Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, the term “systemic” entered mainstream parlance: Whereas mainstream discourse had previously framed racism as a mostly-extinct disorder confined primarily to the deep south and applicable only to particularly pernicious individuals, now experts on race issues suddenly received a platform to talk about what they called “systemic racism.” Obscure sociologists opined on systemic injustice. Theologians theologized about systemic sin.

“There is a deep and multifaceted problem with how police interact with Black Americans,” wrote Sean Collins at Vox, reflecting on the previous week’s events. “But the issues they face, and those the protests concern, go beyond law enforcement: They are systemic, involving government, health, and economics.”

Over at Time Magazine, Justin Worland explained that “For decades, the truth of systemic racism has always been swept under the rug, lest it make white Americans uncomfortable and hurt the electoral chances of those with the power to address it.”

“The Bible nowhere uses the word ‘systemic,” wrote Thaddeus Williams from Biola University. “But we would have to take scissors and do some serious Jeffersonian slicing and dicing to the inspired text to believe sin cannot be expressed systemically.” Christianity Today published a well-trafficked article entitled “Confessing Complicity in Systemic Sin.”

Then came the backlash: “Stop selling us our own oppression,” wrote internet personality Candace Owens. “Stop taking away our self-confidence by telling us that we can’t because of racism, because of slavery. I’ve never been a slave in this country.” Then came op-eds from respectable outlets: “This charge of systemic police bias was wrong during the Obama years and remains so today,” wrote Heather Mac Donald in the Wall Street Journal. “The false narrative of systemic police bias resulted in targeted killings of officers during the Obama presidency. The pattern may be repeating itself.” Then came denunciations from the highest levels of government. “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist,” announced then Attorney General William Barr.

I get the pushback. It makes sense, given the sudden about-face that has taken hold in the cultural mainstream. As recently as 5 years ago, racism was the vague and undefined bogeyman that most Americans (or, at least, white Americans) felt we could turn and condemn together, because we envisioned it as something distant, outside of ourselves. Racists were terrible, horrible, no good, very bad individuals – probably named Cletus, probably inhabiting what used to be Dixie, probably raising the mutant children they had sired with their cousin Cletusa (our theoretical disdain for racism was often shot through with actual disdain for poor, rural whites, of course). Almost overnight, that staggeringly individualistic and generally undemanding definition of racism evaporated as broader, and often disconcerting, “systemic” approaches replaced it. At first glance, the pushback isn’t unreasonable.

And yet, as a 27 year old white conservative who is generally skeptical of “Social Justice Warrior” talk, I have a very difficult time accounting for the available data without concluding that there is a systemic problem of racism distorting our institutions.

The entire subject is prohibitively sensitive, as people from every corner of the political spectrum descend into emotivism on a dime when the subject is raised: If you argue that “systemic racism,” or “systemic injustice,” or “systemic sin,” or “structural racism,” etc. is real, otherwise reasonable people interpret it to mean, in turns, that you are accusing all cops of being evil, or that you are accusing all whites of being racist, and that, by virtue of being “privileged,” the average non-poor, non-Black, non-immigrant, cisgender person Is Bad And Should Feel Bad.

But it’s worth pointing out that none of these conclusions are inevitable. You can recognize the reality of “structural” or “systemic” ills without subscribing to anything like the kind of nihilistic bizzarro-world neuroticism described above.

The way to do the former without collapsing into the latter, generally, is to be religious. I am serious. While I can’t speak for practitioners of other faiths, I feel compelled to point out the aggressively obvious: Whatever secular sources have factored into the development of “systemic” analysis of major social problems, in the broadest possible sense the very concept of pernicious social systems is cribbed from the Holy Bible.

If you’ve read it – and you should – you have probably noticed the way that the Bible describes sin is almost never in purely personal terms. Obviously, sin is absolutely individual – individuals are sinful, individual people sin, every individual on planet earth is a sinner, but it’s also social. It’s also collective. Sin works its way into our systems.

As Paul says in Ephesians 6:12, “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” In other words, the reality of sin is bigger and vaster than we could possibly imagine – driven in some part by evil supernatural entities whose goal is to thwart God’s good creational design and disrupt his good redemption mission in the world.

That means that the biblical picture of sin has at least two angles, and they both feed back into each other.

First, every individual on planet earth is sinful.

We see that in Romans 3:9-18, when Paul says “we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin, as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.Their feet are swift to shed blood;ruin and wretchedness are in their paths, and the path of peace they have not known.There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

That’s a very extreme description. But it’s true.

