Year of Equality: Systemic Racism
Matthew 25 tells the story of a King who divides his people according to their deeds, placing some at his right hand and some at his left. Those on his right (the righteous) he calls blessed, “for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The righteous then asked, when did we do these things Lord? The King replied, “whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
As Christians, we are called to help those who are in need of help – the poor, the hungry, the sick, the prisoners. The reasons why these people are in need of help is not part of the story. It doesn’t matter to the Lord, and so it shouldn’t matter to us.
But sometimes we need to understand the problem in order to provide the help. Or, sometimes we need to understand the problem in order to admit to ourselves that there is a problem to be solved. We need to be able to see the world from the point of view of those who are in need.
David French (evangelical Christian, Iraq War veteran, and former attorney who made a career fighting for fair treatment for Christians) defined systemic racism like this: “A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways, to perpetrate racial group inequality.” Notice, he doesn’t say (yet) which races are treated unequally, because a racist system could be made to treat any race or any group of races unfairly. But he goes on to describe how such a system has played out in our country: “dimensions of our history and culture have allowed privileges associated with ‘whiteness’ and disadvantages associated with ‘color’ to endure and adapt over time.” He describes these disadvantages with a timeline:
1. Slavery was legal and defended morally and (ultimately) militarily from 1619 to 1865.
2. After slavery, racial discrimination was lawful and defended morally (and often violently) from 1865 to 1964.
3. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not end illegal discrimination or racism, it mainly gave black Americans the legal tools to fight back against legal injustices.
4. It is unreasonable to believe that social structures and cultural attitudes that were constructed over a period of 345 years will disappear in 56.
5. The consequences of 345 years of legal and cultural discrimination are going to be dire, deep-seated, complex, and extraordinarily difficult to comprehensively ameliorate.
Do you believe 56 years is long enough to completely erase the effects of slavery and legal discrimination? Consider the example of the Jewish people, who spent 430 years enslaved in Egypt, and they are still treated unfairly in many parts of the world. Their former enslavement is still a primary part of who they are as a people, over 3000 years later (3000 > 56).
But still, we might say, “I didn’t own any slaves. I didn’t enforce segregation. What does this have to do with me?” French answers this in the end of his definition, “Structural racism is not something that a few people choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.”
To the extent that racism is built into our system, it was so built by people who were racist, before you and I were here. But it has been continued by people like you and me, most likely without realizing it. This is because, in many ways, racism has been defeated. Fifty years ago it may have been common for people to be openly racist. It was acceptable. Now it is not, and rightly so. But this doesn’t mean there is no racism. Instead, racism has gone “quiet.” Racists no longer declare themselves openly, for the most part. But then why does the system still treat black people differently? Because laws have been written, and policies followed that result in racist outcomes, though they do not contain racist words. This is not an accident. For instance, in our own lives, when we evaluate someone’s intentions, do we look at what they say, or at what they do? We look at their actions. We should apply the same standard to laws: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isaiah 10:1-2).
And these unfair outcomes may be difficult for a person to see, then they are not personally affected by it. Over time, unfair treatment has cumulative effects. At every turn, things are a little harder for you than for others. Your luck tends to always be bad luck, instead of good. Over a lifetime, over generations, this can have an effect no less powerful than open racism, perhaps more powerful.
For instance, today black Americans, on average, earn 62% of what white American earn. In 1967, black Americans earned 59% compared to white Americans, so we haven’t made much of an improvement in the past 50 years. Average per capita income in 2018 was $42,700 for white people, and $24,700 for black people. The household poverty rate for black families is 20.7%, compared to 8.1% for white families. Total household wealth (typically built up over a lifetime or multiple generations) cumulatively for all white American families is 102 trillion dollars. The total combined wealth of all black families is 6 trillion dollars, and this number has not increased since 1980, though it has increased significantly for white people during that same time. There is also a disparity in education levels: 35.2% of white people have college degrees, but only 25.2% of black people. And the justice system: white people make up 60.3% of the population, but only 30.4% of the prison population, whereas black people are 12.3% of the population, but 32.9% of the prisoners.
A very telling statistic involves marijuana use. Rates of marijuana use for whites and blacks are nearly identical (16.5% vs. 17.8%) but the arrest rates are not: the arrest rates of white people for marijuana crimes is 156.1 arrests per 100,000 people, but for black people the rate is 567.5 per 100,000. This means that black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for using marijuana, even though the rates of use are nearly the same. Furthermore, even though marijuana is increasingly legal in more and more places, the difference in arrest rates has been getting worse over the last ten years – back in 2010, black people were “only” 3.1 times more likely to be arrested than white people.
Systemic racism in the economy also affects people of other races, and is made worse by gender inequality. The average annual earnings of white men is $55,600, for Asian women – $53,900, White women – $44,600, Black women – $36,700, and Hispanic women – $32,100. Also see homeownership (one of the primary markers of accumulated wealth for middle class Americans): 73.7% for whites,48.9% for Hispanics, 44% for blacks, and 56% for “other” races. And mortgage denial rates: 8% for whites, 10% for Asians, 12% for Hispanics, and 18% of black people are turned away by mortgage companies.
Either the system is creating these differences, which is unfair and should be remedied, or there is something “wrong” with non-white people, that causes them to consistently achieve less than white people. We are free to believe one reason, or the other. But there is a right and wrong answer to this choice, and I think you know which is the right belief. Because as Christians, we know that all people are created in the image of God, and as Americans we believe that all people are created equal. And as Christians we are at all times called to fulfil the vision of justice voiced by the prophet Micah, that everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. And as Americans we can, and should, continue the work that the founders laid out for us – to “create a more perfect union.”
We all have biases in our hearts, there is no denying that, for “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But as Christians and as Americans we can rise above our faults. We can admit and repent of our sins, and acknowledge the ways our country has fallen short of our ideals. We can be better, and we can make America better for all Americans. We must not fail our Lord’s brothers and sisters, for he says to those on his left hand, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did not do for me.”
Despite the magnitude of the task of revitalizing the system we have all been living under for our whole lives, French does not despair, and we should not either. He writes, “I love this country, but I love it with eyes wide open. The aspirations of our founding have long been tempered by the brutal realities of our fallen nature. The same nation that stormed Normandy’s beaches to destroy a fascist empire simultaneously sustained a segregationist regime within its own borders. Our virtues do not negate our vices, and our vices do not negate our virtues.” Our heritage includes slavery, and its effects, and freedom and its rewards, and our Constitution gives us the legal basis to do everything we can to erase all the last remaining effects of slavery and segregation. Our faith tells us we must do this (Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered, Proverbs 21:13). As with so many problems, it falls to those who were not first at fault, to fix it. History shows us that those who are downtrodden often do not have the power to demand and receive justice on their own, and the racists among us will certainly refuse to remove the racist effects from the system, so it is up to us to help our brothers and sisters finally find justice and equality.
– Nick Brozek, Matthew 25 Committee