On Structural Racism
I take the second view. Christians, of all people, should know that evil is held in place not just by the flesh (the sinful self), or even the devil (and associated demonic powers), but also by the world: the structures and systems of human power that perpetuate injustice, idolatry and immorality. It seems clear to me, for instance, that contemporary Britain is not just comprised of individual men and women who are idolatrous, or sexually immoral; our systems, structures and institutions promote idolatry and sexual immorality, in a way that is often tangential to or independent of deliberate human agency. The same is true of injustices, including racial ones. Christians are not saying this because we have been influenced by Marx. Marxists are saying it because they have been influenced by Christ.
This is not to say that everything which gets attributed to structural racism has been correctly, or adequately, diagnosed. Nor is it to agree with every use of the term (a point which should not need making, but in the current climate it apparently does). It is simply to say that there are evils in this world that are not reducible to the conscious decisions of individual people, and that this is as true when it comes to race as it is in every other area. And since it is so easy to get mired in disagreements about terminology, when what matters is the reality, I thought I would try to unbundle some of the realities that are being referred to by a term like “structural racism”, in the hope that it would make things slightly clearer. Here are five.
1. Institutional racism, or “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” An excellent post on this appeared on Ian Paul’s blog a couple of days ago, drawing from the MacPherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. If you’re not sure what it is or why it matters so much, it’s well worth reading.
2. Unconscious bias. A classic example that was reported yesterday: a new study shows that football commentators are more likely to refer to players with lighter skin as intelligent, hard working or having quality, and more likely to refer to players with darker skin as possessing power or pace. It might sound trivial, but it reflects an assumption that light-skinned people are clever and creative, and dark-skinned people are merely strong and fast. Nobody (so far as I know) is suggesting that the commentators in question are consciously prejudiced against black people, but that is exactly the point: you have all sorts of biases you are not aware of.
3. The legacy of historic injustices. A fountain of documentaries and movies on this subject has been made available, often for free, over the last few weeks (for instance, on iPlayer, Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made in America, James Baldwin’s I Am Not Your Negro, David Olusoga’s Black and British, and Stephen S. Thompson’s Sitting in Limbo). The best brief summary I have seen of how historic injustices continue to shape us today, albeit in an American context, is this little explainer from Phil “Veggie Tales” Vischer:
4. Racialised assumptions. Again, this was summarised just a couple of days ago in a superb (and excruciating) thread from Anthony Bradley. Bradley is a full professor with four academic degrees and ten books to his name, and he lives in one of the most progressive cities in the world (New York), yet he is repeatedly taken for a delivery driver or equivalent because of his skin colour - and by people who, presumably, would regard themselves as not being remotely racist. (As it happens, I had a conversation with a Christian just a few days ago who admitted to making exactly the same assumption in his own neighbourhood.) In Bradley’s case the phenomenon is (by his account) pretty harmless, but it isn’t when the same thing happens in the justice system, or in education (sometimes called “the bigotry of low expectations”), or representation in the media, or whatever else.
5. Intentional racism. On top of all these is the overt, explicit type of racism which we immediately think of when we hear the word. Many of us, myself included, like to think of this as largely a relic of the past, but we will quickly be disabused of this idea by conversations with a few black friends, or scrolling through the more sinister parts of antisocial media (not recommended), or even listening to the comments made at football matches.
It may be that you think “structural racism” isn’t the best term for this. That’s OK. But the reality is still there, whatever we call it. Many people in our congregations face it on a daily basis. And they shouldn’t have to.