Popular Approaches to Anti-Racism Are Influenced by Secularism and Are Self-Defeating
WCIU Journal: Social Justice Topic
Aug 18, 2017
by Jim Harries
Much evil has been perpetrated in the name of racism. It has brought about discrimination, marginalization, hatred, and other outcomes of essentialist thinking.
Public figures, including scholars, usually support contemporary Western and globalized policies that intend to outlaw racism. Racism being an evil does not however mean that today’s strategies for countering it should necessarily simply be accepted as “good-by-default.” This article points to what may be unhelpful or even dangerous flaws in today’s anti-racist policies. Pragmatically, a central concern of this article is to point out that measures intended to counter racism are preventing sustainable development in Africa. More generally, the prevalence of the condemnation of forms of racism can very effectively conceal the work of God, while promoting Western secularism.
A History of Racism
My major purpose for including this brief history is to make it clear that racism has a history. There was a time when racism, as it is known today, did not exist. A key reason for its absence was the power of “religion.” Oludamini Ogunnaike, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, argues that “the decline of religion in the West was a necessary condition for the rise of modern conceptions of race and racism” (Ogunnaike 2016, 785). From later antiquity down to the close of the eighteenth century, most philosophers and men of science and, indeed, most educated men, accepted without question a traditional view of the plan and structure of the world. The concept of “the Great Chain of Being” extends from God at the top, to the humblest beings and things way down at the bottom (Lovejoy 1950). This understanding became “normal” to Western Christian culture well into the early modern period (Ogunnaike 2016, 787). Schirrmacher correctly identifies, in agreement with Ogunnaike, that it was Christian teaching that historically deferred the onset of racism in Europe” (Schirrmacher 2013, 50) since the Church, for many centuries, took all races as fellow human beings and therefore of the same value before God.
By modern times, however, so-called rationality had undermined a lot of Christian thinking. Secular people began to perceive of God as an invention of the human mind. God’s role at the top of the Chain of Being was displaced. Western man took his place. A hierarchy that had been of God, angels, and people, became instead one of Western man at the pinnacle, with other races of men subordinate to him (Ogunnaike 2016, 791). With the rise of humanism, the concepts of race and racism became deeply ingrained in Western thought (Young 1995, 28). The racist claim is to a “natural or God-given immutable system of domination [that] serves to justify discrimination, exclusion, oppression, persecution, or annihilation of people groups” (Schirrmacher 2013, 12).
But after the horrors of institutionalized slavery in the US, Nazism in Europe, and apartheid in South Africa, by the twenty-first century, we find global secular reactions against racism to be very strong. Thomas Schirrmacher, professor of the sociology of religion at the State University of the West in Romania, articulates the classic case for “anti-racism.” The core of the evil of racism that Schirrmacher is countering is the belief that “what is different in the other person is based on the individual’s biological ancestry and is, therefore, unalterable” (Schirrmacher 2013, 12).
Counters to Racism Carry Thinly Veiled Secular Assumptions Regarding Normalcy
To counter such attitudes, Schirrmacher asks us to “treat people who look and live differently with the same normalcy” (Schirrmacher 2013, 12). That statement, perhaps, should make us think. What normalcy, exactly, should we treat people with? Is there just one global normalcy, and does that happen to be the one followed by contemporary Western people? Are there not alternative normalcies? Who decides whose normalcy is to be the hegemonic one? (Flikschuh, 2014, 1). If racism is based on the belief that what is different in the other person is based on other’s unalterable biological ancestry, then surely attempts to counter racism should start with the conviction that differences can be altered. Surprisingly though, perhaps, I will show in this article that contemporary secular society does not seek to address cultural differences so as to alter them, but chooses instead to ignore them. Efforts at addressing differences that appear to be cultural, easily result in criticism that what is being addressed, typically because it is associated with people of a particular skin color, is biological and therefore unalterable. Instead of addressing what is wrong (in Judeo-Christian religious beliefs, at least) in the character and behavior of sub-sets of a dis-favored group (that is driving some people to disassociate with them), a secular anti-racist approach ignores problematic matters of behavior and thinking that lie within the culture of the people group in question. More on the reasons for such below.
