BY Randy Nabors
Racial discussions in America are full of rhetorical flourish, phrases, and powerful words which sometimes are not clearly defined, or not universally accepted. Even when there is agreement on definition there might still be conflict over the existence of a concept, such as people when people insist America is built on “systemic racism” while others say such an idea is a “myth.” Some of these arguments are more emotional than rational, and one can listen to arguments jumping the rails of logic to attempt to prove a point, usually because they don’t like the political implications of the other side.
We search for explanations. Why did this man get killed by this policeman? Why did this child go to prison, not finish school, live in poverty? Why does this neighborhood even exist? Why did this person get hired and that person get fired? Why does this person have wealth and that person doesn’t? Is success built on personal responsibility and merit, and is everything else simply an excuse for failure?
Is there a conspiracy somewhere, is it still going on, is their some kind of rational historical explanation for why things have worked out the way they have, and seem to continue to work out certain ways? Is it “each man” or the “Man” who makes things to be possible or impossible?
In this essay I attempt to begin with some definitions, and then give some explanation and application to our present circumstances. If you don’t agree with these definitions then you need to create your own, back them up with reason, and work out your thinking accordingly.
- “Systemic” basically means whatever is at issue is at issue all over the organism. If you have an infection and it is systemic it is not localized, although it may manifest that way. However, even if you treat it as a localized issue and fail to deal with the systemic cause it will inevitably rise again to cause trouble in the organism, or the organization, or the body-politic, or the culture, which it infects. In medicine a human might have a blood infection, cellular problem, or a problem in their lymph nodes, or their nerves. A system is something that circulates in the entire body, and though it might damage an extremity such that it must be amputated (as is the case with diabetes), the amputation will not usually cure the systemic disease. Sometimes systemic infections aren’t seen or acknowledged in an organism, but they can linger, or be passed down to the next generation, and erupt suddenly, given the right conditions.
- “Systematic” is a plan or organization that is built in a methodical fashion. It is not accidental, it is not an intuitive response, it is not coincidence. Whether plans all work out or not the organization moves generally according to the preconceived plan to accomplish its goals.
- “Structural” means it has been built, it has form and is integral to whatever it holds up or encloses. It is no longer just an idea but something that exists and stands and one has to deal with it whenever they encounter that particular piece of architecture.
- “De Jure”- by law, as in segregation laws that forced people into segregated places on a bus, bathrooms, waiting rooms, lunch counters, hotels, military units, schools, and marriages, etc.
- “De Facto”- by existence or fact, as in though there is no law on the books segregation is still the way we allow people to rent here or there, buy here or there, be hired here or there, etc.
- “Racism”* – making judgements about people(s) based on distinction due to color or ethnicity, defining people via stereotypes, usually a negative assessment about people one feels below them, with an ethno-centric decision of preference for one’s own group, or conversely and perversely, a negative assessment of self; based on the cultural preference of people of a “favored” ethnic/cultural group, usually the majority and dominant culture. This usually works according to skin color preferring lighter skin while darker skin is judged as inferior, dangerous, or threatening. Giving consequence to this kind of “racial” judgement is the power to enforce, deny, reward, or punish by those holding control, authority, or force.
*(It doesn’t matter if race actually exists or not for “racism” to exist.)
- “Bias” – prejudice (favor or disfavor), either conscious or unconscious, implicit or explicit, in making a decision in almost every area of social interaction.
WHO I AM TRYING TO PLEASE WITH MY OPINIONS
When I write or speak about racial issues I want to be “right.” For me that means I want to understand, I want to “get it,” I want to be nailed down to truth (as convicting and unsettling as it may be), rationality, and most of all to biblical revelation. This of course puts me outside of the conversation with more radical agendas, and usually outside of those with conservative agendas. This is “cool” with me, because the only person I need to satisfy is Almighty God, and to a lesser degree my wife, who I deeply respect and have to live with. She is a black woman from the projects, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. We have, by the grace of God, lived, survived, and thrived in this racial world together since high school in the 60’s, out of Newark, NJ.
OUR UNFORTUNATE RACIAL FORMULATION AND HISTORY
So, let us start with the idea that history shows us that almost universally Europeans thought themselves to be superior to native peoples, wherever they found them. They saw them as “savages,” “heathen,” and since they were uneducated compared to Europeans, not as technically advanced especially in instruments of war, transportation, food production and storage, then Europeans believed they had a right to not only convert them to their religion (Muslims felt they had that right as well), but to buy or take them as slaves, sell them as such, divide and take their land, and rule them without their consent. This sums up the era of exploration via conquest, with consequent exploitation, colonialism, slavery, and genocide.
I would say that the attitude of the vast majority of Europeans-become Americans- was that skin color dictated equality or inferiority to various degrees, with some even withholding equality if a person lacked property, wealth, education, or proper accent. This was “systemic” and it was passed down to each generation as a way of explaining and excusing disparity. It would be hard to find in American colonial documents much that disputed these systemic or universal points of view. Many of those opposed to slavery or opposed to the eradication of Native Americans still held to an idea of racial superiority.
