For a time, as a child in the 1970’s, I lived on or near my grandparents farm. The farm was forty acres of fruit trees and grapevines in which I, with my sister and cousins, freely roamed and played in. There were few rules, one of them was that we weren’t to bother or speak to the farm workers. Our freedom of movement on the farm was largely tied to this rule. It makes sense when the workers were in the field they were there to do a job and they shouldn’t have to worry about their boss’s grandchildren getting in their way. However, the farm workers were all Mexican migrant workers or Mexican-Americans. As a child I gave little thought to this, outside of not bothering the farm workers I had Latino friends, we were invited over to Mexican-American foreman’s home, and he and his family were often in my grandparents home, they were friends. Years, later in seminary I had a friend who while in seminary was working on campus as part of the janitorial staff. One day he came up to me and asked “Is everything okay?” I was puzzled. He clarified “Between us…did I do something to offend?” I was even more dumbfounded. He explained ” I saw you yesterday as you were walking to class and I waved, you even looked my direction but you ignored me.” I had no recollection of this. Slowly, it dawned on me he was Indian, and when he saw me the day before he was wearing the janitorial uniform. The simple instruction from my childhood had taught me to not see people of color at work. Even more devastating, was that I also realized that I didn’t ignore another friend who was white when he was wearing the janitor uniform.
The above experience would have been unintelligible to me had it not been for a College Camp seminar on the system of Racism (lead by a Latino and and an African American). In that seminar I found illuminating the idea that Racism was structural and systemic. While Racism can be about attitudes and opinions racism is more about the power, privilege, and the participation in racist structure and system. This was transformative because even at 19 or 20 , I was a ware that the persistence of Racism had to do with more than whether I individually had overt negative feelings and attitudes towards an individual of another race. It also helped explain why my behavior towards people of color didn’t always match what I felt and believed. It was liberating because it offered me as a member of the Church to find in my self where the systems of the World had a hold of me having yet been transformed and illuminated by the Mind of Christ. Because of that seminar I could begin to recognize and seek to route out the ways the system of Racism was influencing me through a childhood rule that hadn’t been racist in intention.
This systemic and structural view of Racism was also helpful, because such an understanding of Racism as structural and systemic and not individual and attitudinal, resonated with certain Pauline themes of the effect of Sin on the humanity and each of us personally. Such a view of Racism looks very much like the struggle with the Flesh: the sinful system that can cling to one like a body of death. This allowed me to see Racism as not only about opinions and attitudes that may or may not be based in fact or science or whatever, but part of the system of Sin that, through the incarnation, life, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, was now (slowly at least from our perspective) passing away.
We are currently facing, what seems to most of us, the inexplicable persistence of Racism most blatantly seen in the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, and in the disparities of the system of mass incarceration. Although we often speak of Racism as a systemic reality, when I hear expressions of puzzlement of the persistence of racism we are so puzzled either because we think the American system of government and law existed separate from and before an overlay of Racist ideology, and/or we believe that Racism is primarily about individuals holding racist attitudes and opinions and overtly holding to an ideology of racial superiority and purity. Which means we actually think Racism is about individuals and not systems.
We are having difficulty accounting for the persistence of Racist structures and outcomes without overt racism. Or more strikingly, when we speak of Racist policing we immediately think that the way to eradicate racism from policing is to find and remove racist police officers, or at least curtail the actions of a racist police officer.
As such we then see systems as being grounded in the isolated individuals attitudes and/or actions. It is offensive and incomprehensible to us that we may act and or be subjected to things we individually don’t intend and individually have no control over.
What I wish to suggest is that Sin and systems function similarly. For sin and systems to have their power and function they don’t require my overt participation as an individual. Rather the power of sin and systems is to function and dictate our actions depends on my lack of awareness of their effect upon my will and actions.
When we speak of Racism, we aren’t simply speaking of the mere amalgamation of the actions and attitudes of individuals who think themselves superior to another race and actively and intentionally seek to disenfranchise those seen as members of another race, deemed inferior (though this does occur, and depending on various conditions may or may not be the case).
Granted this thinking runs counter to the idea of the human as an autonomous individual who is the soul source of their self, intentions and actions.
Paul in Romans, speaks of the power of Sin in this way as well, as that which acts upon us often in contradiction and violation of our individual will and desires. Paul says “What I wish to do I don’t do and that which I don’t want to do I do.”
Racism is part of that reality in which the systems of this world are bound to Sin and Death.
Paul asks who or what will save us from this, his answer Christ Jesus.
Paul’s answer of course requires unpacking, as well as why the systems of sin and death, like Racism, continue to dominate even among those who have claimed the name of Jesus, and Christian.
Here’s an account from Britney Cooper on experiencing the persistence of Racism.