By the time the West made an apparent turn against the racism it had previously implicitly believed, the world had changed. Technological changes particularly opened up options of travel and communication, leading to the kinds of globalization and diaspora communities that we have in the early 21st Century. Whereas in the past migrants typically had little choice but to adjust to the ways of life of their hosts, globalization enables minorities to maintain links with home and native ways of life even when in a foreign country. As globalization seems to be increasing at an accelerating rate, an important impact has been to broadcast American ways of life around the world. This includes the English language, which is in many people’s eyes fast becoming the global language. It also includes the dissemination of contemporary American policies designed to counter racism. (America’s role in undermining apartheid was apparently heavily encouraged by African-American participation (Klotz 1995, 462).
American policies endeavor to treat non-Western people in a normalized way. That is, they condemn considering or assuming that people’s origins, genetics, or color can render them different from a particular norm. In the USA that means, in practice, treating everyone as if they are culturally a White American. The same White American who is (as we have seen above) at the top of the chain of being—something that I will come back to below.
One does not have to look far to find evidence of internationalized anti-racism. Examination of the United Nation’s position on race should make this very clear as these excerpts show (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/RaceAndRacialPrejudice.aspx):
• “The differences between the achievements of the different peoples are entirely attributable to geographical, historical, political, economic, social and cultural factors,” states the ‘Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice’ of the UN
(The UN apparently does not concede that “religion” might also explain differences in people’s levels of “achievement.”)
• “Racial prejudice, historically linked with inequalities in power, reinforced by economic and social differences between individuals and groups, and still seeking today to justify such inequalities, is totally without justification.”
(If only such were being implemented. My experience of living in Africa tells me that racial prejudice is enormous and very deeply ingrained. White people are in many circles treated very differently from Black people. In my estimation, such racism is created by international efforts, promoting the “racial norm” as being a White Westerner. The latter person, who actually fits what should be the norm, the white man, is exalted. It is he who, in a sense, everyone aspires to be.)
• “Any restriction on the complete self-fulfillment of human beings and free communication between them which is based on racial or ethnic considerations is contrary to the principle of equality in dignity and rights; it cannot be admitted.”
(My knowledge of African languages one might need to enable “free communication.” Kenya encourages its citizens to use English for engagement with foreigners, but Swahili for communication between Kenyans (Bambgose 1991, 113). I am not aware of any insistence from the UN that foreign workers in Kenya use a Kenyan language.)
• A state should “combat prejudices that lead to racial discrimination, and eliminate the barriers between races, through the use of education and information.”
(Here I would like to ask, education in which language? It seems in English. Education on what basis? It seems secular.)
• States are to be “convinced that any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust, and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere.”
(There seems to be no thought here on who is to provide the standard against which one should not discriminate? I suspect because it is implicit: it is the White Westerner. In other words, there is no justification for treating anyone as if they are not a Westerner.)
Following all that rhetoric, we do however have a provision known as “special measures” that allows for special protection or advancement of disadvantaged groups or individuals as necessary to ensure such groups enjoy equal opportunities, rights, and freedoms and this is not to be considered discrimination against the more privileged group.
The norm taken by the UN policy on racism is not clearly articulated. This is presumably because it is pre-supposed. The supposed anti-racist norm is non-religious, then somewhat left blank. Given the global dominance of English, English-speaking countries would certainly interpret the norm for treating others to be the norm that applies to them in their context of Anglo Saxon White Western secularism. The white Westerner is the global norm.
Globalized Anti-racism Policies as Disenfranchisement
This norm may seem to be very natural in the USA, where a predominantly white Anglo-saxon people are looking at a context in which they are welcoming “others” from around the world into their midst. What if, however, as is happening in today’s globalizing world, the USA’s anti-racist policies become globalized? Increasingly around the world, the “global norm” is becoming the standard of behavior expected of a typical White American. To assume that other people are other-than-that-norm, is to risk being accused of being racist.
There are many examples of “other-than-that-norm” that are easily taken by the West as negative. For example, it should ring warning bells that one will likely be accused of being racist if one claims that people “of color” are not familiar with and have not appropriated the West’s contemporary values. Surely it should, on the contrary, be expected that people “of color” who did not share in the West’s history might not have appropriated its values? Implicit here is an ahistorical view of human society that contemporary values are genetic, and not historical, in origin. Other examples of group differences that, if discussed result in accusations of racism include:
• these people can’t handle democracy
• they believe that the sun goes around the earth and not the earth around the sun
• they practice witchcraft
• they are not good at IQ tests
• they do not know how to handle money
• they believe in animal sacrifice
• they are illiterate
• they like polygyny
• they are dishonest and deceptive
• they use corporal punishment on their children
• they punish people for being homosexual.
