I was asked recently by a friend if it was correct to say that every American—whether white, Latinx, black, etc.—is a participant in systemic racism, and therefore racist. Given that social structures and institutions have been historically formed in America to benefit white people at the expense of others, then isn’t everyone who participates in such systems also participating in white supremacy? I think this is a very important question. As the wider culture finds itself engaged in deciding who is racist, who isn’t, and why I am not and you are, the binary assumed, viz., “racist” or “not racist,” not only de-emphasizes the distinction between racism as individual and systemic, but also bifurcates what is obviously a much more complicated spectrum. It is easy to say that a Neo-Nazi is a racist, but what about an African American who ascribes the vast current social and economic disparities to black laziness or immorality? Or ascribes segregated churches to blacks’ disinterest in sound theology? And what about white and black Americans who simply give little thought to the disparity or segregation at all, but continue to travel the same worn paths?
Here is where Ibram X. Kendi’s categories “segregationist,” “assimilationist,” and “antiracist” can be so helpful.
Article 12, Mississippi State Constitution (1890):
Sec. 243. A uniform poll tax of two dollars, to be used in aid of the common schools, and for no other purpose, is hereby imposed on every male inhabitant of this State between the ages of twenty-one and sixty years, except persons who are deaf and dumb or blind, or who are maimed by loss of hand or foot; said tax to be a lien only upon taxable property. The board of supervisors of any county may, for the purpose of aiding the common schools in that county, increase the poll tax in said county, but in no case shall the entire poll tax exceed in any one year three dollars on each poll. No criminal proceedings shall be allowed to enforce the collection of the poll tax.
Sec. 244. On and after the first day of January, A. D., 1892, every elector shall, in addition to the foregoing qualifications, be able to read any section of the constitution of this State; or he shall be able to understand the same when read to him, or give a reasonable interpretation thereof. A new registration shall be made before the next ensuing election after January the first, A.D., 1892.
[To be fair, this is a long post, and it ends with “To be continued….” I do believe this is one of the most important discussions within modern conservative evangelicalism, so if you have the time and inclination, I believe you will be rewarded.]
To me, the existence of systemic or institutionalized racism, i.e., “polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities” (Vernellia R. Randal), is a simple deduction from three premises:
- Well documented and vast social and economic disparities between black and white Americans, as well as continued neighborhood and church segregation.
- All racial groups are equal; in Ibram X Kendi’s words, “no racial group has ever had a monopoly on any type of human trait or gene—not now, not ever.”
- The majority of Americans are not overt racists, members of a neo-Nazi party, or intentionally discriminating against black Americans due to conscious prejudice and hatred.
If we are committed to the truth of the above three premises, then we must begin to look for explanations that do not—intentionally or unintentionally—assume the inferiority of any race. And a very short walk back through history gives us all the data we need: four hundred years of legal and de facto marginalization for the sake of exploitation accords perfectly with the circumstances we find ourselves in today; in fact, how could we expect it to be otherwise? Truly, God has been fantastically kind to this Nation, given our history. Much worse circumstances could have justly been predicted.
Example of Systemic Racism: “Narrow” Spirituality of the Church (NSoC)
I had promised in “What Is & Isn’t Being Said: 7. Individual vs. Institutional Racism” to give specific examples of systemic racism, both from church and society, to further explicate the concept. But I have decided here, rather, to focus solely on the church—particularly the Reformed and Presbyterian Church, of which I am a member.
The following is from Francis Fedric’s Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky (1863), wherein he describes his own conversion to Christianity. It is just more confirmation of Peter Randolph’s conclusion quoted at length in an earlier post: “[a]fter such preaching, let no one say that the slaves have the Gospel of Jesus preached to them.”
[The monument imaged above is a perfect example of the “Lost Cause” propaganda prevalent in the South and common among conservatives.]
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “House Divided” speech to the gathered Republican Party:
A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.
Just a few months following, future president of the Confederate States Jefferson Davis offered his own perspective on this brewing divide within the United States, laying the fault solely in the lap of Northern abolitionist agitation:
In his autobiography, From Slave Cabin to the Pulpit, Rev. Peter Randolph (1825 – 1897) answers the claim that slavery was good for the African, freeing him from the bonds of paganism, bringing him to Gospel salvation. To be sure, there was a “gospel” preached to them; but was it the true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, or a truncated facsimile, bastardized for the sake of exploitation?
Ibram X Kendi writes in Stamped From the Beginning,
The Puritans believed, too, in civilizing and Christianizing the world, but their approach to the project was slightly different from that of most explorers and expedition sponsors. For the others, it was about economic returns or political power. For Puritan preachers, it was about bringing social order to the world. Cambridge professor William Perkins rested at the cornerstone of British Puritanism in the late sixteenth century. “Though the servant in regard of faith and the inner man be equal to his master, in regard of the outward man… the master is above the servant,” he explained in Ordering a Familie, published in 1590. In paraphrasing St. Paul, Perkins became one of the first major English theorists—or assimilationist theologians, to be more precise—to mask the exploitative master/servant or master/slave relationship as a loving family relationship. […] It was Perkins’s family ordering that Puritan leaders like John Cotton and Richard Mather used to sanction slavery in Massachusetts a generation later. And it was Perkins’s claim of equal souls and unequal bodies that led Puritan preachers like Cotton and Mather to minister to African souls and not challenge the enslavement of their bodies. (Kindle location 581)
This is 100% true and a powerful point necessary for understanding the genesis, development, and justification of American chattel slavery. But, like a good little student of Kendi, I went back to the primary source, Perkins’ A SHORT SURVEY OF THE RIGHT MANNER OF ERECTING and ordering a Familie, according to the Scriptures.