Christian realism argues that the right to political sovereignty rests not on simply wielding power in a geographically defined area, but on meeting the moral responsibilities of caring for the justice, order, and peace of the political community given to the sovereign’s care. The failure to provide for these political goods is an abdication of political responsibility that puts one’s claims to sovereignty on shaky ground. Has America abandoned its moral responsibilities? If we claim to care for justice abroad, we must first care for justice at home. Do we? Answering in the affirmative, Providence executive editor Marc LiVecche and writer, blogger, speaker, and public intellectual Derryck Green talk about current events involving racism and America, white groveling, Black Lives Matter and the black power movement, Christian anthropology versus racial anthropology, and the journey of black America from a land of slavery to a land of milk and honey.

Program Notes: Some important resources mentioned in the discussion include:

Rough Transcript of the Conversation:

LIVECCHE: Hello everybody, I am Marc LiVecche, I am the executive editor of Providence Magazine, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy, and I am here with my friend and sometimes contributor Derryck Green, who I will introduce in a second. But we are going to talk about racism and the crisis going on in America right now and I thought it might be prudent to say a word or two about why this conversation is happening on Providence, which as I’ve just said is a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy, and here we are going on and talking about domestic issues. So, what’s the link? I think there are several. I’m only going to touch on one or two that I think are important.

One I think is simply to say that what happens domestically, or who we are domestically, is likely to affect who we are internationally. That’s to say, who we are at home is who we are going to be abroad. If we are an unjust society, we are less likely to be concerned about justice abroad. When we are concerned about justice abroad and we are ourselves an unjust society, then our credibility and demands that human rights abuses elsewhere not be tolerated—that credibility is going to be on shakier grounds. Said in a different way, if just wars are justified, most likely only just warriors are going to fight just wars.

So how are we doing at home? We have been a beacon, I think, as a nation to other nations. I think human societies look for a leader to emulate; that’s what human beings do. For better or for worse, it has been America for a long time. I think history suggests that when America takes a leading role—not necessarily the leading role, but a leading role—things go well. Things go better than when we stand aside and are aloof.

But more than this, Christian realism is the guiding political philosophy behind Providence and according to a Christian realist view, sovereignty is not something that is earned simply because you happen to have control over a particular geographical border. A sovereign is somebody who meets the obligations, the moral obligations, of sovereignty itself. A sovereign is somebody who cares for the justice, the order, and the peace of their own political community. And if we don’t care about those things for everybody within our borders, then our claim to sovereignty is itself on shaky grounds. If we listen to some of the people on the streets right now, America’s claim to sovereignty is indeed on shaky grounds. Is it? That’s the question we’re asking, and I am incredibly happy that Derryck Green is here to help us sort some of that out. Derryck, thank you for being here.

GREEN: Absolutely, thanks for having me.

LIVECCHE: Can you can you introduce yourself a little bit for us?

GREEN: Absolutely. So again, my name is Derryck Green and I have done some studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. I got my doctorate at Azusa Pacific University. I wrote my dissertation on racial and religious identity formation. Actually the title is “Transcending Blackness from Racial Identity Crisis to Christian Identity Formation” and I’m very interested in—I hate to use the word but—the intersection between religious development and racial development and how they’ve worked themselves out, not only in American history, but how they’re playing out currently in our culture. And so, I do a lot of writing on those kinds of issues, and I’m a sometimes contributor to the Institute of Religion of Democracy to their Juicy Ecumenism blog. And I do a lot of speaking about these topics in churches and parachurch organizations.

LIVECCHE: No that’s right, and in fact just this week you’ve got an article on Juicy called “America Isn’t Evil”already answering our question—“God Defeats Racism.” So I encourage everybody to look at that. And then a second article that we might get into that you sent me recently is on Ricochet and it’s “Black Lives Matter: The Ideological Heir to Black Power.” I believe that is the title of that. So, I just encourage you to send in program notes and all of that. But I encourage our listeners to look at both of those.