And it has consequences. Because of our sinful nature, we “exchange the glory of the immortal God” for gods we’ve invented for ourselves. We worship the wrong things. Our understanding has been “darkened,” Paul says in Ephesians 4:18, “being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in [us], because of the blindness of [our] hearts.” In our sinful nature, we “receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God.” The things of the Spirit are “foolishness unto us” and we “cannot know them” because “they are spiritually discerned,” 1 Cor. 2:4. The result is that our “carnal minds” are at “enmity with God.”

If this is the way that the Bible describes individuals with a sin nature, you can only imagine how that would play out in the systems and structures we create – including important cultural and political systems, like Law Enforcement.

Actually, we don’t have to guess. As Paul puts it, we live in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4), and it isn’t a figure of speech. Our “age” is actually evil – not with a theoretical evil that makes us feel bad but doesn’t do anything, but with an active, tangible evil that actually affects every aspect of our lives as individuals and communities. The “evil” of this present evil age works its way into our systems.

The result is that, as John tells us in 1 John 2:15, we should not “love this world” or “the things of this world.” Why? Because this world, and the things of this world are radically broken by the darkness John describes throughout his letters. John’s gripe isn’t simply against a handful of bad actors dampening an otherwise sunny horizon, he’s talking about a thoroughgoing darkness that casts its shadow over absolutely everything. He’s talking about an entire system hijacked by the forces of darkness.

That’s why Paul says that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness,” (1 Cor. 1:20). That’s why “this world is passing away,” (1 Cor. 7:31). That’s why “the elemental forces of the world” are bent on “enslaving” us (Gal. 4:3). And that’s why this world must be “overcome” (1 John 5:4). It’s extremely difficult to make sense of the sweeping claims of the Old and New Testaments if sin is only personal. The Biblical picture of sin, instead, is inherently social. Sin is inherently collective. Sin works its way into our systems, because it roots itself in the deepest layers of ourselves to the point that we’ve only really got one hand on the wheel. When “every thought of our hearts” (Gen. 6:5) is corrupted by sin, it is inevitable that our sinful nature will shape the systems we create and participate in.

And in light of all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that varying sins – like the sin of racism – have worked their way into our systems, including, even, many of our most sacred systems, such as law enforcement, or education, or housing, and beyond.

One of the clearest examples of the kind of “systemic sin” that the Bible describes is abortion. My socially liberal readers will probably chafe against me here, but my fellow social conservatives may find that this helps put the Bible’s over-arching doctrine of “social sin” in concrete perspective.

If you believe, like I do, that “Abortion” is evil – that terminating a fetus in the womb is, in fact, the same thing as killing a child out of the womb – then you already recognize at least one form of systemic sin. Last year, a man named Wayne Alden wrote a “letter to the editor” at the Wisconsin State Journal, saying, “Our nation must repent of the great injustice of abortion.” Franklin Graham said something similar at the March for Life. Our nation has tolerated, propped up, and funded the grave injustice of abortion for years, to the point that the practice of abortion is inscribed into our system. As many pro-choice activists are quick to point out, the American economy is radically dependent on abortion access, and the result is that a vast pool of corporations fund the American abortion industry.

In other words, the abortion crisis isn’t simply traceable to Planned Parenthood. It’s not just rogue abortionists. There’s no “Man Behind The Curtain,” so to speak. The great injustice of abortion is baked into our system. Abortion is “systemic injustice.”

That’s part of why it’s so hard to talk to each other about abortion. There are certainly exceptions because some people really are just evil – think of Kermit Gosnell, the now-imprisoned abortionist who coercively forced countless women into terminating their children – but those folks are probably outliers.

The truth is that most abortionists do not think of what they are doing as murder. Many do not think of a fetus as a human person. You can argue that they are making an unreasonable distinction between a fetus and a baby – and I would argue that they are making an unreasonable distinction between a fetus and a baby – but they do make that distinction. That is what they believe. When they abort a child in the womb, they see their actions roughly the way that you and I view having a routine operation, or something. They think of it as a standard form of medical care. They think of it as a standard form of birth control. Abortion is murder, but they have been hard-wired by our culture not to think of it that way.

And so, for example, when I say that “Abortion is evil,” it simply doesn’t compute for my pro-choice friends and family. Of course it doesn’t compute. It wouldn’t. Abortion is a systemic injustice, so it’s baked into our culture – it shapes the way we think, and feel, and react to things. Most folks are hard-wired in such a way that it may never seriously occur to them – they may never seriously consider – that aborting a fetus in the womb is very much the same thing as ending the life of a child outside the womb.

