Ganoune Diop is the Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and Secretary-General of the International Religious Liberty Association.
Following the despicable murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others that add to the nefarious litany of crimes against people of African ancestry, the issue of systemic racism is back. It’s calling the world’s attention to seriously address one of the perennial signs of inhumanity.
Racism based on prejudices against the color of skin pervades literally all sectors of society. It’s systemic.
There’s no other way around the fact that systemic racism has to be debunked, dismantled, and rejected in all its forms, in all sectors of society, whether civil or religious.
How Racism Justifies Itself
Racism, whether systemic or as a disorder in a person’s mental landscape, comes in many shapes and forms. It begins in the mind, nurtured by the belief in a fake mythical curse against black people, the so-called “curse of Ham.” The so-called superiority complex of the racist, the patronizing, infantilizing and paternalistic attitudes towards black people, even towards those highly qualified and in positions of governance, are symptoms of the disease of racism.
The prejudice about the inferiority of black people has deep religious roots. Two centuries ago, partisans for slavery evoked the Bible to justify this traffic. They considered the so-called anathema against Ham and his descendants by Noah a proof that Africans, descendants of Ham, are by nature inferior to other peoples, and were predestined to the condition of slaves. The deportation of Africans to various horizons by Arabs, Europeans, and by other Africans has been the evil of evils. The most conservative number of people reduced to slavery and exported is bewildering: 29 million persons were exported from black Africa as slaves—12 million by the trans-Atlantic slave trade; 9 million by the trans-Sahara slave trade; and 8 million from the East African coast. These numbers don’t include those who died during these dehumanizing journeys.
Gene Rice wrote that “Of all the passages of the Bible, none is more infamous than Genesis 9:18-27. Many a person has used this text to justify to himself and others his prejudice against people of African descent. Indeed, it has been widely used to claim divine sanction for slavery and segregation. Often the location of the passage is unknown, and one is not familiar with the details, with the certainty of unexamined truth it is asserted that Bible speaks of a curse on Black people. And this notion has exercised so powerful an influence precisely because its adherents by and large have been ‘good church people’. While the hey-day of this understanding of Gen. 9:18-27 was during the last and early part of this century, it persists to this day.”
Its consequences are lingering today, as seen in police brutality, economic disparities, and unequal opportunities for representation and governance. Blacks seem to have to prove themselves worthy. That in itself is also a form of slavery, showing deep inferiority complex for those who buy into it, instead of starting from a place of absolute self-worth revealed by the God of the Bible.
Where Racism Comes From
Racism, whether at an individual or systemic corporate level won’t just go away, precisely because it’s rooted in a deep-seated belief in the inferiority, or subhumanity of black people. This dissonant lie and core injustice defies the very notion of right when it comes to black people. A slave isn’t supposed to have rights. In the minds of racists, black people don’t fit in the prism of rights, of dignity and respect. These values of dignity, rights and respect are inseparable from the reality of freedom. But in the mind of the racist, whether consciously or unconsciously, black people are indelibly associated with slavery and inferiority. It’s no surprise that racists can then legitimize violence and even brutality, lynching and murder in a persistent campaign of systemic racism. The recent murders are part of a cycle of murders against black people whose predicament in America and elsewhere is still an ongoing reality.
The evil of prejudice is stubbornly and deeply ingrained in the minds of the racist. At times it appears to be part of a collective subconscious predisposition which doesn’t need any proof.
But it’s high time to challenge, debunk and dismantle this evil. Failure to do so catapults the human family into a new door of no-return.
The new form of populist, supremacist, inhumane and criminal mindset against black people which legitimates violence against black people by misinterpreting sacred texts is now being challenged. There’s a global mobilization to push back these forces of evil. It’s a moment when silence becomes complicity. It’s also a moment of destiny. (Thousands protest in England, Germany, France, Australian and many more countries).
During these times, religious and civic leaders are called to condemn—without equivocation—the theory of an alleged intrinsic inferiority of black people, and of any justification for the subordination of black people to other peoples.
But the record of monotheistic faiths isn’t clean.
Paradoxically, systemic racism has its roots in misinterpretations of religious texts in all three major monotheistic traditions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These misinterpretations resulted in legitimization of injustices, instrumentalization of people of African descent, and slavery as crime against humanity. The widespread dehumanization of black people was expressed through four kinds of slavery: the transatlantic, the trans-Saharan, the Oriental and the Inner African slaveries—the last perpetrated by black Africans who adopted the ways of Arab Muslims.
What We Need
The neutralization of racism and systemic racism starts in the mind but must also be expressed in the laws of every land. The principle of equality shouldn’t be just given lip service but rather fleshed out in how we relate to people—with respect and beyond respect before the mystery of life, in particular the life of every black person. It’s not just that black lives matter: it’s also that we must embrace the truth telling us that every black person is sacred. If we truly believe that humans are created in the image of God, then the tangible expression of this truth is the way we relate to every human being, especially to black people who have been robbed of this divine entitlement, prerogative and right.
From Believing to Legislating
In spite of progress in the area of legislation, systemic racism is still plaguing life in America and elsewhere. An author accurately describes the moment:
“Housing discrimination is illegal, but our neighborhoods still suffer a high degree of racial segregation. Employment discrimination is illegal, yet we don’t even have a term like “glass ceiling” to describe the exclusion of blacks from the top echelons of corporate governance. School segregation is illegal, yet public school demographics track with housing and schools and have never fully desegregated. Systemic racism is perhaps most clearly visible in the relationship between blacks and law enforcement.”
The demand for justice is unquestionably legitimate and urgent. It’s long overdue, given the pattern of abuse so deeply ingrained in the minds of the perpetrators of such crimes. It should be unequivocally called out. Failing to do so will legitimize ills and evils perpetrated by racist supremacists or by a persisting lie that black people are inferior. Racists even add injury to wounds and traumas, by claiming that black people are born with moral deficits and may be suspected of being criminals because of the color of their skin. Police officers who violate black people physical integrity have frequently bought into the legitimization of the dehumanizing treatment of black people. It’s time to give credibility to our justice system and to our religious beliefs.
Until every black person is recognized as part of one humanity, worthy of respect, deserving of freedom of conscience, freedom of safety in public and in private, humanity will not fulfill its deepest vocation—living in solidarity with all members of the one human race.
Seventh-day Adventists have a rendezvous with history as we show genuine solidarity with the whole human family, people of every tribe, people group, nation and tongue. Are these not the intended recipients of the so-called “Three Angels’ messages? Is this not inscribed in our very name with a direct reference to creation of one human race.
Let us then go back—past Shem, Ham, and Japhet—to Adam. Better yet, let’s fast forward to the coming New Adam: Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile let there be no more stigmatizations and murders of black persons. Let us all mobilize so that the mental madness of prejudice and racism cease.
Gene Rice. “The Curse That Never Was (Genesis 9:27) In Suzanne Scholz. Biblical Studies Alternatively: An Introductory Reader (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003), 217.
Ricardo B. Graham. “Let Justice Roll,” Spectrum, June 1, 2020.