You started to say—you made a distinction—well, before I get into all of that, some brush clearing. What is going on in America right now? What are the facts on the ground? What’s happening?

GREEN: It’s interesting. I think right now what’s happening I think has a lot to do with COVID-19 and how people around the world, but particularly in America, have been forced into shelter-in-place to try to stem the curve of it being transmitted to other people. And so, people have had a lot of frustration mounting because it seemed that every other week the models were [inaudible] referring the information that was coming in and who was susceptible to it kept changing. I think a lot of people were frustrated, including that the economy was basically shut down, so you had a lot of people who were deemed essential and non-essential, a lot of people lost work. So I think there was an emotional cauldron there.

And then on the end of that when we were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it was getting a bit brighter, and we started to talk about slowly resuming our lives back to some sort of normalcy, we had the incident in Georgia with a Ahmaud Arbery and the two McMichaels, a father-and-son team, that pursued him. And Ahmaud Arbery was shot and there was a lot of talk about that situation being racist—two vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. And then we have the situation with George Floyd in Minneapolis where a police officer was kneeling on the back of George Floyd for almost nine minutes as he was suffocated. So I think you have a bunch of things. I think you have a bunch of frustration being locked down and then we now have an avenue, almost a cathartic avenue, to push our frustrations. And so this is what has happened now. Now people are saying and reading into these incidents, that these incidents are reflective of a country that is still institutionally, or systemically, or structurally racist against American blacks. And so I think as a consequence we’re reading into these incidents some things that may not be there to confirm our pre-existing biases that justify our behavior up to and including this point. And because of that, we’ve had a lot of black anger, black frustration, black rage, but we’ve also had a lot of white Americans taking it upon themselves to be allies, to be deferential to American blacks and support this social program and this Black Lives Matter movement. And I think, to be honest with you, I think that this has worsened the situation in ways that it otherwise wouldn’t have.

[Break in audio]

GREEN: I think the whole Black Lives Matter movement is making the situation worse than it otherwise would be because they are allowing certain behaviors and justifying and rationalizing certain behavior that they’re not cutting off that they didn’t cut off in in the very beginning. And so, when people were protesting, peacefully protesting, that’s a good thing, but when they started allowing these elements to go in and destroy things, they did not take a stand soon enough to prevent the destruction that we saw in over 45 or 50 cities across the country.

LIVECCHE: Right. So, okay, that’s incredibly helpful. You’ve said a lot of things that we hear all the time when we talk about racial issues in the States. And some of that I just want to get briefly clear just for some people to build a lexicon or to be a little bit more confident in what some of these words mean. One of the things you said is in structural racism. We hear that a lot. Systemic racism, we hear that a lot. I want to get to what that is, but before that, okay, what’s racism?

GREEN: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well it’s interesting, racism I guess used to be defined as a person of one race thinking themselves or their race superior to other races based off of intrinsic or extrinsic abilities to do certain things. I mean some people thought that there were genetic differences that made, for example, blacks inferior to whites. So that’s what I think a traditional understanding of racism is. The problem is that now the idea of racism has been expanded so far out that it seems to me that a lot of things may fall under that that purview that didn’t exist previously. And if we are intellectually honest, still don’t exist in that in that definition.

LIVECCHE: So then what makes a racist then? Is a racist simply someone who has these beliefs that there might be an inferiority among other races, or who thinks their own race is superior, or has fears or doubts about other races? What makes a racist?

GREEN: I think all of that is true, and I think all that falls under the definition of racism. And I go back and forth from this—I think that racism or being racist is an internal belief whereas racial discrimination is the outworking of those internal beliefs, ideas, and value systems. So I think that when people are racist—because again black people can be just as racist as white people, as can Asian people, so on and so forth, as we’ve seen a lot of examples over the past several weeks. It’s usually when you start to behave in a certain way that you start to see racial discrimination. This is where it gets a bit murky because there’s a subset of people particularly in academia who say that black people cannot be racist because they don’t have the external power to employ discrimination on, for example, white people. And I just don’t buy that definition. I think that blacks can be just as racist as anybody else.

