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On Racial Justice, Individual Guilt, and Institutional Responsibility
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On Racial Justice, Individual Guilt, and Institutional Responsibility

We aren't guilty of the sins of our ancestors, but we must still choose to work to repair the damage they did.

Even by the degraded standards of contemporary discourse, my Sunday essay last week triggered a volcanic reaction. I was called “loathsome,” “truly despicable,” and “odious” (among other things). In his Monday podcast, my friend Ben Shapiro engaged in an extended critique and (oddly enough) claimed that I was centering policy around “empathy” rather than justice and was abandoning the concept of equal protection of the law. 

But this was fiction. That glow you saw on the horizon was the flames of a thousand burning straw men. It’s hard to imagine that Ben even read my essay before he recorded his response. I never even mentioned the word “empathy,” and I unequivocally declared equal protection of the law to be necessary to the ongoing work of racial justice. Not one of the relatively modest policy recommendations I made (increased respect for property rights to help block NIMBYism, increased school choice to increase educational opportunity, stricter enforcement of the Bill of Rights to prevent exploitation and oppression) contradicts the principle of equality under the law at all. 

But the thing that really seemed to make people angry was the (completely false) inference that I was imposing intergenerational guilt for ancestral sin. Critics accused me of imposing “blood guilt” on white people. This is absurd, a bad-faith misreading of my argument. But this misrepresentation does give me an opportunity to discuss a vitally important concept that’s often overlooked within the church—the difference between individual guilt and institutional responsibility, including the individual responsibility to correct the consequences of enduring institutional injustice. 

Individuals bear the guilt for their own sin, and even the Old Testament—where God frequently, clearly, and explicitly held nations responsible for institutional sin—contains passages like this, from Ezekiel: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”

Part of the good news of the Gospel is the fact that Christ’s atoning sacrifice means that under his grace, the soul who sins shall not die, but shall inherit everlasting life. I’ve been critiqued for only quoting Old Testament verses to support my argument that acting justly is a biblical responsibility. But Christ’s death on the cross does not relieve from any institution the obligation to heal the hurts caused by unjust wounds. And Christ himself scolded religious leaders for neglecting the “more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”

To put this is in basic moral terms that connect with the disputes of the day, if a child is taught that there is something inherently wrong with their “whiteness” because of the sin of white generations before him or her, then that’s profoundly wrong and unjust. Their whiteness does not make them guilty of anything. But that’s not the end of the inquiry.

As I’ve written before, my ancestors fought for the Confederacy. I’m not guilty of their sin, but I can lament their decision to wear gray and learn from their profound mistake. I can warn myself of the incredible pull of tribe over truth, and I can also feel a sense of responsibility to right enduring wrongs. And this is especially true when I consider my role not just as an individual but also a member of various existing institutions that have played historic roles in American injustice.

The concept of enduring institutional responsibility is deeply embedded in American morality and thus deeply embedded in American law. Let’s move out of the hot-button realm of race for a moment and consider something more mundane—standard tort and criminal law. Let’s suppose that an industrial plant has been recklessly polluting the groundwater for decades. CEO after CEO turned a blind eye to obvious production problems until the moment that the health effects in the community became dramatic and unmistakable. 

Reacting to public pressure, the board fires the CEO and senior leaders. Law enforcement files charges. The company then hires a new CEO. It’s under completely new management. Are the new managers personally guilty of the prior leaders’ crimes? Absolutely not. Do they have an institutional responsibility to ameliorate the consequences of the prior leaders’ sins? Absolutely yes. How long does that responsibility last? Until they’ve done what they can reasonably do to repair the harm. 

Institutional responsibility outlasts individual institutional leadership. In the biblical example I used last week, a nation (Israel) bound itself to a covenant with the Gibeonites acting through a leader (Joshua). That same nation, under Saul, broke its covenant. Then the next leader, David, had to address the injustice. The nation’s responsibility to address injustice outlasted the leader who committed the injustice.

When an individual steps into an institutional role, he or she steps into that institution’s responsibilities. This point should be blindingly obvious. For example, private citizens have no particular obligation to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” In fact, they even have a constitutional right to (peacefully) oppose the Constitution.

But the moment a citizen swears the oath of, say, an officer in the United States military, it becomes their individual responsibility to uphold the organization’s purpose. 

Now let’s turn back to race. If an institution—such as a city or state—relentlessly segregated neighborhoods and schools, the guilt for that segregation rests with both the institution and the individual leaders who ordered the injustice. New leaders don’t share the guilt of the old leaders, but they do assume the institution’s responsibility to ameliorate the harm. Just as a corporation doesn’t address the consequences of its pollution merely by ceasing its pollution, neither does a government address the consequences of its segregation merely by ceasing its discrimination.

