The United States is likely to be discussing Ferguson-related issues for a long time to come. Television crews have pulled out of the small town and will no doubt chase the next story they think important and ratings worthy. But an awful lot of people will still be processing, talking and acting in ways they think are best. I certainly intend to continue thinking, learning, reflecting, retracting, restating and engaging as much as the Lord allows me and seems useful. Thus, this is my third post this week on these events.

In this post, I want to respond to three themes that tend to recur in Ferguson-like situations: fatherlessness, black-on-black crime, community apathy, and the problem isn’t racism but sin.

I first posted on the first three themes about two years ago. And many others have tried to reply in similar ways. As one writer has put it, these sentiments have become something of a meme traveling the internet with constancy. So, they require constant reply.

Affirming the Importance of These Concerns

But I want to begin with affirming the importance of these issues. The problem, to me at least, isn’t that these things are not problems, or that certain people are disqualified in raising the issue, or that these are embarrassing truths to embrace.

I affirm these as serious issues. I welcome persons of any and every ethnicity to speak into these things. And I firmly believe the truth sets free. There’s no advantage in being ostriches with heads buried in the ground on these topics. They need discussion, but they need accurate and loving discussion. For that to happen, we have to tell the whole truth about these things in proper context. When we fail to do that we actually foster falsehoods, further stereotypes, and give justification to those enemies of progress who think simply stating “the problem” is akin to solving it or washing their hands of it.

There’s More to Say Than Has Often Been Said

Let me attempt to address various statements as a means of advancing dialogue and perhaps challenging or correcting erring conclusions some might make.

The Chicken or the Egg: Fatherlessness or Policing?
Some people place a high premium on fatherlessness and family structure in discussions about Ferguson-like events. They maintain that the single most important issue is the absence of African-American fathers, low marriage rates, high out-of-wedlock birth rates and so on.

They are correct to stress the importance of these issues. They are correct to say that the social science evidence is clear: the single best predictor of child and family well-being is a healthy marriage between the biological parents of the child.

But they leave off the important qualifiers. For example, the marriage benefit to child well-being decreases if one of the parents is not the child’s biological parent. Moreover, there seems to be no benefit at all—sometimes harm—if the marriage is full of what social scientists call “turbulence”—things like abuse, chronic conflict, housing instability, etc. So marriage is no magic bullet. And it certainly isn’t a magic bullet in poor communities with long histories of distress.

So the appeals to marriage research become overstatements. And pitting marriage against working on systemic issues fails to recognize how systemic issues actually undermine the goal of family formation and stability. Working on the systemic issues that create a Ferguson (short version here) helps keep some African-Americans alive and out of the criminal justice system in disproportionate numbers. A good many belong in the system because they’ve earned it. But the data tells us a good many don’t or don’t for as long or for as severe a sentence when compared to people committing the same crime from other ethnic groups (see here).

To put it another way: We won’t have any men left to be responsible husbands and fathers if we continue with this systemic program of disproportionate arrest and sentencing. There is good in changing the way police and courts act and think when engaging African Americans.

Once Again: “Black-on-Black Crime”
Another familiar meme inserted into Ferguson-like discussions is black-on-black crime. In his post, my friend and brother Voddie Baucham writes: “In fact, black men are several times more likely to be murdered at the hands of another black man than they are to be killed by the police. For instance, in the FBI homicide stats from 2012, there were 2,648 blacks murdered. Of those, 2,412 were murdered by members of their own ethnic group.”

My concern isn’t what my brother writes; it’s what he leaves off. The stats reported are correctly reported. But they lack any context and they perpetuate the myth of black-on-black crime as an inherent social pathology. Click over to that report linked in the article. It’s actually a table and here’s what it records in the case of homicides among Whites: white victims (3,128) and white offenders (2,614). That’s a white-on-white murder rate of 83.5 percent. The African-American rate was 91 percent. I’d be interested to know if the 7.5 percent difference is statistically significant, but on the face of it the two rates look pretty equivalent to me. Yet people fall into spitting convulsions if you suggest there’s a “white-on-white crime epidemic.” So referring to black crime statistics without any context reinforces stereotypes.

