to the plight of Black people in the United States and at worst perpetuates the kind of racism he wants to easily dismiss as not a real problem.
To the Black constituents of the United Pentecostal Church, I ask a simple question, “Why are you still there?”