The conversation seems to evolve each day. Sometimes I look at my news feed and feel like we’re moving in the right direction. At other times it feels everyone’s lost in bitter conflict and we’ve taken huge steps back. But hopefully as we all continue to invest in this conversation, we’re going to come out on the other side in a better, more God-honoring place. So let’s not grow weary, but continue to roll up our sleeves and do the work that is so desperately needed.
In my post last week, I tried to offer two broad encouragements. The first was a call to white Christians to simply empathize with the black community. Not necessarily revolutionary thoughts, but my attempt to frame what I think our basic posture should be as Christians. If there’s a direction we should be facing right now, it’s in the direction of compassion for the black community. The second, though, was about pursuing such empathy with great humility. Again, not rocket science, but it is true that whenever there is a sweeping moral movement, it is very easy to fall into attitudes that reek of arrogance and neglect the gospel. We simply align with the prevailing tide, situate ourselves on the moral high ground, and fail to acknowledge the complexity of the issue.
This week, I would like to follow up by expanding on each of those two points in two different posts. This post will mainly deal with the first point. I will follow that tomorrow with a post related to the second. So, if you’re unsatisfied with what I share here, at the very least read the follow-up post later this week. And, perhaps more importantly, if you are satisfied with this post, read the follow-up. I will share what I believe to be some critical sideboards to the general stance I want to encourage today.
That said, I’d like to start by addressing the idea of systemic racism. Now, if anything can be said for the year of 2020, it’s that at least our vocabularies are expanding. All kinds of new words and phrases are becoming commonplace in our conversation. A month ago it was “flattening the curve”, “vulnerable populations”, and “social distancing.” Now, it’s “white guilt”, “the talk”, and especially “systemic racism.” I even used the term a couple times in my previous post.
But in recent days, there have been a number of voices that have questioned the reality of systemic racism. Several popular commentators have made the case that the existence of systematic mistreatment of black people, especially by law enforcement officers, simply lacks evidence. And they have data to back up their claims. I have seen an increasing number of references to the work of journalist Heather MacDonald, who cites statistics on police killings that indicate there is no racial bias in the use of police force when confronting violent situations. And to be honest, I think many of the points being made are valid.
What’s more, it could be argued that the structures that oppressed black people for centuries have been changed. Yes, slavery was horrific, but it’s been abolished for over 150 years. Yes, segregation was a bad idea, but that was corrected 50 years ago. In fact, great efforts have been made to remedy those mistakes and many of our current policies are focused attempts to provide advancement opportunities to minorities. So, all this is overblown. Systemic racism is in the imagination, isn’t it?
Well, let me take a shot at explaining how I see it. Regardless of how much you believe systemic racism exists currently, I think we can all agree that it has existed in the past. The American slave trade began in 1619 and persisted through the Civil War. Even after the war, unjust structures remained in place. Desegregation and voting rights were not achieved for another 100 years, meaning there were nearly 350 years of institutional racism in America.
And yet, the Civil Rights Movement accomplished so much. During the 1960s and subsequent decades, we would see a dismantling of discriminatory policies and the implementation of programs specifically designed to open doors for the black community. As a result, it can now be argued that the current system offers equal opportunities to all. A poor black youth from the inner city can pursue the American Dream without any institutional hindrance, and we can point to many examples of people who have risen out of the broken situation they were born into. Isn’t blaming the “system” a cop out? Shouldn’t individuals be held to a greater accountability?
I’m just not convinced it’s that simple. I believe that if a large group of people was subjugated for hundreds of years, there will be ongoing consequences from that subjugation that are not immediately eliminated when institutional barriers are removed. If we assume otherwise, I think we neglect to see what oppression does to the inner person, and how those effects are passed down from generation to generation. To change a trajectory, institutional barriers will not only need to be removed, but also significant outside energy must be invested into that group of people in order to achieve equity.
Too often, I think that white people look at segments of the black community, see crime, poverty and brokenness, and respond with something along the lines of, “Work harder. Do better. There are opportunities available to you. You don’t have to stay there. If you do, it’s your own choosing.”
