Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Racism as personal sin vs. racism as systemic problem

Here is an article from a black Christian with a very astute analysis of racism as a sin that lives in people's hearts, and should be purged as a sin on a personal level.  The only problem I have with this is that it frames racism just at a personal level, which A) leads to dead-end discussions of whether a single given person happens to be or not be racist, B) maintains white racists at the center of attention, thus keeping the people of color as mere peripheral suffering objects instead of complex, complete human beings and subjects, and most importantly, C) distracts people from doing anything on a meaningful collective level to fight the effects of systemic racism.  If you read the virulent comments that this woman's rather innocuous article inspired, I think you'll see my point in action.  Most of the commenters are so stuck on whether they are or aren't personally racists that they are ignoring, or even coming down on the wrong side of, the question of how to improve our society by fighting the objectively verifiable problems created by our rampant inequality and systemically racist institutions.  These commenters are more set on placing blame for crime or poverty, as opposed to seeking common solutions to it.  In the process they of course confirm that they are indeed racists, but more importantly, they demonstrate the flaw of focusing too much on the question of who is or isn't a racist.

I want to focus on this last point.  At this moment in my life, I have kind of given up on inspiring a massive change of heart in any one person, much less an entire nation of largely racist white folk.  And even if we did change someone's heart so that they sincerely didn't harbor any ill will towards blacks, that wouldn't solve all the effects of centuries of oppression and racism.  People of color would still be disproportionately poor, disproportionately stuck in subpar schools, and possibly still disproportionately targeted by the justice system.  Inertia would maintain and amplify inequality even in the absence of malice per se.  In other words, even without active evil or ill will, those who are stuck at the bottom of our society will not easily leave that position.  Conversely, only with active measures to correct and counteract inequality and injustice can the lot of the most unfortunate be improved.

So rather than a massive appeal to people's hearts and sense of Christian decency, I would propose instead to work together as a nation to address the institutions that keep not just people of color down, but that in fact drag us all down as a nation.  If we created a more just society, if we reversed economic inequality and disparities in the quality of education, if we took active measures to integrate the spaces where we live, work, and take leisure, then life would be objectively better for everyone, especially for people of color.  And it wouldn't matter so much if individuals still harbored hatred or disdain in their hearts, because our institutions would be set up to prevent such people from taking advantage of or oppressing others.

Obviously it's not an either-or situation.  I recognize the importance of changing people's mindsets; indeed, no institutional or collective change would be lasting if people's ill will led them to undermine equality and reestablish oppressive institutions.  I think the author of this article recognizes this, as she does refer (albeit only once) to systemic racism.  And a black Baptist pastor quoted in this Atlantic article both recognizes the validity of the "personal sin" view of racism, even as he knows that blacks who suffer from racism are much more likely than their white counterparts to see the clear need for a systemic, not just a personal, answer to racism.

“Most of my white brothers and sisters place a great emphasis on individualism and meritocracy,” said Thabiti Anyabwile, a black pastor who heads a church in southeast D.C. “Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we've had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in ‘we.’ And white Americans go pretty quickly to individual and speak of ‘I.’"

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