Tag Archives: systemic racism

Michael Emerson, Thaddeus Williams, and Racial Disparities

Exploring the Cause(s) of racial disparities

I love it when my books start having a conversation with each other. Both Divided by Faith and Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth ask the question: Why do we see so much racial inequality in America? Or, rather, how do we go about answering this question? Emerson (Divided by Faith) and Williams (Confronting Injustice) come at the questions with different goals and perspectives. The way they answer these questions — and the way those answers bounce off one another — have a lot to teach us about the need for having multiple mental categories by which to view complex problems, and the danger of having only a single category. 

Review of Divided by Faith

You may want to review two key ideas from Divided by Faith: The “racialized society“, and the “religio-cultural toolset.” The racialized society is “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” The racialized society describes the problem of race in America. Despite success in abolishing slavery and ending Jim Crow segregation Americans are still profoundly divided by race and that division leads to unequal outcomes. 

Christians, like others, see the racial division and inequality and attempt, using resources at hand, to solve the problem. Those “resources at hand” are what Emerson calls a “religio-cultural toolset,” or the way our religious and cultural categories help us interpret the world. Emerson argues that the evangelical toolset is comprised of three fundamental beliefs. 

First, we are fundamentally responsible for our own actions. We are accountable before God for our individual sins (individualism). Second, that sin works itself out in our relationships and leads to division and animosity (relationalism). Third, structural attempts to solve society’s problems are misplaced and should not be trusted because they ignore the root of the problem (antistructuralism). 

This toolset helps evangelicals see racism in terms of bigotry and individual acts of discrimination but prevents them from seeing broader structures or systems (in the justice system, education, housing, policing, etc.) which might account for inequality based on race.

Evangelicals try to solve for X in the equation:

Equally Created + Equal Opportunity + X = Unequal Outcome

Since structures are excluded from possible answers to X then evangelicals default to answers that go back to individualism (life choices, possibly arising from culture) and relationalism (isolated instances of discrimination or family breakdown). Emerson believes that a limited religio-cultural toolset prevents evangelicals from providing meaningful solutions to the division and inequality found in our racialized society

Social Justice A and Social Justice B

Now let’s turn to Thaddeus Williams in his new and well-praised book Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. In it, Williams distinguishes between “social justice A” and “social justice B” (both stand in contrast to a lack of concern with social justice.) Williams holds in tension the two ideas present in his title. He wants to confront injustice (racism, bigotry, oppression, systemic evil) while holding firmly to the truth. His emphasis is on this latter part and, in doing so, he spends much of his time critiquing social justice B. 

Both the A model and the B model of social justice care about justice and use a similar vocabulary. Distinguishing between A and B is what the book is about, so I won’t do a full delineation here. Instead, I’m going to focus on just one chapter to show how the two differ in trying to answer the same question presented by Emerson in Divided by Faith. Why do we see racial inequality? 

Unequal Outcomes and Systemic Injustice

Williams begins his chapter “The Disparity Question” by pointing out that Social Justice A and B have different definitions of systemic injustice. According to theory A “systemic injustice is any system that either requires or encourages those within the system to break the moral laws God revealed for his creatures’ flourishing.” Biblical examples include laws established by Darius and Pharoah and the Imperial Cult in the New Testament. While I think this definition is too narrow[1] it offers a good starting point and highlights the contrast with theory B. 

Social Justice B offers a different picture. Williams: “From a Social Justice B perspective, the way you spot systemic injustice is by looking for unequal outcomes. An unequal outcome becomes damning evidence that sexism, racism, or some other evil ‘ism’ is at the foundation of the system.” In other words, unequal outcomes are sufficient and definitive evidence to show that a system or institution is systemically unjust.

Why, then, do we see inequality? Williams quotes Ibram X. Kendi, an exemplar of Social Justice B in answering: “racial disparities must be the result of racial discrimination.” And again, “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”[2] According to Social Justice B, inequality comes from discrimination which is baked into the system.

To illustrate how this plays out, let’s consider the New Jersey Turnpike where “black drivers received nearly twice as many speeding tickets as white drivers.” According to theory B, this disparity proves racial discrimination in policing. However, when a follow-up study was performed, a different story came to light. The study found that “in the southern segment of the turnpike, where the speed limit is 65 m.p.h., 2.7 percent of black drivers were speeders, compared with 1.4 percent of white drivers. Among drivers going faster than 90 m.p.h., the disparity was even greater.” In other words, black drivers were twice as likely to be speeding. But the story doesn’t stop there: “Demographic research has shown that the black population is younger than the white population, and younger drivers are more likely to speed.” In other words, the disparity, in this case, doesn’t appear to arise either from racial profiling, or from race, but from age.

