The day before Thanksgiving I woke up encouraged about evangelical leadership. There have been times when I was more likely to cringe when I read an evangelical leader’s statements on a current event, but not over Ferguson. In the last few days I have been very encouraged by pastors and Christian thinkers who have been willing to make bold statements about the realities of systemic racism and the need for the church to be present in the midst of this conflict as a force for peace and reconciliation. One particularly encouraging voice has been Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition, who has criticized the grand jury’s decision and advocated for deep changes to our system to correct racial injustices.
But I was disappointed to read an article by pastor Voddie Baucham responding to Ferguson published at The Gospel Coalition, not because the article offends my taste or doesn’t fit with my views, but because it perpetuates what I believe are some harmful perspectives on race in America. Given the massive popularity of the article (it went viral and helped crash TGC on Wednesday) and the relevance of the topic, I felt it was important to carefully parse why I believe Baucham’s article was misguided. Thabiti Anyabwile has published an article which addresses some of Baucham’s claims and is well worth reading, but here I aim to more directly respond to Baucham words and their implications.
The difference between Thabiti Anyabwile’s reaction to the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and Voddie Baucham’s reveals a divide in American society in general and in particular the American church over the nature of the black experience in contemporary America and who or what is responsible for that experience. In examining Baucham’s piece, I hope to also address in some small way this larger divide.
The central argument that Baucham makes is that the root cause of problems in the black community is fatherlessness, and that systemic racism is a distraction from addressing that cause. Baucham begins by unsettling the way most people conceive of “systemic” issues in black communities:
I do believe there are systemic issues plaguing black men. These issues are violence, criminality, and immorality, to name a few. And all these issues are rooted in and connect to the epidemic of fatherlessness. Any truly gospel-centered response to the plight of black men must address these issues first and foremost. It does no good to change the way white police officers respond to black men if we don’t first address the fact that these men’s fathers have not responded to them appropriately.
Fatherlessness and the broader decline of marriage is probably a contributing factor in problems that exist in many communities in our country, including black communities. It is correlated with things like incarceration, unemployment, and teen pregnancies. But correlation does not equal causation, and the relationship between these challenges and absent fathers is complicated.
Take, for example, black incarceration rates and the effect they have on marriage within black communities. If a large percentage of black males are incarcerated (and they are), that leaves fewer eligible men for black women to marry in that community. Which means that the remaining men may try to demand more from black women in exchange for a relationship, demands which may include premarital sex, unprotected sex, no expectation of supporting a child long term, etc (see here for an academic treatment of this argument). Incarceration, then, actually leads to more fatherlessness.
The same can be said of education. If you are born to a single parent, you are much less likely to receive the cognitive and non-cognitive skills needed to be successful in school, making you less likely to finish high school, which means you are much more likely to have a child out of wedlock. Poor education leads to fatherlessness and is a result of fatherlessness.
If you do not have good models of marriage in your community, and it is socially acceptable to father kids out of wedlock, and the marriage market incentivizes not being monogamous, getting to the place where you recognize the need for marriage is extremely difficult—not impossible, but difficult. Much more difficult than for those of us who have been raised to believe that marriage is an achievable ideal. For many people in poverty (across races), marriage is not simply something they are selecting out of, but rather it is an institution which seems incomprehensible. It is too costly, too difficult, and too broken to bother pursuing. Since many of the problems that fatherlessness seems to lead to also seem to lead to fatherlessness, speaking about fatherhood as simply some personal choice which will solve many or most of the problems in the black community is both misguided (it’s a lot more complicated than that) and unhelpful (the institution of marriage is too incomprehensible for many people).
Baucham concludes this paragraph by claiming that the only “truly gospel-centered” approach must address issues like immorality and crime “first and foremost” as a response to the “plight of black men.” Obviously immorality, wherever it occurs in our lives, must be addressed and rooted out. As Christians we are called to righteousness. But our righteousness, or lack thereof, is not the standard by which we determine if it is appropriate to address injustice in our culture. Prejudice, discrimination, and systemic racism do not get a free pass until black men clean up their act. That, simply put, is not “truly gospel-centered.”
Baucham claims that “it does no good” to change how police officers view black males if we don’t “first address” how black fathers treat their sons. This line is an example of the kind of strange false dichotomies throughout the piece. If, as many believe and has historically been the case, some police officers stereotype and abuse black males because of their race, it objectively and empirically does good to change those officers’ views. Even if you accept the claim that black fathers must become better fathers in order for substantial change to take place in black communities, there is no reason this must take place before addressing systemic racism.
Baucham notes the high rates of black-on-black crime to argue that focusing on police abuse is a distraction:
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. Thus, If I am going to speak out about anything, it will be black-on-black crime; not blue-on-black.
This point confuses a number of issues. First, it is another false dichotomy. There is no reason we shouldn’t speak out against police abuses just because there are criminals within the black community. Second, this ignores the deep harm that systemic racism causes, some of which encourages the very black-on-black violence he laments. When a community loses trust in law enforcement, they are less inclined to report crime, making them more likely to be victims of crime in the future. When police are prejudiced or abusive (this is not an assertion that they are, but for sake of argument), criminality can serve as a support mechanism. If you are treated like a criminal suspect your whole life by the people in authority over you, eventually you just might give up and become the person they have stereotyped you as. A failure of trust and an abusive system harms communities in deep, significant ways. All of this takes nothing, absolutely nothing, away from the tragedy of violence in black communities and the need to address it. But what it does is acknowledge that violence from within the community has a different effect than violence and abuse from authorities.
