Race and Power: Seeing the Invisible Structures

Race and Power: Seeing the Invisible Structures

By Isiphambano Centre for Biblical Justice

Penny Sparrow is a name which has become synonymous with racism in South Africa. In 2016 she wrote, referring to black people, that “These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New Year’s eve and New Year’s day on to public beaches towns etc obviously have no education what so ever so to allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and troubles and discomfort to others (sic).”

Most of us could rightly condemn the statements of Penny Sparrow as both untrue and racist. She was rightly roundly condemned in both the media and in private conversation and the name Penny Sparrow quickly became the poster child for racism. The clear identification of individuals such as Penny Sparrow with what it means to be racist in South Africa is that it also conveniently give the rest of who would never dare hold such views (or if we did would be smart enough not to broadcast them on social media) an effective “get out of jail free card”.

“I am not like Penny Sparrow therefore I cannot be racist. I don’t wave the old South African flag therefore I cannot be racist. Some of my best friends are black therefore I cannot be racist. I pay my worker a living wage therefore I cannot be racist. I am married to a black person therefore I cannot be racist. I have adopted transracially therefore I cannot be racist.”

When we make racism synonymous with the likes of Penny Sparrow we individualise racism and subsequently fail to acknowledge that racism, at its heart, is essentially a system of power and privilege designed to benefit some at the expense of others.  Though we ourselves may not hold such overt and explicitly racist views we may still benefit from these systems of power and privilege.

Biblically and Biologically There is Only One Race:

Biblically there is only one race. We are all descended from Adam and Eve. Together we share a common dignity and worth as made in the image of God and a common sinfulness, fallen and broken and in need of redemption.  While we will find in the Bible different tribes and ethnicities race as differentiation based on particular physical characteristics such as skin colour or hair type or nose shape simply does not exist in Scripture.

Likewise, our best scientific studies have for a very long time clearly demonstrated that there is no evidence to support any sort of essential biological differentiation between various people groups. In fact, numerous studies of genetic variation have found greater genetic variation within what we would term “races” than between “races”. Skin colour, for instance, regarded as one of the key physical determinants of race, or instance, is far more dependent on environmental factors than any possible genetic markers.  

So Where does Race Come from Then?

As people we have always, and still continue to, hold all kinds of prejudices against those who perceive as other to us. We may hold prejudices against men, women, people of different languages, or tribes or geographical areas. But racism as a particular prejudice only emerged around the 17th century in order to justify in particular transatlantic slavery and the conquest of indigenous people in North and South America. Before that time no one is talking about “white” or “black” or using these terms as categories in order to differentiate and explain the differences between peoples. Race only emerged around that time as a social tool developed in order to justify unjust practices. Racism is not something which occurs outside of that historical context and is intricately linked to the perpetuation of power and privilege at the expense and oppression of others based on the socially constructed category of race. In the words of American author Ta-Nehisi Coates “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”[1]

Although the history and development of race is both complex and multi-faceted, one particular factor of great significance in the emergence of this concept of race was the need to “divide and conquer” among the lower classes in North America. Within 17th century North American society there was a growing dissatisfaction, among the many indentured servants of both African and European origin, with both the social structures themselves as well as the economic and working conditions. This naturally threatened the economic stability and the social benefits enjoyed by the elite of that society.

In order to maintain and extend their political power and social privilege the ruling elite thus sought, through the creation of a category known as “race”, to create an artificial divide between the indentured servants of different geographical and ethnic origin. Greater privileges and status were conveyed on “white” indentured servants and a false sense of solidarity between “white” people of both working and ruling class.

[1] Coates, Ta-Nehesi. 2015. Between the World and Me. New York. Spiegel & Grau. p7

Race is a Social Construct:

Race is a sociological concept created in order to empower and benefit some at the expense others. Race is a sociological creation born out of a need to establish structures of power and domination which can be used to justify conquest, genocide and slavery. Racism is the creation of system of power which socially and economically benefit white people at the exclusion of black and brown people.

Racism is primarily, not about skin colour, but about the creation of systems which link intelligence, trustworthiness, beauty, value and other ethical qualities to your proximity to whiteness. Racism is about prejudice. Racism feeds on our natural sinful prejudices and desires to think of ourselves as better than or superior to others. Racism is prejudice, but it is Prejudice + Power. Power to create systems of dominance, oppression and privilege, which benefit some at the expense of others and which are centred on worth attached to certain physical characteristics.

As a result, event though there are no biblical or biological bases for race, it does not make race any less powerful or real as a force which has a significant role in shaping our society and determining our individual concepts of worth and identity. Recognising race as a sociological concept also prevents us from the unhelpful narrative of “not seeing race” or “colour-blindness” as race is essentially about power and not about skin colour. So even if you as an individual are able to treat people who are other to you with dignity and worth that does not negate the fact that there still exist structures of power and of worth and value which exist for the purpose of benefitting white people at the expense of black people. If you are white you are benefitting from the racist system, no matter how well or poorly you as an individual behave within the system.

We must deal with our individual racism but that is not enough. Our best friends can be black, we can even marry or adopt across the “race line”, we can pay our workers living wages, we can engage in all kinds of charitable works to assist the victims of racism but until we begin to see, acknowledge and actively work to dismantle the systems of privilege and power which benefit some of us at the expense of others we will never effectively get to the heart of dealing with racism. Racism is primarily about power not about skin colour.

Our individual racism exists and continues to thrive as a symptom of the systems of power within which we are been raised and continue to live. In the church we have often been better at dealing with the symptoms of racism, our individual attitudes and racist behaviour, than in addressing racism at its core, the power structures and systems within which individual racism exists and continues to thrive.

Isn’t Apartheid Over?

Apartheid as a legal system was taken off the statute book 25 years ago does this mean that the racialised systems of power are gone? Author and historian, Jemar Tisby, reminds us that “racism that never goes away it just adapts.”[2] So whilst race-based laws might be off the statue books racism, itself never goes away but instead adapts into invisible systems of power and value which continues to shape our society, determining who we regard as more valuable, more trustworthy, more hardworking and more beautiful. Racism never goes away it just adapts and shifts and if we still continue to look for racism today only in the Penny Sparrows of the world, we will fail to see how it has adapted and continues to shape our society today.

[2] Tisby, Jemar. 2019. The Colour of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p190

Apartheid was an intentional, methodical, holistic, systematic act of de-neighbouring and no aspect of life in this was left untouched by it. Every facet of life in this country was carefully designed to uphold and to demonstrate the myth of white supremacy and to economically and politically benefit white people. These all-encompassing systems of power and privilege will not simply go away because we all love Jesus, sing some Xhosa songs or allow black people to vote (all of which are of course good things). There must be an intentional, methodical, holistic and systematic act of dismantling these systems, values and structure both in society in general and in church in particular. If we really want to see true reconciliation and real transformation, both in the church and in society, we must deal with the power question.

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