LIVECCHE: Right. So, racism isn’t a white disease. Or even a disease among those in power. So if the tables were flipped and blacks held the reins of power, then whatever minority was under them, they could also be racist.

GREEN: I think if we’re talking about power, I think that’s the key. Because then they say, if you don’t have power, then you can’t be racist. But if racism is an internal thought process, then anybody can be racist. Technically, anybody can engage in racial discrimination, because you don’t need power, in the traditional sense, to act out that racial discrimination. For example, I think that it’s racial discrimination to simply cast this negative aspersion upon all white people that they’re all beneficiaries of white privilege, or they are all agents, whether they’re conscious or subconscious, of white supremacy. That is an outpouring of racial discrimination, because you’re casting a very wide net to morally indict an entire group of people, simply based off of their race or whatever you attribute to their privilege, if that makes sense.

LIVECCHE: Yeah, absolutely. I wonder too if there’s a component of—I’ve heard people say, “If I’m walking down the street at night in a big city and I hear footsteps behind me and I look back and it’s a black person, I’m on guard, I’m nervous.” And they hate this about themselves. And they wrestle with themselves, they think, “Oh you know maybe there’s circumstances; where am I in in the city? Am I alone? What time is it? What’s the context? How’s that person dressed? What are they doing?” And maybe they might be justified, but they still feel bad, or guilty, or confused about having these feelings. Opposed to somebody who has no compunction whatsoever against thinking the worst of another race. So I wonder if part of being a racist is not simply having these thoughts or these beliefs, either tacit or sometimes able to be articulated, but being characterized by these beliefs. Like my general character is one in which I don’t hate these thoughts that I have, I indulge them, I exercise them, I manifest them when I can—this sort of giving in to that sin.

GREEN: Right. It’s interesting because what you just said is actually something that Jesse Jackson said thirty years ago. He says, “Nothing pains me more at this point of my life than when I’m walking down the street and I hear footsteps and I turn around and see that they’re white people.” So even Jesse Jackson has these fears. Now, what I’ve written on about that particular topic recently is, for some, that may be a confirmation of bias that blacks should be feared. But at the same time, is it necessarily an inherent, intrinsic bias—which I don’t believe in—but a bias based off of a pattern that has been set, that people go to as shorthand. That is to say, if we look at for example the uniform crime reports of the FBI, or you look at other crime reports in various states, and you see that a certain subset of people are responsible for a significant commission of violent crimes, what you start to do is start to form, I guess an act of self-preservation, you start to form a generalization to say, based off of the statistics, this is a criminal profile that has a racial element. And so what I’ve told people before—and again you can’t necessarily say there’s no people that are racist and they don’t think those things because they think that blacks are less than—but my argument has always been, if you think that way and you are not a racist, particularly as American blacks, we have to be just as upset as the people who reinforce that criminal stereotype, as the people who use that generalization as an act of self-preservation when they are out and about.

So, I think if we want to reduce how people see us, and I’m speaking particularly to American blacks, Christian and non-Christian alike, we have to start calling balls and strikes to mitigate the reinforcing of a particular stereotype so that stereotype doesn’t precede us. And then we have to try to overcome that stereotype, along with getting to know people that might have certain reservations because of this generalization, if that makes sense.

LIVECCHE: It makes a lot of sense. Devil’s advocate here. I agree with you completely. But you know, gosh, isn’t that unfair on you? I mean you’re a good guy, from everything I hear you’re unlikely to come up behind me at night and take my wallet. So why should you have to make that kind of special effort, rather than me have to make the special effort of not suspecting the worst of you if I encounter you on a dark street somewhere at night. Why is the burden fall on you? That seems unfair.

