Systemic Racism

America is being targeted for destruction by those accusing it of being systemically racist. It is a false accusation. While America has many sins in its history, this is not one of them. Not only is America not currently systemically racist, it never was systemically racist. That’s because systemic racism is not a thing. It’s a false category, something like a square circle.

Christians need to understand and refute the charge of systemic racism. It is one of the crises of our time. The whole Western world is awash in cries of systemic racism. The power of the accusation is immense. Hatred of racism is as close to a cultural universal as it gets. Everyone hates racism. And the hatred goes down into our bones. We will do most anything to escape the charge of racism. Knowing this, the accusers are asking for the moon. America is poised to do massive evil in order to escape the charge of racism.

The unanimity with which Americans hate racism makes the accusation political dynamite. But more than this, Americans fear racism. They fear being racist, and they despair of ever being cleared from the charge. This desperate fear keeps us on the edge of irrationality at all times. We are panicky and prone to stampede. We might do almost anything.

This is why Christians must refute the charge of systemic racism. But more than that, we must teach the world what justice is. Many professing Christians have said that the church is shot through with racism and needs to learn justice from the secular society. Those who say such things have been made stupid by their own sin. Scripture reveals that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. Only the church has the spirit of God and the teachings of Christ. Only the church has these things, but the whole world needs them.

Christians must also teach what cleanses and justifies. The world is as guilty as sin. America in particular is a disgusting mass of sin, a bloated and decaying corpse. She needs resurrection. She needs salvation. With what shall we cleanse our sins? What solvent can remove the blood red stains? Only the church knows the answer.

What if America believed in Christ? What if she confessed him? I’ll tell you what. She would be let loose from her guilty conscience. She would cry tears of joy, tears of relief. And those tears would break into sparkling laughter. She would wash away her sins in the blood of Christ and new life would break out across the fruited plain. She would have the courage to face her sins and repudiate them, knowing that her mediator stands at the right hand of God.

But if America does not believe in Christ, she will die. She will perish in blood and fire. America will be consumed by her lusts and by her guilt. If the blood of Christ is not sufficient for her sins, she will pour other blood on the altar of her idols. America needs the gospel in the most literal and immediate sense.

Answering the Charge

To answer the charge of systemic racism, we must first identify it. Unfortunately for us, the people making the charge aren’t straight forward about what they mean and prefer to equivocate. They will shift from one meaning to another because honesty isn’t their intent. They pretend to communicate only in order to manipulate.

The word “systemic” properly means something that effects the whole system, as opposed to just part of that system. So, if you said that America is systemically racist, that ought to mean there is no part of America which isn’t racist. The first problem might be explaining how America is a system, but assuming that could be done, a person making this charge should be able to show how every part of the system is racist. If America is only partly racist then under this definition, America is not systemically racist.

Most everyone would reject the notion that every part of America is racist. That’s just silly. So instead of making that argument, the accusers start acting like systemic means something else. Systemic racism starts to be used as if it means secret and built-in racism. “Secret and built-in” is not the meaning of systemic, so this is equivocation.

Those who have followed the national conversation will recognize that systemic racism is contrasted with personal racism and institutional racism. Supposedly, systemic racism is a type of racial injustice that can occur even if the people carrying it out aren’t personally racist. Furthermore, it is supposedly possible for systemic racism to operate despite all rules and policies being explicitly color-blind. If so, this can lead to non-racist people following impartial laws and yet producing racial injustice. This would mean that minority police officers could enforce color-blind laws and yet be promoting racial injustice.

Spooky, right? This has led many, many Americans to ask “how can this be?” If such a thing is possible, we want to understand it so that we can eliminate it. Unfortunately, America is asking to be taught by brutally dishonest people.

It’s easy to see how personal racism can lead to injustice when racist persons are called on to make judgment calls. They put their thumb on the scales, either intentionally, or perhaps unintentionally, and then the disfavored ethnic group doesn’t get fair treatment. Since most every system and institution of society relies on individuals making judgment calls, opportunities for personal bias to effect the outcome are abundant.

It’s also obvious that institutionally racistpolicies can be carried out by individuals with no personal bigotry. “I’m just following orders,” such a person might say. He might really prefer non-racist policies but isn’t willing to rock the boat or sacrifice his own career protesting against what seems an insurmountable institutional racism.

Systemic racism on the other hand, if we take it to mean something that operates without either personal or institutional racism, is not only hard to prove, it’s hard to imagine. How would it even work? Where would the bias come from?