That’s how sin works its way into systems. It takes over the systems we live in, and makes us incapable of really seeing what’s right there before us.

But abortion is just one example. I open with it because, for people like me, it’s particularly close to home. But examples abound. As tired as you probably are of hearing about this, one such example is racism. Systemic racism is real, and – once the cultural blinders come off – it’s not even ambiguous.

Let’s talk, for example, about drug arrests.

Now, maybe you are of the opinion that since drugs are illegal, anybody who does drugs deserves whatever penalty they face. I won’t argue against that because that’s beside the point, but the fact remains that the penalties for drug-related offenses are not doled out in a just and impartial fashion. When it comes to drug-related offenses, Black Americans very much appear to be targeted.

Look at the numbers. As a case-in-point: Upwards of 40% of all drug-related arrests are for “possession of marijuana.”

Read that again.

Remember, you may feel that all drug use should be punished, and you may be correct, but hold that number in your mind. 40% of all drug-related arrests are for “possession of marijuana,” plain and simple. Not “possession with intent to distribute,” just possession of marijuana. Far and away the largest chunk of folks who are arrested on drug charges are arrested for having marijuana.

Now, while you’re holding that statistic in your mind, here’s another one to pair with it: Marijuana use is roughly equal among Black and White Americans. In 2014, for example, about 16% of Black subjects and 14% of white subjects reported having used marijuana in the previous 12 months. That’s a 2% difference. If we assume those respondents were representative (and it is always possible that they are not), then that would mean that we could guestimate that out of the 47,000,000 Black Americans there are roughly 2,937,500 who use marijuana, and that out of the 234,370,202 White Americans, there are 16,740,728 who use marijuana.

For perspective: 16,740,728 White marijuana users minus 2,937,500 Black marijuana users equals 13,803,228 White marijuana users. Extrapolating from the available data, we can presume that there are about 13,803,228 more White marijuana users than there are Black marijuana users.

To put it into even further perspective, that means that there are about 5.7 times more White marijuana users in the United States than Black marijuana users. Again: Maybe you feel that all marijuana users should be punished because they are breaking the law. Regardless of whether one agrees with your opinion or not, they would have to concede that you’re at least consistent.

But all marijuana users are not punished. That’s not what happens. What happens, instead, is that, on the whole, Black marijuana users are punished. Remember the earlier numbers. There are roughly 5.7 times more White marijuana users than Black marijuana users, but Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it. That’s bad enough in itself, but the problem becomes even clearer when you consider the fact that, as Jay Smooth explains, “that arrest can stay on their record and affect their chances at good jobs, housing and bank loans for the rest of their lives” even if they do not get convicted.

Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

One of the terms you might have heard quite a bit in the past year is “stop-and-frisk.” “Stop and frisk” is a policy that has been used inconsistently and in different regions of the United States throughout the last several decades. There is plenty of debate over whether “stop-and-frisk” has exacerbated the problems of how police deal with Black (as well as Latino and native American) citizens, but regardless of whether “stop-and-frisk” has made things worse, it has certainly revealed the way things are.

As a case-in-point, journalist Radley Balko cites one study that focused specifically on Milwaukee, finding that “between 2010 and 2017” there were roughly 700,000 “stop-and-frisk” stops. That’s about 274 “stop-and-frisks” per day just in the city of Milwaukee. Whatever you think about “stop-and-frisk” in theory, the findings of the study will probably alarm you: “In nearly half of the more than 700,000 such stops, the police failed to demonstrate reasonable suspicion as required by the Constitution.” That is a problem in itself, yes, but it gets worse. “The study found that between pedestrian stops and traffic stops, Black people were six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and that less than 1 percent of those searches turned up any contraband.”

Obviously, that’s just Milwaukee. The only thing a study like that can actually demonstrate is that there’s a significant problem in the Milwaukee PD’slong-standing practices regarding “stop-and-frisk.” However, similar studies have been carried out in multiple cities, and with similar results. 

A similar pattern can be seen when it comes to the enforcement of misdemeanors and minor infractions. The Chicago Tribune found that predominately Black neighborhoods received between two and three times as many citations as white and Latino neighborhoods. Again, this is not necessarily indicative of an unjust bias in policing on its own, but when viewed alongside other such cases, a pattern begins to emerge. In a study of jaywalking citations in Jacksonville, ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union found that, curiously, there was “no correlation between aggressive enforcement of jaywalking laws” and “where pedestrians were most likely to be struck by cars and killed.” That is to say, locations with high pedestrian-collision rates were not the locations at which police issued the most jaywalking citations. Instead, their investigation revealed that “most citations were issued in majority-Black neighborhoods,” regardless of traffic volume or pedestrian-collision rates.

