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Race and Racism in America

Discrimination and prejudice on the basis of race is a violation of the human dignity of our neighbors, and we all have a responsibility to fight injustice wherever it is found. The question, of course, is how we ought to do this. Are the foundations of our American systems of government and civil society fundamentally unjust? Or have we only failed in living up to their lofty calls and promises? Do we need to tear down our institutions or reform them?

The killing of George Floyd has set off the most recent rounds of discussions about race and racism in America. Public Discourse has sought to provide timely and thoughtful reflections on these topics, both in the past few weeks and throughout our existence. On this page, you’ll find links to a collection of those essays, along with new commentary from Public Discourse editors Ryan T. Anderson and Serena Sigillito.

Although they may disagree about political tactics, sociological assessments, or prudential judgements, our authors and editors all begin with the premise that “To be just, a society must be built upon the recognition that all individual human beings have dignity simply because of the kind of beings they are: animals whose rational faculties allow them to know, love, reason, and communicate, and persons who flourish as members of a community that respects their fundamental rights.”

Discrimination and prejudice on the basis of race is a violation of the human dignity of our neighbors, and we all have a responsibility to fight injustice wherever it is found. The question, of course, is how we ought to do this. Are the foundations of our American systems of government and civil society fundamentally unjust? Or have we only failed in living up to their lofty calls and promises? Do we need to tear down our institutions or reform them?

George Floyd, Police Violence, and Black Lives Matter

Among our more recent essays, Public Discourse was fortunate to publish Senator Marco Rubio’s reflections “On the Unjust Death of George Floyd and Racism in America.” Rubio sought to identify the virtuous mean between the two extremes of seeing America as irredeemably racist or as a paragon of racial harmony. He condemned looters, virtue signalers, and deniers alike, calling on the American people to wrestle with racial disparities in outcomes—and their underlying causes.

We have made tremendous progress on racial equality over the last fifty years, but there remain shocking racial disparities on health, on education, on housing, on economics and criminal justice. And there remains the fundamental truth that, any society in which a substantial percentage of the people believe that they are treated unjustly, is a society that has a problem—a society that can never fulfill its full potential unless those grievances are addressed.

None of this excuses radical, violent extremists’ setting fires, looting buildings, and hurting innocent people. It also shouldn’t lead us to stupid ideas like de-funding the police. And this is not going to be fixed by endless e-mails from corporation after corporation trying to prove how “woke” they are, even as they outsource your job to China. But it’s also not going to be fixed by pretending that race is no longer an issue, and by accusing everyone who disagrees and says it is, of hating America.

Like Senator Rubio, political theorist Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo refuses to pretend that race is no longer an issue. In her latest Public Discourse essay, “Lessons from King, Tocqueville, and Augustine on Loving Our Black Neighbors,” she drew on her Latino family’s experience of racism, pairing personal narrative with lessons from three of our greatest moral and political thinkers. Menchaca-Bagnulo stressed the importance of “compassio: fellow feeling—or, as Augustine puts it, ‘feeling with’ another.” To truly see black Americans as our neighbors, she wrote, “We need to reframe, re-understand, and reinterpret what it means to be an American citizen, whose past and present is fully a part of our stories and decisions about the common good. Even if we already profess our belief in the inviolable human dignity of all people, we must examine our consciences and our rhetoric, and we need to act.”

Louis Brown, who runs the Christ Medicus Foundation, put out a call to all Americans, but especially to his fellow Christians, to help give rise to “A New Birth for American Civil Rights.” This movement, he wrote, “should be founded upon the same principles as the first: the dignity of every human life, the right to life and liberty of every person, and the right of conscience and religious freedom.” Brown emphasized the importance of love, which should be the force that motivates us to work for justice, suggesting that churches should organize “regular ecumenical gatherings, prayer meetings, and communal forums for racial healing and forgiveness.” He also drew a parallel to the prolife movement, pointing out that “Many of us who are part of the pro-life movement regularly march, engage in activism, fast, pray, and seek God’s mercy to end the evil of abortion even though we have never committed an abortion or participated in one. We can do the same for the sin of racism.”

