The Dangers of Loose Language on Racism – A Response to Piper on Structural Racism

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In a blog post on the topic of structural racism, John Piper says that his goal is to “reduce the instinctive, white, evangelical reaction against the idea of structural racism or systemic racism.” His strategy is to show that “Bible-shaped people should expect to see structural racism almost everywhere in a fallen world.” The argument, in brief, is that racism is a natural result of sin working its way through all of life, and so we should expect to see it in a fallen world.

In responding to Piper, a man whom I deeply respect, I first want to point out a few very helpful things he does in his article:

1- He defines his terms.

He defines his terms. This may not seem noteworthy to some, but if you have followed any of the recent dialogue on the issue of racism, you’ll know how much of a breath of fresh air this is. I’ve argued elsewhere that much of this discussion has gone off the rails because of a confusion between race and culture. Such confusions are avoided by simply defining one’s terms. But one gets the feeling that many are opposed to defining the terms of this discussion from the fact that Piper is hesitant to give definitions, citing that some think definitions are a way to “find a loophole”. He rightly corrects them though, saying: “I want to close the loopholes. I don’t like walking in a haze of imprecision. People do escape things that way [by defining their terms]. But they also fall off cliffs. I don’t think that agreement which only survives in a fog is worth much.”

This attitude is laudable. As for his actual definitions, they’re spot on — with the exception of an omission in his definition of racism. He says racism is valuing one or more races as higher or lower than others. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Racism, at its root, is assigning any moral significance based on race. For instance, one could say or think, “black people are just not able think well, and so they’re not able to do well in school.” This would seem to slip by Piper’s definition, since the person is not saying that black people are less valuable, per se. But the speaker is assigning something of moral significance (namely, intellectual ability) based on race — and is therefore still racist, even if he values black people equally. I think Piper would agree with this though, so in general, his definitions are great.

2 – He issues a much needed caution 

He issues a much needed caution: “But beware of thinking that, because structural racism is pervasive, it is the decisive cause of all injustice or all inequalities. The pervasive presence of one type of cancer cell in the body does not make it the cause of every malady. Therefore, it is seldom helpful to wave the flag of structural racism without putting the finger on specific manifestations. The likelihood may be high that it played a part. But a good physician does his tests.” This, he will likely get some flack over. The crusaders riding the wave of structural racism do not like to be told that they need to “put a finger on specific manifestations” of that racism. This could be because they feel like such a request comes from a spirit which denies that structural racism even exists. It could also be because they have no specific manifestations to point to, so that such a request hampers their crusade. Regardless, Piper is right that the charge of structural racism is “seldom helpful” apart from pointing to specific manifestations.

The Damage of Loose Talk About “Structural Racism”

However, I don’t think Piper goes far enough here. And this is the primary concern I have with this article. It is not just that “waving the flag of structural racism” apart from specific manifestations is seldom helpful. I want to argue that it never is. In fact, I think it’s downright harmful. Allow me to explain: Presumably, the point of waving the flag of structural racism is to get people to notice it, so that it can be changed. In other words, I assume that action and change are the goal of pointing out structural racism. But abstractions can’t be acted upon or changed. Only particular manifestations of them can be.

If my wife tells me that there is a pattern of abuse in our marriage, I need to know what she means, or I won’t be able to change. The request for specifics is not an attempt to deny the reality of the abuse. I am a sinful man, and I really could be abusing her in ways that I hadn’t realized. But the abuse will continue to go unrealized, and therefore unchanged, until she (or someone else) helps me realize it by pointing out the specifics to me. If she, and say my pastor, are both unable to point out any instances of abuse, and if after much soul-searching, I am unable to identify a specific abusive attitude in my heart, what should I conclude? Should I conclude that “I am sinful, and therefore abusive — whether it can be pointed to, or not; whether I can ever identify it, or not”? That seems to be the implication with structural racism in this article. What good would that do? I would argue: none.

Presumably, my wife is being victimized by actual abusive actions by me, just as (presumably) black people are being victimized by actual racist actions or policies. But if actual abuses cannot ever be identified, they can never be remedied. What help then, can come of blanket accusations of abuse, or racism, apart from pointing out specific manifestations? None.

