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.

15 responses to “Theology 101: Systematic Bias (and Flint, MI)

  1. When does systematic “anything” against persons marginalized become more than just a bias? Theology allows for those oppressed to find a connection with the God who stands for them. The children of Israel were not oppressed because Pharaoh had a bias against them, they were oppressed because Pharaoh did not know their God. At the fundamental core, oppression is the result of the absence of God’s heart and the valuing of sacred life.

    • Its a great question, and thanks for asking it. Systematic bias is quite different from outright racism or bias. For example, the South was built on systematic racism, but the individual people living in the South exhibited explicit personal biases–ranging from nonchalance to hatred–towards slaves. Hatred, as shown by Pharaoh, and as shown by many still today, comes neither from God nor from a “systematic bias.” Hatred that leads to oppression comes from turning from God (or, in Pharaoh’s case, refusing to acknowledge God).

      Lonergan would set it up this way–the deepest bias is the same as being the furthest distance from God. When we are blind to the world around us–to the beauty and sacredness of life–we are also blind to God and incapable of transcendence. Systematic bias is tricky because none is guilty and all are guilty. If I had the space, there’s a lot to write about Original Sin and redemption, but that will have to wait for another time!

  2. Great blog! You have said allot, and honest. No doubt that most people are driven by their internal instincts. A product of the creature. By its nature is corrupt in every aspect. Let’s talk strictly straight forward here, let us reason together. Mankind. Should we say is a beast without the conscious. He is as dark as midnight without the Moon. Now it’s because of the conscious/light, they have a hint of wrong, but only if they comprehend the bias. Which we know has many faces and taking on many forms. And has no boundaries, as even a child may be bias. Again this is a product of the creature itself, the beast made of earth and Clay, flesh. The challenge here is that the creature must ceases and He must increase. And He is the light/Consciousness. Awareness! Revelation of Christ. The new Man with the new nature and creature of God. But only if they are in the Day, and abiding continually in the light. And not hidden in the flesh the dirt. Or hiding under their idolatry imagination of their rocks, meaning others who says that they are okay, to excuse one another. I have more to say but I will end it here, but if you would like to talk more about this, let me know and we will continue communicating.

    PS, They’re more than merely meeting the eyes, and it goes further than the surface of the eyes. As you said they are blind, only blindness is not common sense, but just a excuse/escape to be the way that they are.

  3. Very fine post. It’s worth including among your accurate and highly relevant examples of systematic bias in our society today the failure to view prenatal persons as having equal dignity as well. This is one that one might say has slid in the opposite direction. As we have recognized and begun to correct the bias against black persons and women, we have increasingly disregarded the dignity of the unborn that we had previously recognized.

    In the West, the powerful were previously able to disregard the dignity of blacks and women by labelling them as “the other.” By acknowledging the solidarity they/we share, we’ve made it less acceptable to disregard that dignity (#BlackLivesMatter). Almost at the same time, we have moved the unborn, which we used to understand ourselves to share solidarity with, to the category of “the other.”

    In interactions with good and intelligent people who favor legal abortion, I often encounter incredulity that one might consider a prenatal child to be a person possessing the same dignity as the rest of us. That could be a sign of clear thinking on their part; they certainly see it as that. But it’s worth remembering that there was a time (centuries!) when talk of the dignity and rights of black people or women would have been met with the very same incredulity by otherwise good and intelligent people.

  4. Interesting read! I think it is important, as you point out, to note the distinction between the color of one’s skin and their socio-economic level. While racism still exists in this country, I’m afraid that classism seems to be something that people largely ignore. However, it is the latter that at this juncture that scares me the most. Intelligent people seem to be able to see and combat racism, but matters of class are becoming more and more difficult to deal with as we slide further into a plutocracy.

    • I certainly agree that the rights of the poverty-stricken are constantly in danger of being taken away. People often forget that when MLK, Jr., was assassinated, he was campaigning for better wages for the poor and the union rights. While each oppression and bias is different, they are all related. They all come back to the blindness of seeing individuals as worthy of respect, dignity, and a good life no matter their skin, their sexuality, their standard of living, their intelligence, or a myriad of other facets. Thank you for this comment!

  5. This should be front and center material on the desk of every bishop, every priest and parish leader, and for all those doing adult catechesis. What important things you bring us John, and so skillfully. Thank you!

