Speaking at the 18th Nelson Mandela Lecture on July 18, 2020, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres observed that the COVID-19 pandemic is “exposing the illusion that we live in a post-racist world.” Mandela’s country of South Africa was once a pariah in the world because of its ugly segregationist policies. These policies became the vehicle for creating a world of privilege, power and control that was white and a world of poverty, restrictions and death for those who were Black. In the epic 1987 film Cry Freedom, a Black South African activist named Steve Biko (played by Denzel Washington) was murdered by the South African security police. At one point, of the gulf between whites and Blacks in South Africa, Biko says: “You go to the city to work or shop, and you see their streets, their cars, their houses, and you begin to feel there is something not quite right about yourself. About your humanity. Something to do with your Blackness because no matter how smart or dumb a white child is he is born to that world. And you, a Black child, smart or dumb you are born into this. And smart or dumb you die in it.”
South Africa may well have been the most egregious example of legislated racism. Sadly, however, the ripple effect around the globe following the recent murder of George Floyd in the U.S. provided convincing proof that racism must be addressed the world over.
The worldwide demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter, and incidents of racism during the past year in places like China, Russia, Australia, Canada, Brazil, India, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, France, and Poland, among others, confirm that the scourge of racism and xenophobia knows no borders. The ubiquity of racism has convinced me that the reality we are dealing with is the malady of a global “pigmentocracy” revealed in the assignment of value to persons based on the color of their skin.
From the Americas and the genocide of Native Americans and the exploitation of those enslaved and treated as property, to every corner of the world, colonialism provided the vehicle for an imposition of the Eurocentric ideal. In its wake came internalized racist oppression, fueling self-loathing and the valuing of persons with lighter skin color above others. This cemented arrangements that continue to ensure privilege and power for some, poverty and second-class citizenship for others, evidenced today in the U.S. in the mass incarceration of people of color.
In Mennonite Mission Network’s engagement with the Toba, Wichi and Pilaga peoples of the Argentine Chaco, we have witnessed how the 97% white, European-descended population of the country have acted in ways that have marginalized these Indigenous peoples, resulting in poverty, illiteracy and second-class citizenship. Policies forcing these people from their ancestral lands into places with limited access to water, food and healthcare have permitted their lands to be taken over and exploited by commercial loggers. The accompanying failure to provide minimal humanitarian and social assistance by the national or state governments has led to widespread deaths and despair.
From the U.S. to Argentina, effects of racial discrimination are seen from disrespect and intense hostility in interpersonal interactions to larger consequences in public institutions. To recover the biblical ideal of justice and righteousness, communities everywhere need to repent of the devaluation of human beings based on external features whereby so many, like Steve Biko, receive the message that there is “something not quite right” about themselves. This means going beyond personal gestures of kindness to dismantle the structures of racial and ethnic inequity that diminish some and unfairly privilege others. The agenda is urgent – for the sake of our integrity, and the credibility of our witness.
Stanley Green grew up in South Africa and has served as a pastor and mission executive in South Africa, Jamaica, and the U.S. Until his retirement in August 2020, Green served 20 years as executive director of Mennonite Mission Network, which connects to over 50 countries and 100 partners worldwide. MCC and Mennonite Mission Network have partnered together through the years in countries such as Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and China.