From Pastor Dan's Blog

Four Levels of Racism

The longer I work in multi-ethnic ministry settings, the more I wish I would have taught sooner and more insistently about this:

            Racism is a sin with tentacles far longer than individual prejudice, exhibiting itself at the level of groups, institutions, and society-wide systems.  That’s not news, but even if we acknowledge that truth, the United States’ individualism (the highest in the world[1]) and evangelicals’ focus on individual salvation are constantly washing down against attempts to reckon with shared problems.  That means that a church attempting to live out Ephesians 2, in which a racial barrier is proclaimed as dismantled by Christ, will be called to do more than become a collection of ethnically-diverse individuals.  If sin is big and ugly, then God’s plan to save the world has to be at least bigger and beautiful, or it’s not really salvation at all.

            A few weeks ago, New Hope Church held a teaching event about “cross-cultural awareness.”  We reflected on our own sense of personal cultural identity and Biblical teachings about coming together in Christ.  All good.  But while we sat and nodded our heads at solid theology and the vision of oneness, I know that we will continue to struggle to push back against the real weight of cultural privilege because most of us imagine that racism comes down to whether I consciously think less of someone based on their skin tone.  We’ve been deceived about that here in Chicagoland for decades at least.  (Who’s doing the deceiving?)

            It may be that racism is most easily perceived in individual attitudes and behaviors.  For example, when two dark-skinned members of my congregation went running one day in Lansing, a driver in a passing car shouted the N-word at them.  Racism is an individual sin.

            But then we expand our view.  What if that driver was raised in a home in which their people only associated with their people?  Living in a group bubble increases cognitive biases against outsiders and makes it easy to denigrate those who are beneath your greatness and the virtues of your own culture.  It wasn’t so long ago that this area was simmering with group suspicions among the Poles, the Greeks, the Dutch, and the Germans, never mind African-Americans or Mexicans.  Racism is a group sin.

            And groups build things and incorporate their values into schools, churches, businesses, and governments.  But the trouble is that value systems, institutionalized, can institutionalize virtue and vice, and some perceived virtues can become ills when the context changes.  That’s part of why churches moved to these south suburbs, escaping a fearful pace of racial change in previous communities.  That’s why various churches are still doing it.  Institutional racism is also why a certain nearby school could vote about its future location based on a voting association defined by overwhelmingly white churches who shared a certain historically Dutch doctrinal standard.  I personally consider those doctrines mostly virtuous, but the ethnic enclave mentality crippled a Kingdom perspective when diverse Christians began to share the neighborhood.  The painfully obvious result was to exclude, almost entirely, a huge percentage of their current families, non-white, who also would be disproportionately and negatively affected by the move.  Racism is an institutional evil.

            Now, when we put all this together and throw in a nasty dose of honest history, we must reckon with the fact that racism becomes and is systemic.  It’s everywhere and manages to thread through all levels of American society (Systemic racism is global, too – we Americans are not exceptional in our sins, either.).

            Like this: an individual bank loan manager has an unconscious bias against his Chinese-American loan applicants.  He offers them a lower number to purchase a home with.  This limits them more tightly to certain neighborhoods.  Meanwhile, groups of real estate agents practice redlining and block busting, further restricting the options and access.  Homes are purchased, but when those neighborhoods don’t appreciate in value, or disproportionately suffer the effects of economic downturns, with resultant consequences for the next generation, suddenly racism has run all the way up the ladder to being systemic.

            It can work from the top-down, too.  Take the U.S. Declaration of Independence, venerable document that it is, which makes clear that “all men are created equal” and means it.  Men.  That is, white men (  See also Article 1, section 9, in the U.S. Constitution, which provides for continued importing of slaves until 1808, who must not be men created equal, in that case.  These historic documents, overall as progressive as they were in their day, are not flawless, and we must continue to reckon with their legacy in the institution of government, in the groups who have governed, and in the leaders, voters, and population.  To be sure, those documents have left very positive legacies as well, so we may have the patience and wisdom to be discerning, yet racism has been and continues to be a systemic evil.

            Racism has four general levels, and that’s why the work of a church called to be multi-ethnic, with all its good theology about God creating human beings in His image and uniting them in Christ, must aim toward a greater redemption than individual salvation and confront such sin at its various levels.  Otherwise, it is shallow to speak floridly about loving your neighbor, but then close ones ears to the complaints of a group which can prove that the justice they get is heavier-handed than the justice your group gets.  It is cheap to be a nice church that accepts everybody and is “open,” because that leaves intact the cultural privilege that communicates, “you are welcome to be here… and be like us.”  And it lacks integrity to run and hide in proclamations of “unity” and why we all “just have to love” when Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in America.

            Yes, love, but then love with God’s love.  For God so loved the world – persons, the Roman garrison in Jerusalem, the mono-ethnic school up the street, the gentrified neighborhood and the system that helped create it, you and me, the family business just trying to do the next good thing, my church and The Church – that eternal life could be received and all creation renewed.

            Next post: Some multi-leveled positive steps a church seeking to work out salvation in the ethnic arena can take.

            Someday: Why I think that racism is actually among the demonic “powers and principalities” of this age (Ephesians 6:12).

[1] As researched in Hofstede’s Cultures and Organizations, chapter 4 in the third edition.