In fighting racism, there are, of course, paths to avoid. In “Black Lives Matter: Affirm the Sentence, Not the Movement,” the Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler urged readers to take seriously the moral reality that black lives matter, because they are made in the image and likeness of God. But he cautioned readers to not embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, because it is grounded in critical race theory, which he argues is incompatible with biblical revelation. As Mohler puts it, “Black Lives Matter did not emerge merely as a sentence. Those three words function as a message and a platform making a significant political statement—one guided by Marxist ideology that seeks to revolutionize our culture and society.” Furthermore, Mohler observes, “Martin Luther King, Jr. openly called for Americans to live up to our national compact, not to reject it. The Movement for Black Lives, by contrast, seeks to dismantle the foundations of American civilization.”

Turning from theology to number-crunching, Lyman Stone delivered an in-depth analysis of what the data reveal when it comes to police violence. In “Above the Law: The Data Are In on Police, Killing, and Race,” Stone argued that killings by police have gone up considerably over the past several decades. He also found that there is a real racial bias to these killings: “Black Americans are facing a uniquely severe case of a problem that afflicts us all, and their protests against police violence should be regarded as the canary in the coal mine on this issue.” Stone identified police unions as one likely cause of the problem, calling on conservatives to support comprehensive reforms. “In order to tackle the problem of excessive police violence,” Stone concluded, “reformers will need to attack the system itself: an end to qualified immunity, complete obliteration of collective bargaining and unionization for police, and reduced provision of military-style weapons and training provided to local police forces.”

Racism and the Pro-Life Movement, American Founding, and Educational Achievement

This is just a selection of the essays we’ve run in the past few weeks on these topics. But if you dig deeper into the Public Discourse archives, you’ll find other essays worth rereading at this moment in time.

In “Racism and the Pro-Life Movement,” the evangelical political thinker Hunter Baker argued that it is mistaken to try to drive a wedge between caring about racial equality and caring about equality for the unborn: “the two struggles are against the same enemy. The struggle against racism is directed against dehumanization, and so is the fight against abortion.” Baker concluded that “racism is a sin. Abortion is a sin. Both deny human dignity. Both degrade a being made in the image and likeness of God. We must combat both.”

While many rightly criticized and pointed out the errors of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, Adam Seagrave, a political scientist at Arizona State University, sought to bring to light its redeeming aspects. In “The 3395 Project: American National Identity Includes Both the Ideals of 1776 and the Legacy of 1619,” Seagrave proposed that we can best understand American identity by incorporating “both the experiences, perspectives, and distinctive contributions of the descendants of enslaved Africans (1619) and also the aspirations and ideals enunciated by European Americans in the Declaration of Independence (1776).” This built on his earlier Public Discourse essay “Pursuing Unity: Race and the American Story,” where he drew on Frederick Douglass’s argument that “the only way out of our national purgatory for the original sin of slavery was unity—not toleration, not reconciliation, not compromise, not multiculturalism or relativism, but unity.”

As Senator Rubio reminded us, significant racial disparities in life outcomes still persist in the United States. As we think about potential solutions, we should keep in mind relevant data. In “Faith and Family Play a Bigger Role in Academic Achievement Than Race or Socioeconomic Status,” William Jeynes, Professor of Education at California State University, Long Beach, reports on the results of his data-analysis:

The phrase “achievement gap” refers to the well-documented discrepancies between the scholastic achievements of African American and Latinos on the one hand and white students on the other. What explains the gap? My meta-analysis revealed that if an African American or Latino student was a person of faith and came from a two biological parent family, the achievement gap totally disappeared, even when adjusting for socioeconomic status.

