8 If, however, you are observing the sovereign law laid down in scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, that is excellent. But if you show partiality, you are committing a sin and you stand convicted by the law as offenders.’
James 2: 8-9 – REB
In 1972, I made my first visit to the United States. It included a trip to Dothan, Alabama. The morning after my arrival, I witnessed a young white man shout in a southern drawl at a grey-haired black man: ‘Come here, boy!’
I was astounded. I had, of course, read about racial tensions in the southern States whilst I was at school, but this first hand experience appalled me – I was staring at the cultural difference between my country and the United States, in sharp focus. It had such an impact that it’s never left me. I’ve repeated the story to friends many times.
Three years earlier, the all-consuming sense of justice/injustice which I’ve had for as long as I can remember (and which has occasionally landed me in deep water) led my going to Sénégal, in French West Africa, for a year as a voluntary English teacher in a Roman Catholic Mission school. I was left with some scars from that time, too, from the brutality shown to some of our young black pupils, at the hands of the white French monks. I felt that I was more in tune with my black pupils than I was with some of my fellow white teachers. In Sénégal, the most emotional visit that I made was to the Island of Gorée, the historical centre for the trade in slaves on that part of the African coast. I’m massively grateful for everything that I learned on so many levels, during my time in Sénégal.
Several decades later, I became a governor of a single Comprehensive School in Lewisham in South East London, in which 80% of the pupils were BAME. At some cost to my reputation, I pushed the Foundation for an increase in the successful work that we were doing in this part of London, and by the time I retired from the Board in 2012, we were running three multi-racial Comprehensive schools, with over 3,000 young people. On arrival, at one of my first meetings, I’d been very keen to continue to make places available to youngsters from some of the so-called ‘sink estates’ who were ‘out of catchment’. I was told this had now become illegal. I think it was a huge mistake that Tony Blair’s government introduced this change. They considered it to be ‘selection’ and no exceptions were allowed for the fact that the motives were the opposite of most ‘selection’ procedures, ie to give a ‘leg up’ to some of the most disadvantaged young people in London, most of whom were BAME.
Throughout my life, I’ve spoken out against bullying and injustice, often when many others weren’t, and often to my own cost. I have family in South Africa, but I refused to visit until after the end of Apartheid. I have not remained silent………
In recent days, the media has been full of stories of the global response to George Floyd’s appalling filmed death, which reminded me of my feelings on that first visit to the USA almost 50 years ago. But I’ve been left with these questions going through my head:
- Of course black lives matter! But why do we not get just as agitated about the murder of young black men on our London streets, when those deaths are at the hands of gangs from the same ethnicity? Do they not matter quite so much? Why?
- What are the demonstrators calling for? ‘Awareness’, say those I speak to. Can anyone in our country still be unaware of the appalling impact of racism, after so many decades of focus on this subject?
- Does racism exist in our country? Of course. We’re all partly creatures of our upbringing and this issue can only be totally eradicated over generations. But is racism tolerated in our country in 2020?
- I heard a celebrity recently claim on the radio that racism is worse in the UK now, than it was in 1960 and that racism now is just as bad in the UK as in the USA. Is that correct?
- Is it right to allow people to break the law, just because the cause is seen to be ‘just’? Where, in time, might this take our attitude towards the law?
- I understand that the movement ‘Black Lives Matter’ is campaigning for the ‘defunding’ of the Police, here and in the USA. What would our communities look like after ten years with no Police?
- When I first started to study the Bible properly, I realised that lesson one was not to judge those writing it 4,000 years ago, by our 21st century standards. Imagine a child asking a parent in 100 years about the events of 2020 and asking: ‘Do you seriously mean that in 2020, people couldn’t see the connection between drug use and ‘modern slavery’?
- Why do we care so much about racism, but do not seem to care at all about gender violence and domestic abuse, which is rampant in our country and seems to be experienced and openly tolerated in all ethnic and socio-economic groups? Half the population is female and therefore at risk of gender discrimination!
Above all, I have questions about one major development during my lifetime. In the 1960s, when I used to read all that I could find about and by Martin Luther King, the struggle for racial equality was based on a vision of the future, of what a world without racial prejudice would look like. Martin Luther King’s most famous speech underlined this, by using the phrase:
‘I have a dream’.
Listening to today’s protesters, they seem instead to be keen to hark back to historical racism, cruelty and injustice.
Can we ever hope to do ‘rub out’ past injustices, and historical events of which we’re ashamed, when we judge them by our 2020 values? Should we even try?
I’m happy to leave those of you reading this, to decide whether the asking of these questions makes me a racist. If you think it does, I will accept that.
However, by way of a prayer for the future, I want to conclude with another saying of Martin Luther King, which to me sums up what our Christian view of these issues should be:
‘All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated; that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be, until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be, until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.’