On Racism and Systemic Racism

I had a couple of interesting conversations about race with a couple of guys from church over the past week. One is black, the other is white. Both went to seminary, and neither are on the ‘woke’ end of the spectrum.

During the conversation, I asked them to define “systemic racism”. One guy paused to think, and couldn’t come up with a good working definition. The other guy didn’t have one of his own, but quoted a woke friend of his: “here’s a good one, I think: ‘A set of rules or policies, extant or not, that perpetuates favorability and advantages towards a particular race of people.’ For example, Harvard’s parentage rule; If your parents went to Harvard, you get to go – unlike everyone else, you don’t need to pass a test. Back in the day, Harvard was almost exclusively white, so that rule, although it doesn’t try to be racist, favors white people even today. I can see how something ought to be done about that.”
Personally, I’m not bothered by that rule, so I don’t see it as systemic racism and don’t think it needs to change: IMHO, Harvard should be allowed to admit/reject anyone based on whatever criteria they want. (they should just be honest about it)

[My wife pointed out that the rule shouldn’t be considered racist because it doesn’t seek to help white people. It seeks to help only a small specific group of people; and sure, a large percentage of those people just so happen to be white. But if your parents went to Yale or Princeton, that rule doesn’t help you one bit, regardless of how white you are. And if your parents aren’t white and went to Harvard, then that rule most definitely helps you even if you’re not white (eg, the Obama girls and tens of thousands of others. Harvard is less than 50% white, even though the national average is closer to 70% white). So that rule’s effect on race is accidental, not causal. I think she’s right.
Secondly, if accidental effects are fair game for the definition of systemic racism, then even drivers licenses qualify as “systemic racism”, since, supposedly, fewer blacks than whites have drivers licenses. Anyone care to do away with drivers’ licenses for that reason? I surely hope not. (But few things surprise me these days…) ]

But back to systemic racism…

Since the definition of systemic racism seemed elusive, I asked for a definition of racism. Definitions were quicker to come, but I don’t think either of my friend’s definitions quite captures the Bible’s stance on the subject.

Here’s mine: the inappropriate elevation or denigration of a person (or peoplegroup) based primarily on their race (or ethnicity).

Despite reading a number of various Christian articles on the subject, I haven’t found a definition quite like that. And consequently, I think many articles on racism fall short of a true Biblical perspective.


The first thing that might jump out in that definition is the ‘elevation’ part. Most (but not all) definitions of racism are preoccupied with the ‘denigration’ aspect. Fair enough. But elevation and denigration are flip-sides of the same coin, and the elevation part is often discarded prematurely. As far as the Bible is concerned, is immoral to inappropriately elevate a group of people because of their race/ethnicity. And as we look around our culture today, there is a lot of that going on. An awful lot! Both in and out of the Church. How is that not sin?

But here’s the part of my definition where things really get fun: “inappropriate”. And this is one that I have yet to see anywhere. Racism is immoral only when the elevation/denigration is inappropriate. To put it another way, there is a right way and a wrong way to elevate or denigrate a person/peoplegroup with reference to their race/ethnicity.

Don’t take it from me – take it from Paul himself:

[+] One of their very own prophets said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”. This testimony is true. So, rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13)

I would be quite curious to see how Keller, Chandler, Anyabwile, Platt, etc, would handle the thought of Paul denigrating an entire peoplegroup on the island of Crete, calling them “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” and doubling-down by saying “this testimony is true”. If you or I tried to paint any group of people today with that kind of broad brush, we’d be immediately called ‘racist’ and ejected out of every pulpit across these fruited plains. Except maybe the Westboro Baptists’. But Paul did it. And did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Seems to me that there are two conclusions at hand: Either

  • Paul is a racist (and we ought to send him packing to the Westboro Baptists), or
  • It is not immoral to make a denigrating sweeping generalization about a peoplegroup IF that generalization is generally true.

Until better options appear, I’m going with the latter.
Thus, I will not label as “immoral racism” any sweeping generalizations about a peoplegroup IF that generalization is generally true.
(SIDEBAR: If Titus interrputed Paul and said “Now c’mon, Brother Paul! Do you seriously think that every single person from the Island of Crete is an evil beast??!!”, I have no doubt he’d say “of course not, you dummy! I’m speaking in general terms about the average Cretan! Not everybody! Sheesh!!”)

Here’s another example from our good Apostle Paul. This one is on the flip-side of said coin:

[+] For I could almost wish to be cursed and cut off from the Messiah for the benefit of my brothers, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises. (Rom 9:3-4)

There you have it: A respecter of persons showing favoritism for those of his own race.
And because it also comes to us via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it’s wholly appropriate. (I suppose it’s possible that his elevation of them is not because he’s one of them, but rather, because he believes Jews are superior/favored people. Or maybe both [see v5]. But I don’t go that route.]

Until I see better options, I’m going to side with Paul say that a casual affinity and preference for one’s own peoplegroup is not the sin of racism. So if you want to sit with ‘your people’ in the school cafeteria – have at it. Or if you want to have a Korean church, or a Spanish church or a black church or a white church – have at it. No harm, no foul. (The sin would be saying “you can’t sit/come here: you’re not one of us”. That’s when the appropriate casual affinity crosses the line to inappropriate racism).


Perhaps more to the point: because I never see definitions of racism that include these concepts (or these verses), I don’t think the Church, broadly speaking, has a sufficient handle on definitions. Therefore, our discussions on these matters will never get solved. Noble aspirations notwithstanding, our efforts on “racial unity” and “racial reconciliation” and “social justice”, etc, cannot ever reach the point where they will pass Biblical muster.


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