Individual and Systemic

This is the fourth post in a series of seven examining the Bible’s concept of justice and the action expected of Christ-followers by our King. These principles are essential to the ministry and the faithfulness of 2nd Mile Ministries to remain on mission.

Written by Marc Nettleton, Interim Executive Director

I still remember it clearly.

I was 11 years old and my family was on our way home from dinner in Minneapolis. Going back to our suburb on the east side of St. Paul, we drove through a neighborhood that was very different from the world I was accustomed to. The houses were different. The yards were different. The people were of a race that would have been an anomaly in my school.

It was a neighborhood that in retrospect looked a lot like the one I now call home.

And I was scared.

I'd heard stories about communities where you should lock your doors while you drove through. I'd heard about "bad neighborhoods". I'd heard about "sketchy parts of town".

But it was more complex than that.

Because I also very distinctly remember feeling really upset that I was scared. Because being scared could only mean one thing.

I was, therefore, racist.

There was no escaping the conclusion. This white kid was afraid to drive through a black neighborhood. My personal feelings and interpretation betrayed me. They revealed a horrible conclusion, I must be racist.

And most of us born after 1980, you know that this is about the worst accusation you can have leveled against you. Even when your own psyche is the accuser. To maintain personal feelings of prejudice against others is one of the very few "sins" that our culture will almost universally agree upon.

I was so upset about this internal discovery that I wanted to cry.

But there was a massive shortcoming to this school of thought. It was one I believed at the time and it still is what most majority culture folks in this country still believe. I was severely limiting the definition of injustice and racism. I was defining racism as being equivalent to personal feelings of prejudice held by an individual and nothing more.

Many times in our vernacular, charges of racial injustice are even less complete than the one my 11 year old mind constructed. There is a popular belief that one can essentially act and believe however they want, but as long as they aren’t an active KKK member, they can’t possibly be racist.

This definition falls very short.

Individual prejudice is entirely real and no person walks this earth that is free from prejudice. All people hold prejudices on some level, but racism is far, far more involved, complicated, and dangerous than just prejudice itself.

In fact, even if we imagined an individual person who was entirely free from any bit of racialized prejudice, there is a hidden side to individual bias that still perpetuates injustice that must be named and countered. This is systemic injustice (Also, called corporate or institutional injustice) and it is dangerous precisely because it often hides itself within systems so that even well-meaning Christ-followers cannot see its impact or reality.

Injustice, in general, and racism, in particular, is a much, much larger phenomenon than individual feelings. It is both a blatant and a covert reality. It exists in intentional and unintentional forms. It exists on an individual level and a group level. Prejudice held by individuals is a type of racism, but its most pervasive and most harmful forms are those that are played out in structures and systems. And these often hide themselves, meaning that the worst injustices are usually invisible to those who benefit from them and have the power to dismantle them. This is why we must train our eyes to be able to see injustice in all its forms so that we, as the body of Christ, might be a people who counteract it.

Before diving into a definition and example of systemic injustice, it may be helpful to look at a Biblical framework to help us understand all of this. The majority of the audience for this post is most likely American and Americans are a remarkably individualistic people. Don’t take that term to mean selfish, but rather that as a matter of worldview, the culture of the United States primarily sees individuals rather than groups. Our worldview is individualistic rather than communal. 

This, over-emphasis on the individual can tarnish the way we see the world or even the Scriptures. For the Bible, at various times operates from both an individualistic and a communal perspective. For the sake of time, let’s just look at one example, the repentance of Nehemiah. 

In Nehemiah 1, the title character, an Israelite who was born and raised in Babylon, receives a report from some travelers about the state of disrepair and disgrace in Jerusalem. Upon hearing these words, Nehemiah’s response is to fast and pray and confess as follows:

“I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed your commands, decrees, and laws you gave your servant Moses.”

Did you catch that? Nehemiah, who has never even been to Jerusalem, repented on behalf of the sins of people that he has never even met. By our individualized American worldview, this is outrageous, but in the Bible this prayer is commended as righteous. Nehemiah and many other Biblical characters take a communal view and we would do well to heed this reality in examining systemic injustice.

For injustice is not merely an individual act, but it is found in systems and institutions. Systemic injustice can be defined as injustice that exists in social and political institutions through impersonal, implicit, and amorphous features. 

Let’s examine a few ways that this injustice plays out in our modern era. 

Systemic injustice exists in the medical field:

When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.” (New York Times, Jan 2015)

Systemic injustice exists in retail and sales:

When controlled experiments were done sending black and white actors to purchase cars, the black purchasers were offered an initial price averaging $700 higher and were given far less favorable terms in negotiations.

Systemic injustice exists in politics: 

Members of both parties on the state legislative level have been shown to be statistically less responsive to emails from constituents with “black sounding” names. (This “names phenomenon” has also been proven to get less responses for and from resumes, college professors, and apartment rental ads

Systemic injustice exists in criminal justice:

Black children are 18 times more likely than white children to be sentenced as adults in criminal proceedings and though usage rates are almost identical, black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans.  

This list could go on indefinitely because the point is: Systemic injustice exists in every city, town, campus, neighborhood, and career field. We could name any field or place and evidence of systemic injustice would be found there, if we have eyes to see it. 

However, if we are not prepared to have those eyes, we will never see it and if we never see it, we will never act against it. In fact, while in a later post we will detail practical steps one can take to act against systemic injustice, the first key is developing eyes to see it by acting to educate ourselves and developing empathy for those who are impacted by it.

The good news in all this is that Jesus is reconciling all things back to himself by the cross (Col 1:20). His reconciliation includes healing the hearts of individuals, but it doesn’t stop there, one day he will also reconcile all the brokenness of our systems and restore justice and equity for all people, for all of time. God is present with the oppressed. He is on their side. He identifies with them. He stands in opposition to those who oppose them and one day he will set all things right. Until that day, however, we are called to be aware of these injustices and to labor to undo them wherever we see them.