GREEN: Right, and I think it maybe a both-and. However, because of my skin complexion, my height, and my build, unfortunately I fit a particular stereotype that has been reinforced for at least a generation, probably more. And so thankfully, you know I still look relatively young, so it makes me appear even more in that stereotype. So I think as for us, if we want to mitigate that stereotype, then we have a moral obligation to do what we can, control what we can control, to mitigate the reinforcement of that stereotype. And it’s very difficult for a person, and we want to tell people to say “Listen, don’t allow that stigma of us to go before us. Don’t judge a book by its cover but take us as who we are.” The problem is, generalizations—someone has said generalizations are the mother of all wisdom—because you have to use certain generalizations, whether they’re good or bad in the process of real life. So listen, when I go buy a car I know that Honda has a very good reputation. So if I’m going to choose a Honda, for example, I’m discriminating against all other vehicles, right. It’s a reputation that goes ahead of a representing of the brand. We have to do that. So I think we can ask people to not necessarily give in to those generalizations. But we can’t ask more of other people than what we’re willing to do ourselves. And I think that particular dynamic, asking mainstream America to do what we as American blacks won’t do, is partially responsible for the discord that we’re seeing contemporarily.

LIVECCHE: Not, that’s helpful. I spent 12 years living in Eastern Europe. I was in Slovakia. And Slovakia has had, as all of Eastern Europe has, has had occasional problems with skinheads. And if was walking down the street and I happened to see somebody who unfortunately had a hairdo like me and happened to be wearing military-style clothing and Doc Martens, I had certain assumptions about those people. Context mattered; appearance wasn’t the only thing. Lots of guys have my hair quality. But all the rest, the whole ensemble, came into forming a context in which, as you’ve been saying, there’s a likelihood that a certain characteristic is being displayed.

If all of that’s true, let me ask, when you go out during the day, do you pay attention to how you dress? Do you dress up more than maybe a white guy on vacation might just go out looking sloppy because he’s on the weekend? Do you do make special efforts just in your daily life to give the appearance that you’re not a ‘thug’ or somebody to be feared? And I ask this, because I once read a book—a long time ago, so I’m not going to necessarily say I read the book now; I read it probably 20 years ago—but at the time I think it was really good. It was called Dominion, by a guy named Randy Alcorn. And I only vaguely remember it, but it was about a relationship that somehow developed between a white guy and a black guy. And the white guy had no clue, of sort of the everyday, in that case, inconveniences, that the black man would go through, just to make life a little bit easier on himself. He would dress up, he would—whatever it happened to be—make an extra effort to deal with people’s known or unknown biases. Does that resonate, is that something that…?

GREEN: Yeah it does resonate. And during COVID, everybody has the relaxed look, because there’s not too many places that you can go, so we’re kind of all on the same plane there. But for example when my wife and I were looking for places to live, or if we’re going to buy a car, I dress the part, because I want them to respect me as me, and if I come in dressed a particular way, thinking that they don’t have to give me the quality services that they would extend to somebody else. And so particularly when you’re going to those places, you want to make sure that you command the respect and so they treat you the way they should treat a paying customer. But when I go out during the day, I’m really relaxed. But it’s just certain situations in which I just feel that I have an obligation, not just so people take me seriously, but it’s an obligation, frankly, because of what my parents have done for me to get me to a particular point. I feel like I have an obligation not only to respect myself, but the family name that I’m carrying on.

And you know it’s interesting, Michael Jordan said one time, they asked him when he was playing basketball, they said, “Why do you always wear suits?” He says—and I’m paraphrasing—he says, “The reason I always dress up is because this might be the one time that any of these kids see Michael Jordan. And I want them to know that I take my profession seriously.” And so that always stood with me. And so I try to take that same mentality into particular situations, more situations than not, that this may be the only time they see me, they see a representative of my family, or they interact with somebody that may not confirm a pre-existing bias. So, I have an obligation to try to at least overcome that. So then for them the seed is planted, and hopefully that seed is watered and it bears good fruit, that just because there’s a certain stereotype or generalization doesn’t mean it applies to everybody. So it is a burden, but I’m willing to try to overcome that burden for the sake of some sort of reparation of relationships and kind of getting back to some sort of dealing with people as they are, not as you think they are kind of thing.