The latter two examples are particularly informative as these are practices that were, until a few decades ago, fully accepted in the West but are now seen as primitive from the point of view of Western legal systems and widespread public opinion. Accordingly, accusing other people of continuing such practices can be considered racist. Prohibition of racism is being promoted on the basis that there is a means of universalizing Western values, which ignores their historical origins. (This expectation that people groups can change their values and behavior is akin to acknowledging that “converting” to biblical faith is both a valid possibility and potentially transformative [Robbins, Bambi, and Vilaca 2014, 587]).
It is, I suggest, a very strange thing that has happened: policies designed to avoid racism against Blacks in America, have been transferred, one could say lock-stock-and-barrel, into Black people’s own homelands, in Africa. The assumed and required normal citizen in the typical African state is therefore the White American. Within Africa itself, in formal and official circles if not always in practice, any departure on the side of African people from the “norm” of behavior of a North American is considered an aberration. Policy formulations of all types in Africa are under enormous pressure to be identical to those of the USA, to treat African people as if they are Americans. One example is that the suggestion that “African people do not know English” could be considered racist. To suggest that Americans do not know Swahili is of course not racist. Another example: suggesting that African people do not understand science may be considered racist. To suggest that Americans do not understand witchcraft, is not racist. Anyone who would like to do other than treat Africans as if they are Americans is at risk.
This is what I suggest is seriously disenfranchising African people. African countries that are run as-if they are the USA, end up being run by Westerners, even if these days (unlike in colonial days) covertly so. The African has become a stranger in his own homeland. He is assumed to have values and skills that are needed to run his country on American design but, in fact, he often does not have those values and skills. For anyone to say, however, that he does not have them, is to risk being accused of racism. (Readers may at this point recall the story of the emperor who had no clothes http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/TheEmperorsNewClothes_e.html.)
Anti-racism Conceals Cultural Issues
The reasons for a typical African’s lack of the skills needed to run an education system, a government, or commercial structures along Western lines brings up the old debate on nature verses nurture. The ways in which one’s cultural heritage and one’s genetic makeup interact is complex. Isolating a particular aspect of someone’s behavior as being “cultural” as against “biological” remains, as a result, difficult. So then how much are anti-racist policies making the recognition of cultural differences between African and American people illegitimate? Expressed in a different way, someone pointing to peculiar (i.e. unlike “normal White people”) types of behavior by Black people, whether in Africa or in the USA, is at risk of being accused of racism. This risk is likely to cause many to desist from such pointing. As a result, even very negative cultural traits, that Black people themselves may find negative, and that they would like to be addressed, remain unaddressed and even sometimes unrecognized.
This is obviously closely related to the above issue of anti-racism as disenfranchisement. It means that African leaders, when it comes to designing and initiating policy for their own countries and people, have their hands tied and their mouths gagged. They can be forced to implement what are in local context ridiculous policies, and prohibited from practices that in local context make enormous sense, because of the globalized anti-racist rhetoric. It remains to add that it is very hard here to give many examples, because examples I choose could quickly and easily have me condemned as being racist. That is, even if I choose examples that draw on differences between American and African people that seem to me clearly to be cultural, many people might quickly draw the conclusion that I am taking them to be biological. They will draw this conclusion on the basis of a denial of the agency of history, as mentioned above.
Difference Made by Religion
It is differences in people’s behavior, values, and culture that are forced underground as a result of anti-racism. Identification of differences in the physical realm do not risk accusations of racism. To say either that Africa suffers from low levels of rainfall, or that Africans have a high degree of vulnerability to kidney failure (Tarver-Carr et al. 2002, 2363-70) is not to be racist. Add to this the general shunning and denial of the impact of “religious faith” on people’s lives in the secular world, and we should become aware that anti-racist policies conceal differences made to people’s lives as a result of their becoming Christian. (In this essay I confine myself to consideration of Christianity and not other so-called “world religions.” For more on the status of “world religions” see: https://www.academia.edu/30705009/Shadow-boxing_the_missionary_encounter_with_Christian_theology_in_world_religions.)