This is the point at which the accusers equivocate again. They now swap out racism, that is, treating people unjustly because of race, for a concept we might call disparate impact.

Disparate Impact

To quote Wikipedia: “Disparate impact in United States labor law refers to practices in employment, housing, and other areas that adversely affect one group of people of a protected characteristic more than another, even though rules applied by employers or landlords are formally neutral.”

The origin of the idea might be that since racism in employment, housing and some other areas is illegal, clever racists will find ways to circumvent the law by inventing strange policies that happen to exclude or disadvantage certain ethnicities without explicitly mentioning race. They might invent policies that have a significantly different impact on blacks as compared with whites.

The crucial problem with using “disparate impact” as your definition of racism is that all kinds of sensible color-blind policies have a disparate impact. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by considering merit-based policies.

If you took all the high school students in America and selected the best basketball players, you would get disparate impact. Too many blacks. If you select the best violin players you would again get disparate impact, namely, too many ethnic Asians.

This happens because these different ethnic groups are actually groups of real people. More to the point they are real groups of real people. There is such a thing as “the black community” in America. It is distinct from “the Asian-American community” in things like cultural values and upbringing as well as genetics.

Now these groups aren’t rigidly defined. They interact, intermix and intermarry. But they are still distinct enough to notice, despite the blending, mixing and assimilating that has already happened.

You can name virtually any metric you like and you will find that comparing different communities will reveal differences, sometimes small, sometimes large. These differences extend to interests, habits, achievements, and ailments. Just as we aren’t surprised to find that various cities or states differ from each other, we shouldn’t be surprised to find differences between various ethnic communities. The differences are what define them as actual communities, cultures and subcultures.

The differences between communities are the reason that neutral policies can and usually do effect those groups somewhat differently. Sometimes the difference in impact is small, sometimes large. It is rare to find any policy that doesn’t have some slight difference in how it impacts different communities.

In fact, the only way you can be reasonably sure of avoiding disparate impact is to explicitly discriminate. For example, if you absolutely must avoid disparate racial impact in hiring practices, you need racial quotas. In the absence of quotas, you need to tinker and tinker until you get the race-based results you are looking for. This is racial quotas by another name. You have specified the racial composition with which you are comfortable and then deliberately sought out policies which produce that result.

Needless to say, disparate impact is a dead end. You can either treat people the same and accept their differences, or you can treat people differently and enforce an arbitrary uniformity.

Disparity is not injustice

The discussion of racism in America has degenerated to the point that we aren’t even sure what we’re talking about anymore. If the crucial question is how to treat everyone justly, (and that should be the most important thing,) then we need to focus on justice, not race.

When someone implies that racial disparity itself is necessarily injustice they haven’t just gone slightly off track, they have substituted a false standard of justice. They have made race the fundamental characteristic, the determining factor of how we must treat each other. If you substitute race for justice, you will not have justice. You will simply have racism, with a new and innovative justification.

It is possible to point to real injustices, even those with disparate racial impact, without those injustices being properly understood as racism. For example, America’s drug laws are unjust. This injustice falls more heavily on the black community. Some people will say that this is an example of systemic racism, but beware! If we tinker with our criminal penalties until we achieve some predetermined racial quota, this will not be justice. Justice requires that the punishment fit the crime. Justice doesn’t care about averages and it doesn’t care about disparity. Justice must be color-blind or it simply isn’t justice.

To sum up, there are two equivocations involved in the charge of systemic racism. First, systemic is transformed into a word that apparently means “secret, and built-in.” Second, the concept of disparate impact is substituted for racism without regard for the fact that disparity is neither here nor there when it comes to justice.

Two examples

Christians are about to get taken for a ride. Even conservative bible-believing Christians are getting suckered by the “systemic racism” charge. Two examples I have heard pertain to America’s drug laws and America’s public schools.

In the case of drug law, it is claimed that the disparate impact of the criminal penalties for certain drugs, (e.g., crack cocaine) are racist. An examination of history will show that racism did not motivate the different penalty for crack versus powder cocaine. Rather the men who enacted the higher penalty for crack were convinced (perhaps erroneously) that it was more addictive and more dangerous than the powder form of the same drug.

