I will admit that I continue to be surprised about what I hear on the topic of “systemic” or “institutional racism”. While this term was unknown to many of us even a few years ago, today we are increasingly hearing about the topic in more and more spaces and places.
Recently, I found it very interesting to listen the past two programs of the British Christian podcast Unbelievable?. Discussing racism in both shows, all five of the guests discussed the topic of systemic or institutional racism. Clearly, each of the guests simply assumed that because of “white culture” and “whiteness” systemic or institutional racism was a given – it didn’t matter that the two guests in the first show were American and the three guests in the final show were British. For them, the topic was certainly not something to be carefully laid out and explained, nor was it something to be questioned. Or, for that matter, even carefully defined.
While I suspect that I will find out in coming weeks that the viewpoints of these five evangelical Christians are held quite widely – and that that posts like the one I am writing here are simply “beyond the pale” for many – I nevertheless want to take the time to ask the question in the title of this blog post:
“Should Christians Push Back Against the Idea of ‘Institutional Racism’”?
Despite the impression given in the Unbelievable? podcasts, I think the answer to that question is a definite “yes”! Furthermore that not only Christians should be doing this!
I will try to explain myself more in this post by taking the time to thoughtfully respond to one of the guests from the first program about racism in America, Dr. George Yancey.
Dr. Yancey is one of the editors of the 2004 book United by Faith, which followed up on the well-known 2001 book by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith addressing the issue of racism in the church, Divided by Faith. He is also the author of the books Transcending Racial Barriers and Beyond Racial Gridlock (both which I plan to read in the coming weeks). Finally, following his Unbelievable? appearance, he recently wrote two articles “Why we cannot ignore Institutional Racism” (published at his own Patheos blog “Shattering Paradigms”) and “White Fragility: The Order of Unity” (published at Christianity Today’s site)..
Before we go on, you might be asking: “What are your qualifications to speak on this issue?” or perhaps “Why should I read this post?” All, I can say is that I am a theologian – I believe a good one – who believes that the discipline of theology has relevance for every area of our life. That is my perspective which you can learn more about by exploring an article that I wrote for the journal Lutheran Mission Matters, titled “Effective Christian Outreach to Minority Communities: What Does it Take?” (an article I took a long time to research and which research largely informs the response which follows below). Much to my surprise, this article was actually promoted, even if indirectly, by the Witness, the Black Christian Collective. This is the tweet of mine that they re-tweeted:
In sum, I am writing this current article because I think we cannot ignore the topic of institutional racism. More specifically, I believe that in order for there to be any possibility of fruitful dialogue, there needs to be the ability to question claims about what really constitutes the presence of institutional racism.
Of all the guests on the Unbelievable? show mentioned above, I found Dr. Yancey to be the most helpful in his approach. This is largely because he not only has strong and informed convictions about the topic of systemic racism, but it is also clear that he wanted to be very careful about how to go about bringing up and discussing the topic with others, others who did not necessarily share or even understand his views. For example, in his Christianity Today article, he says the following about Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism:
“White Fragility, falls apart in several ways for Christians. It is theologically flawed, only recognizing human depravity among whites and not among people of color. It is empirically flawed as research indicates that such browbeating does not product positive results. It prioritizes capitulation over a unified front to confront contemporary racism. I appreciate the attention it has brought to institutional racism; however, this does not compensate for its many flaws. As such my recommendation is that Christians seek out ways to lead by having the type of collaborative dialogue necessary in our racialized fallen world rather than using the flawed model found within White Fragility.”[i]
Dr. Yancey is also the only participant on the Unbelievable podcasts who tells us how he defines “institutional racism,” which is always helpful in promoting helpful discussions. In his Christianity Today article, he says “I define institutional racism as institutional forces that have a negative impact on racial minorities regardless of the personal intentions connected to the shaping of those institutions.” In his Patheos article, he even more succinctly states that institutional racism is “…mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality.”