This touches on a concept that is often a point of contention between conservatives and progressives. As Mohler pointed out, critical race theory assumes that all meaning is constructed and views all human interactions through the lens of power and oppression. It emphasizes the power of collective social structures in determining the lives, choices, and beliefs of individuals. A “Karen” inherits her white fragility by virtue of her place in larger social structures, and a person of color can never be racist, since racism is defined as systemic oppression rather than individual racial prejudice.

Many conservatives recoil from such claims, responding to accusations of white privilege with counterexamples of African Americans who enjoy significant socioeconomic privilege and whites who faced severe hardships. They emphasize the importance of individual choices, calling on all people to simply treat each other well and objecting to the idea of “systemic racism.” They (rightly) point out that a loving, stable, intact family can never be replaced by any government program.

To people of faith, calls to repentance and wokeness sound suspiciously like a secular religion in which there is no possibility of redemption or reconciliation, only endless resentment and futile attempts at reparation. Being called “racist” simply by virtue of being white conflicts with an understanding of sin as requiring the active assent of the will.

Systemic Racism and “Structures of Sin”

These reactions are valid corrections to an overemphasis on vague and deterministic social structures. Yet it is important to avoid overreacting. We must resist the temptation to fall into a radical individualism that denies the reality of our innate interdependence and intrinsic relationality.

David Cloutier, a professor of moral theology at Catholic University, draws from Catholic social teaching, which can provide a framework for reconciling these two extremes. In this way, we can find the truth, which lies somewhere in the middle. In “Why Talk About ‘Structures of Sin’?” he explored John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s teachings to argue that “We simply cannot ignore theology when looking at social problems. For Christians, the notion of sinful structures is based on the difficult but ultimately liberating admission that the existing social positions we occupy are often not in conformity with the order of God.”

It is important to remember that a person’s position in a given social structure can never negate their free will. Slaveowners could choose to free the people that they enslaved, and those who did not are not absolved of their guilt simply because they acted in accordance with the social mores of their times. Today, a child born into a broken family, living in poverty, subjected to racism, and deprived of access to good, safe schools can still “pull himself up by his bootstraps.” But we cannot deny that the structures of our society make that much, much more difficult for him than for many others. As Cloutier writes,

Based on one’s position in the structure, each person faces a particular set of restrictions, enablements, and incentives. In other words, actions that are effortless for one person may be nearly impossible for someone occupying a different social position. Social structures do not determine our actions. Yet, according to Finn, each of us exercises his or her freedom within preexisting constraints. People cannot simply “choose” structures: the system of social positions, with its restrictions and incentives, preexists any particular person. Yet systems can and do change over time, and they are changed precisely by the choices of individual people. Thus, while each of us faces choices with pre-structured options, we can still help change the structures—not all at once, but incrementally, over time.

In his most recent essay, “Systemic Racism, God’s Grace, and the Human Heart: What the Bible Teaches About Structural Sin,” Dr. Albert Mohler makes a similar argument from a Baptist perspective, finding Biblical support for the concept of corporate or structural sin. Yet Mohler cautions Christians again against embracing ideology that overemphasizes structures and discounts the role of individuals. He writes,

Yes, there is systemic racism and systemic sin in America—but this affirmation must always be made with a complete rejection of the Marxist idea of liberation standing behind the phrase “systemic racism” that screams from many headlines. We must reject this because we understand, unlike proponents of liberation ideology, that individuals are sinful and bring their depravity into the larger society. This means that no structural overhaul, no revolution, no eradication of biblical Christianity will secure lasting justice and peace. Humanity is perpetually plagued by the ravages of sin and will be until Christ returns.

We are called to do everything within our power to expunge sin from the structures of our society. Christians know that the justice of God demands that we do so. At the same time, we cannot accept that the structural manifestations of sin are the heart of the problem. No, the heart of the problem is found in the sinfulness of the individual human heart. Politics can change the culture, but only the gospel of Jesus Christ can produce a new heart.

