Is Institutional Racism Real?

Marcos Torres

When 2017 began I started a new devotional going through the book of James and found his call for practical, down to earth religion too strong to ignore. As my study of chapter one ended I asked God a simple question. "Help me find a cause, something to stand for this year. Something that can really impact the world with your love." And with that, I started my day.

My prayer was answered a couple of weeks later when I sat down to watch 13th by Ava DuVernay—a “documentary [that] . . . explores the ‘intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States’”. [1] The documentary was both insightful and shocking. As I pondered its message in the days that followed, I knew I had found my cause. 

Before I explain why, some context is in order. As a minority, I’m no stranger to racism. My family is from Puerto Rico and, as a University of Michigan project titled "The Puerto Rican Experience in the United States" stated, "[t]hroughout history, Puerto Ricans have faced blatant and structural racism... in the United States." [2] Growing up in the inner city in New Jersey, most of my friends, neighbors and peers were either black or Latino who had first hand experience with discrimination giving me more experiential knowledge of individual racism. I also understood—to some degree—that racism was bigger than just individual people and was based on preconceived ideas and values, giving me an elementary awareness of systemic racism. In addition, I had a fair knowledge of historic racism.

Despite all this, the topic of racial inequality and tension trickled its way to the background of my conscious daily life. I eventually came to the position that racism was a thing of the past for which all that remained was residue. The arrival of post-modernism with is rejection of traditional and modern societal standards, values and meta-narratives, had done away with things like racial inequality. At least that's what I thought.

And then I saw 13th. It wasn't the stories of racism or its reality in our world that moved me. I already knew all about individual and systemic racism. It wasn't the history and the pictures of blacks being lynched, hung or abused either. I already knew all about historic racism. The thing that blew me away was a new thing I had not heard of before: institutional racism.

What exactly is institutional racism? Vernellia R. Randal said it best when she wrote:

Institutional racism involves polices, practices, and procedures of institutions that have a disproportionately negative effect on racial minorities’ access to and quality of goods, services, and opportunities. [3]

The most blatant example of institutional racism is, of course, the institution of slavery. However, institutional racism can also be sneaky and covert. By hiding behind policies, institutional racism continues to affect people of color en masse. 13th changed me because it introduced me to this deceptive form of racial inequality. But it did more than that. It showed me that this institutionalization runs deeper than I could have imagined. Racism, I learned, is part of the very structure of our society and political narrative.

So, what is it within me that changed? The most obvious answer to that question is knowledge, but knowledge alone is not what moved me. In his article, "New Slaves," criminal justice reporter Leon Neyfakh expressed his own battle with the film when he wrote, "13th made me ashamed because it made me realize I’d stopped gasping." [4] And to be honest, despite all of my awareness and experience with racism, I, too, had stopped gasping. 13th woke me up. It reminded me that I have a responsibility as a human being, made in the image of God, to speak out against the government of Satan, of which injustice, inequality and bigotry are central tenets—especially when that government has reached into the church and placed its values in our own institutional and structural makeup.

Yes, it’s true. Institutional racism is just as alive in the Adventist church as it is in the secular culture. What’s strange is that as Adventists we pride ourselves as being "people of the book" and one of our most valiant war cries is “the world must not enter the church.” In his signature book "Creeping Compromise," Joe Crews, founder of Amazing Facts, demonstrated his passion for this war cry when he dedicated his pen to decrying rising trends in fashion, cosmetics and jewelry, television, music styles, dietary issues, and others. His call was for God’s people to oppose these trends vehemently. The book was a hit among many conservative Adventists who promoted it with enthusiasm. But what Crews, and many others, failed to realize is that the world is not creeping into the church. The truth is, the world has been in the church all along. Individualism, consumerism, bigotry, chauvinism, sexism, cultural elitism and, you guessed it, racism have been sitting on our pews, in our board meetings, and in the seats of our highest levels of institutional organization from history past. But we don't seem to have noticed. No. We are seemingly more concerned with minor issues than we are with the ones that truly harm us, racism being one of the top contenders.

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So what are we to do? I am no expert, but I know this: we don't simply need a Bible study on the evils of racism. We all know it. Well, we sure hope so. We don't simply need an awareness campaign on the presence of racism. We get it, don’t we? And even a history lesson on the evolution of racism within Adventism, while very beneficial, is not enough. We get the gist there, too. And while we shouldn't ignore the value and power of these, we need to recognize that Bible study only attacks systemic racism, awareness only informs us of our individual racism, and history only educates us on our historical racism. However, if we are going to purge this evil from among us, we, as a church, need something more. We need to begin an intentional conversation and develop a plan for demolishing our institutional racism—the policies and structures embedded in our denomination that continue to perpetuate mistreatment of blacks and other minorities.