Crack and crack related violence were an epidemic in the black community during the 1980’s and into the early 90’s. The racism charge popular at that time was that America didn’t care enough about blacks to properly police those communities. The film Boyz in the Hood is based on this period of American history and features the iconic line “either they don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care about what’s going on in the ‘hood.”

Far from having racist origins, stiffer penalties for crime, including drug crimes, were supported by leaders in the black community and on both sides of the political aisle. It is ironic that the once celebrated response to the violence in inner city communities became the occasion of a new charge of racism a generation later. As crime has subsided, attention turns to mass incarceration.

America’s drug laws are unjust. But to call them racist misidentifies the problem. In criminal justice, the punishment must fit the crime. The law God revealed through Moses makes this clear with language such as “eye for an eye.” When authorities deviate from this principle they deviate from justice. The problem with America’s drug laws is that they do not punish an identifiable harm. Rather they are an attempt at social engineering. We don’t like the effects of widespread drug use so we outlaw sale of those drugs.

Worse yet, we outlaw possession of the drugs. What harm has someone done by possessing an addictive drug? None whatsoever. If America followed the principles revealed in the Mosaic law, it would not punish possession of a dangerous drug anymore than it would punish possession of a dangerous animal.

“When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox shall not be liable. But if the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not kept it in, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death.”

Exodus 21:28-29

Possession of a dangerous animal had no punishment in ancient Israel until and unless it did actual harm. If it did harm someone, the owner was liable even to the point of forfeiting his own life by his negligence. Americans are to be faulted both for excessive punishments (as with drugs) and inadequate punishments, as with murder.

Imagine the horror of a country which calibrated its criminal penalties to produce proportionate rates of incarceration between various ethnic groups. Imagine a court where the color of your skin was a crucial element of sentencing! If we don’t reject disparate impact as a definition of racism this is exactly what we will be guilty of.

Black Schools?

The second thing I have repeatedly heard conservative Christians accept as an example of systemic racism is the funding of public schools. This happens when someone says something like “black schools receive less money than white schools.”

Yikes! This an example of begging the question, AKA, assuming the conclusion. This accusation smuggles in all sorts of Socialist assumptions and has to be one of the worst examples of illogic imaginable.

First of all, America doesn’t have black schools. It is immediately an injustice to speak of America as having “black schools” and “white schools.” Haven’t you heard of Brown v. Board of Education? America has local school districts. Is the difference between skin color so fundamental that it is proper to speak of such a thing as though the very nature or character of the school is “black” or “white?” We know that no public school in America today excludes people on the basis of their skin color. We know also that schools do not have their funding level set on the basis of the skin color of the student population.

Why would we accept that it is unjust for American whites to have more money than another segment of the population? Where is that written? Is it unjust for New York to have more money than Alabama? Is it unjust for Oklahoma to have more tornadoes than either of them? Maybe it’s unjust for American blacks to have more money than Nigerian blacks. How does one answer that if not by addressing the actual means of producing wealth?

If we insist on ignoring how public schools are actually organized and funded and instead pretend that they are organized and funded by skin color, then obviously we are going to conclude that they are racist. We smuggled that conclusion in when we decided to label some schools “black” and others “white.”

Listen, America. If you really need to ignore reality like this in order to soothe your race-wounded conscience, perhaps you have bigger problems than the funding of your schools. Is slandering others as racist the only salve for our guilty minds? Or is it just that you would prefer anything other than seeking refuge in Christ?

Or perhaps America hasn’t heard of Christ, or hasn’t heard of him in the same context as racism. Racism isn’t a different kind of sin. It doesn’t fall outside of the jurisdiction of the cross. Christ earned by his sweat and blood the right to justify men and women, to cleanse them of the grossest injustices.

Christ hung on a tree to bring justification to racists. He bled for those who pervert justice. He died so that oppressors can repent of their sin and find forgiveness.

Americans need to hear that Christ is the answer to sin. The secular Pharisees of our day are promoting wickedness and using guilty consciences to achieve their aims. Just as Christ was a stinging rebuke to self-righteous hypocrisy two thousand years ago, so he is today.

Jesus directly confronted the lies of the Pharisees. He addressed the ways in which they twisted the Mosaic law. Christians likewise need to address the lies that make systemic racism seem a plausible charge. Justice isn’t one thing if you’re black and another if you’re white. Justice doesn’t depend on skin color. We don’t need to pool our money together like good little Marxists and divvy it back up in order to escape the charge of racism, we just need to speak the truth and stop listening to liars who claim to oppose racism.

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