The deaths of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor in Louisville in 2020 has reignited the Black Lives Matter movement (to be differentiated from the Black Lives Matter Foundation in Washington, D.C.) that launched after the Trayvon Martin case in Florida.
I do not intend in this post to explore the specifics of Brooks’s, Floyd’s, or Taylor’s deaths. Nor do I intend to convey support or condemnation for any of the following ideas. My focus is instead on 1) the conversation had about race 1 and racism following these protests and debates and 2) the status of racism today.
To start, let us settle on common definitions for the terms involved in this discussion. However you personally define the terms, for the sake of efficient discussion we’ll use the following:
- Race: socially-constructed categories into which people are placed based on physical characteristics such as skin and hair types and facial structure (adapted from ADL) 2
- Stereotypes: fixed, over-generalized beliefs about a particular people (adapted from this essay)
- Prejudice: attitude based on the stereotype for a particular people (feeling over fact)
- Capitulates to discrimination when acted on
- Qualified with the adjective “benevolent” if the prejudice is based on “positive” stereotypes
- May be called racism when the attitude and action are race-based (adapted from this Oxford article)
- In general: the belief that differences among human racial groups determine cultural and individual achievement and failure (adapted from Dictionary.com and Wikipedia)
- In most modern discussions about race: oppression of a less empowered group by a more empowered on the basis of racial prejudices, commonly summarized Prejudice + Power 3
The second definition of racism is based on Critical Race Theory, which demands a division of peoples into oppressor and oppressed. This introduces a power dynamic into racism. The argument in the West goes, then, that white people do not endure racism. This article at Areo Magazine identifies flaws in CRT, but debates about racism in the United States most commonly refer to its definition.
To further understand the differences, consider these examples:
- Stereotypes: “Asians are smart”, “White people can’t dance”, “Guys are slobs”, “Jews are greedy”, “Blondes are dumb”, “French people are good cooks”
- Prejudice => Discrimination: In the 1950s and 1960s, the stereotype that women were less competent than men in the workforce manifested in the exclusion of women from executive-level jobs. When the interracial marriage debate raged, a belief in significant racial differences compelled opposition to legalization.
- Racism: The boss of a company believes that white workers are more trustworthy than black workers (based on prejudices about white and black people), and so never gives financial responsibility to black workers. (Example from Celeste Headlee)
The common crossover between these categories can complicate the discussion. For simplicity, we can view stereotype as a matter of axioms, prejudices as a matter of attitude, and racism as a matter of race-based prejudice generally and race-based oppression CRT-wise.
Now that definitions are in order, we can dive into the state of racism in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The focus of the last few years is systemic racism, which the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre defines as “the policies and practice entrenched in established institutions” that exclude or promote certain groups. This splits into two manifestations: institutional, in which individuals execute the instructions of a prejudiced other or a prejudiced society; and structural, in which inequalities are “rooted in the system-wide operation.”
According to Race Forward in their eight-part video series, racism permeates across society in the wealth gap, employment, housing discrimination, government surveillance, incarceration, drug arrests, immigration arrests, and infant mortality.
One common criticism of the systemic racism as a concept is that it absolves all people, regardless of race, of responsibility. This is the argument that Dr. Harvey Mansfield of Harvard University made in the Wall Street Journal. He writes that systemic racism “ignores the agency of black citizens” and “den[ies] the value of prudence in politics.”
As a born-again Christian, I believe that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Individually, no matter how many “good” things we do, sin exists in our lives, and the Christian walk is a commitment to overcome, by the grace of God and the power of Christ, that sin nature.
Systemic racism hits on another aspect of sin – the corporate. In an individualistic culture like the United States’, the idea of corporate responsibility for some action is foreign, but in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, we find many instances when sin is linked to the action of people past or present.
In 1 Samuel 21:1, a famine stuck King David’s land for three years, and when David asked the Lord for explanation, He responded, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house.” In Deuteronomy, God declares that He visits the sins of the fathers up to the third and fourth generations (Deut. 5:9). Timothy Keller at Life in the Gospel touches further on the corporate nature of some sin.
Acknowledgement of a racism that is corporate does not eliminate existence of a racism that is individual. Thabiti Anyabwile of the Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., describes the permutations of racism with the analogy of a potted plant. Outward racist action he likens to surface mulch; the actions of an officer in a corrupt force, to potted soil; and discriminatory police policy, institutional practices, and education, to the surrounding soil. The root he identifies as the fallen soul, the human sin nature.
In these 21st century discussions of race in the United States, systemic racism is the potted soil and the surrounding soil.
How systemic, really, is racism in the United States? Is systemic racism not more than a buzzword, a concept to ruffle feathers, and nothing more?
I won’t trudge through the 350 years from the first settlements in the New World to the Civil Rights Era outlining American racism. Jemar Tisby presents a fair overview of this issue from the perspective of the Christian church in his book The Color of Complicity: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. For the SparkNotes version, Eric Miller of Religion & Politics interviewed Tisby in April 2019 and Daniel K. Williams wrote a review for the book through the Gospel Coalition.