Some may be wondering, what evidence is there of racism in the Adventist church? Systemic and individual racism—being the most overt—are easy to identify and the examples are endless. [5] Our historic racism is also no surprise. From white control over the “Negro Department” in the early 1900's, to blacks being separated from whites during the foot washing ceremony, to a union conference president boldly asserting that, “[n]o attention should be paid to demands for colored leadership because colored people are not capable of self-government” the historical narrative is overwhelming. [6] However, it is easy to discount these, as I did, as fading trends. But the presence of continued institutional racism among us testifies that we remain under the spell of worldliness. From fellow black theology students being told during university conference interviews that there were too many minorities in our school and that they were looking for someone "white," to many blacks feeling that they would be jobless if the regional conferences did not exist, the presence of institutional racism among us is clear.

This leads us right into the debate over separate black and white conferences, [7] which is nothing less than a “divided structure in the Seventh-day Adventist Church [that is fundamentally] ‘separate and unequal,’ and . . . exacerbates inequality,” a reality that is reflected in “complaints from black church members about the lack of resources and the persistent economic inequality faced by grade schools run by the regional conference, for instance, as opposed to the resources and benefits afforded by the state conference.” [8] There is also the issue of many blacks having to endure their worship styles being belittled or criticized by other church members and ministries. And before you suggest that this has nothing to do with institutional racism, ask yourself, Why does the book ”Seventh-day Adventists Believe,” put forth by the General Conference, single out and refer to African music as “degenerate” while making its rejection a test of Christian spirituality? [9] And of course, recent racial tension at Andrews University [10] and Southern Adventist University [11] are evidence of the continued presence of institutional racism. Perhaps few have put it as succinctly as did Cleran Hollancid in his article, Race and the Adventist Church, when he wrote:

Segregation, white flight, and “racial” prejudice continue to plague the Seventh-day Adventist Church in a variety of areas, including top church administrative hiring, academy and local church attendance, and the notably divisive politics and dynamics played out in the structurally divided black/white conference system. [12]

So what are we to do? As mentioned before, we need to continue to recognize the power of Scripture to undo our systemic and individual racism. We also need to recognize and admit our historic racism, which, I am pleased to say, has begun to take place in different institutional sectors of the church, [13] including a formal apology by Lake Union Conference [14] and a powerful and redemptive response to racial tensions at Andrews University earlier this year. [15] However, the journey toward change must continue. While far from exhaustive or conclusive, here are some suggestions I propose:

1.    We need to use the power of media to redemptively expose the presence of racism within our church. My suggestion is for those skilled in media to produce a documentary that explores race relations in Christian history and how those issues trickled into the Adventist church from its inception to our contemporary context. Such a project would raise awareness and inspire informed conversation.

2.    In a 1974 paper, Ricardo B. Graham suggested some strategies for fostering racial reconciliation in Adventism, including an entire Sabbath School quarterly that would address the topic of racial relations. [16] Such a quarterly could have dramatic effects upon the systemic and individual racism that still plagues many of us. Sabbath after Sabbath, church members across the globe would be discussing race relations and applying the power of the gospel to this conversation.

3.    Graham also suggests a way forward that would involve equipping church members in what he refers to as, “cross-racial communication.” Graham says, “To construct a culture in which racial reconciliation can thrive, White Adventists need to be educated as to the lifestyle and culture of Black Adventists (Blacks are familiar with White culture just by living in a majority-white society). When Blacks and Whites truly begin to learn to dialogue with one another, the ground will be set for change to take place.” [17] Because racism in the Adventist church exists beyond the black/white dialogue, I would suggest that “cross-racial communication” needs to involve educating church members of all races regarding how to understand, value and celebrate diversity in culture and race. Producing resources for children, Pathfinders and adults would not only challenge current generations, but also equip an entire emerging generation in cross-racial communication.

4.    It is difficult to know whether the best engine to drive this conversation is a “top-down” one or a “grassroots” movement. However, I would like to suggest that both are needed. From the grassroots level, members can frame the conversation and take it to the NAD and GC, making it clear that there needs to be institutional—not just individual—change. Yearly symposiums both of the grassroots and top-down variety would be excellent opportunities to implement this.