Williams does not deny the existence of racial profiling or real discrimination (“Sinful discrimination indeed causes real disparities”) but says that we are too hasty to say that all disparities come from discrimination or systemic injustice. There may be other culprits.

It might be better, in my opinion, to view the presence of racial inequalities as an invitation to explore the ways either structures or discrimination or the effects of history, might contribute to those outcomes.  

 The Magic Wand of Equality

Williams invites us to perform a thought experiment. Imagine a world with zero discrimination. In that world, someone has a magic wand that he can wave to also eliminate all inequality. Everyone wakes up with one million dollars. It would not be long before unequal outcomes crept back in. Why? Different people make different choices with what to do with their money. Some would splurge and some would invest. Using this thought experiment Williams seeks to show that, while personal choice is not the only factor in different outcomes, it is a factor that is often ignored by those in the Social Justice B camp.[3][4]

Williams draws out two main concerns for the Social Justice B narrative that unequal outcomes must be the result of systemic discrimination. First, he argues, taking discrimination as a one-size-fits-all explanation is too simplistic. Such a simplistic explanation will cause us to see discrimination where it doesn’t exist and may prevent us from clearly identifying the real injustices around us. 

Second, if we fail to distinguish between inequalities that come from discrimination and those that arise out of personal choice, then we risk repeating failures of modern history. The magic wand of equality takes the form of oppressive government intervention which subverts the role of personal decision making. If personal choices lead to different outcomes and “different outcomes are a priori evidence of injustice, then freedom itself is unjust.” 

Sociologist George Yancey shares this concern in his critique of Kendi’s How to Fight Racism points out that “since Kendi argues that any differences between racial groups are due to racism, then to have the wrong idea about, say capitalism, is to not fully allow the mandates of antiracism if capitalism can be shown to contribute to differences between racial groups.” To be antiracist, we must also be anticapitalist. Since capitalism leads to different outcomes, supporters of capitalism are racist. 

Again, Williams doesn’t say that personal choice is all that matters, nor does he say that some cases of inequality can’t rightly be blamed on systemic injustice and discrimination. Instead, he’s concerned that if we believe it’s the only possible reason, then we will be blind to real injustice and offer dangerous “solutions” in the form of oppressive government intervention in the name of fighting injustice. 

The Danger of being Jobs Friends

I agree with much of Williams’ arguments in this chapter, but I have a few critiques. First, he tends to downplay the role of past discrimination as it concerns unequal outcomes. Let’s say that past systemic injustice led to unequal outcomes among people of different racial groups (as it most certainly did) and that while the current system is, at least on paper, totally free, it leads to the perpetuation of that inequality (up for debate)[5]. Such a system may not be unjust by Williams’ definition (it doesn’t require or encourage anyone to break God’s law) but it perpetuates the result of the past discrimination, one that was based on race. By what lens should a Christian view this moral dilemma? Williams does not explore that question.

My second concern does not go to Williams’ argument, but to the way aspects of his logic play out in real-world minds. If Emerson is right about the limited cultural toolset and the general difficulty evangelicals have in seeing structural issues or solutions, then an overemphasis on choice could lead to the following wrong conclusions: Poor outcomes come from poor choices. African Americans have worse outcomes. Therefore, African Americans make poor choices. Therefore (and this would never be stated out loud) there must be something inherently wrong within African Americans that leads to poor choices and poor outcomes. I’m not saying this last step necessarily follows from the premises, or is logical, but the step isn’t hard for many to take. It doesn’t take too long to get from “it’s all about personal choice” to real instances of feelings of supremacy and attitudes of bigotry. 

We might call this the problem of being Job’s friends. When Job suffered disaster after disaster his friends had only one lens by which to interpret these events. Job must have sinned. He must deserve what he had coming to him. They could not see any other explanation and that earned them God’s rebuke. 

The Danger of Having a Single Lens

Emerson and Williams have different concerns, but both point to the real dangers of viewing the world through a single lens. Emerson argues that white evangelicals fail to see real structural issues that contribute to a racialized society because of an overly individualistic religio-cultural toolset. Williams argues that Social Justice B advocates fail to recognize the complexity of inequality because they see discrimination as the only cause. Both failures of vision lead to either ineffective or dangerous solutions.

