On Racial Justice, Individual Guilt, and Institutional Responsibility

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.”

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