Current Events Identity

Will Christians Constructively Converse about Systemic Racism?

Jemar Tisby

DoJ on FergusonThe Department of Justice released preliminary findings that show systematic discrimination against African Americans by the Ferguson police department. These results demonstrate that institutional racism exists and has statistical significance in how justice is administered. But will this research lead to constructive conversations among Christians about persistent racial bias hidden within broader systems?

What Is Systemic Racism?
I’ve had countless conversations with both white and black Christians about race. One of the most difficult topics to address is the concept of systemic racism. Systemic racism uses the values, procedures, and policies embedded in an institution to discriminate against people based on race. Other forms of systemic injustice based on gender, economic level, educational attainment, and other factors exist, as well.

Systemic racism is subtler than personal racism because it does not depend on a single actor. Instead, many well-meaning and professedly unbiased people passively cooperate in an invisible complex of principles that work against a certain demographic group.

Systemic Racism and Outrage Over Ferguson
Citizens in Ferguson and beyond expressed outrage at the lethal shooting of unarmed black teenager, Mike Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. While the exact details of the case have proven difficult to discern, many who decried Officer Wilson’s actions pointed to the longstanding antagonism between the Ferguson police force which is over 90% white and the town’s residents which are over 60% black. Patterns of mistrust and suspicion have developed that may have contributed to the tragic encounter between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson.

But objections to the idea of systemic racism abound. The most important objection is that it has not been proven that race was a factor in Officer Wilson’s actions toward Mike Brown. This is true. The fact that systemic racism exists in general does not prove that racism was a factor in this specific case. In response, though, it is necessary to admit that historic patterns of discrimination have been shown and may lead to disproportionate applications of penalties.

The Department of Justice Report
The Department of Justice investigation finds that:

  • Blacks were disproportionately more likely to be cited for minor infractions: African Americans received 95% of tickets for “manner of walking in roadway” (jaywalking) and 94% of all “failure to comply” charges
  • African-Americans were 68% less likely to have their cases dismissed by a Ferguson municipal judge
  • Blacks accounted for 85% of the drivers stopped by police, 90% of the people issued tickets and 93% of the people arrested
  • In 88% of cases in which Ferguson police documented the use of force it was against African Americans
  • In all 14 canine bite incidents in which the suspect’s race is known, the person bitten was African American
*Analysis from CNN and USA Today

In addition, racist jokes were circulated via the department’s official e-mail system. One “joke” said, “An African American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $3,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said: ‘Crimestoppers.'”

But if past patterns hold true, these numbers will not be enough to convince some people that systemic racism is real. They will look for holes in the data and seek reasons other than racism to explain the preponderance of punishments toward African Americans. Those who disagree will accuse the others of insensitivity, an inability or unwillingness to listen, and a lack of empathy. The sides will go back and forth with neither persuading the other to think any differently. But I hope the trend will be different among Christians.

Two Essential Doctrines: Total Depravity and the Image of God
Dr. Carl Ellis, Jr. believes that total depravity and the image of God are doctrines crucial to understanding the dilemma of race in America. Every member of the human race has been corrupted by sin. “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Ps. 14.3). But total depravity does not mean we are all as bad as we could possibly be, it means every part of our humanity—mental, physical, spiritual—has been affected by sin.

The Bible’s teaching about total depravity means that Christians should not be surprised that racism is a reality. Nor should they be surprised that when groups of totally depraved men and women gather to form institutions that the very systems themselves may bend toward injustice.

But the doctrine of the image of God runs counter to total depravity and systemic racism. In the time of creation God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27; see here for more on the image of God and the African American experience). Every human being has intrinsic dignity and worth because every person bears the image of the divine Creator. Persons, although finite and imperfect, image God by exercising dominion, free will, rational thought, and more. Even physical features display the glory of God in a fashion. Skin color does not deface the image of God, it reflects it.

Will Christian Conversations Be Any Different?
The world may form ranks on various sides of the racial divide and sling ideological stones at one another, but it should not be so among Christians. As disciples of Jesus we should understand the possibility of systemic racism because we acknowledge the existence of sin. Sin works itself out in all kinds of ways, even in the unintended effects of policies built into systems. But the image of God in all people encourages Christians to struggle for justice. Believers should have a hunger and thirst for righteousness that comes from the Holy Spirit and works itself out in advocacy for the “Other.”

The Christian framework for understanding sin in all its forms and the dignity of all humankind should allow for constructive dialogue about racial issues. Believers of all races should be able to speak the truth in love and so promote the purity and peace of the Church. If we find little difference between the antagonism around race that characterizes the broader culture and what should be honest but gracious engagement among Christians, then we have cause to wonder how much of the gospel we grasp.

6 thoughts on “Will Christians Constructively Converse about Systemic Racism?

  1. David

    Thanks Jemar! I guess I don’t get it. Redlining is illegal and that article shows the system working to address and correct racism. Where is systemic racism still unaddressed and working to oppress? I don’t for a second believe that ‘everything is ok’, there is a massive wealth gap because of centuries of systemic racism. But I’m trying to understand what systems are still in place so they can be addressed, while we work to address the damage of the past. Honestly trying to learn, thanks for your insight.

  2. Jemar

    Here’s another more recent example:

  3. David

    Jemar-I’m trying to learn and engage and the podcast and articles are very helpful, thank you. Can you explain further how the term systemic racism is helpful in your specific example of Ferguson? Certainly there was systemic racism within the way they policed that community, but am I wrong to understand that type of racial profiling to be illegal?

