Confronting the Silence of Structural Racism

The following was originally published here:

There is recognition at the United Nations that people of African descent have been subject to a fairly specific kind of insipid global racism. This racism is somewhat unique in that it isn't simply based on standard reactions to differences in skin and hair color. The structural racism that led the United Nations to dedicate a decade combatting it is based on some unique factors: 1) the commodification of human beings in the widespread practice of institutional slavery -- unique in scope to those of African descent, 2) the resultant ingrained habits of people and society to objectify people of dark skin and 3) the realities of poverty that arise in black communities because of historical mistreatment.

On Nov. 3, I attended a high profile meeting on this subject in the ECOSOC chamber at the United Nations. Harry Belafonte was the most famous speaker of the event, but others were as powerful. Tamir Rice's mother gave a very moving appeal, as did Alicia Garza of the Black Lives Matter movement. There were scholars on hand who provided an international perspective, helping the large crowd get their mind around the global reality of structural racism. Places in Latin and South America have their own struggles with structural racism against those of African descent.

Ms. Gay McDougall, member of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, gave an eloquent call to confront the racism that runs like an undercurrent -- beneath our conscious lives for the most part. This undercurrent is fed by deeply ingrained civic practices that need to be confronted and reformed. These civic practices form a kind of symbiotic relationship with deeply rooted biases that can have tragic effects -- as in the epidemic of police shootings.

Civic practices which incarnate structural racism provided the fuel for the eruption in Ferguson, Mo. Michael Brown's shooting would have been just another one of the many had the slow and callous response of the police not been viewed against the backdrop of ongoing mistreatment of people of color in St. Louis. Of course the unbridled use of force by policemen against people of color is a social evil that needs immediate attention. But so does the broader context. In St. Louis there are 90 municipalities, many of which have their own police force. Thirty of those "small towns in a big city" have been shown to have racist policies -- the most egregious is that of using excessive fines and unequal enforcement to fund their police force. This and other such injustices were called out in the Department of Justice report on Ferguson and have been addressed by the Ferguson Commission. Attention in St. Louis is currently on building accountability and follow-up structures for the things that have been promised by political leaders.

Though many have issue with the phrase, we are indebted to the Black Lives Matter movement. This energetic uprising of young people is helping to shine a light on some very dark practices. As my friend Bruce Knots said as he opened the meeting at the United Nations, "Of course all lives matter, of course police lives matter, but when a house is on fire you don't call the fire truck to every house on the block. You send it to the house on fire."

And in this case the house is clearly on fire. One in 3 African-American males born in 2001 will go to jail in their lifetime. Blacks are more likely to be incarcerated (for the same crimes) than whites, and across the board live shorter lives. Between the zip codes of 63105 (an affluent area of St. Louis) and 63106 (north city mostly black St. Louis) there is an unfathomable 18-year difference in life span. That's not just poor decision making. It is a social system in desperate need of reform.
All of my black friends have a "DWB" story (driving while black). These aren't imagined, as a recent New York Times report clearly demonstrates in a report on Oct. 24 out of North Carolina: "Officers were more likely to stop black drivers for no discernible reason. And they were more likely to use force if the driver was black, even when they did not encounter physical resistance."

While multiple national surveys show that blacks and whites use marijuana at virtually the same rate, black residents in North Carolina are charged with the sole offense of possession of minor amounts of marijuana five times as often as white residents are. The question for me, when I read stats like these (and there are a multitude): where is the Christian outcry and the correlative political movement to combat such evil? That such biases may be unconscious and "structural" makes it no less insidious. It seems to me that we are in the "banality of evil" territory, where systemic injustice is just the rote and routine thing too "normal" to fight.

I was pleased to go the U.N. meeting with my friend Dr. Tyrone Pitts, general secretary emeritus of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Pitts is one of the key leaders of the New Baptist Covenant, the Jimmy Carter-inspired effort to get white and black Baptists working together. The movement has evolved from the large gathering in Atlanta in 2008 to congregations forming covenants to work together. I have great hope for this effort. In Dallas churches are working to confront the evil of predatory lending. In St. Louis two churches are working on multiple projects that confront racial realities in that city.

Sometimes it seems to take a common enemy (injustice for example) for we humans to see those with differences as the "human siblings" they are. If your church (or other like social organization) doesn't currently have a "cross-racial" congregational partner, I'd encourage you to look at the New Baptist Covenant model. It's going to take us all working together to confront the silence and to dismantle the structures that keep us in cycles of socially supported racism. And if you haven't seen the house that's on fire, I'd encourage you to look closer for the flames.