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How should the church respond to race? – A reply to Ian Paul

Last week, I published a post welcoming From Lament to Action, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce. Since then, Ian Paul has posted on his blog a critical response to the report, entitled ‘How should the church respond to race?’.

Ian’s post makes some points that I have also seen made on Twitter and elsewhere, relating to aspects of the report that I referred to in my post. In this reply, I am going to focus on

  • his wariness about the term ‘institutional racism’, and
  • his suggestion that the theology of the report is thin and tendentious.

On the second of these points, I’ll be touching what Ian says about Black Theology, Critical Race Theory and ‘Secular Antiracism’.

Institutional Racism

Ian says that ‘the language of “institutional racism” was coined by the so-called McPherson report, following the murder of Stephen Lawrence’. That’s not quite right – the phrase has been used in discussions of racism since at least the early 70s – but the 1999 MacPherson report certainly brought it to a wider public audience in the UK.

The MacPherson definition has been used in previous Church of England reports – e.g., in An Amazing Journey: The Church of England’s Response to Institutional Racism, by Glynn Gordon-Carter (London: Church House, 2003), p. xx. It is repeated in From Lament to Action:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

William MacPherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry: Report of an Inquiry, §6.34

From Lament to Action does not provide extensive discussion of this definition (it is, by design, not that kind of report). It does include, however, a handful of references to ‘institutional racism’ which fill out a little what the report takes it to mean. It has to do with ‘unjust structures’ (p. 8); it has to do with ‘the church’s practices and structures’ (p. 11) or its ‘structures, systems and processes’ (p. 51); it can be ’embedded in the normal practice of an organisation or culture’ (p. 47); it can be seen in ‘a number of areas of the church’s life, most strikingly in the areas of participation and representation as well as in areas of structures and governance’ (p. 11). Most fully, it involves ‘structural, institutional and systemic blockers and barriers towards greater representation and participation of UKME/GMH people in the governance structures of the CofE’ (p. 49).

Ian makes four observations when explaining why he thinks the use of this term is problematic. I’ll take them in turn.

  • ‘[T]he language has been reached for in part because of its shock value’.

    The subject matter of the report (racism in the Church) is indeed shocking – but the use of the term ‘institutional racism’ isn’t part of that shock. It is a useful and important term, widely used in sober analyses of racism.

    Sometimes, people are treated differently on the basis of their perceived skin colour. Some of that has to do with individuals acting in deliberately discriminatory ways. Some of it, however, has to do with systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. The word ‘institutional’ (or ‘systemic’) is used to name this.
  • ‘[T]he C of E is not a single organisation’.

    I’m not sure why this point is relevant – or, rather, I’m quite sure that it is not. The claim that the Church of England is institutionally racist does not entail the claim that the Church of England is a single organisation.

    The Church of England is a complex reality, with some national-level structures and processes, some diocesan-level, some parish-level, and all sorts of others woven around them. The report wants us, collectively, to look at all of these – at the ‘structures, systems, and processes’ involved, attending to the any of the ways in which they function in unwittingly discriminatory ways.
  • ‘When people use the language of “institutional racism”, many people hear the accusation that members of local congregations are racist’.

    It is probably true that some people will misunderstand the term ‘institutional racism’ in this way. People with a platform to speak quite widely might therefore usefully do some explaining, to help overcome that misunderstanding. The ideas are, after all, not difficult.

    Of course, we could look for another term that would enable us to make the same point – about structures, systems, processes, and culture, and about how they can have a discriminatory impact. I suspect, however, that any shorthand way of making this point is going to be liable to the same possible misunderstanding, and so will get us no further forward.
  • ‘To say that the church is “institutionally racist” could be heard as implying its basic theology needs to change—and indeed that is what some people believe.’

    I’ll be coming back in a moment to a discussion of the theological challenges that the report invites us to explore.

    I’m not sure, however, why Ian isn’t taking the report’s words at face value. The report, clearly and repeatedly, asks us to look at a whole range of ‘structures, systems and processes’ in the Church – at the Church’s ‘normal practices’, especially in the area of participation and representation. That is what its talk of ‘institutional racism’ points to.

It is vitally important that we pay attention to the reality named by the phrase ‘institutional racism’. When we ask what factors affect the differential levels of inclusion and belonging experienced by different people in various parts of the life of the Church, it is vital that we go beyond attention to the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals. Those actions matter, and holding people to account for discriminatory behaviour is clearly a necessity. But there is much more to look at than that.