SYSTEMIC TO SYSTEMATIC TO STRUCTURAL
This “systemic racism” created a “systematic racism” that used law and force to build “structures” to enshrine it. Locally in Chattanooga, where I live, there was a court case to dismantle the city government’s way of choosing commissioners versus having a city council with councilmen.
Systemic racism (believing that white people had privilege that should be protected and increased) pushed city fathers in the 20th century to do away with area voting for councilmen so as to dilute the black vote. Voting for commissioners on a city wide basis insured a majority of white leaders holding office. This was a planned or “systematic” approach to securing white political power. Once the commission system prevailed it could then be called “structural racism.” One could grow up in Chattanooga, vote every year for commissioners, and not feel racist at all because it was just the way the structure of government existed.
When a group of black leaders realized that what was once planned to deny black political power could be reversed, if they could prove racism was behind it, they took the city to court. They won, and so in this one instance structural racism, begat by systematic racism, begat by systemic racism, was reversed. Did that cure our city of systemic racism? Of course not, but it was a battle won.
Another example of this would be the racism that created segregated military units, though all minority groups in America fought and gave their lives in all of America’s conflicts. Systemic racism created plans to structurally deny status to black warriors – even combat participation- until President Truman ended if formally. It wasn’t until military leadership went after the “systemic” aspects of racism in the 70’s that America’s military became one of our best examples of integration and equality.
Some of the systematic racism that created structural racism has an economic and social residue in various area of our public life, even when modern Americans have no clue how or why such structures were created and sustained. Part of the search for justice is to identify those historical plans for structural racism and to dismantle them.
Since the days of the Civil Rights movement which helped to create Civil Right Laws much of De Jure segregation has ended. De Facto segregation continued because systemic racism still existed no matter what the law said. In the days of Civil Rights Evangelicals would often say, “well, you can change the law but that doesn’t change people’s hearts.” They seemed to say it to deny the power of changed law, which contrary to that opinion has indeed been a wonderful and powerful advancement for our whole country.
To some degree they were correct, changing laws doesn’t change hearts, but it does, and should, change behavior. Changed behavior creates new culture, new ways of social interaction, and this of course was the fear of racists, especially concerning the “mixing” of the races and “miscegenation,” (inter-racial marriage). So changing law does have some impact on our systemic problem, but not completely. The infection still persists in the body-politic.
Some have said racism is like sin, and of course it is because it is sin. Just like sin is pervasive, and recurrent, but can be repented of so people can be delivered from various kinds of behavior, so we can be delivered from racism. Sin will never be eradicated from the hearts of human beings, because we are born into it, it is part of who we are-our essential fallen nature- but it doesn’t have to control those of us saved by Jesus Christ.
DOCTOR, DOCTOR, WHAT’S AILING ME?
It is not a defeatist or unpatriotic thing to say that racism is systemic in America. We are simply trying to diagnose the patient properly. If our only problem in our country is that we have an occasional racist or prejudicial act and after all our attempts to prove what they did must have been from some other motive we still fail, then we are left to wonder, “where did that come from?” If a racist act is a rare and infrequent thing then maybe America does not really have that much of a problem. This doesn’t stand up to reality, history, or the facts.
However, this is the way some Americans look at racism; they think it is an aberration, an anomaly, and it can’t be used to explain what it should explain –consistent racial attitudes and behaviors that get people called names, denied access, disrespected, suspected, have the police called on them, pulled over, abused, arrested more often, shot, and the stubborn refusal to admit structural barriers still exist and whose artifacts continue disparity.
WE ARE SEPTIC WITH RACISM!
Maybe some think racist incidents are like having an infected finger. This is not really a big deal, though it sure may hurt. What is a big deal is allowing the infection to create blood poisoning. This seemed to be the constant warning from my mother whenever I got a cut or a sore. Sepsis is always lurking. People, we are septic with racism! So, how do we cure it?
OWN UP TO THE DIAGNOSIS
My attempt here is simply trying to help people take the first step in dealing with a systemic problem. Having a systemic infection doesn’t make us less worthy as human beings. We must admit that what one sees as an isolated incident is really no such thing, but an eruption, again, of a problem we will most likely always have to deal with. Our cure is resisting the easy temptation to dismiss incidents, and complaints, but rather to look in a hard-nosed way to see if this is injustice, based on bias, implicit or explicit, based on racism. No, racism doesn’t and can’t explain everything, and we are not trying to make an argument for that here. But it does explain a lot of other things.
What is ironic is that we create a structure of racism by a consistent attitude of refusing to think about racism, excusing it, overlooking it, being annoyed with the suggestion, and we do this in almost all of our institutions, organizations, schools, churches, and governments. Some us don’t like protests, but some other folks don’t like being dead.
I have no expectation that injustice will be completely done away with until Jesus comes, but I also have no freedom from the conviction that God will judge us for every injustice we allow to go undealt with. If our body-politic is sin sick, soul sick, with racism, then let’s get the therapy we need to start getting better; truth, repentance, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation.