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What Does Racism Have To Do With Justice?

By: John Van Dyk, Social Justice Team

When I was a (still single) graduate student at the University of Michigan back in the early 60’s, I lived in a fraternity house.  Every Saturday night there’d be a party at the “frat house.” Since I was Canadian, I also attended the monthly get-togethers with foreign students at the University International Center. These were times just before the civil rights movement took off. At one of these international sessions I met a lovely, very dark-skinned student from Kenya. I invited her to come to the Saturday night frat party as my date. The next day I happened to run into the social manager of the fraternity and shared my intent to bring an African girl to the party. His response was startling. “This is a white fraternity! Blacks are not welcome!” I could not believe what I heard. I kept the date with the Kenyan girl, but not at the fraternity. 

What do you think? Was there any injustice involved? Didn’t the fraternity have the right to bar non-whites? After all, the fraternity did not accept women—it being a fraternity, not a sorority—and no one objected to that exclusivist policy. Yet, intuitively, I interpreted the social manager’s decree as blatant racism. I was not asking the fraternity to accept a black girl as a fraternity member. All I asked for is to exercise my personal freedom to date a girl of my choice, whether she be white, black or green. Oddly, on occasion the fraternity hired black musicians to liven up our parties.

To see the injustice in the social manager’s response we need to ask prior questions: What exactly is justice? And when do we see injustice? The question of justice is as old as history itself. The ancient Greeks wrestled with the issue, as did the biblical authors. Modern and contemporary philosophy continues to probe the question. A major theme emerges when we note that injustice occurs when someone’s rights are violated, when someone is prevented from receiving what is due, or to which he or she is entitled. But this answer itself raises more questions: What are someone’s rights? And what is someone “due”?

The word “justice” occurs hundreds of times in the Bible. Yet, in vain, we look for a definition that would satisfy the philosophers. What we do find is plenty of examples of how injustice operates: it oppresses the aliens, the widows, and the fatherless; it condones illegitimate favoritism and partiality; it spreads false reports; it accepts bribes and allows corruption; it prevents the poor and needy from receiving the help they need; it muffles the cries of the marginalized and the powerless; and on and on.

All these forms of injustice, the Bible repeatedly tells us, God hates. Instead, God loves justice. Why? Isaiah provides an answer by painting a picture of what God intended life to be: filled with harmony, love, peace and shalom. In this picture justice plays an enabling role. Justice creates the conditions where life and the entire creation can flourish as it was designed to flourish. God hates injustice, because injustice obstructs this design.

Back to racism. Human beings, whether white, black or green, were meant to live in harmony and peace, as the Lord intended. All bear God’s image and all are equally created (and entitled) to flourish. Racism seriously disrupts God’s intentions. It marginalizes people who don’t look like us. It emboldens the powerful to take advantage of the weak. It turns love into suspicion, fear, and hatred. In short, racism shuts down justice, leaving space for injustice to flourish.

Maybe a Saturday night fraternity party might not be the greatest place for my African date to flourish. But at least she would have been accepted and treated as a full human being. Skin color would make no difference. She would have been one of us, and we would have been one with her people. Justice would have prevailed. And that, I would argue, would have firmly planted all of us on the path to flourishing.