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  7. Thank you for this great read, connecting current events compellingly to theology. Something I’m pondering as a member of the Catholic diocese with a specific mission of and for Flint (, is does Darnell Earley (the Emergency Manager who oversaw Flint during transition from Detroit water)’s race play into the idea of systemic bias? I think maybe it points to how deep systemic bias inherently is, but also, as pointed out earlier, to the importance of class. Earley did not live in Flint while he governed the city (just as he did not live in Detroit during his recent tenure of the Detroit Public Schools, another tenure now making national news due to health/safety issues). In the Flint case, Earley places blame for the decision to switch water sources on the elected city council (a 7-1 vote). Can you connect these pieces into the framework of systemic bias you lay out here? I think it’s easier to see in the cases of Katrina and Ferguson…I’m wondering if class is an unspoken bias that is more fundamental in the Flint case.

    • Thank you for this comment, Colleen. First of all, I want to commend you on the wonderful work you’re doing in Flint! Thank you!

      To begin with, “class” is always an issue, but the classical theological term for this bias would be an anti-poverty bias. Many aspects of culture fuel biases against those in poverty, including countless lectures, programs, and presidential candidate speeches (!) on the ideals of meritocracy–“hard work can achieve anything.” When, in fact, this is not a true statement for many people in poverty and near-poverty today. Following this, it is important to realize that bias does not depend upon whether or not you are a member of the biased class. For example, there were slaves in the 19th century who approved of other slaves and thought African persons were less intelligent and able. Additionally, there are plenty of wealthy people, and plenty of people in poverty–skin tone regardless–who hold the same biases against others in poverty. I am happy to talk more about this point.

      However, to keep things short, in terms of Flint’s situation, I see two moments where it seems bias came into play. First, the decision of Detroit to switch off the water to Flint and other cities before the originally scheduled year. Given Flint’s high price for water, it seems logical that they wanted a new water source. However, the manager in Detroit resented this change, and shut off the water early. Had Detroit waited until the Huron water was available, the entire thing could have been avoided. Bias is dangerous and tricky, and is often seen in commonplace business decisions like this. Why did Detroit cut off the water? Flint is an historically impoverished community with a large percentage of black citizens. It is, easily, an occasion for bias. The rejection of Detroit water allowed the city water manager, Sue McCormick, to employ bias and make a legal business decision that caused Flint to source its water elsewhere or pay a large fine.

      Second, and just as importantly, the series of decisions that ignored residential complaints after the water was switched to the Flint River. This is where Mr. Early is clearly to blame, as are many other people. Instead of assuming the complaints were legitimate and potentially life-threatening, the managers of the city allowed their biases against those in poverty, especially African-Americans in poverty (sometimes called a double-bias), to affect their belief in the complaints legitimacy. The managers had poured nearly a year and millions of dollars into making the Flint River water drinkable! They had a groundbreaking ceremony! It’s only a temporary solution! People will complain about anything!

      Now that we know the truth, it is difficult to swallow. The residents were only believed when one extremely concerned mother reached out to a scientist that had uncovered government corruption before. This scientist analyzed Flint’s water and easily–easily–found unconscionable levels of lead ( Every scientist and manager and government official was shocked, and it became a national crisis, all because, quite plainly, someone in power in the city did not take citizens’ complaints seriously. Why didn’t they? Loads of reasons, but implicit systematic bias is a big one: don’t trust citizens, only trust others in power, trust others with responsibility. Don’t trust poor black people, or poor white people, or people that can barely speak English, at least not on things that we know way more about.

      Of the two instances of bias, I believe the second far more tragic, and the bias far clearer. The city council vote to switch water in 2013 could have had no idea of the problems to come, so Mr. Early is wrong there. The same city council voted to switch water back in the wake of complaints in 2015, and was overruled for quite some time. The hardest part about bias in this case is that, honestly, so many people are to blame, from scientists to political leaders at the time, including Mr. Early.

      Sorry for the long answer, but I felt your question demanded a lengthy response. I’m happy to discuss more if you wish, here or via email (jslatter [at] nd [dot] edu). God bless you in your ministry!

      • Hi John: To clarify (and not take credit where not due :-)) I’ve never been to Flint and don’t work there. I’m part of the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, and our diocese as a whole includes Flint. Yes, my Diocesan Appeal contributions go through the Diocese to Flint, but other than that I’m not actively doing anything special.

        As you write, “it is important to realize that bias does not depend upon whether or not you are a member of the biased class” is always true, i.e. your description of Flint as “an historically impoverished community with a large percentage of black citizens” fits Detroit, another party named as acting within class-bias. I wonder [thinking aloud here…] if it is harder to identify and then work with appropriate awareness of an internalized class bias (i.e. anti-poverty, etc.) when one also is a part of, or shares many characteristics of that same class.

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