Recognizing Systems of Racial Oppression

All week I have been thinking about our recent national election. We saw a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans, but today I’m more interested in looking at a shift we did not see. The Washington Post worked up some interactive graphics on the make-up of the new Senate, and it’s worth a hop to go play around and learn. Not counting a few pending race results, we still have only 20 women holding Senate seats. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize that 1 in 5 seats in a body that holds 100 is not an accurate representation of male to female ratio in America, but I digress on the gender questions (for now). What I want to look at here is this: “About 62 percent of Americans are white, but today more than 90 percent of senators are white. Only 27 racial and ethnic minorities have ever served in the Senate. All of the new senators elected in 2014 are white.”

We could attempt to draw conclusions about which party benefits from the whitening of the Senate, but the truth is, the Senate has long been pretty white, regardless of which party had a majority. So we see that in the halls of power in America, white people hold most of the positions. But let’s put a pin in that for a moment and look at the least powerful people in our society for a moment: the incarcerated.

incarc rate by race & gender - webLooking at this data, we see that the least powerful people in our societythose who have been stripped of their vote, their freedom to walk about and raise their familiesthe incarcerated, are overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color (and more specifically, black or latin@).

But these disparities are not limited to these spheres, we find them in education, health care, income, housing (including renting), to name a few. All of this is what racial justice advocates call “systemic” injustice. Systemic injustices produce consistently unjust outcomes for people of color in and through institutions (authoritative bodies: churches, government, corporations, etc.) and structures (social systems: criminal justice, education, social welfare).

In the U.S., our conversations about race tend to be about the individualized racism that occurs among individuals or small groups of people (this is one of the reasons we white people are all so terrified to admit we have biases). We are reluctant to zoom out and see the big picture forces at play. But in ignoring systemic racism, we dupe ourselves into thinking we’ve isolated racism and its effects to a few rogue individuals.

And like that systemic racism is gone

And like that systemic racism is gone.

The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley says this about our hyper-focus on individualized racism:

Given the choice, I prefer a racist (prejudiced person) over a racist system 7 days a week! I can eventually find commonality with a racist on a human level and maybe even cause them to like or admire something about me. A racist system though, prevents equal opportunities on a grand scale for generations to come and it leaves the historic wrongs of the past undone. A racist system makes it seem normal to dehumanize the other. Once that happens, you can think or do anything to that person or group and justify it.

 Allen Mitsuo Wakabayashi argues in his book, Kingdom Come, that American Christians, in particular, have fallen prey to the idol of individualism:

As a boy, I was once told to insert my name in John 3:16 in the place of the word world. So John 3:16 says to me, ‘For God so loved Allen that he gave his only Son, so that if Allen believes in him Allen may not perish but have eternal life.’ While this wonderfully expresses God’s love for me, it distorts the true focus of the verse. God didn’t send Jesus to save just me. He sent Jesus to save the whole world…[The] tradition of the Western church, steeped in this individualism, has stamped its approval on narrow conceptions of the gospel that leave us living in ways that do little to change the society around us. Like my childhood rendition of John 3:16, our conceptions of the gospel have been infected by individualism.
When we see the Gospel as a purely individualized interaction, we see the problem of the sin of racism the same way. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith describe this in their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America:
White evangelicals, without any necessary intent, help to buttress the racialized society. Like their forebears during the Jim Crow segregation, who prescribed kindness toward people of other races and getting to know people across races, but did not challenge the Jim Crow system, present-day white evangelicals attempt to solve the race problem without shaking the foundations on which racialization is built. As long as they do not see or acknowledge the structures of racialization, the inadvertently contribute to them.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to address both the individual sin of racism as well as the collective, systemic injustices in which we live. Not only is this denial harmful to brothers and sisters of color, it prevents white people from living out and experiencing the fullness of the Gospel. Christena Cleveland writes:

[Many] of us who identify with privileged groups exclusively process information about Jesus in relation to our privileged self, our privileged experiences and our privileged social location. It’s no wonder that many privileged Christians wrongly believe that our understanding of Jesus needn’t heavily rely on oppressed people’s understanding of Jesus.  We’ve think we’ve pretty much got Jesus all figured out.

Further, we place a premium on voices that offer information about Jesus that we can easily process as self-relevant and that is easily integrated into our pre-existing knowledge of the world. And we naturally silence the voices offer perspectives on Jesus that challenge our worldview. We like going to conferences, schools and churches that cater to privileged folks. Privileged folks don’t like it when oppressed people get up front and make prophetic statements that threaten our privileged status.  Like the Pharisees in [John 9], the privileged are often blinded by a commitment to an unequal social order and unable to hear from the voices that are needed most.

So how do we move forward as Christians in pursuit of a holistic vision of the justice Jesus commanded in the Gospels? Drew Hart, writing at the Christian Century, shares a re-imagining of church and cultural life:

[It] is pretty evident that Jesus’ kingdom can be known by the manifestation of a community where the poor, lame, sick, and outcasts of society are centralized as honored guests. That is usually the meaning of Jesus’ frequent talk about the banquet table. James understood this as well, arguing that God chose the poor of the world to be heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5). So even when the kingdom of God is found and identified among a particular people gathered around Jesus, we know it is truly so when the last of society are now first. This means that Christian communities in the United States that always privilege white male, wealthy, or educated people hegemonically and hierarchically from the top-down, then they reflect communities in which the reign of God is being rejected for something more akin to the current oppressive social order. The eruption of the kingdom of God concretely in society is clearly tied to the socially marginalized being restored and honored at the center of the community, if we are to take Jesus seriously. Repentance is walking away from participating in the old social order and voluntarily embodying the life of Jesus and participating in the kingdom of God. That requires being in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and reconfiguring our social relationships according to his life and teachings, a radical vision of a reconfigured social arrangement.

This is tough work for people who have, heretofore, preserved systems of inequality through their denial, inaction, or outright complicity. But the hope of Christ can transform us and give us new direction. Christena Cleveland again:

But those of us who check our egocentric (and privileged) bias at the door and look closely at Scripture will see that oppressed folks have an epistemological advantage. We’ll see that the so-called “theologies of the oppressed” that are often relegated to the margins should actually be front and center in our conversations about Jesus. We’ll conclude that the people in our society with the most power are perhaps the least qualified to talk about Jesus. We’ll see that if we truly want to participate in this new, equitable reality that Jesus is creating, we need to allow Jesus to disrupt our inequitable systems that value privileged voices and ignore oppressed voices.

If we’re going to see God’s kingdom manifested in these ways, we first have to commit ourselves to seeing the fullness of the need by recognizing structures of oppression, and then bringing the fullness of the Gospel to bear in all aspects of our communities. It’s my prayer that those of us who are “colorblind” (and those of us who think God is colorblind) will have our sight restored by the power of Christ.

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