But third, using the same source Baucham uses, we can see that of the 3,128 white victims of murder in 2012, 2,614 were killed by their own ethnic group. Granted, the per capita murder rate in black communities are much higher than white communities, but when people lament the problem of “black-on-black” crime, what they typically have in mind is a disproportionate targeting of blacks within the black community, as if African Americans were uniquely intent on killing their own people. But the statistics simply don’t support this. The question is “why is the murder rate so high in black communities,” not “why do black people murder black people.”
The Root of Black Ills
Again, it is common knowledge that this is the most immediate root cause of the ills plaguing black Americans.
Baucham makes the same error he might accuse many liberal critics of: reducing problems in black communities to a “root cause.” For the liberal critic the cause is poverty, and for Baucham it’s fatherlessness. Both ideas are flawed in their own way. The claim that fatherlessness is “the root cause of the ills plaguing black Americans” is wrong on two accounts.
It is far from clear the extent to which fatherlessness affects all these ills. It may be “common knowledge” that fatherlessness causes these ills, but it is not necessarily true. To my knowledge, studies which track various social ills and fatherlessness don’t establish a causal relationship, but a correlation. Does having a good father fix these ills, or does the absence of these ills better equip men to be good fathers? Or is it both?
Second, whatever ills we find in life, the only true root is sin, and beyond sin the causes for pain and suffering and evil are far too complex to reduce down to a “root.” In the case of the ills plaguing black communities, fatherlessness almost certainly is a contributing factor, but so are unemployment, prejudice, poor schools, absence of good role models, lack of healthy churches, a predatory entertainment culture which glorifies evil as good, and the vast history of state-sanctioned racism in this nation which continues to have ripple effects.
Sinner or System
Again, this experience stayed with me for years. And for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.
Of course, Bauchman is right to point out that everyone who commits abuse of some kind is a sinner, but it’s not clear, nor is it at all substantiated in this article, why a cop who racially profiles a black man is not a part of a larger system of abuse. These men can have personal failings and also be a part of a larger, authoritative system which protects, promotes, and profits from this particular failing. Baucham dismisses systemic racism without actually given any good reason to dismiss it. He continues:
It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.
Baucham asserts that it is simply not “good” to assume that any particular incident is a part of a larger systemic racism. And, rather dismissively, refuses to “live . . . fighting ghosts.” He doesn’t actually bother demonstrating that they are ghosts or responding to specific arguments that systemic racism is real, rather than a specter.
There is, however, plenty of good reason to believe that our society suffers from systemic racism. First, any system this large is bound to have systemic injustice of some kind of another. Baucham would not hesitate to call out systemic prejudice against Christians or the family unit, so he should be able to appreciate the charge that this same system also harbors injustices against minorities.
Second, given the historical reality of widespread, open, violently supported, government sanctioned and enforced racism within a lifetime ago, it would be surprising indeed of systemic racism was not a current and significant reality in our society. Add to this vastness of our government and society and the difficulty of making meaningful change in such enormous systems, and the prospect seems almost absurd.
Aside from the historical reasons to suspect systemic racism, there is no shortage of indications that it continues to exist, between police profiling, hiring practices, incarceration rates, and media stereotypes. Reasonable people can disagree on what this data means (and they do), but to characterize a fight against systemic racism as “fighting ghosts” simply dismisses the other side.
I do not tell them that this means they need to live with a chip on their shoulder, or that the world is out to get them. I certainly don’t tell them that they need to go out and riot (especially when that involves destroying black-owned businesses).
As his post progresses, Baucham is himself increasingly fighting ghosts, or, at least, straw men. Although I’m sure you can find someone on Twitter who is actually advocating that black men walk around with a chip on their shoulders and riot, they are the exception, and they certainly do not comprise the mainstream criticism of the State’s handling of Ferguson. This isn’t about walking with a chip on your shoulder, it is about identifying injustices and addressing them. Trivializing that work doesn’t help Baucham’s case. It was particularly sad to see Baucham fall into the reduction of the Ferguson protestors to rioters. Rioting has certainly taken place, but it is the exception to a long, long series of protests in that town, many of which were led and supported by fellow believers. A belief in the harmful effects of systemic racism does not require one to adopt a victim mentality or violence.
Baucham as Judge
Brown reaped what he sowed, and was gunned down in the street. That is the sad truth.
I want to grant Baucham the most charitable reading of this sentence that I can: if Baucham believes that Officer Wilson fired his gun in self-defense at a man who had just beat him repeatedly and attempted to steal his gun in order to kill him, then Brown’s death was ultimately his own responsibility. But this goes beyond what even the grand jury concluded, because the grand jury did not determine that Officer Wilson was innocent, or that Brown had attempted to murder Wilson and therefore deserved to die. All the grand jury concluded was that there was not sufficient evidence of “probable cause” to indict Wilson. So, to conclude with certainty, as Pastor Baucham does, that Michael Brown deserved to die on the street for his crimes goes beyond what he can know and what has been legally established.
But it is also a telling sign of Baucham’s position that he chooses to eschew the tragic reading of these events and allow for the possibility that Brown acted foolishly but not fatally, and that Wilson acted fairly but could have chosen better. Instead, he opts for the worst reading of Brown’s actions. But then, if the problems in the black community are all ultimately the responsibility of black men, rather than the responsibility of black men and their community and their city and churches and the state, then the most natural interpretation of a complex event like this will be to make the black male the one solely responsible for what took place, which is what Baucham does.
What Ferguson has demonstrated in a very public way is the deep divisions between the various ways that Christians understand race in America. While I am glad to see many in the evangelical church speaking out and having important conversations about race, we must be able to imagine a way forward which does not rely on an overly simple view of personal responsibility and causality.