I’ve made these points at greater length in other essays, but I can’t seem to get people who disagree to push back in a meaningful way. So I’m trying a different strategy, for the skeptics who seem to think that “social justice ideology” is a bigger threat than the things SJWs protest against. I’m picking on Rod Dreher because he writes a lot about this and is emblematic of a lot of the problems I see on the Right with these issues, but he’s certainly not alone and he’s certainly not the worst of the bunch. Consider this my way of joining the chorus of others like Alan Jacobs and Leah Libresco (skip to the end, Update 8) who are trying to clarify the issues at hand.
Many prominent cases of police brutality are not as clear-cut as activists make them out to be. There is hardly ever a perfect victim, and often claims are made in the heat of the moment that are found to be untrue later. Perhaps the most prominent case where this happened was with Michael Brown, who by all forensic evidence available seems to have died in a manner consistent with the testimony of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed him.
Police officers are often found to have lied. If activists are quick to assume the worst about police, it’s because experience can validate them. Oftentimes video contradicts police reports, and accountability for these lies is hard to find.
The most prominent cases of police brutality occupy public interest and energy disproportionate to the numbers of deaths per year. The most shocking cases may garner a lot of public attention because they’re dramatic, but if police did not kill anyone in the next year and nothing else changed, we’d hardly notice because it’s usually a thousand people or less a year in America and the problems that lead to police killings are far more pervasive and widespread.
The most prominent cases of police brutality resonate with people because they are the tip of the iceberg. Many African-Americans can easily think of encounters with police where, if things had escalated slightly, they could have been hurt or killed. More pertinently, they have often experienced what they perceive to be excessive discrimination in ways that didn’t necessarily lead to violence but are part of a broader web of suspicion that heightens anxiety and is simply not right in a free republic like America.
Problems other than unjustified police killings deserve more attention because they are more easily addressed. Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force was little more than a rival gang that robbed and extorted. The no-knock warrants that killed Breonna Taylor or injured Baby Bou Bou happen all the time. People suffering from mental health can be de-escalated. Our treatment of prisoners in America, especially those who suffer from mental health issues, is barbaric. Defenders of the police often focus on individual cases where we cannot be entirely certain that racial animus led to an absolutely unjustified killing than those where it is clear that things ought to be changed (e.g. talking about George Floyd’s blood analysis rather than the fact that Breonna Taylor was shot in her own home while unarmed). They’d also rather than talk about individual cases than discuss the systemic issues with difficult but worthwhile solutions.
There is a real problem with crime, especially homicide, in African-American neighborhoods. Go to any predominantly African-American neighborhood community meeting, and you’ll hear residents gripe about crime. They want crimes to be solved, and they don’t want to see their brothers and sons murdered.
The simplest way to think about crime in African-American neighborhoods is “overpoliced and underserved”. Many of these neighborhoods have too much of the wrong kind of policing and not enough of the right kind of policing.
The crime problem in African-American neighborhoods is not a matter of “culture”, but of justice and policing. I have yet to hear a decent explanation for why, “culturally”, African-Americans are somehow more likely to commit crime or more deserving of intense police surveillance. The simple truth is this: all around the world from the beginning of time, if a community perceives the authority over them to be untrustworthy or capricious, they’ll respect that authority less and handle matters of justice and retribution on their own more. The United States and police in the United States, from the beginning, have been untrustworthy, capricious, and often downright malevolent towards African-Americans. Thus, there is more violence in predominantly African-American communities. Every person within those communities who gets away with a crime decreases the trust in law enforcement by that much, and every person who gets harassed or injured by the police when they have not committed a crime also decreases the trust in law enforcement by that much.
The crime problem, especially the homicide problem, in African-American neighborhoods will not be solved by aggressively stopping and searching and the crime problem does not justify either these tactics nor less legal means. Giving the police wide surveillance powers in certain communities or on certain individuals is often justified because of the increased crime in those communities. More insidiously, abuses like those of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force are shrugged off because the corrupt officers in those cases were just fighting fire with fire. However, the evidence clearly shows that when police officers stop African-Americans disproportionately more often, they find disproportionately less contraband.
There are other solutions for the crime problem, especially the homicide problem, in African-American neighborhoods. People in these neighborhoods crying out for justice need solutions that work. Focused deterrence and violence interruption are two of the most common strategies, but people on the right who talk a great deal about the crime problem never mention either.
Policing and race in America can and should be considered on its own, but these issues are inseparable from broader issues of race in America, especially poverty. It’s extremely difficult to find race-specific fixes for policing-related problems besides, for example, firing officers who are caught being racist. However, because things like poverty are tied up with crime and its deterrence (or lack thereof) and poverty is unmistakably a problem influenced by race in America, we also have to consider those issues separately, too.