How helpful are these definitions? Let’s take a close look at the second one. Right away you might notice that although a definition has been given, you still need to think pretty hard about what is going on. When Yancey talks about “mechanisms” what does he mean? Can he give some practical examples? Also, when he speaks about how these mechanisms lead to racial inequality is he thinking more along the lines of inequalities of opportunity or inequalities of outcome? Would, he, for example, agree with the understanding of racism and inequalities that is increasingly common among secular academics?:
This is an understanding being pushed — more than anyone else, I think — by the personally winsome scholar Ibram X. Kendi, who is even attempting to popularize his ideas through board books for young children:
It is hard to say just how Yancey’s beliefs compare with Kendi’s. Yancey does speak about “unfair racial outcomes in our society,” how Kendi’s “antiracism has been the dominant approach among cultural elites,” and how this “heavy-handed antiracism method does not work” (italics mine). Still, it is not clear from Yancey’s definitions whether or not he basically agrees with Kendi’s understanding of institutional racism..
Nevertheless, at the same time, we can get an idea of what Yancey means when he talks about those “mechanisms”. Right after saying that “I define institutional racism as mechanisms that lead to racial inequality regardless of whether there was an intent to have racial inequality,” he elaborates:
“To be sure one can argue that some of these mechanisms are justified. Since African-Americans are more likely, even after controls for individual characteristics, to commit murder, then one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism. For obvious reasons we should not rid ourselves of those laws. What we would lose from getting rid of those laws far outweigh any benefit we get from ending this racial disparity.”
Think about what Yancey is saying here. While he does not doubt the violent crime statistics which indicate that black Americans commit a disproportionate amount of murders[ii], he also goes on to say “one can argue that laws against murder are examples of institutional racism”. More specifically, what Yancey seems to be saying is this: For the time being, the laws against murder, sadly, need to be racist. That is, until other cultural practices and political policies can be developed to get the black community in a better place such that the laws, when equally applied, will no longer end up giving us a racist result….
Again, it seems Yancey himself is arguing that the laws are racist but we should nevertheless keep them. Notice how this kind of reasoning turns everything on its head: shouldn’t we be doing our utmost to systemically root out all racist laws? Would that not be the truly anti-racist thing to do? But keep in mind that the reasoning makes perfect sense if you are thinking along the lines of Dr. Yancey’s definition of what racism is (and Kendi’s too, by the way).
I do not doubt for a second Dr. Yancey’s desire to be careful about how we speak with the goal of making real progress when it comes to race relations. Nevertheless, I think that many an American Christian, particularly one who has not drunk the Kool-Aid at our universities, will really want to ask questions like:
- How really, is it helpful to seriously argue that the laws against murder are examples of institutional racism?
- Just because of the disparities we see in prison populations because black people tend to commit more murders? Really?
- Just how are the “institutional forces” here, in this case the laws against murder, “hav[ing] a negative impact on racial minorities”?
- Are they not rather countering negative things coming out of communities?
So right away, with these definitions it seems like there is potential for a massive breakdown in communication! Common understandings about laws and justice are being re-framed and even, it seems, re-defined. To say the least, this introduces all kinds of confusion which seems completely unnecessary to many of us.
For example, what is particularly sad about this is that the things that Yancey goes on to talk about really are things I think many folks of goodwill would want to deal with. For example, right after the strange argument about how racist laws might sometimes be necessary, he goes on to say the following:
“But we must make that calculation on other policies disproportionately impacting people of color that are harder to justify as being worth the differences in racial disparity. For example, although it is better, we still have a serious sentencing disparity for those who use crack and those who use powder cocaine. Since African -Americans, relative to European-Americans, who abuse drugs are more likely to use crack instead of powder cocaine, this disparity is one of many factors why blacks serve longer sentences than whites. It does not matter whether there was a racist intent in the disparity of the laws. The results are unfair outcomes for people of color.”