Here’s the challenging part for millions of American Christians. Many of our institutions actively inflicted racial harm as well. Entire denominations were founded in whole or in part to provide a religious home for slave owners. Religious institutions vigorously defended Jim Crow and enacted their own segregationist policies. And this isn’t ancient history. The Supreme Court’s Bob Jones case, which held that the IRS could revoke the university’s tax exemption because the school prohibited interracial dating and marriage, was decided in 1983. I was 14 years old when that happened. 

So just as cities, states, and the federal government should dedicate energy and resources into addressing and correcting the consequences of historic harm, so should the institutions of the American Christian church. When I’m a member of a church, I’m not just an individual, I’m part of an institution, and that institution has its own enduring, divine mandates to “act justly” in its country and community. 

Contra Ben Shapiro, none of this means abandoning the concept of equal protection under the law. In fact, abandoning equal protection doesn’t just contradict constitutional principles, it often harms the very cause it’s designed to advance. It often creates a new injustice to counter an old injustice. For example, one of the grievous realities of the Harvard University admissions litigation was the confirmation that Harvard’s de facto limits on Asian admissions meant that young Asian kids were concretely bearing a racial burden that ended up holding them to a higher standard than (irony of ironies) rich white applicants. 

Moreover, if one of the primary sins of our republic was violating the classical liberal principles of our founding in our treatment of African-Americans, the better solution is to extend those principles to previously-oppressed groups, not to toss away classical liberalism in the quest to remake society. (One of the key defects of critical race theory is its common rejection of classical liberalism itself.) 

In fact, classical liberal principles can be indispensable to the quest for justice. As my friend Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, reminded me recently, John Lewis said, “Without freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights movement would’ve been a bird without wings.” Civil rights leader Walter Fauntroy once told me that the success of the movement depended on “almighty God and the First Amendment.” Frederick Douglass declared the “right of speech” to be the “great moral renovator of society and government.”

One of the (many) problems of race discourse on the right is that there is such a focus on what is wrong—and there are many examples of illiberalism and excess from the “anti-racist” left—that there is less focus on what is right. It’s one thing to join the ranks of the anti-woke and relentlessly oppose “CRT.” It’s another thing to answer a question like, “So, what do you propose to do in response to persistent wealth gaps, achievement gaps, civil rights violations, and residential and educational segregation”?

And again, as I’ve said countless times before, the answer to that question is hard. It’s complicated. That’s one reason why I’m deeply skeptical about top-down federal solutions to problems embedded in thousands of quite diverse American communities. I recognize the necessity of federal civil rights laws. The power of the federal government had to be deployed to destroy Jim Crow. But we also know that top-down “solutions” can present problems all their own. Poorly-designed federal programs can cause real harm, and when the program is federal the harm can be national.

In fact, there are circumstances—especially when we’re talking about many of the myriad rules and systems that inhibit economic and educational opportunity (like occupational licensing, restrictions on school choice, onerous zoning rules that transform prosperous neighborhoods into virtual gated communities, and of course the enormous challenge of mass incarceration)—where the best step towards healing the wounds of the past is less government intervention, not more.

Simply because we can’t articulate everything that can be done doesn’t mean that we can’t propose something in our own communities and in our own churches (where opportunities to engage in your own communities are almost endless). That’s why I focused locally in my piece last week. That’s why I continue to focus locally. That’s exactly where each of us has the most power and influence. A national focus often makes our words and thoughts mainly symbolic.

But as we navigate these hard questions, we must be animated by a sense of deep responsibility. I am not guilty of my forefathers’ sins, but I’m part of a church and nation that has committed profound wrongs, and those wrongs have enduring consequences. 

Or, to phrase it in explicitly biblical terms, it is my moral obligation—in my turn on this earth—to “do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” Make no mistake; the sins of the past have consequences that still rob citizens in the present. It is the enduring obligation of the institutions that committed those crimes to address the legacy of their own misdeeds.

One more thing …

If you want to learn more about biblical conceptions of justice, it’s hard to do better than this short video from the Bible Project:

One last thing …

Let’s end with an encouraging note. Though justice is elusive, the discourse is full of rage, and solutions are hard to find, thank God we do not ultimately depend on our own strength to set things right. This Andrew Peterson song is a powerful reminder of the grace and power of God to heal our hearts, and our land:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.