I am thankful for the positive steps in this area that certain sectors of our church have taken in recent years. However, much more needs to be done. It is my hope and prayer that through redemptive conversation, resources and strategies we can come to recover the simplicity and counter-cultural distinctiveness of true Christian culture in which systemic, individual and institutional racism have no part.
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Pastor Marcos is a millennial Adventist pastor with a passion for Jesus, the narrative of Adventism and the relevancy of the local Adventist church. He pastors in Western Australia where he lives with his wife and children. You can follow him on Facebook and Instagram. He also blogs weekly at pomopastor.com


[1.] From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: [Web: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13th_(film)]\

[2.] University of Michigan, student project. “The Puerto Rican Experience in the United States” [Web: http://umich.edu/~ac213/student_projects06/student_projects/fp/PuertoRicanExperience.htm]

[3.] Vernellia R. Randall, “What is Institutional Racism?” [Web: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/2008electionandracism/raceandracism/racism02.htm]

[4.] Leon Neyfakh, “New Slaves” [Web: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2016/10/ava_duvernay_s_netflix_documentary_13th_reviewed.html]

[5.] Nelson Fernandez, “My Story: My Experience with Race and Racism as an Adventist” [Web: http://www.thehaystack.tv/my-story-my-experience-with-race-and-racism-as-an-adventist]

[6.] Jonathan Grant, “Heaven bound, earthly good: an historical analysis of race relations in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church” [Web: https://core.ac.uk/display/9420747]

[7.] Donald L. Bedney II, “The Dissolution of Regional Conferences: Another Perspective” [Web: http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/03/20/dissolution-regional-conferences-another-perspective]

[8.] Cleran Hollancid, “‘Race’ and the Adventist Church” [Web: https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/race-and-the-adventist-church]

[9.] In the book ”Seventh-day Adventists Believe” the section on music calls the church members to use "good music" while calling Adventists to “shun 'any melody partaking of the nature of jazz, rock, or related hybrid forms...'" which it refers to as “degenerate music” ("Seventh-day Adventists Believe: An Exposition of the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Chuch" (Second Ed. 2006) p. 317.]) According to this statement then, "good music" is undefined whereas "debased music" is identified exclusively with African music such as jazz, rock or anything related to it (which would include Latino music as well). Few realize that such a statement is institutional racism at its finest and has its roots in the cultural elitism present throughout the colonization and rise of European power. In addition, such statements have more in keeping with facist Nazi thought than with Biblical thought. For example, “Negermusik ('Negro Music' [also referred to as degenerate music]) was a pejorative term used by the Nazis during the Third Reich to signify musical styles and performances by African-Americans that were of the Jazz and Swing music genres. They viewed these musical styles in a racist fashion as inferior works belonging to an 'inferior race' and therefore prohibited [the Nazis promoted German composed classical music such as Beethoven as 'good music']. The term [Neger/Degenerate music], at that same time, was also applied to indigenous music styles of black Africans” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negermusik). This section in the aforementioned book is a perfect example of institutional racism. Without naming the African community the church has, nevertheless, promoted a negative view of African culture by referring to its music - and all of its derivatives (such as certain Latino musical styles) as “degenerate”. By virtue of elimination the reader is left to assume that the only “good music” is primarily of the Eurocentric variety.

[10.] Alisa Williams, “A Sermon, an Apology, and a Rallying Cry at Andrews University” [Web: http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2017/02/22/sermon-apology-and-rallying-cry-andrews-university]

[11.] Andrew McChesney, “Southern Adventist University Takes Steps Over Racially Charged App Posts” [Web: http://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story3769-southern-adventist-university-takes-steps-over-racially-charged-app-posts]

[12.] Cleran Hollancid, “‘Race’ and the Adventist Church” [Web: https://thecompassmagazine.com/blog/race-and-the-adventist-church]

[13.] AT News Team, “ Adventist Institutions Confront Racism, Consider Way Forward” [Web: http://atoday.org/adventist-institutions-confront-racism-consider-way-forward/]

[14.] Jared Wright, “Lake Union Conference Says Racism Led to Regional Conference, Formally Apologizes” [Web: http://spectrummagazine.org/article/2015/06/22/lake-union-conference-says-racism-led-regional-conference-formally-apologizes]

[15.] Oakwood University NAACP Chapter, on Facebook. [Web: https://www.facebook.com/OakwoodNAACP/videos/1209260665858219/]

[16.] Ricardo B. Graham, “Black Seventh-day Adventists and Racial Reconciliation” p. 137. [Web: http://www.blacksdahistory.org/files/40199440.pdf]

[17.] ibid. p. 136