And I think: “Of course! It seems altogether reasonable to suggest that there should be similar sentencing for those who use crack or powder cocaine, as well as those who sell either kind…” Even as I’d be interested in watching a debate about this very issue – trying hard to understand the original reasoning for the laws – my guess is that most persons would think that this is only sensible and fair.
After all, my generation at least (I am 46 years old) grew up learning that racism was never something that could be justified, and as best I could tell, all my classmates agreed. In Appleton, Wisconsin in the early 1980s my elementary school class was shocked to hear about things like black people not being allowed to stay overnight in local hotels as late as the 60’s. Why would they exclude Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Gary Coleman and Walter Payton? So I “resonate,” as folks say today, with Freddie Gray writing in the Spectator, who said the following:
“…western society isn’t systemically racist. If anything, it is systemically woke. Our political institutions, our schools and colleges, our corporations are all geared towards destroying racism. Students in schools and universities aren’t brainwashed into thinking that racism isn’t a problem. On the contrary, almost everybody who has been educated since the 1970s has been relentlessly taught to abhor racial prejudice. Our workplaces are run along politically correct lines. Our language is policed, in case it might incite racial hatred. The machine, or what those Sixties radicals would have called ‘the Man’, is anti-racist.”
Nevertheless, we are now learning that this kind of education that I received was insufficient. “[C]olorblindness as the route to racial harmony” does not work because it is an insufficient concept for dealing with our problems, as Yancey assumes. Right now I would simply point out that even if it is true that “colorblindness” was only the first step in overcoming racism (i.e. making it so that laws were truly equal so that they could not explicitly discriminate on the basis of skin color differences), it appears that we are very far from common definitions and understandings of racism that one could find among scholars even around 15 years ago.[iii]
In spite of the problem of this re-defining of the term “racism,” for the time being let’s push on and ask, “What does Yancey think are some of the strongest examples that show systemic racism, as he understands it, exists?” In the Christianity Today article, he is most helpful in providing a brief list:
“…we know that there has not been any real decrease of racial discrimination in hiring over the past 25 years. There is statistical support for “driving while black” fears. Residential segregation still impacts people of color. Finally, there is evidence of racism in the beliefs and practices of medical heathcare providers.”[iv]
Yancey goes on to say that “[t]hose who deny the existence of institutional racism are either ignorant of the evidence or do not want to know if institutional racism exists.” At least he is, presumably, ready to have patience with a person like me who says…
I don’t question what people say about their particular experiences when it comes to being made to feel racially inferior or unfairly discriminated against. The only thing I question – and question all the time as a matter of course – are people’s interpretations of their experiences. For example, in my marriage I may sometimes feel slighted by my wife and then realize later on that I misinterpreted what she was saying or doing. I didn’t put – or for some reason was, at that particular moment in time, perhaps not even able to put – the “best construction” on what she did. And I admit that sometimes I feel she does the same thing with me (I say feel here because so often, when emotions run high, it is hard to know if I am really thinking clearly). So, having had experiences like these with the persons I know best and knowing in particular my own weaknesses… when it comes to many of the matters above, I really do look to hear both sides of the issue… different explanations of the evidence and other possible interpretations of what people say about their experiences. What do these experiences really mean? Right now, given what I know, I would say that I am unable to believe what more and more people in our society tell me I should believe all the time. So, when it comes to this stuff, please have patience….
I don’t see why Dr. Yancey and I, both being Christians who take the Bible very seriously, can’t see eye to eye on the same basic core values. It is just that I don’t really comprehend here the direction that he is pushing in…
Let me illustrate by giving a couple examples, based on his list above. Yancey says:
“…sometimes businesses hire by word of mouth. That is, when they need to find someone for a position, they ask their employees if they know someone who needs a job and is a good worker. If their employees tend to be white, then chances are their social network is pretty white as well. So in this way whites can gain jobs that people of color never even knew were open. The employer may well have had no intention of being racist. Indeed, this could be a good strategy to find a hard worker since current employees are unlikely to irritate the employer by sending the job announcement to a lazy uncle. But the result is still an unfair advantage that whites are given over people of color.”
