The church’s struggle against racism is no longer primarily about skin color, but institutions that bestow privilege on some and penalties on others, an activist, denominational leader and scholar said in a special-interest session Friday at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta.

“While I applaud the organizers of our event in coming together and asking the question of how do we move forward beyond race, I think the real challenge for us is to deal with that insidious cancer that is within the very fabric of our society, that I would term racism,” said Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of National Ministries, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.

Wright-Riggins, who is African-American, said there is room to discuss issues of multiculturalism and diversity.

“I think that’s a wonderful thing that we need to be engaged in,” he said, but he added, “I think that we need to realize that here in the United States of America we still live in very much a racialized society.”

About 10 percent of white children in the U.S. live in poverty, he said. That compares to 27 percent of Native American children, 28 percent of Latino children and 33 percent of African-American youth live in poverty.

“There seems to be a correlation between social policies and race in this country,” he said.

Looking to the plight of African-American men with regard to issues of criminal and racial justice, Wright-Riggins noted there are more black young men in prisons than in colleges and universities.

Miguel De La Torre, associate professor of social ethics and director of the Justice and Peace Institute at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colo., said it isn’t enough for white churches to want to diversify.

“What is the best advice that can be given to white ministers wishing to diversify their churches?” De La Torre asked. “No church should consider diversifying unless they first get saved.”

“That is, the congregation as a whole must crucify their sin upon the cross of Jesus Christ,” he explained. “They must nail their white supremacy and class privilege on the cross so that they can become a new creature in Christ. Becoming a new creature in Christ is not to be taken figuratively but literally.”

Forcing the issue without first dismantling societal and institutional forms of segregation that still exist, De La Torre said, “will reduce diversity to tokenism.”

“Centuries of normalizing and legitimizing segregation cannot merely be washed away within a generation because those in power had an ‘ah-hah’ moment,” he said. “Such a proposition would only continue the arrogance of those who confuse their power with the power of God.”

Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization that works on criminal-justice reform, identified a new form of racism “based on color blindness and normalcy of whiteness” that he calls the “New Jim Crow.”

Bean said the new Jim Crow accepts people of color as long as they can assimilate to white attitudes, traditions and speaking patterns. While the old Jim Crow applied everyone but whites, he said, the new Jim Crow is cut from a different cloth.

“It is a reality that does not impact of all people of color the same way, like the old Jim Crow did,” he said. “If you were black you were black, and the Jim Crow regime applied to you. When we talk about the new Jim Crow, we are basically talking about low economic people, people who have not been able to make the jump to our high-tech, highly educated society.”

“If you want to see the new Jim Crow in action, you go down to your local county court house and you see who is on the docket,” Bean said. “They will be overwhelmingly people of color. They will be overwhelmingly poor, and they will be overwhelmingly people who have problems with mental illness.”

Bean, a white American Baptist minister credited with bringing international attention to a civil-rights case in a small Louisiana town known worldwide as the Jena 6, said the thousands of people who demonstrated in Jena last fall were 99 percent black and appeared to be mostly middle class. Lacking cell-phone reception, Bean circulated among the throngs and asked people why they were there.

“Every person said, ‘Well I have this brother,’ ‘I have this grandchild’ or ‘I have this niece or nephew who got caught up in the criminal justice system like these boys in Jena, and enough is enough,” Bean said.

“When I looked at the way white America and black America have responded to Jena, I realize that there is a huge perception gap on issues of race and fairness and the problem in the criminal justice system that we need to start talking about,” Bean said. And we need to start talking about it in the context of faith.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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