Here’s the more complete truth: People commit crimes in their own neighborhoods against their neighbors. The statistics don’t reveal a “race” thing; it’s largely a zip code thing. Since the country’s poor neighborhoods are still pretty segregated by income and ethnicity, that means both whites and blacks disproportionately commit crimes against their fellow poor whites and blacks, respectively. It’s not innate criminal tendency or deep social pathology as the stereotype and bad statistical statements suggest. A significant contributor is zip code. Overwhelmingly people commit violent crimes against those they know. A fair amount of the homicide rate is “intimate partner violence,” or violence against spouses and girlfriends. None of this is excusable. All of the crime is too high. And that it’s committed against people you know, live near and look like make it all the worse.

But the relative comparison of Black and White in-group violent crime rates matters for properly adjusting our perceptions to the reality. African Americans are not that much worse than whites when their in-group victimization rates are essentially equivalent. Overall crime rates among African Americans is too high given our proportion of the total population—but so too are our stop, search, arrest and sentencing rates for the same crimes that others commit. We need to stop giving the impression that it’s as simple as African-Americans being more criminal by nature by telling more of the story for context.

“Nobody Is Working on or Protesting Problems Inside the Community”
A third familiar myth is that African Americans do not protest the black-on-black crime that exists. There are too many posts and tweets to cite here. Just Google the question: “Where are the marches against black-on-black crime?”

A rhetorical question of this sort has pretty good force, but it’s not really presenting any information to consider. The question leaves the reader hanging, suggesting that nothing is being protested or attempted. But that’s not true.

African-American protestors in New Orleans march against crime in their city.

The protest and personal responsibility themes in Voddie’s post, for example, are as old as the writing of Jupiter Hammon (1711-1806) and were the mainstay of African-American leadership (religious and secular) following Emancipation. Check the many addresses of men like Francis Grimke or Daniel A. Payne or W.E.B. DuBois. One could say their main speech was personal responsibility and not squandering newly earned freedom.

And these themes don’t die out with the passage of time. The last 2-3 decades have been filled with community-based, grassroots efforts like the Boston Ten-Point Coalition, 100 Black Men of America, the Stop the Violence Campaign, the work of the Children’s Defense Fund, and the plentiful youth programs that seem to be everywhere. Can we even count the number of youth groups and outreaches carried on by local churches all over the country? These things haven’t solved the problem by any means, but it’s just not true that no one works on or protests black-on-black crime.

And the protests go on. In March, African-American pastors in Jacksonville, FL protested to call for increased use of the death penalty to curb Black-on-Black crime. Yes, you read that correctly—increased use of the death penalty. Though the leaders of the Jacksonville march also seemed to think they were the only ones, in April youth in Charleston, SC organized and led their own protest against violence in their community. In January, two African-American men organized “Operation Counter-strike” to protest and curb violence in Montgomery, Alabama’s African-American community. Here’s a photo essay of recent vigils and protests in New Orleans. In the last five years, there have also been protests in Chicago, Harlem, Newark, Pittsburgh, Saginaw, Gary, Brooklyn (see here for brief descriptions) and too many other places to list.

The repetition of this falsehood simply proves (a) we aren’t doing our homework on this front and (b) media sources don’t get sensational about these efforts. Failing to realize that a lot of real unsung work is going on only perpetuates the stereotypes and stymies real action. If this isn’t happening where we live it’s because we haven’t organized it yet. But don’t pretend African-American protests against intra-community crime is not happening anywhere. It is. A lot.

“It Ain’t Racism; It’s Sin”
Finally, many people meet Ferguson-like situations with questions about whether such events are racially-motivated or simply unfortunate. Frankly, that’s a good and necessary question that in some sense has to be weighed on a case-by-case basis where the specific incidents are in view. People of good faith and conscience can look at individual cases and arrive at differing conclusions. After all, none of us can peer with omniscience into the hearts and minds of other people and conclude infallibly what they were feeling or thinking. We must leave that to God—unless the persons themselves confess such a motivation.