Whatever your faith tradition may be, we hope that all of these essays—plus many more in the Public Discourse archives—help you as you think through the challenges confronting our nation. We believe that, by seeking the truth and working to live it out, we can each shape our families, communities, and society in ways that uphold the dignity of all people.

  • On the Unjust Death of George Floyd and Racism in America

    The fact is, many in positions of power and influence are oblivious or unaware of the unique challenges disproportionately facing African American communities across this country. We must now acknowledge these challenges and address these disparities that they create. The only way forward is to treat each other with the empathy and respect required of a people who have decided to share a nation—and a future.

  • Lessons from King, Tocqueville, and Augustine on Loving Our Black Neighbors

    As a nation, all citizens, regardless of color, need to respond to the persistent threat of institutional racism and persistent police brutality as if their own person was at stake. We must act to preserve life and the common good as quickly as if we were trying to preserve our own property from looting.

  • A New Birth for American Civil Rights

    Christians are called not only to pray but also to act for justice, because faith without works is dead. Today, we are called to give new birth to the civil rights movement, to finally fulfill the promise of the American civil rights project for which so many fought and died.

  • Black Lives Matter: Affirm the Sentence, Not the Movement

    “Black lives matter,” taken as a sentence, is profoundly true. God made every human being in his image, which means every life on the planet, at every stage, matters. Yet that sentence is understood, nearly universally, as expressing approval of a movement rooted in critical race theory, which is grounded in destructive Marxist ideology.

  • Above the Law: The Data Are In on Police, Killing, and Race

    Police killing is not the work of vigilant warriors defending society at great personal cost, and sometimes going too far. It is the day-in, day-out petty tyranny of a taxpayer-funded bureaucratic lobby group. The difference is that, unlike other public sector unions, police unions have military-grade equipment they can use to violently crush protests against their abuses, and they are legally immune from most consequences. They’re teachers’ unions, but with tanks and endless get-out-of-jail-free cards.

  • Racism and the Pro-Life Movement

    It is wrong to see the goals of the pro-life movement as being in competition with the need to address continuing manifestations of racism. Those who fight for life and against racism fight for the same thing.

  • The 3395 Project: American National Identity Includes Both the Ideals of 1776 and the Legacy of 1619

    The 1619 Project points us to the need for the 3395 Project—the project of constructing a new and stronger American identity that incorporates both the experiences, perspectives, and distinctive contributions of the descendants of enslaved Africans (1619) and also the aspirations and ideals enunciated by European Americans in the Declaration of Independence (1776).

  • Pursuing Unity: Race and the American Story

    The primary cause of American disintegration is not the proliferation of sources of division, but rather the absence of sources of unity to counterbalance and contextualize them. The racial divide is the most productive place to start in recovering the American mission and restoring national unity.

  • Faith and Family Play a Bigger Role in Academic Achievement Than Race or Socioeconomic Status

    The phrase “achievement gap” refers to the well-documented discrepancies between the scholastic achievements of African American and Latinos on the one hand and white students on the other. What explains the gap? My meta-analysis revealed that if an African American or Latino student was a person of faith and came from a two biological parent family, the achievement gap totally disappeared, even when adjusting for socioeconomic status.

  • Why Talk About “Structures of Sin”?

    We simply cannot ignore theology when looking at social problems. For Christians, the notion of sinful structures is based on the difficult but ultimately liberating admission that the existing social positions we occupy are often not in conformity with the order of God.

  • Systemic Racism, God’s Grace, and the Human Heart: What the Bible Teaches About Structural Sin

    Sin corrupts every institution and every system because, one way or another, sinful human beings are involved. This means that laws, policies, habits, and customs are also corrupted by sin. We are called to do everything within our power to expunge sin from the structures of our society. Christians know that the justice of God demands that we do so. At the same time, we cannot accept that the structural manifestations of sin are the heart of the problem. No, the heart of the problem is found in the sinfulness of the individual human heart.

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