To be considered is the manifestation of racism in 21st century America. What are people talking about when they speak out against American racism today? What is encompassed by the term “systemic racism”? 4
The outward evidence isn’t as prominent as it was 50+ years ago; people are, for the most part, not organizing rallies, marching down streets and picketing over racial superiority (the 2016 Sacramento riot and the 2017 Unite the Right rally are two notable occasions in the last five years).
One main area of political discussion, and the one sector I’ll discuss here for the sake of essay brevity, is employment. The unemployment rates for all racial groups has been in decline since 2010, starting with a high of 16.5% for black unemployment. At the end of 2017, black unemployment reached an all-time low, since tracking began in 1971, of 6.7%. For comparison, white unemployment was at 3.7%, Hispanic unemployment was at 5.0%, and Asian unemployment was at 2.4%.
These numbers from the Federal Reserve Economic Data indicate progress. However, a 2017 meta-analysis of field experiments from 1989 to 2015 suggests that discrimination in hiring for black applicants has not changed over the past 30 years. A well-known 2003 study, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha or Jamal?”, assessed the effect of using “white” and “black” names on identical resumes. Additionally, the researchers measured how resume quality affected call-backs. The call-back rate for “white” resumes was 10.08%; for “black” resumes, 6.70%, representing a 50% difference. To the second point of investigation, high-quality “white” resumes were called back 11% of the time compared to 8.8% for low-quality ones; the rates for “black” resumes were 6.99% for high-quality and 6.41% for low-quality. The impact of improved quality was statistically significant for the “white” resumes, but not the “black” resumes.
The solution to discrimination against non-whites in the employment process is not to punt all white resumes to the side; this would represent another form of racial discrimination, now against the white applicants. The DC Policy Center notes in their overview of the issue that “[r]acial discrimination is more than about landing interviews and the job offers—it’s also that not enough minorities are being considered to begin with.” Hiring managers will remark that there just aren’t qualified candidates of color, but the issue may be not paucity of options, but non-visibility.
The PRRI 2013 American Values Survey revealed the homogeneity of social networks that are one of the main tools to obtain employment (the old “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” maxim). For white Americans, 91% of their social networks is white; for black Americans, 83% is black; and for Hispanic Americans, 64% is Hispanic. According to the Center for Talent Innovation analysis Being Black in Corporate America, only 3.2% of executive and senior-level management is black, and the numbers are likely not too different for the Hispanic population. True pursuit of equitable hiring and workplace diversity may require engagement beyond one’s social network to attract more applications from POC and so have a larger, more racially diverse pool from which to hire.
The videos from Race Forward, linked above, and a series of reports from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provide a more comprehensive look at discrimination in different sectors of American life. The latter covers black, Asian, Native, and white Americans as well as Latinos, members of the LGBTQ community, and women.
It amazes me to think how recent the fight for civil rights for POC in the U.S. was – about 60 years. In the span of the United States’ short history, 60 years is a good chunk of time, but in the span of a human life it is short enough for people to be alive today, who remember a time of segregation and who may still hold the prejudices that fueled resistance to interracial marriage. (Perhaps you saw the video that went viral in 2019 with the Christian baker who wouldn’t make a wedding cake for an interracial couple.)
Racism transcends time and cultures; it persists in China, Rwanda, Iran, Brazil, Britain – the list could go on. That public situations have improved since the 1960s (de-segregation, voting, etc.) is undeniable, but to claim that racism in the United States, or anywhere, has been eliminated ignores how deep the roots are.
1. Conversations about race aren’t comfortable in the United States, but they are conversations that must be had. To quote anthropologist Anthony Peterson, “We tell children that race is real but that race doesn’t matter, when the opposite is actually true.”
2. Race based on physical characteristics, namely skin color, is untenable. According to the Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, “3 billion base pairs of genetic letters in humans were 99.9% identical in every person”, and in 2018 the American Society of Human Genetics affirmed that genetics resisted categorization of humans into “biologically distinct categories.” Nevertheless, this idea has played an insidious role through American history that a simple “there is only one human race” doesn’t erase.
3. “Racial oppression” seems a more accurate term to me, but nobody will gain much ground if we argue semantics.
4. In case this needs clarification: That systemic racism may exist doesn’t mean that no other explanation for racial disparities exists. Andrew Koppelman at USA Today has a good, short piece that touches on how “[u]nconscious racism exists and it is good to become aware of it, but it doesn’t explain every racial disadvantage.” The issue is multi-faceted.
Taking a complex and challenging topic like race relations and discrimination and race-influenced social experience and concluding that the blame is wholly on racism – racism of white people against black people in particular – is unjust. A case can be and has been made, for instance, for the contribution of family breakdown (out-of-wedlock birth, absent fathers) to current conditions.