June 2020 Pulse

On 25 May, police in the city of Minneapolis arrested George Floyd, 46, for allegedly using counterfeit money to purchase a packet of cigarettes. During the arrest, officer Derek Chavin, 44, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, despite the suspect’s repeated complaints that he was unable to breathe.

Floyd subsequently died from the assault. Chauvin was dismissed from the police force and charged with murder. Three other officers were also sacked and charged with abetting the crime.

The death of George Floyd ignited the anger of the public, especially the black community, and made the enduring racial fault lines in American society painfully visible. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets as unrest broke out across the country. Police used tear gas and excessive force to disperse the demonstrators even as President Trump threatened to send in the military.

This has prompted fierce criticisms from various quarters, including Trump’s former secretary of defence James Mattis, who accused the president of further dividing the country. In his oft-quoted indictment against the President, Mattis said: ‘Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.’

The problem of racism is deeply entrenched in American society. ‘For every racial group in the United States’, notes Michael O. Emerson, professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston, ‘there exists at least one highly offensive, derogatory word meant to belittle them.’

The scourge of racism, however, is not only endemic in the United States. The phenomenon can be found in countries across the globe and has a history that can be traced to the very beginnings of human civilisation.

An Anatomy of Racism

Many of us think that we intuitively know what racism is and are fairly confident that we could recognise a racist act when we encounter one. But scholars in this field tell us that the phenomenon is in fact quite complex and that there are competing definitions of racism. In addition, what constitutes a racist act depends on the individual’s or group’s perspective.

Be that as it may, several significant and helpful accounts of racism have been offered by scholars. In their own ways they help to bring some clarity to this complex and conflicted issue.

At an International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 2001, participants from 160 countries agreed on the definition of racism as:

any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life.

While this definition is indeed quite comprehensive, it does not address the institutional and societal roots of the problem. This lack is met by the Early Years Trainers’ Anti-Racist Network Manual published by the Norwich and Norfolk Racial Equality Council in 1994, in which racism is described as:

an unjust situation, in which a group because of its unequal place in society, suffers from a persistent pattern of prejudice, exclusion, injustice, discrimination and disadvantage which are slow to change and rooted deep in the institutions and structures of society and in people’s psyches.

Even such well-crafted definitions may prove inadequate because terms such as ‘race’, ‘colour’, ‘descent’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘nationality’ demand further clarification. So do terms like ‘prejudice’, ‘exclusion’, ‘discrimination’, ‘injustice’, etc.

But there are also further reasons why racism is such a complex phenomenon. As Ali Rattansi explains,

the notion of race, and its associations with skin colour, facial features, and other aspects of physiognomy, has been intertwined, amongst other things, with issues of class, masculinity and femininity, sexuality, religion, mental illness, and the idea of the nation, and crucially, with the development of science.

In other words, the issue of racism can never be fully understood if it is examined in isolation from the complex of issues that are wrapped up with it.

I have earlier alluded to the fact that different people tend to understand racism differently. Studies have shown, for example, that whites understand racism as individual acts of overt discrimination, prejudice and injustice. People of colour, however, have a very different way of looking at racism. As Emerson explains, for them, ‘[r]acism is, at a minimum, prejudice plus power, and that power comes not from being a prejudiced individual, but from being part of a group that controls the nation’s systems.’

In other words, if whites have an individualist definition of racism, people of colour see the problem in structural terms, perpetuated by powerful institutions. These different understandings of racism are not only a potential source of conflict; they can also be obstacles that prevent the eradication of the problem.

In many western countries, racism is primarily (although not exclusively) associated with the white majority. But the concept of whiteness is contentious and sometimes obfuscates the problem of racism.

Whiteness is not simply an ontological category. As Aaron Gresson explains, ‘whiteness is not limited to characteristics like hair texture, skin hues, nose shape, lip and hip size, and the like.’ Whiteness is also a social construct, an imaginary state. ‘Whiteness’, Greeson adds, ‘is about the position that the category of “white people” happens to occupy in people’s minds.’

Finally, based on the structuralist definition of racism, which recognises that there are forces at work beyond the actions of individuals, we have to also make the distinction between a society where there are episodic instances of racism (which country can claim total immunity from this?) and one which is racialised.

A racialised society, according to Emerson, is one where:

racial categories matter profoundly, creating differences in life experiences … life opportunities, and social relationships. A racialised society allocates what society values – income, wealth, fine neighbourhoods, quality schools, social status, respect, psychological well-being, health expectancy – unequally along racial lines.

It is in such societies that the scourge of racism is most entrenched and dehumanising.

Racism and the Church

The Bible has profound things to say about prejudice and discrimination based on race. In Simeon’s famous speech about the infant Christ, the Nunc Dimittis, we find these remarkable words:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word:
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32, emphasis mine).

The salvation that the incarnate Son of God has brought is offered to all people, regardless of ethnicity and race.

Those who by faith have been reconciled to God in Christ must recognise the fact that their communion with each other transcends all ethnic and racial distinctions (and the social and cultural baggage attached to them). For the Apostle Paul writes: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).

This harks back to the story of creation itself, where God without exception gives to all human beings the privilege of bearing his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-7), thereby also making them the possessors of equal dignity.

The Church must therefore always oppose racism in all its difference guises. She must be the catalyst to exorcise all suspicion, prejudice, discrimination, phobia and hatred that are premised a priori on ethnicity and race. And she must be the agent that introduces to the world a more excellent way, the way of love (1 Corinthians 13) based on the inalienable worth and dignity that God has given to every human being.

Sadly, the Church has not always been faithful to this biblical vision of humanity. She has not been cocooned from the scourge of racism or immune to its toxic effects. Let me offer an example, taken from a page in the recent history of the Church, to illustrate this.

The Rwandan Genocide in 1994 is perhaps the most tragic incident in the history of modern Africa. In just 100 days, about 800,000 people (minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu) were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists. Some Christians and churches were sadly complicit in this genocide, preferring to side with their own tribes, thereby fuelling the murderous violence.

Commenting on the tragic tribalism of the Rwandan Christians and their involvement in the massacre, Aylward Shorter writes in Christianity and the African Imagination that ‘within a few weeks and months the church in Rwanda came close to annihilation and a century of evangelisation seemingly nullified.’

The Church must therefore always be attentive to the signs of the disease of racism in her life and ministry and be prepared to remove the cancerous tumour from Christ’s body. Only in this way, can she speak prophetically against racial prejudice and injustice in society.

As Boubakar Sanou has perceptively and movingly put it:

The church cannot really take pride in doctrinal and theological purity if we allow tribalism and racism to dim the light of the Gospel. The world can only be convinced that the church is a better alternative when the church constantly revisits and evaluates itself on the basis of John 13:34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.