Theology 101: Systematic Bias (and Flint, MI)

The horrible tragedy of water poisoning in Flint, Michigan, is the latest example of systematic bias in daily American life.  Systematic bias, sometimes referred to as structural or systemic bias, is one of the more difficult conceptual terms in contemporary cultural analyses.  The reason it is difficult is the same reason why tragedies like Flint (and Ferguson, and the handling of New Orleans post-Katrina) are so politically divisive.  Logistically, it is challenging to assign blame to individuals, because they claim to be acting within the bounds of the system.

No one, in the case of Flint, knowingly poisoned the water supply for a city with a majority population that is poor and African-American (well, not that we know of yet).  No one, in the case of New Orleans, knowingly said, “mainly poor black people were stranded in New Orleans, let’s make sure they really get screwed in the aftermath.”  No one, in the case of Michael Brown, including officer Darren Wilson, openly said, “I really hate black people, and I hope one can be gunned down today.”

Two Types of Bias

Systematic bias can only be understood in juxtaposition to personal bias.  That is, the inner prejudice we have against certain places, people, or things.  Canadian Jesuit Bernard Lonergan, one of the foremost century philosopher-theologians of the 20th century, refers to such bias as a blindness, a distortion of reality.  For example, George Washington was personally biased against black persons, approving of the slave trade and keeping slaves himself.  He was “blind” in that he failed to see the reality that the color of one’s skin should not dictate one’s personhood.[1]

However, as Lonergan reminds us in his groundbreaking but extremely dense book, Insight, personal bias does not explain the depths of cultural misdeeds.  Personal bias does not explain Nazism, or institutionalized slavery, or the genocide of Indigenous Americans.  Lonergan offers a wider type of bias, termed “group bias,” in which “the course of development has been twisted.”[2]  As a certain bias, say what we would call racism, catches on in a specific culture, its influence is multiplied.  It ceases to be definable as a personal preference, but must also be referenced as a cultural norms. Thus, this statement is true: “early European settlers of North and South America were largely biased against Native Americans and Africans, thinking them less than human.”

Before long, Lonergan continues, the bias–the blindness–becomes “common sense.”  For Lonergan, this twisting of cultural development is the lowest possible level.  Common sense allows children to say that grass is soft and rocks are hard–it allows us to perceive the basic facts of the world.  If common sense also tells children to hate people with black skin, it is a horrible and widespread blindness in human society.  But, of course, this is exactly what has happened.

And once a bias becomes common sense–affecting the entire development of culture–it easily seeps into every structure and system built during that period.[3]

Example 1:  The United States’ early economic growth was largely due to the fact that the South employed black persons as slaves, thus giving them lots of free labor.  After slavery ended, the freed slaves were not paid back-wages, nor compensated in any sweeping manner.  Persons with black skin had far more difficulty obtaining jobs, loans, and property than persons with white skin.  Since the modern economic system is directly related to the economic systems of the 18th-20th centuries, the modern economic system is a racist system.

This is not a judgment, it is a fact.  Even if all businesses were perfectly just in hiring minorities (which they aren’t), and even if all economic schools and standardized tests were perfectly just (which they aren’t), the system would still be racist.

Women, as Downton reminds us, were best kept as commenting wives and fierce in-laws!  The real power belongs to the men.
Example 2: Western Civilization, as a whole, was built on the bias that women were inferior to men.  From Aristotle to Aquinas to Francis Bacon to Downton Abbey, the diminution of women is a common sense bias that is written in to the very fabric of what we call “the West.”  Women were deprived the same education as men for millennia.  Domestic violence was commonly accepted.  In most times and places, women were disallowed from holding any positions of authority over men.  Western civilization, as a whole, is a misogynistic system.

This, again, is a fact.  Even if Hillary Clinton becomes president and the Senate and Congress and the Supreme Court becomes 50% female over the next ten years, we’re still living in a misogynistic system, riddled with ingrained biases against women.

Why Theology Matters

The importance of understanding systematic bias cannot be overstated.  The poisoning of Flint happened because of a systematic bias–even if slight–that says that poor, African-American communities cannot be trusted to govern themselves.  The mistreatment of the people of New Orleans during and after Katrina came about because not only is America biased against people with black skin, it is also, as a whole, biased against the poor.  George Bush does not hate black people.  George Bush failed to actively fight against the implicit bias against poverty and non-white persons, and thus got dragged into committing countless mistakes in the aftermath of the Storm.  Darren Wilson, if we take him at his word, does not actively hate non-white people.  He did, however, at the very least, fail to actively fight against the systematic racist bias in his police force, and thus allowed his decisions to be affected by the same racism that first brutalized honorable African men and women on slave ships in the 16th century.

While theology depends upon the sciences to help identify and dismantle the systematic biases of the modern world, the sciences cannot tell us which views are correct, and which are not.  Science cannot tell us why people should have value, it can only tell us whether or not we are valuing people as well as we claim to be.  Theology, on the other hand, offers us a foundation upon which to form values, giving us common sense notions of dignity, non-violence, economic justice, and mercy.

Now, as a device used by humans to understand the Divine, our theology is naturally imperfect.  It is affected by biases, and–like any other human idea–can be distorted to support someone’s agenda (like scripture-toting defenders of slavery).  But theology is also different than any other human idea.  Theology requires faith, and faith pulls of out of ourselves.  Theology says that we do not–we cannot–trust in humans alone, but in God who creates humans out of love and who gives humans hope in a future of perfection and justice.

Hope in a future that is by no means assured through revolutionary or incremental change.  We must actively fight against the biases that live within us, but we must also realize that biases this widespread require time, and patience, and hope.  Without hope in a future, love for people around us, and faith that God calls us, it would be very easy to become bitter at the lack of cultural movement to do much of anything.[4]

It is only by the grace of God that we stay hopeful and see the places for change in the world around us.  By acknowledging systematic bias and actively working against known biases like race and gender, we prevent tragedies like New Orleans, Flint, and Ferguson every day.


[1] Washington struggled with his personal bias, writing in his will that his slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife.  A year after he died, however, Martha freed the slaves in Mount Vernon, having the courage to change that he did not.

[2] Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. New York: Harper and Row, 1978. Page 224.

[3] Lonergan, page 226-235.  He refers to an entrenchment in biases as a “cycle of decline” which can be short–a generation or two–or long–millenia.

[4] This vision of hope and transcendence permeates Lonergan’s overall picture of human progress.  We can accomplish much through good scientific reasoning, but we will always be limited without the realization of the transcendent.  Two wonderful resources for the introductory reader of Lonergan and bias are:

  1. Mark T. Miller’s Quest for God and the Good Life. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013.
  2. M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.