But it’s worse. In addition to being unhelpful, it is also harmful. Go back to the abuse analogy. If my wife accuses me of abuse, but after sincere effort to identify it (with the help of others, of course), I find no actual abuse in our relationship, I will be all the more hesitant to take such future accusations seriously. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. It takes a lot of emotional effort to search oneself with sincerity to be sure that one is not entertaining abusive — or racist — attitudes and actions.

Racism, like abuse, is a very serious charge, and having that charge leveled against you, followed by the necessary steps of trying to remedy it, is a scarring ordeal — especially when you emerge from the ordeal to find that there was no basis for the charge to begin with. Each time a person goes through such an ordeal with that outcome, it becomes less and less likely that they will be psychologically able to take such future accusations seriously. In fact, in the abuse analogy, even the pastor might begin to take the charge less seriously. After the third or fourth time of counseling the couple, only to find no evidence of the alleged abuse, the pastor will likely grow weary and dismiss any future allegations of the same.

Of course, this is harmful because the future allegations might be legitimate! In other words, just as charging a husband with abuse, apart from specific manifestations of that abuse, will lead to a relaxed sense of urgency on that issue, so also with racism. Waving the flag of structural racism, in the absence of specific manifestations, will only and inevitably lead to a culture desensitized by the very concept of racism. Who does this hurt? Primarily, it hurts the actual victims of actual manifestations of racism in the future, who will no longer be taken seriously as a result. But there is a sense in which it is also harmful to the one being falsely accused. Repeated false accusations of abuse are, themselves, abusive. Likewise, repeated accusations of racism, based solely on the fact that the accused are white, are, themselves, racist — and abusive.

Just a “Conversation”?

Many who wave the flag of structural racism though, claim that all they want is for a conversation to take place; for “white evangelicals” to listen and empathize. Of course, listening and empathizing is necessary. But many of these calls to conversation are one-sided, and have an air of expectation that the white person come to the conversation with an assumption of guilt, and a readiness to “affirm” every grievance, whether we understand it, or not; whether it is legitimate or not.

Let’s play this out with the abuse analogy: What if, after long discussions with our pastor, it is discovered that what my wife is calling “abuse” is actually just godly leadership? What if she thinks that taking the initiative in our marriage to lead, provide, and protect is abusive. Should I, in the name of compassion, relent of such leadership? Should I “affirm” her feeling that my leadership is abusive — even if it isn’t? Of course not. Granted, I’ll have to be gentle, and probably employ the help of our pastor, to help her overcome her deceitful feelings — but nowhere in that gentle journey should I imply that her feelings are not deceitful. Nor would it be appropriate for her, or my pastor, to expect me to enter the “conversation” with no care as to whether the abuse she is talking about is actual abuse. And yet that is precisely what is being expected of us in this “conversation” about structural racism.

We are expected to assume that we are guilty of racism, up front — regardless of whether we actually are. We are expected to affirm feelings of racism — regardless of whether racism has actually taken place. The prerequisite to entering the “conversation” is that we sit down, shut-up, and uncritically “affirm” everything being said, without question. I challenge any evangelical to point me to any other area of life where such an expectation is reasonable, helpful, or warranted. I don’t think it exists, because I don’t think compassion ever requires a willful ignorance of facts. And the fact of structural racism cannot be discussed apart from specific manifestations of it.

So Piper’s statement that “it is seldom helpful to wave the flag of structural racism without putting the finger on specific manifestations” is true — but it’s a massive understatement. And unfortunately, I’m afraid that the entire thesis of his argument — that structural racism inevitably exists wherever sin does — will only serve to further divorce talk of structural racism from specific manifestations of it.

If structural racism is a natural consequence of sin, and if sin is universal, then structural racism will always exist — and therefore, to question whether it exists in a particular scenario becomes foolish, at best, and unloving, at worst. I don’t think such a conclusion is Piper’s intention, but that is precisely the conclusion that will be drawn. In fact, a similar argument has already been put forward by many secular ‘social justice warriors’: that human beings are naturally racist, so in the absence of evidence, we should just assume that structural racism is taking place. It would seem the Christian equivalent will be: human beings are naturally sinful, so in the absence of evidence, we should assume that structural racism is taking place. I agree with Piper. This is unhelpful. But I’m going further: it’s harmful, sinful, and often, itself, racist — and therefore, needs to be repented of.