Why? We cannot say definitively, but the emerging pattern does not look good.

These patterns are troubling, but the solution, we would think, should be to file a complaint. Unfortunately, as it turns out, citizens have been filing complaints. And those complaints have been going nowhere.

As a case-in-point, Balko notes that “Between 2012 and 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department received more than 1,350 citizen complaints of racial profiling. The department didn’t uphold a single complaint.” And again: A survey of “citizen complaints against police officers in North Charleston, S.C., between 2006 and 2016” found that complaints by white citizens were about two-thirds more likely to be sustained than complaints filed by Black citizens. When the complainant alleged excessive force, white complaints were sustained seven times more often than Black complaints.

And, of course, there is the issue of police shootings. In an independent study performed in 2015, analyst CT Ross performed a “geographically-resolved, multi-level Bayesian model” to “analyze the data presented in the U.S. Police-Shooting Database (USPSD)” in order to “investigate the extent of racial bias in the shooting of American civilians by police officers in recent years.”

His study notes the weaknesses at work in many previous models, which “relied on the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports that were constructed from self-reported cases of police-involved homicide,” and were, therefore, largely “biased by police reporting practices.” That is to say, one problem with the standard statistics is that they were provided – and, seemingly, specially curated – by precisely the folks who are currently on trial.

Instead, Ross endeavors to analyze such cases based on two factors: 1) “Whether suspects/civilians were armed or unarmed,” and 2) “The race/ethnicity of the suspects/civilians.” And, when he did so, he found that “The results provide evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed Black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being {Black, unarmed, and shot by police} is about 3.49 times the probability of being {white, unarmed, and shot by police} on average.”

Now, what’s also important to note is that this is not a one-size-fits-all result. This does not mean that every Black American everywhere is 3.49 times more likely to be killed by every cop everywhere. That’s a broad national average regarding the relative probability of a Black, unarmed suspect being shot by the police over against that of a white, unarmed suspect being shot by the police.

Ross makes a big deal to point out that the specific rates of probability vary significantly from county to county. 3.49 is the national average. On average, nationally, an unarmed, Black suspect is 3.49 times as likely to be shot by police. In some counties it’s lower than that. In some counties it is horrifyingly higher. Ross points out that there are counties in the U.S. where, on average, an unarmed Black suspect is 20 times more likely to be shot by police – unpredictably, that degree of extreme disproportionality in police killings is “most likely to emerge in police departments in larger metropolitan counties with low median incomes and a sizable portion of Black residents, especially when there is high financial inequality in that county.” In other words, in some places it’s worse than other. Many folks struggle to grasp the issue because they never see it with their own eyes, because it’s not nearly as much of an issue in their particular community. But in some places, the problem is so acute that it’s impossible to miss.

On top of all the other trends chronicled on this non-exhaustive list, a number of studies have demonstrated that Black Americans are significantly more likely to be wrongfully convicted – often only exonerated years later after new and indisputable evidence comes to light.

Once again: As a 27 year old white conservative who is generally skeptical of “Social Justice Warrior” talk, I have a very difficult time accounting for these patterns without concluding that there is a systemic problem of racism distorting our institutions. If you argue that “systemic racism” is not real, you end up with a different issue. Specifically, you end up with a massive set of data regarding the way that police deal with Black citizens that is incredibly difficult to explain.

More importantly than anything: None of these phenomena are adequately explained by the presence of “Black crime.” This is, perhaps, the most shocking discovery made in Ross’s study: “There is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”

That’s written in impenetrable academic-speak, but in plain English, what it means is that the data actually does not support the notion that the disproportional rate of Black suspects shot by police are the result of a higher crime rate among Black Americans.

Take, for example, Mac Donald’s point that Black Americans – who make up 13% of the population – commit roughly 50% of all murders. That sounds pretty bad. But those numbers say less than you’d think.

Take, for example, Michael Harriot’s deep dive into the specifics that make up the “13% does 50%” claim: He notes that, yes, it is true that of the 9,466 murders that were reported in 2017, 5,025 were committed by a Black person.