LIVECCHE: Yeah, right, no, agreed. This probably will get me in trouble even for suggesting that this is a similar situation—I don’t think it’ll get me in trouble with you, but I think it will with some—but here goes. I’m a dude. And I’m aware that dudes often act violently toward women. And now, if a woman is out at night, alone or in a small group, she could be vulnerable to dudes. And so, while I have no ill will in my heart for the woman walking alone, if I’m coming up behind her, when I’m still a good distance away, I try to remember to scuff my feet on the sidewalk, do something to alert her to my presence, so as I walk by I don’t frighten her. Or even better, I cross the street; at a cross walk I pass her wide. If I’m at a train platform—and I was a doctoral student in Chicago, sometimes I would be alone with a woman on the train platform—you try to keep your distance. You make an effort to try to suggest that, look, I know there’s a pattern, and I’m going to do my best to not fit that pattern. Is that unfair? Maybe. But yeah.

So good, you’ve defined racism, you talked about racists, but you also said this word ‘structural racism,’ and I don’t want to lose hold on that yet, because that’s a word we hear a lot, and I don’t think a lot of people understand what that’s supposed to mean.

GREEN: Yeah, it’s interesting, I think it was a term—the first time I read about it or remember seeing it was when I was doing the research for my doctoral dissertation and I read Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. And I think he used the term ‘institutional racism’ in that book. And so you know institutional racism or structural racism or systemic racism, in my view, when I hear those terms, I think of something like Jim Crow segregation where it was literally institutionalized. There was a separation between the races in which blacks did things over here and whites did things over here where blacks could not do things simply based off the color of their skin. It was an institution, whether you want to talk about locale in the south or Jim Crow laws regionally in the country, it was institutionalized.

However, in the realm of academia, I think it denotes that there still remain some sort of tangible and easily recognizable forms of racial discrimination in the social sphere, in the economic sphere, obviously in the legal sphere, as people talk about the new Jim Crow and there being a disproportionate number of black males locked up in the prison system. There’s just this idea that racism is part of our structure in American society that is set up and is preferential to whites and it negatively affects blacks and other minorities.

LIVECCHE: Good, yeah, okay. Does America suffer from a structural racism problem?

GREEN: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think it’s something that I recently wrote for IRD, that there still remains racism, and I said, and I do believe this, that it is a theological problem, that we will have to deal with this problem on this side of heaven. But I don’t think that it’s institutionalized as it was let’s say up to the 1960s. People want to look at isolated patterns of racism and connect the dots to say, “See it’s still systemic.” And they do that, for example, with police brutality. They look at racial inequities and by pointing out racial inequities, they say, “There is proof,” without getting into the data that show that there’s a lot of other variables that contribute to those inequities and racial discrimination may not be a contributing factor, and if it is it may be a very small part.

So, I think that racism exists. I think that, as we just found out last week with the Ahmaud Arbery case, that one of the defendants in that case used the n-word during the course of shooting Ahmaud Arbery. So now we have tangible evidence that that incident may have been because of racism. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s systemic. And the way we know it’s not systemic is because since the mid-1960s we’ve had a proliferation of racial preference programs that are beneficial to blacks and other minorities at the expense of whites, black immigrants, Indian immigrants, particularly Asian Americans. So, it’s hard to argue that the country is still systemically racist, when we have all of these racial preference programs that benefit blacks, simply because we are black. They can’t be both at the same time. So, I don’t think that systemic racism exists.

I think that there might be discrimination or systemic discrimination in particular areas. It may not be based off of race, but one of those instances, I think, is the government school system. I think that it’s a travesty that the government school system is set up in a way that it continually gives substandard education to black children, particularly poor black children, in ghetto areas. I think that’s systemic; I think that’s discriminatory. Now can I say that it’s systemic racism? I’m not so sure, because there are so many blacks in high positions in teachers’ unions and on education city councils and things of that nature, that in some ways, blacks are contributing to that kind of systemic discrimination that they complain about. So no, systemic racism doesn’t exist, but I think there are patterns, systemic or otherwise, that reinforce discrimination to a group of people. Some people may say, “Well maybe it’s not racial discrimination, its economic discrimination.” I’m open to that, actually. But I don’t think systemic racism exists.

