People tell me they’re tired. This epidemic is exhausting. It’s gone on for so long, and they are ready for it to be over. Four hundred years, for crying out loud!
Oh! You thought I meant the COVID pandemic. Yeah, that one wears me out, too. But I’m talking about racism. The disease of racism that arrived on these shores in 1619. Well, actually, you could say 1492, but we’ll have that discussion in another essay.
You might think that I’m about to start pointing fingers at hateful people who harbor a conscious bias toward people with black and brown skin. Worse yet, you might assume that I’m insisting that I’m clearly not one of those people.
Actually, I’m up to something else. I want to talk with you about what it means today for us to be Apostles. To be sent by Jesus to announce the kingdom. “To cure the sick, raise the dead, heal the lepers, and cast out demons.” (Matthew 10:8)
Jesus sends us out to heal body and soul. Not just the bodies and souls of individuals. But also the body and soul of communities, of societies, of nations. Systemic racism is an infection of the communal body, of how we have organized ourselves into a society.
Before going any further, let’s use Robin DiAngelo’s words to be clear about what I don’t mean by racism:
“If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race, then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you. I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral.” (From White Fragility)
Systemic racism refers to ways that institutions implement and sustain practices and procedures that privilege one group of people over others. In America, that group is white people.
For instance, for decades the practice of redlining—made illegal in the 1960’s—prevented banks from issuing mortgages and commercial loans to families and businesses in mostly black neighborhoods. Lack of capital led to neighborhood decline and decreased property value.
School funding in many places depends upon local property taxes, so the schools in redlined minority neighborhoods saw a steady decline in funding. Since education is a primary means of personal advancement in America, children living in black neighborhoods are to this day placed at a relative disadvantage. Multiply this effect by the number of generations affected by it.
This is the kind of sickness that Jesus sends us into this world to heal. I know, I know. Lots of us will say, “I’m not a racist.” “I’ve got black and brown friends.” Nobody is denying that. We’re not talking about individual attitudes here.
Maybe you get the idea of systemic racism. And you see some vexing problems like I do. There’s no individual or cabal to blame. Systemic racism is about impersonal forces imbedded in business practices, social norms, and laws. Worse yet, we’re all caught up in this institutional web whether we like it or not. So you might ask, with some measure of frustration, “What do you expect me to do?”
What Jesus expects us to do is face systemic racism head on. No matter how trying, frustrating, threatening, or exhausting it may be. He sends us to do healing work, and all healing work begins with an honest diagnosis.
For me, this work begins with listening to those disadvantaged by the system that we all live in. Without the presumption that I know how to fix it.
I need to hear about “the talk,” what it’s like to be pulled over for driving while black, and the idea that whiteness itself is a social construct designed to protect status and power. (News flash: Italian, Greek, and Polish immigrants were not initially classified as white and faced discrimination. Let that sink in for a minute.)
What Jesus also expects us to do is to confront racism as people of the resurrection. As deadly as racism is, it cannot withstand forever the power of God’s love to make all things new. To bring life from death.
Apostles don’t just tell us that the resurrection happened long ago or that it will happen at some point in the future. Jesus sends Apostles to proclaim that the resurrection is already at work right now. Here. On planet Earth. And he expects us to use our hands and feet, to use our very lives, to make that proclamation.