As Christians, we should be very aware of the pathological nature of both individual and social ills. That is, social ills are not just easily individualized and conceptually isolatable bad actions, ideas, practices, policies, or stereotypes. Rather, just as a pathological liar habitually lies without even taking note of it, or just as a disease can infect a whole body with looming death yet appear perfectly healthy, so economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and the like can be embedded within whole social systems, producing symptoms that may even seem quite normal and ineradicable, though we feel the existential burdens of their bitter fruit.
We call it sin, and we recognize its far-reaching effects. Not only has sin brought about spiritual and physical death, but sin has broken man’s community with God (Gen. 3:24-25), broken his community with neighbor (Gen. 3:16; 4:1-8; Gal. 5:14-15), corrupted his economic activity (Gen. 3:17; Isa. 3:5; Mic. 2:2), corrupted his habitation and environment (Rom. 8:19-21), and has even distorted his very mind and reason (Matt. 15:19; Rom. 1:28; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:18). In fact, the Scripture declares that our minds must be “renewed” in order to escape conformity “to this world” (Rom. 12:2).
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.