LIVECCHE: What would you say to—I have a friend who uses an analogy of a Monopoly game. He says, “Imagine America has been playing Monopoly for quite some time. And it turns out that the whites playing Monopoly have been cheating and the blacks playing Monopoly, they didn’t know this. Now it turns out that the whites are caught. They know they’ve been cheating, they’ve amassed properties and monies that the blacks didn’t have an opportunity to amass because the whites have been cheating. Now the whites pledge and keep their commitment to not cheat anymore. That’s lovely, but going forward, we’re still playing the same game, and the whites have been cheating and are now benefiting from having cheated. And the blacks, while the game is now going to be played fair, have been put back on their heels through 400 years of white cheating. So, the argument would be, okay it might be the fact that racism isn’t the number one problem facing blacks in America today, but because it was, and hasn’t been remedied, the consequences of it are still in effect. How would you respond to something like that?

GREEN: That’s tough. And I think I’d have to see the ways in which whites had been cheating that was going to be advantageous to them and a disadvantage to blacks. Because not all cheating is the same, just like all sins aren’t the same. There are different gradations. So, I think take that into consideration.

Two, I think the example that your friend used is pretty much the example that Ta-Nehisi Coates used in his Atlantic piece several years back about the case for reparations. And so that’s a difficult thing too. Listen, we understand that there used to be redlining and preventing people from living different places. And so, I think to find out how the cheating took place and to the effect it took place, how it advantages and disadvantages people is a worthy cause to find out. But a lot of times, the people that were cheating, and the people that were cheated, are no longer with us. And so it’s very difficult to make the case that people who didn’t cheat—and the argument will be made of course, “But they’re still beneficiaries of cheating,” again we have to find out the extent to which that is true—but it’s very difficult to say that people who didn’t cheat have to pay for people who weren’t cheated.

I think what we need to do, and again this goes back to the inequities that we see in society, is to say, well one of the inequities is education. If we really want to change this, why don’t we reform primary and secondary education, so blacks are taught at the same level of their peers. We demand more of them, that way when they get to college, we don’t need for example affirmative action or any type of racial preference programs to place blacks in colleges to improve the numbers of their representation. They will be able to achieve those on their own. That way we won’t have to sit back and say, “Well, we need more blacks in STEM education.” I think blacks only represents 7% of STEM degrees—blacks in STEM degrees in colleges. Well they haven’t been properly trained. So we’re not going to say—affirmative action, we use it as some sort of magical incantation to make up for 12 years of under-education and then we want to say, “Well why are they not in any STEM classes?” And then, “Why aren’t they in the STEM based economy?” Well, there’s a reason for that. So let’s get to that point first.

So we can change those things, but it’s not just education. One of the reasons why there are inequities is because we just simply don’t have as many intact black families as our black immigrant, white, or Asian counterparts. And there is a certain foundation that exists within the structure of a family, a solid foundation that can be built upon. And so we want to change some of these inequities. I’ve always argued, let us control what we’re able to control to weed out those other variables, so then we’re able to clearly see where racism exists and then work collaboratively to mitigate it and then root it out. That way the cheating, if it continues, is stopped, and those people who are being cheated are granted some form of restitution, if that makes sense. But simply saying, “You cheated and I’ve been cheated,” doesn’t really bridge that chasm, so to speak. It’s just, “Okay, then what? Well okay fine, but now what?” And so, we have to be constructive when we talk about it.

LIVECCHE: That’s excellent. Derryck, I’ve had you for a long time. I’ve got a bunch more I want to talk about, do you have a few more minutes?

GREEN: Oh, absolutely.

LIVECCHE: All right I think what we’re going to do is to sign off from part one, let’s call it, because my managing editor is going to yell at me for taking so much time. So, for our viewers, this was part one. We’re going to come immediately back and do part two. And that’s happening now.