Identifying & Fighting Structural Racism

So, how should we go about identifying actual structural racism, and what should be done about it?

In talking about this, I’ve discovered that using Piper’s analogy of cancer is helpful. Structural racism is like a cancer — a severe cancer; and it requires a severe treatment: extreme moral condemnation.

But just as chemotherapy kills everything in its path, so also with extreme moral condemnation. Thus it would be irresponsible and cruel to recommend it carelessly or without discernment. As with cancer and chemo, we should have two moderating goals with racism and extreme moral condemnation. First, we should endeavor to be as sure as possible that the symptoms are actually coming from racism — and don’t have an equally (or more) valid alternative explanation. Second, when we’re sure that racism is the culprit, we want to be as specific as possible in where we aim our moral condemnation.

Piper says, “The pervasive presence of one type of cancer cell in the body does not make it the cause of every malady. Therefore, it is seldom helpful to wave the flag of structural racism without putting the finger on specific manifestations. The likelihood may be high that it played a part. But a good physician does his tests.” This is very helpful. Even if we’re sure that structural racism exists, per se, this does not grant us any assurance that it is the cause of the specific symptom being discussed in any given situation.

As an example, we could simply look to the left’s charge of structural sexism in regard to Hillary losing the Presidency. Using Piper’s logic, sin should naturally produce certain levels and variants of sexism, so we shouldn’t be surprised that structural sexism might exist. But, does it follow that this specific “symptom” (i.e. Hillary losing the Presidency) is a result of structural sexism? Of course not. There are very obvious alternative explanations.

The same goes for structural racism. Hurt feelings and the appearance of bias are not enough to warrant to the extreme moral condemnation needed to address structural racism. Justice demands that we conduct serious inquiry to discover whether racism is the true culprit, or not; that we not be flippant in doling out our moral outrage. I think this is often the disconnect in these conversations. Most white evangelicals are more than prepared to unleash maximal moral outrage for actual racism — but because we know the gravity of that outrage, we are not eager to unleash it at the mere accusation, or the mere appearance, of racism. We need to be sure.

Justice Is Always Specific

And once we are sure that racism is the culprit, we then need to be specific about where. “The system is racist” is too vague. Moral condemnation cannot be aimed at “the system”. We need specifics. Structural racism presumably exists in a particular structure, or institution. And since structures, or institutions, are not people, the only thing in them that can be racist is some given policy. So, we need to identify which structure is racist, and which policies within that structure are racist. Many may get frustrated about such specifics, but this only reveals that they care more about fulfilling a sense of vengeance than they do about reaching actual justice. Justice is always specific.

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Is. 5:20). To avoid the just condemnation of this verse, we must be careful to properly identify that which is good and that which is evil — that which is not racist, and that which is. It is an extremely serious charge, with extremely serious consequences, which must not be thrown around flippantly. But once is has been specifically identified, then— and only then— can we unleash the righteous moral outrage which racism justly deserves. Then — and only then — can we actually hope to change things, because we’ve identified specifically what needs to change.

Simply issuing universal condemnations of “the police,” “the courts,” “the man,” or “white evangelicalism” is not helpful — and it never will be. In fact, for the reasons outlined previously, it’s extremely harmful, for both whites and blacks. Condemnations of racism, to be effective, must be specific.

So, in addition to being careful to always talk about structural racism in relation to specific manifestations, we also need to be careful to both: 1) be sure that the manifestation are actually of racism, rather than some other cause; and 2) be sure that in addressing that racism with our moral condemnation, that we are as specific as possible.

Applying these guidelines in the discussion about structural racism would go a long way in actually making progress.


Disclaimer: The analogy of abuse is only an analogy. I am a sinful husband, and full of shortcomings, but to my knowledge, there are no feelings of abuse in our marriage.


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