Is systemic racism a reality – both historically and currently – in the U.S.? Does racism undergird certain structures and systems, practices and perspectives within the nation?
If it is, and if it does, how can people of faith talk about, and constructively engage in, working for racial justice?
How do we acknowledge and repent of such attitudes and ideologies, help to reveal and dismantle structural injustice and work to shape the social order in a way that ensures equity for all?
Presumptions and conclusions about such questions are at the heart of recent protest movements and outcries against police brutality and police-involved shootings of people of color.
They also inform statements from pundits, politicians and social media commentators not only regarding how we reckon with the nation’s history and our present-day realities, but also what that history is and how it should be taught in schools.
Recent statements by political leaders have brought the divergent views on such matters into stark contrast.
Following the conviction of Derek Chauvin, President Joseph Biden asserted that real change and reform require “acknowledging and confronting, head on, systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and in our criminal justice system more broadly.
“The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for more than 240 years – a tug of war between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh reality that racism has long torn us apart,” he said. “At our best, the American ideal wins out. So, we can’t leave this moment or look away, thinking our work is done.”
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), on an episode of Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace that aired April 25, was asked about President Biden’s remarks on systemic racism in the U.S.
“No, not in my opinion,” Graham said in response to Wallace’s question, “Is there systemic racism in this country, in policing and in other institutions?”
“We just elected a two-term African American president; the vice president is of African American-Indian descent. So, our systems are not racist. America is not a racist country,” he said. “Within every society you have bad actors.”
In the latter half of his April 28 address to the joint houses of Congress, Biden urged the nation to come together “to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system. And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.
“We have a giant opportunity to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. Real justice,” he said a few sentences later. “And with the plans I outlined tonight, we have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues American life in many other ways.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) issued the official GOP response to the president’s speech.
“One hundred years ago, kids in classrooms were taught the color of their skin was their most important characteristic, and if they looked a certain way, they were inferior,” he said. “Today, kids are being taught that the color of their skin defines them again. And if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.
“From colleges to corporations to our culture, people are making money and gaining power by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all. By doubling down on the divisions we’ve worked so hard to heal,” Scott said.
“You know this stuff is wrong,” he said. “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination, and it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
Given the widespread discussion and debate about systemic racism in the U.S., I reached out to several faith leaders for their reaction and response not only to these recent statements but also to the overall conversation about racism and justice.
Here is what they shared:
“The question is not really about the existence of systemic racism. No intellectually honest person can dispute that it’s real, or that society is mired in its effects,” said Reggie L. Williams, an ordained minister who is professor of Christian ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. “The real question is, what are you doing about it?
“Denial is one, very common response to the reality of systemic racism. We all know its effects, whether we receive them as positive or harmful to our lived experiences. Truth is, for most of us, racism provides our default way of understanding human difference. We can’t see people in any other way,” he said.
“To describe the common interpretation of humanity as racism is like trying to describe water to a fish,” he said. “But whether we see it or not, denying its presence doesn’t make it go away, and blaming someone for acknowledging its presence doesn’t make them responsible for it.
“But, even worse than ignorance is denial, and denial has its privileges. It offers stolen goods to loyal patrons, (even stolen lives) as rewards for loyalty,” Williams said. “But, people of faith are told, ‘No one can serve two masters.’ (Matthew 6:24) To be loyal to God is to acknowledge the harms done to people in the name of privilege. It is to do the work of dismantling the hierarchy of human worth set in place by systemic racism. You can’t do that work if you refuse to see the problem.”
“Suggesting that racism is not real based on the fallacy of race or that America is somehow post-racial and, thereby, past all things stereotypical and prejudicial is false on its face. Four hundred years of racialized oppression is not undone in an election cycle or after a four- or even eight-year term,” said Starlette Thomas, a Good Faith Media contributing correspondent, the host of the GFM podcast “The Raceless Gospel” and a member of GFM’s strategic advisory board.