Should we say this particular employer is being racist even if he has no intention of doing so? For the life of me, I do not understand, given the history of the term, how it would ever be a good idea to call a person like this a racist.
Let us concede for the sake of the argument that in the example above, black candidates who are equally or more qualified for these jobs are being passed over. Nevertheless, instead of talking about systemic racism here why not consider parsing matters more broadly, speaking perhaps about the implications of “systemic in-group preference”? And perhaps, in particular, “systemic in-group preference” when it comes to the dominant group (and maybe, more specifically, of those exercising leadership roles in the dominant group)?
While I do not doubt that systemic racism is likely a reality in this or that locale (it certainly was in America very broadly for a very long time and must to some extent remain a reality!), and that such situations would be similar to Yancey’s example when it comes to the issue of practical effects on black people, these situations would nevertheless be quite distinct. In the way I am looking at this matter, real examples of systemic racism — where base hatreds of the other and/or beliefs about racial superiority or inferiority are endemic — would just be one sub-species of this larger category of “systemic dominant in-group preference.”
Yancey also talks about how “[r]esidential segregation still impacts people of color…” Not too long ago, I listened a show from Reveal News that alleged something similar: “Today, a new epidemic of modern-day redlining has crept quietly across America. The gap in homeownership between African Americans and whites is now wider than it was during the Jim Crow era.”
The show was interesting, and I think did the best job that it could to make the case that systemic racism was responsible for this. And yet, as I listened a few things came to mind that did not seem to be on the radar of the reporters. From the data set that the reporters discuss, can we determine any distinctions between the blacks who got loans and those who didn’t? (there did not seem to be much curiosity when it came to examining this data). Also, they say “having a home helps create wealth,” and while I do not doubt that that can be true, surely it is more important to emphasize that “having wealth leads to home ownership”. And here, sad to say, the fact that white families typically have fifteen times the wealth (not income) of black families as well as the critical nature of having co-signers occurred to me.
I do not want to discount the work done by the reporters or to deny that what they put forth does seem to indicate that the congressional investigations their work has spurred on are necessary. This sounds to me like a good idea. At the same time, I think about all the posts that I have read from Rod Dreher over the years that talk about the complexities of gentrification, for example (see, e.g., here and here).
And I will also admit that like one of the men interviewed in the program, I simply have a hard time understanding why lenders would not want to make money off of black people with stable financial situations as well. Would lenders not, generally speaking, be more concerned about issues of class than race?
Back to the significance of Yancey’s definition of institutional racism.
As already pointed out above, the definition is confusing, and yet, given what it concedes, it is helpful and important for us nonetheless. Even as we might never be inclined to say, with Yancey, that “racist laws are necessary,” we can appreciate the fact that the issue of systemic or institutional racism is a little bit more complicated than many in academia today are ready to admit.
And, given the way that claims about specific instances of racism can be rendered problematic by something as simple as the empirical data that Yancey allows, one might wonder, as I just did in the last section, what other claims concerning specific instances of racism could similarly be called into question, or, as they say in academia today, “problematized.”
Now, at this point some might be getting irritated because I have clearly taken advantage of something that Yancey has said to put forth my own perspective. One might claim that I took an honest admission and begin to, in a way, use it as a wedge in order to re-frame the discussion.
Exactly right. Still, is an attempt to do that an “illegitimate power play” of some sort? Why?
Let’s cut to the chase on the issue of violent crime by blacks for example. If you look at the explanations for black violent crime on the extremes, the answers boil down to pretty simple things. Many “race realists” think that violence among black people has to do with their genetics. In other words, who they are by nature. The other extreme looks to ideas like those of Karl Marx, contending that capitalism naturally leads to oppression of the disadvantaged and that this in turn leads to crime among the disadvantaged whose situation goes from bad to worse..
