Blame the System, but Which One?

By Mel Harkrader Pine

People are wonderful. I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate a group of people with a “common purpose.” ‘Cause pretty soon they have little hats. And armbands. And fight songs. And a list of people they’re going to visit at 3 a.m. So, I dislike and despise groups of people but I love individuals. Every person you look at; you can see the universe in their eyes, if you’re really looking. — George Carlin

After a very long discussion (well, more like a monologue on my part) about race and ethnicity, my companion said: “What I don’t hear is an understanding from you about the role that systems play in promoting racism.”

My friend, who is a retired minister in the United Church of Christ and a leader in his Unitarian Universalist congregation’s anti-racism movement, was referring to that part of the UU doctrine that calls on us white folks to recognize the part we play in keeping systemic racism in place. That’s when we declare that we benefit from it. I’ve written about that here and here.

Group of friends at cafe having coffee together

But whether I “benefit” from racism or not, I do of course recognize the role that systems play in determining how we humans treat one another. Unlike some critics of the UU anti-racism program, I have no doubt that cultural, genetic or epigenetic factors can handicap the descendants of slaves in the United States and elsewhere. Yes, there are systems that tend to retard some — but not all — individual members of minority groups.

But if you listen to the UU and UCC proponents of anti-racism and what they call multiculturalism, there’s just one system, racism, with just two distinctions of any importance — the privileged whites on one side and everyone else on the other. So if I should happen to run into Barack Obama in my local coffee shop, I’m the one with an imbalance of privilege and power,

The truth is that we are all bits and pieces of biological, ethnic and cultural identities, and we are all subject to a complex interplay of systems. This blog’s co-founder, Rev. Kate Braestrup, explored the confusions around color and culture in a post last November.

What are the systems in force for…

  • A white autistic young man?
  • A woman I met recently with a Pakistani-American father and a blond, green-eyed mother of German and Irish descent?
  • Obama, who grew up largely in white homes but had an absent African father and, briefly, an Indonesian step-father, and who is now a former President of the United States?
  • My deaf friend with Korean and European ancestors?
  • A man whose grandparents spent part of their lives in slavery…but they were white European Jews.

That last one is me. As the grandchild of slaves and with no ancestry in the U.S. until around the start of the 20th Century, how much responsibility must I feel for American slavery and its lingering aftermath?

Systems are tricky things that can bop us on the head or give us a push. I’m with George Carlin. Individuals are beautiful beings with the “universe in their eyes.” When they get together in groups — or when we classify each other in groups — those little hats and armbands come out. And we start finding the “system” to blame for the ills that we do to each other…ills that individuals do when we stop seeing the universe in each other’s eyes.

I know how to reach out in love to individuals, and I suspect that you do, too. Systems may be part of the problem. They are not the answer.

Copyright 2018 © Mel Harkrader Pine


  1. What is going on is a massive transfer of responsibility for the success of an individual from that individual to the group that the individual is an unwitting and unwilling member of. I am a white guy. I got a Ph.D. by my own efforts. It took 8 years. I have been modestly successful in my career. This is not due to the “white power-structure” interceding on my part. Rather, my success, and my numerous failures, are my own doing. By stating that “my failure is due to racism”, the individual is absolved of responsibility, and is allowed to not succeed. There are, in point of fact, plenty of successful folks of all colors, genders, and skills. Putting the emphasis on the color allows the excuse of “racist failure” to be used.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And equally important is the transfer of individual responsibility for evil deeds from the individual to the group. So you and I are supposed to take responsibility for the two white guys who are distributing KKK pamphlets in the town where I live. And, because of our “white supremacy culture,” we’re even supposed to take responsibility for the young black men who mugged two UUA staffers in New Orleans during UUA General Assembly last June.

      I do believe in some degree of collective responsibility for what’s wrong in the world, but it doesn’t all fit an easy formula (white=bad, others=good). And, most important, individual responsibility for good and bad is primary.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Responsibility and power are interdigitated; when Person A claims Person B is responsible for whatever it is that Person A is experiencing, that means B has more power than A does over the circumstances of her own life. Quite apart from whether it’s true; why would anyone want it to be true?

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