    If so, It seems like having a DOJ report pointing out the problems and calling for corrections would show the system is actually just, but full of broken people who fail to live up to it. Certainly people are failed and mistreated all the time, but there is (supposedly) a system in place to correct it…not sure it that makes sense. People make systems. People fail to follow systems. Seems like people are the core problem…

    Perhaps more specific examples of laws, of structures/policies etc in place that are unjust, instead of peoples failures to adhere to the law would help.

  4. MH

    well said, Darnell.

    It would be more helpful to have a working definition of
    “systemic” in “systemic racism.” That’s certainly true in so far as sin is systemic to the human race so that therefore any sort of sin can be considered systemic…but that just becomes a truism and I don’t believe is what the author is getting at [?]. But then again if that’s not what he means, it’s difficult to understand in what meaningful sense institutions are analyzed under that rubric?

    I would echo ACSs comments on the statistics and would add that the author would do well to consider the fundamental distinction between correlation and causation. As one who works regularly with statistics there has to be much more care taken than what is done with them above, especially to level the charge on the Ferguson PD that the author wants to level [there may be good reasons for believing that, but whatever those good reasons are, the statistics as presented probably aren’t a good reason]. The author does cite more than the statistics and would have done well to stick with that track more heavily.

    But on his own presuppositions, why does the author not apply the same scrutiny to the DOJ and the report it issued. I mean, perhaps the authors of the DOJ report are passively partaking in an invisible complex of principles that work against a certain demographic group [i.e. the sort of demographic group that the Ferguson PD falls into].

    And as a flat out complaint I am frustrated with the tragedy surrounding the death of Mr. Brown being deployed as an appeal for dialogue about racial tensions of one variety or another as in this article. That we do not know the exact details of the case is not a little misleading in the context of the article. Apparently a grand jury had substantial enough details to not indict Mr. Wilson- the exact details do not need to be known to arrive at this conclusion with reasonable certainty.

  5. ACS

    I think we can agree that Christians can and should enter the discussion over racism from a biblical worldview. Original sin stains our nature and our only true cure is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, I’m afraid that Mr. Tisby’s article is a bit one-sided and incomplete. One, true to Mr. Tisby’s article, disparate and often discriminatory treatment of others is very real and pernicious, even if we don’t recognize that we’re doing it. We must face that point squarely and honestly.

    Two, however, the statics that he cites do not prove racism. For example, “Blacks accounted for 85% of the drivers stopped by police.” What is the racial breakdown of the sample pool? What percentage of drivers commits stoppable offenses, broken down by race? The truth is that we are very adept at cherry picking data that support our positions while easily ignoring the ones that do not – from any position. For example, does the fact that Whites and Asians underrepresented in the NBA demonstrate systemic racism? If simple percentages are all that’s needed, then we would have to say yes, if we want to be consistent. But, we know it’s not that simple. On another note, this is important for our field of apologetics. We can’t just quote some evidences for Christianity. We must tackle the root of our presuppositions because those are how we interpret (or ignore) facts.

    Three, from Genesis, Adam responded to God, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Our sin nature rebels against guilt and accountability. It’s always someone else’s fault. Our impulse is to shift the blame. That impulse makes it hard for whites to examine their own biases and behavior. But, it goes the other way, too. How much easier is it to blame racism than to not recognize our sins of illegitimacy and fatherlessness, family breakdown, gang affiliation, drug use, government dependency, etc? How much easier is it to wallow in our sin and blame racism, or society, or the government, or the media rather than confront it? Repentance belongs to all of us.

  6. Darnell Wesh

    Systemic racism may exist, but in the 21st century, with all the progress that had been made, it’s quite dishonest to suggest that it exists on any significant scale. Just because systemic racism exists doesn’t mean that it is inherit everywhere or that those who are guilty of it are even conscious of it. I’m of the opinion that it is so few and far between that assessments often misses the mark when this kind of thing is discussed. In this case, the Ferguson situation, since this seems to be the springboard for your comments; we found out yesterday that the DOJ has dropped its case due to that fact that race could not be shown as a factor in what occurred that day in the unfortunate death of Mr.Garner. those who suggest that systemic racism is more of problem than it actually is ignore many of the core socioeconomic factors that make these statistics so lopsided when compared with the white race. Factors such as the poverty rate in the African American community (which result in them not being able to afford good lawyers etc), the high crime in African American communities warrant a heavier police presence (which we should be thankful for) resulting in higher arrest rates, etc. I could state at least a dozen more reasons. Black people,generally, are not willing to acknowledge the fact that their behavior, as a whole, is the main reason these ”injustices” happen. And I do believe they happen, just not in this case, or to the degree most black people think they do.

    To burden our white Christian brothers, some of whom may ignorantly agree with you (and I’m not calling you or anyone else ignorant. I just mean they aren’t aware of the truth on this matter IMO.) , is unfair. And keeping total depravity in mind it helps very little to have these ongoing pleadings for a “dialog” every time a black man is killed by a non-white. I long for a day when African-Americans will spend half as much energy in a dialog within their own communities about black on black crime. And do this to the proportion they want to have with whites over white on black crime. As long as we present, what you have written, biblical views of justice,race,etc. and call men to it (as we do the rest of scripture),there is no need for an unnecessary (and often hypocritical) dialog.

Leave A Comment