The secular-world is using anti-racist policies to perpetuate a great deception, It is concealing the work that God is able to do and is doing in people’s hearts and lives around the world. If people feel they cannot acknowledge and address cultural evils for fear of being called out as “racist,” the work of the church is rendered invisible to the world. This is why, it seems to me, Christians should be particularly wary of anti-racist strategies. Anti-racism is a bulwark for secularism. Were anti-racism to discontinue, secularism would be at risk of collapse.
To say that Christians should not be anti-racist, is not to say that they should be pro-racist. It is rather to say that the category of “race” as a means to distinguish between people is faulty. Choices based on contemporary understanding of “race” are destructive. A replacement for racist prohibition needs to be sought. This replacement may be found in the Christian faith, history, and Scriptures. This proposal is in line with Ogunnaike’s observation that “the decline of religion in the West was sine qua non for the rise of modern racism” (Ogunnaike 2016, 785). I could add to this my own thesis, that “the decline of anti-racism would be sine qua non for the rise of Christianity.” Anti-racist policies are false affirmations of Western superiority. They are the world’s efforts at shoring up belief in the absolute supremacy of the system of “Western secularism.” They support the supremacy of the modern Western liberal post-Christian White person. That person is the “god” of our age (Ogunnaike 2016, 792). The transforming work of salvation in Christ and the love of God for mankind are concealed. Any notion that Western man’s peculiar achievements are due to his adherence to the Christian faith are obscured by anti-racist rhetoric. (Indian scholar, Vishal Mangalwadi makes the case for Christianity being at the root of Western prosperity very effectively. See [Mangalwadi 2011]). God needs to be put back on top of a “Great Chain of Being,” taking his place back from Western man. Contemporary anti-racism may otherwise be as great an evil as is racism.
Designers of anti-racist strategies in the West rarely (or never) seem to consider what might be the impact of their policies in the so-called “global south.” Few have opportunity to subjectively experience such. Perhaps being a White Brit who has lived amongst Africans in sub-Saharan Africa since 1988, I am one of those few? Officially in a country such as Kenya, its citizens, think like and behave like Americans. That is the basis on which the country is run—one could add that it is the basis on which the country is run by outsiders. Increasingly, it seems, globalization is enabling, and harsh economics are determining, that African countries be run from the outside. David Bronkema talks about the profound influence NGOs, many rooted overseas, have on the majority world (Bronkema 2015). Similarly, Paul Gifford sees the Catholic church alone as providing vast amounts of funds to Africa (Gifford 2009, 93).
The official system dictates that these outsiders assume African people to be identical to American people who happen to find themselves in a non-American context. Outsiders may try to adjust to the physical contexts, but out of fear of being thought racist they are not likely to want to adjust to the people, should they turn out to be different from the expected American norm. No plausible reason is given for the evident necessity of African countries being run by Westerners, because to give such reason would be to risk being accused of being racist. One hears murmurs of “everyone knows African countries are corrupt.” But at the same time, unless someone is the president of a country, he is unlikely as an individual to be accused of being corrupt—through fear of racism. But the cultural reality is that Africans may be victims of the honor/shame society of which they are a part. Jayson Georges (with experience in Central Asian communities) and theology professor Mark Baker consider so-called “corruption” to be an outcome of an honor / shame structure to society (Georges and Baker 2016, 51).
The above illustrates just a small part of the topsy-turvy world of the implementation of global anti-racism in Black people’s homeland. The overall impact of anti-racist strategies is, I suggest, often unhelpful. Westerners engaging with Africa have a level of realization that African people are through their decisions contributing to Africans’ plight. Implicit in that is the suspicion that African people are making “bad decisions.” But they are likely to be determined not to draw such conclusions, and will by all means avoid doing so in the face of much evidence! Fear of racism allows the secular view to prevail—that differences between people can be found in their contexts, and not in their hearts.
African people are very self-aware of their own weaknesses. If they were not so then they would not be crowding into churches (Jenkins 2002). They also, of course, know themselves. What they are typically much less aware of, is how they might communicate who they are in a way that would make sense to the White man, who has a status like that of a god in their community (Ogunnaike 2016, 787). This is the case despite the fact that “officially” they know the White man’s ways intimately, as he is supposedly merely following a “natural default” for humankind, which is what they are taught for decades in school.
