Today let’s dive into one of the toughest questions of our religious, cultural, and political lives. While we write and print millions of words about race in America, why is it still so hard to have a truly respectful, decent, and humble dialogue about perhaps the most complicated and contentious issue in American life? It’s a huge topic, but let’s start with what I believe is a true principle of human nature, a maxim called Miles’s law: Where you stand depends on where you sit.
While originating as an explanation for behavior of people in bureaucracies, Miles’s law has a much broader application. It speaks to the overwhelming influence of our own social, religious, and cultural experience over our viewpoint. Our different political cultures not only live different lives, they speak different languages. They apply different definitions to the same words and phrases—and those definitions are not self-evident.
Take “systemic racism,” for example. I daresay that only a vanishingly small number of Americans know that this is a term with an academic meaning that’s not entirely obvious from the words themselves. Here’s one definition—“structural” or “systemic” racism is:
A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.