The tragic killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin a fortnight ago has sparked anti-racism protests across the world, shining a floodlight on the continued systemic racism and police brutality disproportionately faced by African Americans.
Organising under the “Black Lives Matter” banner, the protests have received mixed and divided response – from the reductionist suggestion that George Floyd’s race was irrelevant to his killing, to the ideologically-driven suggestion that the very existence of white people is a violent and painful act.
Both these positions are a threat to our fragile project of reconciliation. And the wide disparity in reaction is a timely reminder of the enormity of the struggle at hand: to bring people of all races together in collectively tackling this injustice.
Addressing and dismantling structural racism, and the individual acts of racism it empowers, is not a regional issue. It’s global, resonating with every single person of colour who has experienced racism – both viscerally and structurally. And explaining this to someone in a position of privilege is much like explaining what water is to a fish.
As a black South African, I’ve personally experienced racism of both kinds. The blunt and systemic racism as a black child growing up in Soweto during the height of apartheid in the 1980s, and the more subtle and implicit racism as the husband of a white South African and the father of two mixed-race children. The two are intertwined, in a complex sociological and physiological manner, interdependent on each other. And both still very much exist in various forms in South Africa.
Often it is as if, as a person of colour, you are on constant audition for legitimacy simply as a function of your skin. I’ve said many times before, if you don’t see that I’m black, you don’t see me. But if all you see is that I’m black, you also don’t see me.
This is where the Church, and some Christians, have come short. Too often we have preached and lived as if all forms of racism were left on the tables of the TRC 25 years ago. Instead of dealing with it head-on, no matter the discomfort, we seem to have opted to imagine it away.
“I don’t see colour.”
“Stop resurrecting race.”
“Let’s move on and focus on the future.”
These sentiments come from the privileged point of not being directly affected by race and racism. Most crucially though, when this way of thinking is pursued, we fail to acknowledge the pain of racism and its legacy, which is both collective and individual.
This is where I want to challenge the Church and Christians alike. This is a clarion call for all of us – black and white – to address these injustices and build a pathway forward.
“History isn’t as far back as we’d like to throw it,” said Bishop TD Jakes in a recent online discussion in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement and its raison d’être.
For the US, institutionalised slavery and segregation officially ended less than 60 years ago. To put this into context, Yuri Gagarin entered outer space before the US ended forced racial segregation.
I recall a moment I spent on Goree Island, just off the coast of Senegal. The island is symbolic as it was from where the transatlantic slave trade begun. It reminded me of the systemic process of oppression and dehumanisation of black people. The idea that some human lives matter less. More so, of how the boni mores of society can so easily be justified and manipulated.
The system of oppression is still in place for many, most, African Americans. It’s a system of dispossession, disadvantage and marginalisation. Points of entry into education and the economy are not equal, they are massively skewed to the disadvantage of black people. They are, to a large extent, determined by history. And the system continues.
For us in South Africa, apartheid formally ended 26 years ago. Yet its legacy is still on full display, permeating through every aspect of public and private life. On all social economic indicators that matter – poverty, unemployment, crime, etc – black South Africans are the worst off by a long way.
Indeed, history is not as far back as we would like to throw it; its knock-on consequences certainly aren’t. For both the US and SA, there exists a toxic combination of the lingering after-effects of institutionalised racism and conscious and unconscious bias created by the painful past.
The Church was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle, this history is well known. Now is the time for the Church to address apartheid’s legacy – one which continues to tell black people that their lives matter less.
This can be the Church’s finest hour as we rally the message of hope for true, meaningful reconciliation built on the bedrock of eliminating all forms of structural racism.
To facilitate the difficult, uncomfortable conversations, to challenge long held practices and beliefs, and to ultimately stand with the oppressed.
I have delighted in churches which recognise that our diversity is our strength. That their essential service to society is to fight on behalf of the poor, marginalised and oppressed. The Church can lead a new dialogue about inclusion and justice. That when we speak of prosperity, it can be for all, not some, and that greed is in fact a sin as much as racism is.
Too often the Church has been found wanting, silent on matters of injustice in the name of “peace”. Let us not find ourselves on the wrong side of history.
As the voice of the oppressed, the Church should be preaching “Black Lives Matter” the loudest. DM