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If corona won’t get us, racism will

by
09 June 2020

Anderson Jeremiah and Shemil Mathew find parallels between the death of George Floyd and the Covid-19 death rate among BAME people

PA

Banners stacked up against railings in Westminster after the Black Lives Matter rally on Sunday

Banners stacked up against railings in Westminster after the Black Lives Matter rally on Sunday

IN THE week after the tragic killing of George Floyd, it was revealed that people from BAME backgrounds in the UK have had up to a 50-per-cent higher risk of dying from the coronavirus than white British people.

These two incidents should not be viewed as separate: they are both symptoms of the racism that affects global societies. The title of this article captures the hopelessness of the situation felt by people from BAME backgrounds.

This article does not intend to solve the race problem; nor does it seek to punish or absolve the Church of its racial prejudice. We would like, however, to explore several questions.

 

THE George Floyd case is a manifestation of the deep-seated bias against black people that prevails in European and American societies. He fits the “profile”: he is black, so is deemed likely to be using counterfeit notes, to be violent, drunk, and out of control.

These stereotypes can be traced back to the scientific racism that came to prominence during the Age of Reason. For example, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) described a typical black person as “crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice”.

The association of physical and psychological temperament with skin colour and hair type is evident in the reaction to the killing of Mr Floyd by a white police officer. It has also been evident in discussions about the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities in the UK, during which the supposed physical and genetic weaknesses of people of colour have often been mentioned.

This should be questioned. Yes, Bangladeshi and other Asian communities have a higher rate of diabetics and blood pressure, but there is no proof that a genetic predisposition is the root cause of the disproportionate death rates among BAME people.

The geneticist Dr Steve Jones has argued: “Modern genetics shows that there are no separate groups within humanity (although there are noticeable differences among the people of the world). Individuals — not nations or races — are the main repository of human variation for functional genes. A race, as defined by skin colour, is no more a biological entity than is a nation, whose identity depends only on a brief shared history.”

Angela Sanis’s book Superior: The return of race science (which Amazon made free to download in response to events last week) is vital reading for anyone interested in the myth of scientific racism. It not only proves that it is pseudoscientific, it also describes the part played by British scientists in its development, which led to the eugenic theories that resulted in one of the worst genocides in history, the Jewish Holocaust.

So, just as we should reject the notion that all black people are predisposed to being drunk, violent criminals, we should also challenge the idea that faulty genes are the reason that people in BAME communities are up to 50-per-cent more likely to die of the coronavirus.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out, “endemic and longstanding racism” in society is the real cause of the higher death toll among BAME communities. We need to acknowledge that many of our BAME communities are forced into ghettos for economic and social reasons. The appalling death rate among BAME NHS staff and other key workers needs to be scrutinised. But we also need to challenge anti-immigration rhetoric that views foreigners as swamping the UK and “taking our jobs”.

 

WHERE does this prejudicial worldview towards BAME communities stem from? Last week, the Bible was used as a political tool when President Trump posed outside St John’s Episcopal Church, opposite the White House, holding a Bible.

Many Christians, including bishops and archbishops, condemned such an act. But we should not forget that the use of scripture in support of race and racism is nothing new. The curse of Ham was used as an argument in support of the slave trade, which benefited both the Church of England and British Colonial Project.

Today, this superiority persists in churches and theological institutions. The number of BAME theological educators in the C of E’s training colleges can be counted on one hand.

Even then, most of them teach in the areas of contextual theology, mission, and practical theology. Biblical studies, doctrine, and church history remain dominated by white middle-class men. A theological educator of BAME heritage may bring a different perspective to whatever he or she may teach, but we need ask whether we are limiting them to bringing diversity for diversity’s sake.

The C of E’s national adviser on race and ethnicity, Dr Elizabeth Henry, has spoken of the way in which clergy are “educated in a Western-centric theology, not a world-centric theology”. Only two of the C of E’s TEIs are listed as having a course on global theology. The global centre of Christianity moved southwards decades ago, and the majority of Christians are Asian, African, and South American, often from poor communities. Theological colleges and courses that ignore this shift are doing nothing but closing their eyes and pretending that it is night.

We need to acknowledge that our history is not just that of a few abolitionists such as Wilberforce but also of many who owned and profited from slaves. There have been post-colonial critiques of hymns such as “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, which use derogative words to describe the culture and regions of the beautiful exotic lands afar. Prayers and sermons in churches today should be subjected to a similar critique to avoid pseudoscientific racism and racial bias.

The Church remains one of the few public institutions where unconscious-bias training is not mandatory for those who are involved in appointments.

As we wrote this article, a story broke on social media about a black ordinand being rejected for a curacy because the “demographic of the parish is monochrome white working class, where you might feel uncomfortable”. Even if one is gracious enough to ignore the bias shown against both the black ordinand (who was assumed to be comfortable only with his own kind, despite having lived most of his life in white working-class communities and been adopted into a white family) and the white working class (who were assumed to be racist), one should question how a Church that sent colonial missionaries around the world and established the Anglican Communion is refusing cross-cultural mission within its own parishes or dioceses.

 

ANALYSING our history with current sensibilities is a minefield, but it needs to be done. Our past need to be addressed because it was a story not only of saints but of sinners, too.

At the same time, the endemic racism in the Church needs to be challenged and questioned. The Church’s leadership remains overwhelmingly monochrome white, both at the very top and in the local leadership. The retirement of the Archbishop of York leaves the Church of England without a BAME diocesan bishop for the first time since 1994.

 

THE events of the past few weeks and months have shown the experience of the BAME communities to be characterised by desperation. Many of us have been reminded that we live in a world of white privilege, in which our lives are often considered to be worth less than our white brothers and sisters. It is a world that prevents us from breathing, either by making us more vulnerable to respiratory illness or by a knee on our necks.

The Church’s response, especially that of the Archbishops, has been encouraging. In terms of admitting to racial justice within the Church, there has been some progress.

But to make amends for our past, and to form new traditions of justice, we need more diverse leadership, from the grassroots up — not only by encouraging vocations among BAME people, but, critically, by evaluating our liturgy, theology, and traditions in the light of both the historical injustice and in acknowledgement of the racially prejudiced society in which we still live.

The impact of white privilege and racial prejudice is a lived experience for millions across the globe. What we need is a renewed collective civil-rights movement that brings black, brown, and all other minority-ethnic communities together to strive for a just society — to dream, along with our white brothers and sisters, of a different world.

We need to work towards a society that treats every individual as bearing the image of God and therefore deserving of respect and care. We need to step into the pain of others. That is what God did.

We cannot afford to stand by or be spectators when our brothers and sisters are killed simply because of the colour of their skin. Silence is violence, and is complicit in the deep-seated racial prejudice and discrimination that exists.

Yes, the violence and destruction caused during the protest marches is unacceptable; but the anger fermenting for years is real and needs to be addressed. We may be able to find a vaccine for Covid-19, but we will not find one for entrenched institutional racism. That requires a fundamental conversion of conscience.

 

The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah is a lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion at Lancaster University. The Revd Shemil Mathew is a Chaplain at Oxford Brookes University, an associate lecturer at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and the general secretary of AMEN, the Anglican Minority Ethnic Network

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