I think most all of us recognize that explanations such as these really work towards destroying notions of personal agency and responsibility, which is always a critical aspect of our humanity! Not only this, but they loudly proclaim that what is really critical when it comes to this issue is not only what white people are doing but what white people think. Why? Because both of these kinds of statements, whether they are uttered as propositions, theories, or proclamations, have, historically, been put forth almost exclusively by white people who been heavily dependent on anti-Christian notions, theories, and argumentation.
Overall, the kinds of evidence explored and the amount of people involved in the conversation needs to be made broader – those who are skeptical of the current prevailing narrative must not be seen as being “beyond the pale”. And we also must not allow complicated people like W.E.B. DuBois to be used by people with more Marxist leanings. In his article “The Head Start Myth: What We Get Wrong About the Racial Wealth Gap,” J. Edward Britton writes:
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, shortly after describing the abhorrent treatment of black laborers by white landowners in the late 1800s, W. E. B. DuBois comments: “The [black man] dimly personifies in the white man all his ills and misfortunes; if he is poor, it is because the white man seizes the fruit of his toil … if any misfortune happens to him, it is because of some hidden machinations of ‘white folks.’”
This controversial statement was written in the same book in which DuBois documents the woes of black American life in the early post-Civil War South. Many chapters cover the brutality endured by black workers in everyday life and the grim, complex reality of racial segregation and the feelings of subjugation it aroused. Yet none of this stops DuBois from vehemently opposing racial victimhood. His hesitancy to correlate black anguish with white prosperity should serve as a reminder that America’s conversation about privilege, power and oppression has strayed far from the original understanding of how social justice ought to operate.
There is no way to truly know the effects past injustices have had on modern wealth inequalities. To deny the fact that slavery, Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement played a role in creating the racial wealth gap would be absurd. It is equally absurd, however, to point exclusively to past injustices when explaining the racial wealth gap.
Is this not sensible?
In the end, I certainly agree with George Yancey when he says:
“What we need, and what we are not going to get from White Fragility, is the ability to enter collaborative conversation with each other. Those sorts of conversations can help us to work together, to be held accountable for our own biases, and to find solutions that we can live with. These are the conversations that get results.”
So, jumping off of this, my humble proposition is to ditch the Kendian understandings of what constitutes racism and to start with the older and more common definition. And, then, to patiently deal with those who are keen to look at the evidence for real racism with the goal of offering resistance against it wherever it might be found. I don’t know if that will be meaningful to everyone — I get that many are tired — but I pray it will with many.
Finally, I would contend that it is not only Christians but many Americans of good will who are genuinely interested in not only not unfairly discriminating against others, but also seeing increased and even proportional representation from different ethnic groups in most every context.
At the same time, it also does us all well to remember, for example, that domains like the National Basketball Association may indeed look much the same many years into the future, no matter what kinds of steps and actions are taken to make it just as if not more excellent while also making it more diverse!
[i] Regarding capitulation Yancey says in that article: “Our inability to see the effects of that depravity can create in us a confidence that we are almost always right. So it is natural to think that unity only comes when others capitulate to us. This is where White Fragility can feed into the worst impulses of some people of color.”
[ii] The summary of the scholarly article he links to begins: “African-Americans are six times as likely as white Americans to die at the hands of a murderer, and roughly seven times as likely to murder someone. Young black men are 15 times as likely to be murdered as young white men. This disparity is historic and pervasive, and cannot be accounted for by individual characteristics.”
[iv] See also the list provided by Bradly Mason in this post I did about him: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2019/12/06/tweets-to-about-bradly-mason-and-his-dangerous-ideas/
Note: Revised the original post as it contained information about co-signing which was incorrect. It does not substantially change the arguments above.