What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism


I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate negros or not; but I know we have a Christian church which is white and Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcom X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal to me about a Christian nation. It means I cannot afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian Church. I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me—that doesn’t matter, but I’m not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobbies keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the text books they give my children to read, and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen. (James Baldwin, on the Dick Cavett Show)

Racist Ideas, Racism, and Racists

My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas…as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group. (Ibram X Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, Kindle Locations 193-200)

We can say further that to believe and confess racist ideas is racism. But to then say that those who hold to one or more racist ideas are “racists,” without any qualification, is often a very slippery slope to irrelevancy; both you and I will be caught up in this dragnet when Jesus lays bare every secret thought of our hearts.

One of the difficulties of post-Holocaust/post-Civil Rights ethical language is that “racism” is treated as the unforgivable sin. While this may seem to be an advance toward real reconciliation, it is often a death knell to constructive dialog. Many use the appellation to whip an opponent into submission by fear of ostracization—there is little worse for most well-meaning Americans than to be classed (in their minds) with Adolf Hitler and the KKK. But just as often it is employed as an escape route for those who do hold to racist ideas, claiming it is clearly absurd to class them with Adolf Hitler or the KKK. “Look everyone, this crazy person basically called me Adolf Hitler for quoting Dabney!” It is often used as a defense by reductio ad absurdum, given the culture’s visceral reaction to the word.

As briefly discussed in the last post, much confusion, misunderstanding, and even intentional weaponizing of the terms results from Americans’ commitment to the ideal of “rugged individualism,” or even more powerfully, evangelicalism’s “accountable freewill individualism” (Smith & Emerson). God saves sinners from sin; sin is the ultimate problem; only individuals can sin or be saved from sin; racism is wrong because it is sin; therefore, racism is also only an individual affair. Evangelicals—really, Americans in general—can only seem to process racism as an individual attitude or as individual actions. Many Americans have no interpretive category for institutionalized, systemic, or structural racism. But working toward racial and ethnic reconciliation requires a two-pronged approach since racism is itself two-pronged; it is both individual and systemic/institutional. As Carmichael & Hamilton wrote more than 50 years ago,

When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city – Birmingham, Alabama – five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of power, food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism. When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it. (Black Power: Politics of Liberation, p. 4)

The failure of most Americans—again, evangelicals in particular—to grasp this distinction is due in part to our meager understanding of the history and development of racist ideas.

Our Racist Ideas Have a History

There is widespread belief that racism and racist ideas as we know them today have been a feature of mankind since the fall of Adam. Many uncritically assume that if anything has significantly changed over the last several centuries, it has been from originally bad to increasingly good. But this is far from the truth. Accurate history reveals, rather, that racist ideas—again, as we know them in America—have largely been developed as justifications for pre-existing racial exploitation. The Atlantic slave trade was well under way before there even was such a thing as the “Black Race” or the “White Race,” both previously being a host of various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and phenotypical features. In fact, before the appearance of the most powerful justifications for exploitation, those of African descent had already become the only people group subject to lifelong servitude, viz., property; they and their children.

In 1619 when Dutch traders sold the first group of captured Africans in Jamestown, they became one among many races/ethnicities of people working under the institution of indentured servitude. As it became increasingly clear that Africans were not only ideal laborers and farmers, but also in abundant supply with the trade itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent. By offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side. A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, the “Negro” became the perfectly powerless subject of Colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” them uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become the supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization according to assumed historic development through climate, separate creation, or evolution.

Racial stereotypes were also developed, serving as justifications for both slavery and Jim Crow, including common tropes like the hyper-sexualized black male with a penchant for pure white women, seductive black women preying on white men, child-like mental capacities causing both intellectual dullness and erratic fits of rage, and inborn laziness due to centuries in the jungle. “Negros” were dangerous sub-humans in need of legal and social controls. Jim Crow and Southern slavery were justified by the same means. “It is just that kind of control which is extended in every northern State over its convicts, its lunatics, its minors, its apprentices. It is but a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves” (Jefferson Davis).

And let us not fool ourselves, many of these very same encultured manufactured perceptions live on to this very day. The ease by which politicians and pastors were able to retell the Civil Rights movement as mayhem, violence, and the breakdown of social order should cause no wonder. It is no wonder that millions of Americans embraced the “Law and Order” movement, the “War on Drugs,” and continued neighborhood segregation and still do today. And it should still be of no wonder that the vast inequities and disparities in this society—along the very same color line created for exploitation—are continually explained away by Americans and evangelicals as the fault of so-called morally degraded, hyper-sexualized, lazy welfare queens and criminals; that is, the black community itself is to blame. Racist ideas continue to justify unjust circumstances. (Please see posts 2 and 3 in this series for more on this.)

