Intentional and Unintentional Injustice

This is the third 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

In the 90s, somewhere after parachute pants and before Furbies, a series of books called “Magic Eye” had their moment.

Magic Eye was a simple concept. When I first opened one of the books there were no words, storylines, or characters, instead each page had a large image on it. On first glance, all I saw was just a seemingly random design, a mix of pointillism and poorly chosen 1980s wallpaper. But upon closer examination, and by training my eyes in a technique of holding the book close to the eyes and slowly drawing it out, a brand new image would emerge. Perhaps the 3D image of a duck, or a fishing trip, or a landscape.

As an untrained viewer each page was just a pixelated mess, but later a whole narrative could be found within. I just needed to know how to “unlock” the experience held within. And once, my eyes had been trained, I couldn’t not see the hidden image.

Similarly, in the world around us, the engaged disciple of Christ must do the work of training her eyes to see injustice because unless she trains her eyes, she will never be able to act as an agent of redemption to a hurting world.

In many cases, injustice is obscured in our world and unmasking this hiddenness is a key first step in pursuing the justice and righteousness of God in our world. For many Christ-followers as soon as these initial obstructions are removed they want to jump straight to action, but a path of learning is often required first or this new found engagement might actually do more harm than good. Until we learn to recognize the image behind the dots and the deeper issues beneath injustice, we aren’t ready to effectively counter its negative impact.

So, let’s set out to re-train our eyes. In the next several posts we will chronicle some different categories of injustice and for each of them, the hidden side that cloaks itself in normativity. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use racial injustice in America as our example because it is so central to understanding so much about our particular context, but know that this framework can be applied to injustice stemming from any number of possible causes.

The most obvious form of injustice we know is this: intentional injustice. When one sets out to create a biased and unjust outcome based on planning and forethought. Almost all of us would be quick to call, this practice out as sinful and ungodly and while most of us could name some person who acts that way, I think we are oftentimes unaware of just how prevalent that “person” might be.

For example, I know of a strong, Bible-believing church where there were members in good standing who were “that person”. One man ran a business that as an unwritten policy only hired white candidates. Another member had a personal policy of refusing to donate money to any Christian organization that participated in “race mixing”. I use these examples to illustrate that “those people” may not be quite as other as we’d like to think.

But, these flashing neon examples of injustice aren’t the end of the problem. Because, for a practice to be unjust, it need not be intentional. Injustice can come about because of unintentional actions as well. And these hidden injustices can have a tremendous impact on lives, outcomes, and experiences.

So let’s look at a few examples of these hidden, unintentional injustices:

An innocuous trip to the local big box retailer to pick up bandages, hair products, and a doll for your daughter seems like it shouldn’t lead to any unjust encounters, but depending on your skin color and the store you choose, it may. If you are a person of color, you may experience a lack of bandages in your skin tone, no products that work for your hair texture, and no dolls that look like your daughter. 

This may seem like an inconvenience, but this type of experience and other racialized slights have been shown by social psychologists to have a measurable negative impact on the lives of non-white people in our society. Again, this is unintentional. It isn’t that Johnson & Johnson or Mattel is setting out in some malicious campaign to demean black and brown people, but the damage that is done is real and unjust nonetheless.

Or consider, this example with broader impact. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? In our society, social networks are often key to jobs, promotions, and so much more. But, both social networks and capital are severely segregated. So if most business owners are white, most of their social circles are white, and most business owners hire from within their own social circles, who will get those jobs and opportunities? Will the results be racially diverse or will they be homogenous? Our employment process unintentionally creates and perpetuates economic inequality.

Finally, consider the concept of implicit bias, which is the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Study after study shows that Americans of all races are preferentially predisposed towards white people and against persons of other races. Remember, again, this is by definition an unconscious, unintentional process. 

Various implicit bias studies have shown:

  • 90% of white people are positively biased towards white faces

  • In a Weapon Identification Task, whites are associated with holding garden tools and blacks with weapons

  • On eBay an iPod held by a black hand in the photo will receive 21% less offers than one held by a white hand

The good news is awareness is the first step in retraining your brain to dismiss implicit bias and that over time, progress can be made to counter this unintentional, but very harmful reality. 

In response to all this, some people may say, “But as Christians, it’s the heart that counts . . .” And, yes, while I would agree that there is a difference of culpability between intentional and unintentional unjust practices that, first, we are followers of a religion that is based in repentance. Martin Luther said that the life of every believer to begin with repentance. So we would all do well to examine ourselves deeply, not just for our overt prejudice, but to look beyond the dots to see the hidden image as well.

Second, the fact that these injustices are unintentional actually makes them more dangerous, not more dismissable. They hide behind facades and ignorance and thus perpetuate themselves unknowingly. Finally, “it’s the heart that counts” simply isn’t the standard we hold our children to, so why do we give ourselves a pass? If your son accidentally hits your daughter, you don’t say, “He didn’t mean to, so stop whining little girl.” Do you? No, you teach your son to say, “I’m sorry I hurt you, I’ll be more careful and do better next time.” 

It is the impact, not the intention that matters.

If we are going to be the people of justice that the Bible asks us to be, we must step into this journey and seek to train our eyes and hearts to see and counter injustice in all its forms. Just as we found the hidden images in those Magic Eye books of another era, today we must look for the ways that injustice is hidden in the unintentional. By doing thusly, we can develop our own skills for empathy, equity, and just living.