5025 is a lot. But, for perspective, there are 47,000,000 Black Americans. Even if you ignore the fact that many of those murders were committed by repeat offenders and assume, for argument’s sake, that each of the 5025 murders committed by Black Americans in 2017 were committed by a unique, one-time offender, that would still mean, at most, that there were 5,025 confirmed Black murderers over the course of 2017. 5,025 is a lot, but still: 47,000,000 minus 5025 equals 46,994,975.

That is to say, of the 47,000,000 Black Americans, 46,994,975 are not murderers. Since we’re using percentages for shock value, here, that means that 99.989497% of Black Americans did not commit murder in 2017. Which, to put it into even closer perspective, means that only .010% of Black Americans committed murders in 2017. Which means that, roughly, maybe, 1 out of every 10,000 Black Americans might commit murder.

So, to recap, when Mac Donald and others say that “13% of the population commit 50% of all murders,” what they’re really saying is that .010% of 13% of the population commit about 50% of all murders, which – to my understanding – means that the actual numbers ought to be that .0013% of the population commits roughly 50% of all murders. And, remember, that’s ignoring the fact that many of those 5,025 murders were committed by repeat offenders. We’re using .0013% as our number for simplicity’s sake. The actual number is even lower.

But the “13% does 50%” numbers are typically cited as part of a broader claim, that “Black on Black crime is the real problem.” Now, I don’t know anyone who isn’t horrified by the rates of “Black on Black crime.” But, again, remember the more precise numbers above. When we talk about the “Black on Black crime” rate, we are not talking about some kind of outlandish phenomenon in which countless Black Americans brutalize each other with abandon. We are talking about a tiny sliver of the Black population victimizing the rest of the Black population. We are talking about a fraction of a percent of the Black population victimizing the 99.989497%.

And, as it happens the “Black on Black crime” rate is almost identical to the “white on white crime” rate. According to the Bureau of Justice, the Black on Black crime rate is 63%, which sounds pretty bad. But according to the same sources, the white on white crime rate is 56%. Again, I’m not a math wizard, but 63 minus 56 equals 7. The percentage difference between Black on Black crime and white on white crime is 7%. That is to say, not much.

Even when you turn the focus specifically back to murder, it’s essentially the same. The Black on Black murder rate is 89%. The white on white murder rate is 81%. 89 minus 81 equals 8. That’s a difference of 8%. So, again, not much.

I’ll repeat myself yet again: As a 27 year old white conservative who is generally skeptical of “Social Justice Warrior” talk, I have a very difficult time accounting for these patterns without concluding that there is a systemic problem of racism distorting our institutions.

As before, none of this should surprise us, because that’s how sin works. It bakes its way into human systems so that there is rarely an obvious villain or identifiable culprit. There is seldom any wicked head that we can simply cut off to put an end to the injustices that plague us. We wrestle not against flesh and blood. Our present age is evil. The wisdom of this world is foolishness, and the elemental forces of the world are bent on enslaving us. So we cannot love this world or the things of this world, because this world must be overcome, and this world is passing away. Every thought of our hearts is corrupted by sin. Of course the systems we build together are frequently unjust, and in this particular case, the injustice that plagues our system is racism. It’s real.

That does not mean that all or even most white people are personally racist, and it does not mean that all or even most police officers mistreat Black citizens. It does not mean that all or even most police officers are personally racist. That should be obvious to you, because you probably know some police officers. You’ve met them. They aren’t the Klan. They aren’t comic book villains. They’re an indispensable part of society – which is part of the reason that, apart from activist-academics and NPR correspondents, most Black Americans report wanting more police presence in their neighborhoods, not less (see here and here and here and here and here).

All that any of this means is that there is something deeply wrong with our system that goes well beyond the notion that “some people are racist.” Shift your focus away from goofy culture war issues – like the Washington Post’s recent clickbait exposé on the, uh, “Racist Legacy That Many Birds Carry” – and instead lean into “kitchen table issues” like those mentioned above, and this much becomes obvious. What we have is not a nation of bona fide White Supremacists personally grinding the faces of the nation’s people of color. What we have, instead, is a vast collection of unjust laws that – sometimes by design, sometimes due to negligence – propel injustice like a driverless car. That means that you can probably stop attending your aunt’s White Fragility book club and divert your energies toward partnering with relevant think tanks and legal defense funds instead.


Ryan Ellington is a pastor in rural North Carolina. He is the cofounder of Grindhouse Theology and The American Commons. He has a B.A. in Religion from Oklahoma Baptist University and a M.A. in Ethics, Theology, and Culture from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is distantly related to Johnny Cash, but not in a cool way.