Institutional Racism Defining the Term for Use in the RCA By Earl James, coordinator of multiracial initiatives and social justice (616) 698-7071
Agenda • This tool provides you with an opportunity to: • Review rationale and process for developing the definition for “institutional racism” • Review the definition • Test your understanding of the definition against two cases • Provide feedback on your assessments of the definition
Developing the Definition On direction from the 2007 General Synod, the General Synod Council created the coordinator of multiracial initiatives and social justice position to which I was appointed. One of the critical mandates of the position is to equip and assist the RCA in addressing and eliminating institutional racism from all aspects of its denominational life. The definition of institutional racism was developed after conversation with regional synod executives and with feedback from nearly 40 people, including members of the Commissions on Race and Ethnicity and Christian Action, the Multiracial Congregation Team, and GSC staff engaged in congregational mission. The next step in the process is to expand discussion of the definition of institutional racism throughout the denomination, which is the overall goal of this discussion tool.
Introducing the Definition In the RCA, institutional racism means applying power by or in congregations, assemblies, or the General Synod Council and its staff, institutions, or agencies (including commissions) that results in people from identified racial and ethnic groups being put at a disadvantage or being deprived of equal opportunity in decision making, employment, and access to services and products. (Application of power can be ecclesiastical, economic, or through written and/or undocumented policies, procedures, protocols, precedents, landlord-tenant agreements, structures, and systems.) NOTE: Institutional racism is not personal bias or racial bigotry, and it is influenced by histories and societal patterns external to the RCA.
Underlying Assumptions about Institutional Racism • Whether a result is intended or unintended is not at issue. • Good or ill will is not at issue. • The factor of “white privilege,” while often presumed, is not at issue. • Occurrences of institutional racism always relate to a decision or action that results from written or undocumented policies, procedures, practices, protocols, etc. • Transforming a person or a person’s inner self is not the goal of eliminating institutional racism. • Transforming our denomination’s culture and systems is a critical goal of eliminating institutional racism.
Testing the Definition You are encouraged to closely review the two cases. There are, no doubt, many issues to discuss within each case. However, for the purposes of this tool, please apply your understanding of the definition of institutional racism to the fact situation of each case. Use these questions to assist you: Is the outcome the result of institutional racism? If yes, why and how? If no, why and how? You are encouraged to discuss your growing insights at home, with members of your congregation and classis, and with associates on other RCA ministry teams. Those discussions will be immensely beneficial when applying the definition to the RCA’s policies, processes, structures, and systems.
Test Case #1 In 2003, a Christian college recruited an African-American to serve as an assistant professor of education. The recruitment was, in part, guided by the college’s program to attract minorities. Currently, 7.2 percent of the college’s faculty is comprised of people of color, as is 6 percent of its student body. The college also has a requirement that all faculty must be active members of a congregation of its affiliated denomination or of a denomination that is in ecclesiastical fellowship with it. (The college’s requirement reflects its concern that historically, Christian colleges that have distanced themselves from their founding denominations have also distanced themselves from remaining Christian.) The college’s founding denomination has a strong mono-ethnic history. After several years of searching for a compatible multicultural or African-American congregation within that denomination, the professor concluded that 1) none was there yet in terms of their development towards multiculturalism, and 2) she needed to secure in her community of faith consistency with her native culture, history, and self. For that reason, she formally sought exemption from the rule from the college’s president. In October 2007, the college’s Board of Trustees, after considerable review, elected not to allow the exemption. Acknowledging the difficulty in their decision, the college indicated that it will continue discussions with the professor. Should she not select a church home within the bounds of the requirement, she will be placed on an employment term track that would expire in 2009. Response Questions Did institutional racism play a role here? If so, how? Why? If not, why not?
Test Case #2 In December 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges could impose shorter sentences for crack cocaine convictions than the federal sentencing guidelines require. The ruling addresses a critical difference between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine; federal penalties for selling five grams of crack cocaine can result in the same prison sentence as selling 500 grams of powdered cocaine. Also in December 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Commission independently decided to reduce penalties for crack cocaine sentences. Statistically, about 80 percent of people convicted of selling crack cocaine are black while only about 25 percent of those convicted of selling powdered cocaine are black. Historically, crack cocaine has largely been sold in urban and black environments whereas powdered cocaine has been primarily sold in higher-income white areas. Each year, the federal courts handle an equivalent number of each type of case. Response Questions Did institutional racism play a role here? If so, how? Why? If not, why not?
Share with Us Your Assessments • You are encouraged to provide feedback with your thoughts about: • The use of this tool • The definition • The application of the definition in the two cases • How the tool benefitted you in gaining an understanding of • institutional racism • The overall helpfulness of this tool in contributing to the shared goal of eliminating institutional racism in the RCA • Please email your assessments to Earl James, coordinator of multiracial initiatives and social justice, at email@example.com by February 4, 2008. • In your email, please let me know if I may share your insights by name or anonymously. • Thank you very much, and may God’s grace be with you.