“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,
be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then
You will be able to test and approve what God’s will is —-
God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The Apostle Paul
Letter to the Romans 12.2
What is “racism?”
One of the general differences between white folks and People of Color is their perspective on what constitutes racism. Generally speaking, whites tend to think of racism as particular thoughts, actions, and statements that demean and discriminate against another person based on the color of their skin. When the topic of racism is broached, they will often point out that they have never owned slaves or been part of a group that discriminates. They may point to good relationships with BIPOC co-workers and may even count some Persons of Color in their circle of friends and acquaintances. On a personal level, these white folks genuinely try to get along in friendly and respectful ways with people who are racially different from them.
However, generally speaking, People of Color see and experience racism in ways much deeper and broader than their white counterparts. They and their ancestors have had to contend every day with messages and slights, both overt and implied, that consider them less able, less fortunate, and less deserving of rights and privileges afforded to their white counterparts. They must contend with a culture that considers white ways of acting, thinking, dressing, and going through life as the norm. This leaves many BIPOC folks with a challenge. Either they learn the rules of the white ways or they run the risk of being demeaned, discriminated against, excluded, or harmed. As long ago as 1901, W.E.B Dubois described this dilemma in his ground-breaking book, The Souls of Black Folk:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strengths keep it from being torn asunder.”
What Dubois describes is the tension many People of Color experience of not belonging to the mainstream of society. As a result, they must live with their “twoness,’ adjusting their way of being, and code-switching when they come into predominantly white spaces. And while Dubois made this observation over 120 years ago, the testimony of many BIPOC folks is those words are as true today as they were in 1901.
The reason for this continuing struggle is because racism in our society is not just interpersonal but also institutional and systemic. Rooted in the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and white violence, many of the practices designed to afflict BIPOC and marginalize them have continuing consequences despite claims to the contrary. Let me offer two simple examples.
Racism in Housing and Education
In the 1930s and 1940s banks and other lending institutions under the direction of the Federal government identified communities that had a significant percentage of Black and Brown residents as bad credit risks. In many cases those communities were made up of people who were there because of segregation that did not allow Black and Brown families to live in predominantly white communities. The designation of being a “bad credit risk” had nothing to do with their financial status, but rather the color of their skin. But even when segregation was legally eliminated the prejudice continued, and people either wishing to move out of a segregated neighborhood or fix up their homes were not able to get loans because of the process called “redlining.” Thus even today, almost a century later, there are many predominantly Black and Brown communities that are underfunded, underserved, and unable to access resources to improve their living conditions.
Another example comes from the area of public education. For the last 12 years, I have been part of a faith-based social justice organization called POWER, which has been fighting to get the Pennsylvania State Legislature to fund poor urban school districts at levels equitable to the predominantly white suburban districts. We have shown that the pattern of funding is racially biased and convinced the legislature to adopt a funding formula to correct the funding discrepancy. But the Republican-dominated legislature has refused to use the formula for all the education funding they approve. Moreover, this past fall a class action suit a judge ruled that the Legislature must change their funding practices to ones more equitable for all school districts. Yet even then, the predominantly white and conservative legislature has balked at that order.
Now while I know the situation in Pennsylvania best, this same discriminatory approach to public school funding exists in a number of other states across the country. And again, is an example of systemic racism, in this case, the legislature, continuing to marginalize, discriminate and demean poor whites and BIPOC communities.
While I have provided these two examples I could cite many others in the systems of healthcare, employment, interactions with police, the criminal justice system, voting rights, and more. The data that describes these discrepancies in all these areas is beyond dispute. When seen from this perspective, racism is not just how I happen to relate to other individuals who are racially different than me, but actually how the institutions and systems that structure and govern our society and culture continue to divide and separate.
The effect of this systematizing of racist practices and policies is that for many, if not most, individuals, both white and BIPOC, those practices are considered as “normal,” as “the way things are,” as fixed and unchangeable. And so our attitudes, perspectives, and even politics around these issues are shaped by what we have come to see as the status quo. We don’t question or challenge residential segregation, inequitable school funding, the absence of healthcare in certain communities, or the disparate brutality of police officers against people of color. As the apostle Paul suggests in the passage above, our minds and our lives have “become conformed to the patterns of this world.” We don’t see the inequity the discrimination, the sin and evil of racism, because we don’t question it.
No doubt the reasons for these discrepancies in institutional policies and practices are complex, but the process of expanding our understanding of how racism is at work, starts by naming those inequities and then asking “Why?” Why is the quality of a person’s education, housing, or healthcare determined by the color of their skin and where they live? Why are prisons overpopulated with Black and Brown bodies relative to their percentage of the population? Why can school boards and governors ban books and outlaw courses that tell the more troublesome part of our nation’s history? Why are we still so racially divided 160 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment and nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement?
Renewing Our Minds
The apostle Paul says we should be “transformed by the renewal of our minds.” When it comes to systemic racism this means we have to look beyond the interpersonal to the way our laws, policies, and business practices continually deprive BIPOC of the resources and opportunities generally afforded to white people, especially wealthier white people. We need to develop a curiosity as to why the basic services and opportunities in our society are so unequally distributed and available based on a person’s race. We need to look beyond our individualistic orientation to see the forces that advantage some and deprive others.
As I have stressed throughout this series antiracism is not just a political or social concern, it is also a deeply spiritual issue. Too many of us have looked away from the suffering and deprivation of those denied basic rights and basic opportunities in our society due to the way our institutions and systems work. To wish or pray that poverty and discrimination will end without recognizing and calling out the policies, practices, and laws that create them is to fail to “renew our minds” to see the bigger picture and arena in which racism operates.
W.EB. Dubois (1901/1995) The Souls of Black Folks. New York: Signet Classic