Complex problems require us to view the world through a multitude of perspectives. Inequality is a complex problem and we’re not well served by looking for single answers (personal choice, discrimination, historical impact). Neither extremes offer meaningful solutions because they fail to recognize the complex world in which we live.[6][7]

Both also, I believe, miss out on the nature and consequences of the gospel. Social Justice B, in transferring all guilt to the (other) tribe or the system, can fail to recognize the truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” By contrast, an overly individualistic reading of the gospel leads us to miss out on the calling to seek justice in the broader society. It could fail to recognize that God is not only concerned about saving souls but redeeming the entire cosmos. 

Footnotes:

[1] I believe Williams’s definition of systemic injustice is too narrow because he focuses only on whether or not it actively encourages someone to break God’s law. I think a system could be unjust by establishing a system wherein one group is discriminated against through the morally neutral behaviors of the people in the society. Consider drug sentencing laws. The war on drugs set up sentencing guidelines that were far harsher for drugs common in African American communities than those in White communities which led to racial disparities within the criminal justice system. In such a system, it’s hard to see how a judge or a prosecutor would be actively disobeying God (at least in any obvious way) by following the guidelines imposed by the law. Yet, one could argue that the sentencing disparities, and their impact, led to injustice against African Americans. 

[2] Either Williams or Kendi or both seem to be missing a categorical distinction between discrimination and structural injustice. Per Emerson’s categories, discrimination falls under the category of “relationalism.” That is, discrimination is performed by one individual against another. In structured/systemic injustice, injustice can be maintained without active discrimination (see footnote 1). I’m guessing that Kendi believes that the systems are discriminatory, or as I saw later, that discrimination is baked into the system. In that case, then, it might be helpful to distinguish between the two types of discrimination at play: relational and structural. 

[3] Not only is the idea that personal choices affect outcomes intuitive it is also biblical. Williams cites several Proverbs to make his point.

[4] Williams’ “magic equality wand,” thought experiment show distinctions between individuals, but the question in this chapter is over racial disparities in groups. 

Consider this Twitter exchange: 

4/21/21 Anthony B. Bradley (@drantbradley) “White racism is not the cause of *everything* that’s wrong in poor black communities across America. Progressives ignore this fact, infantilize blackness, & won’t invite moral responsibility and conservatives know this but tend to weaponize it for their own self-righteousness.” 

4/22/21 Bradley Mason (@AlsoACarpenter) “But this confuses the issue. Everyone knows that bad behavior causes problems in EVERY community. The question that White Supremacy is brought in to help answer is, why is the DISPARITY between racial communities? Conservatives want to point to individual behaviors, but that doesn’t explain inter-group outcome disparity, only individual outcome disparity. Liberals at least recognize that individual and systemic racism is the broad explanation for vast society-wide racial disparity.”

Mason Bradly makes a good point and, to my knowledge, Anthony Bradley did not respond. However, what if there are personal behaviors that are more or less common in one group than another? (Williams earlier cites the Success Sequence). Could that be weighed as a possible explanation for disparities between groups? 

[5] This sentence represents a hypothetical not a statement of my personal belief. On the one hand, there’s strong historical evidence that greater freedom leads to greater equality. The most equal societies tend to be those with democratic systems. However, it is not hard to imagine how a capitalist society, given the existence of historical injustice, would perpetuate certain forms of inequality, especially without safeguards. Those groups with capital (power) could secure the best schools, places to live, and wealth-building institutions while those without such power would be shut out. A person with more power would have more choice and could use that choice to increase the wealth gap. If power is already distributed based on race then racial inequality could be perpetuated through the free and moral choices of the individual actors. Social Justice B solutions to this dilemma, however, seem dangerous to me (see Williams and Yancey) but it’s worth noting the existence of such a dilemma.

[6] Walter Wink’s quote (from a completely different context) also fits well here: “It is a virtue to disbelieve in something that does not exist. But it is dangerous and arrogant to disbelieve in something simply because it exists outside our current, limited categories.”

[7] This narrative-first thinking is perfectly illustrated by the left and right’s responses to the Derek Chauvin conviction and the tragic death of Ma’Khia Bryant as David French demonstrates in this piece.