There are many aspects of African ways of life that African people themselves might like to change. They are working on those in their relationships with God and through churches. These are the issues that the secular world, in the name of anti-racism, is refusing point blank to see. Secularism, by insisting on differences being ignored, is keeping African people in poverty. Hence, secular movements against racism are keeping people in poverty.
Contemporary measures used to counter racism are frequently taken as if they are good-by-default and logically necessary. This article points to some more insidious apparent impacts of such assumedly good measures. I have listed several of these here, by way of conclusion:
1. Racism is being countered in a unidirectional manner. It is racist to consider non-Whites to be substandard to the West. But no one is considering if the West itself may be substandard with respect to others. The standard of normalcy which must be assumed so as not to be considered racist, is that of secular Western people.
2. In well-meant attempts to combat racist attitudes, anti-racists have to deal with accusations against a disfavored race that their behavior or character is sub-standard (lazy, ignorant, violent, hateful). But instead of addressing what is wrong in the character and behavior of some members of the dis-favored race, a secular anti-racist approach ignores problematic matters of behavior, feeling, philosophy, and thinking that lie within the culture or sub cultures of the people group in question.
3. Efforts to oppose racism conceal the impact on people’s lives made by the Christian faith. This is because the differences that faith in God make in people’s lives, are differences that must be concealed to avoid being accused of being racist. Any observation, for example, that faith in Christ has benefited Western people in a way not shared by African people (who have a different history) would put one at severe risk of being accused of being racist. Hence anti-racism conceals the ongoing role of “religion,” historically and in contemporary life. This explains much of the contemporary perception that religion is in decline.
4. It is unrealistic to expect Black African communities to appropriate Western philosophical presuppositions within a matter of a few generations (or less). Western history spanning hundreds or thousands of years is not a piece of computer software that can simply be downloaded into the minds of people who have not shared that history.
5. The same policies designed to avoid segregation on the basis of skin color in the West can strait-jacket African leaders, if they are also misleadingly required to assume their populations to have Western values, language, and history. Any actions by African governments intended to respond to features of their population that are non-Western, can invite criticism as being racist.
6. Caution resulting from fear of racist accusation results in cultural differences being interpreted as if they are inherent biological realities which has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the views of white supremacists, fascists, and other “blood and soil” extremists.
Bambgose, Ayo. 1991. Language and the Nation: The Language Quest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Bronkema, David. 2015. Flying Blind? Christian NGOs and Political Economy. In Christian Mission and Economic Systems: A Critical Survey of the Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Economies, ed. John Cheong and Eloise Meleses, 211-45. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
Flikschuh, Katrin. 2014. “The Idea of Philosophical Fieldwork: Global Justice, Moral Ignorance, and Intellectual Attitudes.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 22, no. 1: 1-26.
Georges, Jayson and Mark Baker. 2016. Ministering in Honor-Shame cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Gifford, Paul. 2009. Christianity, Politics and Public Life in Kenya. London: Hurst and Company.
Jenkins, Philip. 2002. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Klotz, Audie. 1995. “Norms Reconstituting Interests: Global Racial Equality and U.S. Sanctions against South Africa.” International Organisation 49, no. 3: 451-78.
Lovejoy, Arthur. 1950. The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Orig. publ. 1936.)
Mangalwadi, Vishal. 2011. The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Ogunnaike, Oludamini. 2016. “From Heathen to Sub-Human: A Genealogy of the Influence of the Decline of Religion on the Rise of Modern Racism.” Open Theology 2: 785-803. Accessed August 17, 2017. https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/opth.2016.2.issue-1/opth-2016-0059/opth-2016-0059.pdf.
Robbins, Joel, B. Bambi, and Aperecida Vilaca. 2014. “Evangelical Conversion and the Transformation of the Self in Amazonia and Melanesia; Christianity and the Revival of Anthropological Comparison.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56, no. 3: 559-90.
Schirrmacher, Thomas. 2013. Racism: With an Essay by Richard Howell on Caste in India. Trans. Richard McClary. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.
Tarver-Carr, Michelle E., Neil R. Powe, Mark S. Eberhardt, Thomas A. LaVeist, Raynard S. Kington, Josef Coresh, and Frederick L. Brancati. 2002. “Excess Risk of Chronic Kidney Disease among African-American versus White Subjects in the United States: A Population-Based Study of Potential Explanatory Factors.” Journal of the American Society of Nephrology 13, no. 9: 2363-70.
Young, Robert, C. 1995. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge.