Racism

According to Pierre van den Berghe, this is any set of beliefs that organic, genetically transmitted differences (whether real or imagined) between human groups are intrinsically associated with the presence or absence of certain socially relevant abilities or characteristics, and these differences form a legitimate basis for invidious distinctions between groups socially defined as races. It is not so much the presence of objective physical differences between groups that creates races, but the recognition of such differences as socially significant. “Race,” which emphasizes physical appearance, should be distinguished from “caste”-a hereditary social group limited to persons of the same rank, occupation, or economic position-and “ethnic group”-one sharing a common and distinctive culture.

Race or color prejudice far antedates the period of European expansion. In Greek, Latin, Persian, and Sanskrit the words for “black” had negative connotations (bad, wicked, dismal, unlucky) while those for white were more favorable. This symbolism of color with its association of moral qualities was taken over by Christianity, and religious language from the beginning was full of dark deeds and fair promises, black thoughts and white angels. Thus the metaphors of light and darkness came to be applied to human conduct. The devil and those who scourged Christ were often portrayed as being black. Bede* asserted that the Ethiopian eunuch's skin was changed after his baptism by Philip (Acts 8) so he would no longer have to wear the badge of evil. Teresa of Avila* on successfully resisting temptation had a vision of a Negro boy enraged at his frustration. James I* of England in his Demonologie asserted a black man presided over witches' covens.

There were several historical factors in the development of the Western variety of racism. The capitalist exploitation of non- European peoples, particularly the institution of Negro slavery in the New World, fostered a complex ideology of paternalism and racism in which the black was seen as inferior, childish, and needful of civilization. The egalitarian and libertarian ideals of the Enlightenment* and the French and American revolutions led to a dichotomy between civilized and savage peoples, wherein these ideals applied only to the white, civilized ones. Extremely important was Darwinism, which regarded races as permanent, specieslike divisions possessing differential hereditary capacities for achieving civilization. Social Darwinists held that due to the processes of natural selection whites were far ahead of other races in the struggle for power. Now most scholars hold that qualitative differences between races are cultural rather than genetic in origin.

Although racism in the United States conflicts with the nation's democratic ethos, it has been institutionalized in the structure and culture of society. Neighborhood segregation remains basic even though nearly all legal supports to discrimination have been removed. The most extreme form is the apartheid policy of South Africa and Rhodesia which prescribes concrete measures for the total separation of the races-Whites, Coloureds, Indians, and Blacks-and the dominance of the white minority. The racial problem in Great Britain represents possibly more an expression of a general xenophobia-a resentment against immigrants from the West Indies, Pakistan, and India and desire to limit their numbers-than race prejudice as such. The Northern Ireland conflict is more ethnic, cultural, and religious than racial in nature, in spite of popular views to the contrary. The violent excesses of National Socialism in Germany transformed anti-Semitism in modern Europe from a policy of ethnic and religious discrimination to out-and-out racism.

Race prejudice also prevails in such non-Western areas as Brazil, China, India, and Africa. Varieties of black racism include the “Negritude” concept developed by writers in Francophone West Africa which emphasizes a sense of power and identity, and some African zionist and messianic movements, in which a black prophet seeks a new Jerusalem on earth for his chosen people or excludes white men from heaven. The pastoral Tutsi in Burundi rule over the agricultural Hutu in a racist manner, while the open animosity against Indians in East Africa possesses strong racial overtones. Both the Black Muslim movement, with its policy of territorial separation, and black anti-Semitism are expressions of black racism in the USA.

Although greatly at variance with the principles of biblical Christianity, white Christian racism is especially pervasive. The existence of separate races and the institution of slavery viewed as divinely ordained, and scriptural prooftexts (such as the “curse of Ham,” slaveholding by the patriarchs, and instructions concerning the behavior of slaves and masters) are utilized to justify Negro subordination. Others argue that Christians should devote their attention to “spiritual” matters, and regard race prejudice as merely a “secular” concern.

In the USA, after the colonial era, blacks were segregated within the churches by the early nineteenth century and soon were pressured to form separate congregations. The Negro church became their fundamental social institution, serving both as a refuge from the hostile white society and as the training school for black leadership. Although some white Christians were involved in the abolitionist campaign, their acceptance of racism was evidenced by their consistent support of segregationist laws and practices in both the North and South in the post-Civil War decades.

The civil rights movement, initiated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (founded 1910), gained momentum after World War II and reflected a strong Christian dimension, e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr.* and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.* Although most of the early initiatives came from theological liberals, there were some noteworthy actions by American evangelicals on the racial front. These included Billy Graham's decision in 1953 to desegregate his meetings, the initiation of a distinctively evangelical civil rights publication The Other Side in 1965, the Tom Skinner Crusades, and the formation of urban ministries in such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Nevertheless, there is still strong resistance to racial equality in many quarters of conservative and evangelical Christianity in America, and this has been accentuated by reactions to the new militancy of the “black power” movement and concomitant campaigns.

J.O. Buswell III, Slavery, Segregation and Scripture (1964); K. Haselden, The Racial Problem in Christian Perspective (1964); G.K. Hunter, Othello and Colour Prejudice (1967); P.L. van den Berghe, Race and Racism (1967); M. Banton, Race Relations (1967); P. Mason, Patterns of Dominance (1970) and Race Relations (1970); C. Salley and R. Behm, Your God Is Too White (1970); C. Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race (1971); O. Edwards, “Christian Racism” in The Cross and the Flag (ed. R.G. Clouse, R.D. Linder, and R.V. Pierard, 1972).