“We don’t vote racism out. Instead, we talk it out – not just in ways that are easy for people to hear or that are most comfortable for sensitive ears. That’s just not how crying out in pain and for justice sounds,” she said. “And pretending that the pain is not real or that the wound is no longer there while the blood of unarmed African Americans killed by police screams from the streets requires a structural and systemic denial that can only be described as a privilege.”
Miguel De La Torre, professor of social ethics and Latinx studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, lamented the lack of awareness many people in the U.S. have regarding environmental racism.
“Even environmentalist liberals are seldom cognizant of their complicity with institutionalized racism,” he said. “Often, a disconnect exists; not realizing the intersection of where the greatest levels of ecological degradation exist and the non-Eurocentric phenotypes of people who are most exposed.
“The new colonialism reverses the transactional norm of the past,” De La Torre said. “Before, natural resources and labor were stolen from the global South, flowing to enrich the global north. Now, the world’s disenfranchised have become the dumping grounds for industrial nations’ waste.”
Mitch Randall, CEO of Good Faith Media, lamented those who remain unwilling to acknowledge systemic racism in the U.S., both historically and presently.
“American children have been taught how Pilgrims came to America seeking freedom from religious oppression. We were told the Founders advocated for religious liberty by including the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
“However, if the Pilgrims and Founders truly believed in religious freedom, then they would have actually respected and honored the religions and culture of Indigenous peoples. In addition, they would have offered that freedom to slaves and women as well. They did not in all cases. Instead, they did everything they could to destroy cultures and traditions, replacing them with a forced acceptance of Christianity and Anglocentric governance,” said Randall, who is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation.
“Systematic racism accepts the reality that the United States of America was created on stolen lands, built by slave labor and benefited white male citizens more than any other people,” he said. “The election of a president and vice president of color does not wipe away the centuries of oppression people of color endured. Resistance to systemic racism wants to forgo any repentance of past sins and their unjust consequences while rushing toward reconciliation.”
“Reconciliation and justice, absent of repentance, only make a white majority feel better about themselves,” Randall said. “Systemic racism simply acknowledges the reality that the systems of religion, government and economics were created, and continued to be sustained, for the benefit of the white majority.”
“Systemic racism? Really?” asked Leo Thorne, who served as associate general secretary for mission resource development for the American Baptist Churches USA before his retirement in 2016.
“At the peril of stating the obvious: For 240 years, the U.S. has embedded in its colorful history a genuine legacy of systematic crimes against people of color, especially Black Americans,” he said. “The prophetic and unconditional action required today by all Christ followers is a martyr-like commitment to Jesus’ words in John 13:35: ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.’”
“Systemic racism occurs when systems treat people of a certain color and/or ethnicity less favorably than a people group of a different color. From early colonial days to the present day, America’s white-dominant structures – governments, municipalities, courts, churches, banks, businesses, etc. – have refused to treat people of color on equal terms as white people,” said Bruce Gourley, who holds a doctorate in history from Auburn University and is the managing editor of publishing and experiences coordinator at Good Faith Media.
“The severity of racism has ebbed and flowed across time and geography, but the presence and practice of racism have remained embedded within American life,” he said. “This enduring problem is a direct result of our nation’s past history of hundreds of years of widespread enslavement, torture, rape and murder of Black Americans on the self-serving, false pretext that Black skin is a mark of inherent inferiority.
“How can leaders within systems across our nation move the needle away from racism? We can start by simply thinking and speaking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’ and banishing the use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ when speaking of people at large,” said Gourley. “As a nation, we will clearly know when we are moving across the border from systemic racism into a land of human equality.
“When that day comes, banks will not single out people of color for higher mortgage rates, wealth among people groups will be roughly equitable, policing and courts will be race-blind, our nation will be committed to providing a free or cost-effective collegiate education to every young person, and municipal, state and federal governments will ensure that every single voter is able to easily cast a ballot for the candidates of their choice.”