But does this mean we cannot suspect our systems of having systemic and systematic biases? After all, all of our systems were shaped and forged during long stretches of history where systematic bias was the stated acceptable norm and not the exception. Do we imagine that such systems change overnight or in a generation, or that they don’t bequeath to us a legacy of learned practice that still today sometimes carry unintended bias?

We are just plain wrong if we think such systemic bias is not possible and does not happen.

Further, to say the root problem is sin is absolutely correct. But to suggest sin does not manifest itself in systemic and systematic bias is absolutely false.

What is racism after all? Racism is a particular form of alienation and enmity that began with the Fall in Genesis 3 and was further entrenched with the curse of Babel in Genesis 10. Racism is a sin, yes. But racism is a sin with systemic properties. It’s predicated upon systematically recognizing a perceived difference and systematically assigning values and meanings to that perceived difference. To say “It’s not racism; it’s sin” is to fail to understand both racism and sin.

It is also to fail to understand the cross of our Lord and the extent of its power. The reality of racism is implicitly acknowledged every time the Bible tells us that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” or that we have been “reconciled” across ethnic lines. It is this alienation the Lord has destroyed in His body on the tree (Eph. 2). See this clearly: the defeat of that alienation called racism is accomplished not by denying its existence but by nailing it to the cross. This means the path to true unity is through the cross and through racism, not around it. Christ dealt with this sin. Now we too are called to deal with it by putting what remains to death (Rom. 6-8).

Of course we’re all sinners. But we have a duty to “repent of our particular sins, particularly,” as my good Presbyterian friends might put it. The kind of biases we see in stop, search, arrest, conviction and sentencing rates simply can’t be adequately explained or addressed with a general appeal to sin. It needs specific redress lest our theology becomes a form of escapism and leaves room for our continuing racism.

On Trees, Forests and Timing

Let me conclude by saying every tree can belong to a forest and every forest is inevitably made up of trees. In Ferguson-like situations, there are no doubt individual actors, personal responsibilities and personal accountabilities to consider. No doubt. Every time. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a forest to see, a pattern to question and study, a system to our behavior and policy that also is at play.

When people raise the personal responsibility theme as a way of denying any systemic issues, they really want us to believe there are no forests to see, to wander through, to cut paths through. On the other hand, some people want us to believe it’s only a forest, an undifferentiated glob of green leaves and brown bark but no individual trees. That’s wrong, too. We need to resist those kinds of selective argumentation and fight for a more complete understanding of the truth—not as a means of denying one or the other aspect, but as a means of rightly understanding both.

And I think it’s important that we consider when and how we raise these differing aspects of one problem: a fallen world. Sometimes our timing and tone really can be all wrong. That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t ever say these things. It just means there’s a time and place for everything. I think injecting the tropes discussed above when we’re addressing Ferguson-like events can be timed in such a way as to divert attention and stymie action. And I think it can be done in ways that are inconsistent with how we talk about other issues.

To illustrate, let me change issues for a moment to something else many of us reading this post would agree on: abortion. We believe abortion is an immoral practice, that laws allowing abortion are immoral, and that in many instances immorality (sin) places people in positions to desire an abortion. But when we talk about abortion, we don’t upbraid the mother seeking the abortion when a policy conversation is in view. No. We discuss the policy with all the force we can muster on behalf of all the babies we can save. If we want to talk about personal responsibility, chances are we do that in pastoral tones in pastoral settings, or we even volunteer and fund crisis pregnancy centers to create a safe productive place in which to engage the mother. As people who know there are multiple levels at which we must understand and address abortion, we always have personal responsibility in mind in some way but we seek a pastoral time and place to work on it. But when we are talking about Roe, we address Roe—it’s origin, it’s legality, the rights of states, the framing of the issue, etc. When we talk about the statistics on babies killed, we deal with the statistics. We don’t shift the topic and boil it completely down to a personal responsibility narrative, though we personal responsibility is a critical factor.

Whether discussing Ferguson-like events or abortion, conflating personal responsibility and public policy issues by insisting that only personal factors matter actually harms both personal and policy-level efforts at improvement. We force ourselves into a false binary, compelled to choose between two necessary levels of reflection and action. It’s a false choice, and in choosing to make one level of analysis the sole issue we afflict the afflicted.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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