The Second Prong and Sin

Once we begin to study and understand the history and development of racist ideas in this country, we should begin to see that racism is not a simple parsing of who is racist and who is not; that is, it is not just an individual affair. This is the second prong. The first prong, individual racism, has to do with personally held prejudices and beliefs of racial and ethnic superiority. The second prong is structural, systemic, and institutional. And what is most powerful about the latter is that it doesn’t even require participants to hold personal prejudice for racialized outcomes to continue to hurt marginalized peoples. Even of the Jim Crow era, William Martin notes, “[m]ost evangelicals, even in the North, did not think it their duty to oppose segregation; it was enough to treat the blacks they knew personally with courtesy and fairness” (Smith & Emerson, Divided by Faith, p. 46). Structural, institutional, or systemic racism results from the whole complex of racist ideas that have been baked into society over the last 450 years of institution building. We see this manifested in our own day in widespread pejorative assumptions of black communities and churches, a legal system that incarcerates African Americans at double the rate of white Americans for crimes committed at a similar rate, and continued de facto neighborhood and church segregation. Accordingly, the 1999 Lawrence Report defined institutional racism as,

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

Many have critiqued this second prong as though it were merely a sociological idea intended to sidestep the real culprit, sin. But we must understand that racist ideas have developed around much more than just some abstract sin called “racism,” whatever that even is. Without a doubt, millions from the Colonies until now have hated African Americans, holding very real personal prejudices. But again, throughout history there have also been millions of purveyors of racist ideas and participants in racist structures who did not feel they had a hateful or prejudiced bone in their body. And this should be no surprise to Christians. There are a whole host of sins at the root of racist ideas as they have developed and continue to exist. Greed, fraud, theft, envy, self-interest, lust, hunger for power, and often just overall preference for ease over conflict—all these sins have infected the systems, structures, and institutions that form every society, though each in different ways with their own peculiar histories.

It is not enough to identify KKK members and overt prejudice. It is the racialized cycle of historical wealth disparity (due to centuries of disenfranchisement), lack of home ownership (due to centuries of race steering, white flight, and discrimination), high levels of incarceration (due to post Jim Crow systems of social control), lack of quality education (often due to poverty, low home values, and rampant incarceration), unemployment and low wages (due to discriminatory perceptions and lack of enfranchised networks), all working as a mutually fortifying set of gears, that really hurts African Americans on a grand scale in this country. And this all has its roots in sin; not simply the sins of hatred and prejudice, but sins that you and I are quite familiar with.


So, what is and isn’t being said? Well, what often isn’t being said is “You are a racist!”—that is, you personally believe and confess the superiority of your own race and hold personal prejudice toward others based upon color. What is being said is that our lack of awareness of history, culture, and current systems often cause us to believe that systems and institutions are neutral. We are saying that when you look about you and see no KKK members in your church or among your friends, you are nevertheless wrong to conclude that this means racialization has not played a significant role in how our institutions and attitudes continue to hurt those whom have been marginalized for centuries. We are saying that there is society wide need to closely analyze our own thoughts, the institutions we participate in, and those ideas and practices we just presume are Biblical by virtue of being handed down from our favorite Europeans. We are asking that you consider that even a group of people who hold no intentional color prejudice might nevertheless be participants in systems that disproportionally hurts historically disenfranchised peoples.

Do not forget that even the newborn New Testament church was not immune to the consequences of centuries of ethnic separation and regional privilege. “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (Acts 6:1). Presumably these Apostles were not racists; I doubt that this neglect was even intentional. But even in this holy communion of saints, disparities in treatment were discovered along ethnic lines, consistent with the previous centuries of divide. To be sure, no ill will may have even been present (they were of “one heart and soul”). As Calvin suggests, it may have just been established familiarity among fellow Jews—family, work, and synagogue networks formed over generations. But the effect was in some ways no different than if there had been explicit racism: the vulnerable among one ethnicity were disadvantaged within the majority culture. And the Apostles’ response was not to tell them, “there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ,” but to make actual structural changes to eliminate the inequity. The office of Deacon was formed to care for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the oppressed, and the alien.

Let us not think we are immune to like failings.

In our NEXT POST in the series, we will examine some examples of institutional racism, in both society and church.

[Postscript: I have found it necessary to offer a few clarifications to what has been done thus far before continuing. To begin with, see “”Racism Isn’t the Problem, Sin Is the Problem!’ : A Brief Clarification.”]

9 thoughts on “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism

  1. Persis August 23, 2018 / 7:38 pm

    One theory I have about why some Christians are reluctant to look closely at American history and where we have gone wrong over time is American exceptionalism. Specifically what historian John Wilsey calls “closed” exceptionalism as a civil religion. It’s importing theological themes from Christianity and applying them to America – such as being a chosen nation with a divine commission, innocent in its dealings with others, with rights to a sacred land, and worthy of glory. To maintain this ideal, you have to ignore a lot, which could pave the way toward “heterodoxy at best , heresy and idolatry at worst.”

    I need to think through this some more, but it seems like there’s a blindspot/ingrained default which is keeping us from taking a hard look at the past, calling it for what it is, and seeing how it has shaped us (for good and bad) today. Like you, I’m trying to find what that blindspot is.


    • Brad Mason August 25, 2018 / 9:42 am

      I can definitely see that, yes. This has been the ethos since Winthrop.

      I also see this in how we tend to spend so much thought about how our spiritual fathers in this nation can be defended or justified in spite of their often evil ideas and practices, but very little time thinking about and acknowledging the oppressed as our spiritual fathers. Why do we have so much interest in defending Christian slave owners whom we admire and so little interest in knowing and identifying our spiritual heritage through, e.g, the slaves, who believed against all odds? Are only the white churchmen who wrote the books appropriate candidates for being the fathers of the American church and not those mighty believers who suffered under their hands? Is it really the powerful that should continue to define the historic church in America and not the weak? Seems the Scripture would suggest the latter.


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