African-Americans are more likely to be poor in America because of racial injustice. There’s a lot of different ways in which this has worked out, but between legacy injustices (e.g. mortgage discrimination decades ago that has made it harder for black families to accumulate wealth), the effects of concentrated poverty (e.g. the effects that children experience growing up in a de facto racially segregated neighborhood experience that disadvantage them even more than if they had grown up poor, but in an economically mixed neighborhood), and the effects of ongoing, active discrimination it has to be acknowledged that injustice and racism are not merely relics of the past, but forces of harm in the present.
Symbolic actions in elite spaces take up a lot of our attention bandwidth despite the fact that their significance to actually remedying racial injustice is debatable. All I’ll say is that I think the question of how we might appropriately remedy the injustices mentioned in the previous statement should be discussed as often or more often than symbolic actions like removing statues or getting people fired for statements they made.
Racism in America has all the characteristics of what the Bible calls “powers and principalities”. Racism draws power from the images, ideas, and actions of people who act with prejudice while also exerting power as people resist calls for equity, circle the wagons to protect their unearned privileges, and make decisions that further entrench the racial divisions and disequities in society, however subtly. We use the language of “white supremacy” or “antiblackness” to describe the power of racism in American society because these terms capture the systemic, pervasive nature of racism in specific ways that aren’t susceptible to charges like “reverse racism.”
Racial injustice in America (or any other social justice topic) is not the sole or most important evil. There are many other powers we face and social evils to deal with. The breakdown of families has had profound, measurable effects on countless children and our elites shrug because the Sexual Revolution still allows them to sleep with who they want. Ever-concentrating wealth and poverty is profoundly deleterious to communities of any color, though it has been going on for much longer and in much more pernicious ways for Black communities. Our disregard for the created order has sown chaos and destruction for our bodies, the land, and the food we eat.
Racism in America requires an antiracist movement. Just as the evil of abortion requires an organized movement with specific tactics, goals, policies, so racism requires the same.
“Whiteness” is unnatural and wicked. While enmity between ethnic groups is a perpetually human phenomenon, “race” as we know it today is a more recent invention. As the European desire to explore and dominate other peoples grew, the philosophical and legal justification for this dominance grew alongside it. In order to justify slavery, the inherent inequality of the enslaved peoples had to be established and the inherent superiority of the enslavers had to be reified. Conceptually, what had long been thought of as distinct nations and people groups were mashed together into broader races and eventually enshrined in law. To think of oneself as “white” is not a natural phenomenon; whiteness is a trans-national identity unrelated to family, country, or heritage and specifically created to oppress other races.
How to resolve the wickedness of whiteness is still an open question. I’m personally looking forward to Dr. Willie Jennings’ book After Whiteness.
Working for social justice is an imperative for Christians. What we think of as “procedural justice” (that is, related to crime and its punishment and deterrence) is extremely important in the Bible, but a Christian vision of justice is one in which people have their basic bodily needs met while also urging us all to live righteously and in peace. Neither the Bible nor the Church Fathers made much effort to distinguish between what we would call “private charity” and “government aid”.
Working for racial equity is imperative for Christians. That Christians in America are divided by race and that Christians in America actively fostered racial injustice for centuries is a disgrace and we must right the wrongs done wherever possible.
Social justice ideology unmoored from Christian foundations is bound to go off the rails. Tim Keller’s recent discussion of competing views of justice is very helpful on this subject.
Social justice ideology grows in popularity mostly because Christian witness to justice is unsatisfactory to people with a God-given hunger for justice. If the Church functioned appropriately in its prophetic role, leading the way with a majority of its devout adherents fostering reconciliation and justice in their communities, secular social justice ideology would hardly be able to get a toehold. People are looking elsewhere because the Church in North America has for the most part gone along with broader cultural values that favor the concentration of wealth and privilege, make token statements about diversity, divorce sex from its natural intention, and allow violence in underprivileged communities to be a political pawn.
Rod Dreher gets a lot right. I like how Alan Jacobs put it: “Jonah was definitely the wrong messenger for Nineveh — he even thought so himself — and yet the Ninevites did well to pay attention to him.”
Rod Dreher often gets these questions of race wrong. The most glaring example of this that I can think of is Rod’s disrespectful response to Jemar Tisby when Jemar gave a reasoned critique of Rod’s rather sub-Christian statements about Section 8 housing. He is not always wrong — he wrote a very appropriate post about Ahmaud Arbery, for example — but he rarely lets his good statements and ideas temper or influence his choice of headlines, images, and words about other cases and issues. Jonah was a bigot, and Rod’s choices of what to write about and how to write about it often reveal bigotry.
Things can be better. If Christians provide a clear and consistent public witness on matters of justice — that is, they speak for the underprivileged while living lives of self-sacrifice that reject the mainstream cultural consensus — there is hope. I would argue that the pro-life movement in America has been as successful as it has been in no small part because countless women throughout our nation have experienced grace, love, and truth while there was still relentless political pressure to change laws and policies. Could we see a similar witness on matters of race and justice? I pray and hope so.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org