Now, I want to hold the virtue of diligence highly. We’re not merely victims and we do have some capacity to make choices to improve our situation. Proverbs clearly and repeatedly speaks of the correlation between hard work and personal advancement (Proverbs 10:4, 12:24, 14:23). But I have some problems with this general attitude that I hear coming out of much of white America, and especially from white Christians, that in my opinion over-emphasizes our capacity to better ourselves.
Most importantly, it doesn’t reflect the gospel. One of the most fundamental components of the gospel we preach is that we are all unable to achieve the level of moral virtue required of us. That is, I was in a pit that I could never climb out of through my own effort. Jesus had to climb down into the pit, throw my helpless body on his shoulders, and then climb out and cover the hole so I couldn’t fall back in. When we lead with “work harder”, I’m afraid that we’re missing the heart of the gospel, while at the same time not recognizing our own ineptitude.
Besides, I think it’s naïve to assume that people can naturally and immediately conjure up a great amount of moral fiber if they haven’t been provided with a social structure that supports such moral fiber. African Americans were systematically oppressed for 350 years. That cannot be blamed on those of us living today, but it was still the reality. After being encultured in that kind of environment for centuries, it will be difficult for anyone to step out of it without outside help, even after the official hindrances have been removed. And although much of that enculturation began decades or even centuries ago, it will typically be passed down through the generations. It’s not typical for children to be able to step out of the pattern given to them by their parents. It usually takes a pretty radical outside investment to change that pattern.
Therefore, if I see crime and poverty in the black community, I should be slow to simply blame their choices, and quick to acknowledge the “systemic” realities of their situation. And I shouldn’t stand above them with my arms folded, waiting for them to claw their way out of their situation, but instead should be willing to take a step in their direction with an extended hand. That doesn’t mean I take on the attitude of the Great White Savior, as if I’m the real hope for Black America. But it does mean a willingness to apply focused energy to the black community without presuming that that focused energy disfavors white people.
Does systemic racism exist in America? Well, we can argue about that and a lot depends on semantics: what does systemic mean and what is racism? But here’s where I want to start. I believe that systemic indifference is everywhere. And that, I believe, is what causes the black community so much pain.
My kids occasionally hurt each other with their words, as siblings are prone to do. There’s natural rivalry and they occasionally make sport out of insulting each other. But there’s one simple phrase that stands out above all the others as most painful: Who cares? When one child expresses something from the heart, whether excitement or pain, and is met with Who cares? by any one of his siblings, it’s completely deflating.
I believe that white America repeatedly shouts WHO CARES? at black America and doesn’t even realize it. That’s what I want to see changed. I want white America, and specifically white Christians, to lead with “I care,” and to do it genuinely and in a way that lands on our brothers and sisters as true compassion, true desire to understand. And I think that means withholding caveats in many of our conversations. I think that means not immediately defaulting to “All Lives Matter” in our retorts. I think that means expressing a sincere sensitivity in our collective countenance and speech.
In my last post I linked to Garnette Cadogan’s account of his experiences as a black man in urban America. Here’s another enlightening account from Christian hip-hop artist Shai Linne. Also, I would highly recommend listening to the conversation that Travis Swan had with Stephen and Brianna Molden on Tuesday. Can we listen to these stories with genuine efforts to place ourselves in their shoes? And can we respond with tenderness?
Now, there are a lot of voices encouraging similar things, and I understand the concerns we might appropriately have about getting swept up in this wave. Is the Black Lives Matter organization really something we should align ourselves with? Are we contributing to this out-of-control cancel culture that dominates our world? Are we disparaging good men and women serving in law enforcement? Those are important questions to consider and the kinds of questions I want to tackle in my next post. There are real dangers of imbalance and extreme when there’s such a strong push in one direction. Well-defined sideboards are important. Yet before discussing those, I think we just need to get walking in the right direction, and that is towards genuine empathy and compassion. Romans 12:15 is so easy to overlook, but it contains such a powerful concept:
Weep with those who weep.
So let’s talk about all the nuances of this incredibly complex issue, but let’s make sure the disposition we lead with is one that weeps with the weeping.
-Aaron, on behalf of the Summitview Pastors