The Spiritual Problem of Racism Calls for a Spiritual Solution

spiritual problem of racism

When I look at the history of social divisions and inequities within our nation, I see at least three different ways people have tried to address them, but do these responses truly address the spiritual problem of racism?

Addressing Social Divisions: Charity

One way people have tried to address social divisions is through charity or “noblesse oblige.” I’ve written about the problems of noblesse oblige before:

Noblesse oblige can lead to assumptions of superiority, the idea that the upper class has gifts to offer the rest of the world, and those poor, marginalized, underprivileged people are grateful recipients of this beneficence.

Noblesse oblige can bring resources to under-resourced communities, but it also can lead to disconnected, well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful programs and gifts.

Addressing Social Divisions: Public Policy

Another way we’ve tried to address social problems is through public policy that ensures everyone has the same access to opportunity. As with charitable giving, public policy can do a lot to rectify injustice, but plenty of writers and thinkers have demonstrated that even the best intentions to provide opportunities to all end up with a “meritocracy” that is closed off to the vast majority of people. Daniel Markovits’ book, “The Meritocracy Trap,” is the most recent long-form argument about this problem.

Addressing Social Divisions: Activism

A third way is through activism. We’ve seen this activism most recently in the antiracism movement. There is both truth and positive change that has and can come through these efforts to name injustice and call for action to reform the systems that perpetuate the injustice. Of course, there are reasons to criticize the activists as well. They can create a new power dynamic and an us-versus-them mentality in which everyone is either good or bad and there is no nuance or compassion.

But there’s a foundational aspect of human societies that noblesse oblige, public policy, and activism neglect at their peril, and that is the moral and spiritual dimension of who we are as human beings.

The Spiritual Problem of Racism

At its core, social divisions are a result of a deep spiritual problem that runs through the history of our nation. The spiritual nature of this problem comes up even in our secular society—the authors that write about “America’s original sin” and the “soul of America.” Ta-Nehisi Coates—an avowed atheist—comments that we need a “spiritual renewal” if we are to address racism and injustice. Similarly, my guest on this week’s podcast, Dominique Gilliard writes:

Mass incarceration will not end via legislative tweaks and incremental reforms. Mass incarceration will be halted only by a moral awakening.

Is there a solution to the spiritual problem of racism?

A Spiritual Solution

A spiritual problem calls for a spiritual solution. People of faith have both a source of strength for the work of justice and a motivation for pursuing justice that can bless the culture at large. The love of God is vast and steadfast and enduring. It is this love that believers are invited to draw upon in order to find personal strength and comfort, and in order to move with grace and courage into the world.

If and as America has a moral and spiritual awakening, these other means—charitable giving of time and resources, public policy changes that advance opportunity, and activism that continues to insist upon equal rights and justice for all—will only become more powerful tools in the work of justice.


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Hi, I’m Amy Julia.

I write about faith, family, disability, and privilege.

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