Over the last few years, some unjust blue-on-black killings have led to a growing consensus that racism is systemic, pervading every institution and social structure of shared life in America. It is a conclusion unmoored from fact.
I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, during the Rosa Parks era, when signs reading “Colored” and “White” hung over public restrooms and water fountains everywhere, when a black family wouldn’t dare leave town without checking where they could get gas, eat, or find an overnight room, and when racism was truly baked into the fabric of our country through Jim Crow laws, forced segregation, and “separate but equal” policies.
Fifty years hence, laws and regulations have been reformed so that today, in nearly every corner of American life, there are legal penalties both for promoting racial injustice and for not promoting racial equality in institutions. People do not commit racist acts today for the lack of adequate laws and institutional policies and programs, but in spite of them.
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Consider that most of the high-profile killings where the cop is white and the victim black have occurred in Democrat-controlled districts. For example, Minneapolis—a city with a Democratic mayor and a black police chief and attorney general—undoubtedly has state-of-the-art training, policies, and procedures, which should have prevented the horrendous killing of George Floyd, and yet didn’t. Why? Because Derek Chauvin and the other arresting officers ignored them.
One institution, however, that could be ripe for reform is the police union. When a cop goes bad, the union makes it nigh impossible to get rid of him. (Shockingly, the union chief in Minneapolis rushed to Chauvin’s defense amid mounds of damning evidence.) Yet the mere suggestion of union reform is enough to bring on vapors to those whose political interests hinge on being tight with the union.
My mentor, Chuck Colson, once noted that, during the Sixties and Seventies, liberals and conservatives viewed crime and its causes differently. Liberals, thinking crime was caused by poverty, launched the antipoverty programs of the Sixties. The result was that the crime rate went up. Conservatives, believing that crime would be reduced by surer and harsher punishments, instituted the tough prison sentences of the Seventies, only to watch the crime rate go up further.
Today, people looking at what happened in Minneapolis through the lens of “systemic, structural racism” have come to believe that all cops are racist, and that any instance of racial injustice, no matter how isolated and infrequent, is evidence of racism everywhere (except, of course, in them). No wonder they are demanding the defunding or dismantling of the police department—a “solution” guaranteed to exacerbate the problem, like the “War on Crime.”
The failures of that “war” led Chuck to an epiphany: Criminals are not created by poverty or soft punishments, but by bad choices. To make better choices, a person needs to have the right conception of the world and of human flourishing. That revelation became the seed of a ministry he launched aimed at transforming minds through worldview training. One aspect was a prison initiative which realized over a twofold reduction in recidivism of inmates completing the program.
If we look at the problems through the lens of Critical Theory, where everything is bifurcated into the binary of “privilege and oppression,” then every disparity is the result of racism. Black economist Thomas Sowell also sees racism, but he recognizes another factor in play: culture. For example, before the Civil Rights era, a two-parent household was the norm for black families; out-of-wedlock births and crime rates were on par with whites. Forty years after the Great Society, fatherless homes and illegitimate births are the norm and blacks, who comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, account for fifty percent of its murders.
If there is any institutional factor here, it could well be the very programs (indeed, reparations!) intended by the architects of the Great Society to make up for generations of injustice, but which did little other than keeping those marginalized communities in a perpetual orbit of idleness, dependency, and victimization. This, however, is a non-starter for those whose political career depends on keeping those communities in their back pocket.
Claims of “systemic racism” has sparked a flame of social unrest that is being fueled by radical elements and supported by an army of virtual signalers tripping over themselves to demonstrate their moral purity by denouncing their white privilege, confessing our “corporate sin” (not, mind you, any real personal sin), and socially shaming anyone found out of lockstep.
There is a certain catharsis in atoning for our collective guilt while ignoring our individual guilt. Racism is not a sin for which we all bear guilt but is a subset of one for which we do. The Left calls it “othering,” i.e., treating the “other”—the one who is unlike us—with bias, discrimination, or contempt. They have a point.
Here’s a “gut check”: Which “other” do we look down upon and treat with less respect than is deserved by someone who bears the divine image? Is it people who differ from you based on their skin color, body type, education, economic class, religion, politics, or party affiliation? Before you say, “None,” I’ve seen numerous instances of animus toward the “other” in Catholic and conservative circles as well as progressive ones. I’m sure you have, too. So let’s ask ourselves again.
Let me conclude by saying that much of what is called “racism” today is not institutional, but cardiological—not the result of our nation’s “original sin” in the colonies, but of Adam’s sin in the Garden.
Consequently, the cure for racism will never be found in more government regulations, institutional controls, and stiffer punishments. Only the transforming power of the Gospel, professed and practiced, has the power to enable us to love—really love, love as He loved—the “other.”
For the Church, there is a past failure here (the Great Omission) and a present and ongoing opportunity, with the realization that this problem will not be solved in the next election cycle or in the next few election cycles, but will likely take decades. That’s because the solution lies in what is the Church’s first priority even if long neglected: the lifelong process of discipleship.
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