We need to look at systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices. Or, rather, we need to listen to and learn from the huge amount of work that has already been done on investigating and analysing the discriminatory effects of our systems, processes, cultures, habits, and practices.

By way of parallel, consider my academic discipline: doctrinal or systematic theology. This discipline is not a single organisation any more than the Church of England is, but it is nevertheless possible to examine the institutions, systems, practices and cultures that it involves.

One of the factors that shapes my discipline is that Black students tend, as they specialise, to get funnelled towards practical theology or political theology more readily than towards systematic theology or philosophical theology.

Many factors seem to be in play. In part, it follows on from a similar funnelling in previous generations, which means that visible Black role models are more likely to be working in those areas – and that affects who appears at the podium, who appears in bibliographies, who appears in references and citations, and so on. In part, it has to do with hiring practices, and the judgments of shortlisting panels and interview panels. In part, it has to do with assumptions consciously and unconsciously made by teachers, when advising students about module choices, dissertation topics, and routes to further study. In part, it might also have to do with the role of different backgrounds and experience in shaping what questions students think are urgent. And so on – there are lots of factors that people have investigated and discussed as they have tried to explore this well.

The result of this funnelling, however, is a de facto segregation in my discipline (not absolute, but deeply ingrained), and it is one that has an impact on career trajectories, promotion, prestige, influence, and income. Something similar happens along gender lines; something similar along class lines – the complexities and intersections here are endless – but there is undoubtedly a racial dimension.

You can understand some of this picture if you focus on the deliberate discriminatory actions of individuals – but not very much of it. For a deeper understanding you need to look more closely, and draw on other intellectual tools. You need to look at culture, habits, and practices; you need to look at systems and structures. That is what discussions of ‘institutional racism’ are about.

That is what the term refers to in discussions of the Church of England, too. And there has been a great deal of investigation and discussion of these factors. After thirty-six years of reports, with hundreds of pages of analysis; after the Minority Anglicanism Project; after book-length discussions from Mukti Barton’s Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection to A.D.A France-Williams’ Ghost Ship; after testimony after testimony after testimony, I don’t have any doubt that the Church of England suffers from various forms of institutional racism. The question rightly posed by From Lament to Action is: What are we going to do about it?

Theology and Race

In his post, Ian Paul makes (or quotes approvingly) various claims about the theological approach that he thinks is advocated by or assumed in From Lament to Action. The impression created over the course of Ian’s post is that the report is driven by a single, narrow and controversial theological agenda, not necessarily fully visible on the report’s surface – and that it is a theological agenda problematically driven by secular, untheological concerns.

Every part of this analysis is wrong, as I will try to explain.

Black Theology

According to one of the quotes that Ian’s post includes approvingly, we are told that From Lament to Action, ‘wants to make compulsory a module on “Black Theology” for ordinands’. That’s not quite true: the report actually says that ‘Participation in an introductory Black Theology module … or module on Theologies in Global Perspective … to be a requirement for all ordinands.’ So were this recommendation to be implemented in full, no TEI would be forced to teach a Black Theology module. Nevertheless, it is true that there is a clear recommendation here for TEIs to consider teaching Black Theology.

The post goes on to say that ‘”Black Theology’ is not the theology of Black Christians”‘ That is true – in the same way that ‘feminist theology’ doesn’t mean ‘all theology written by women’. Black Theology is defined by its subject matter. It is a discipline that analyses the effect of racism on theology, and looks for ways of overcoming it. I would be shocked if someone got through a Diploma or BA in Theology, Ministry and Mission without some serious engagement with feminist voices. I think it similarly important to engage with voices from Black Theology. Of course, students and their teachers don’t have to agree with everything they engage with – but serious and open engagement is important.

Ian’s post tries to persuade us, however, that this engagement is unnecessary or undesirable, because Black Theology is ‘a narrow and quite hotly contested school of theology’. And in order to justify that description, he provides a description of Black Theology that first narrows it down so that it sounds like the work of a small coterie gathered around a single figure, and then misrepresents its substance quite drastically.

Ian’s post tells us that ‘Anthony Reddie … [is] the foundational author of “Black Theology”‘ Anthony is a friend of mine, and I think his work is important and very well worth engaging with. But Black Theology as a movement – even if we limit our focus to the British context – is older and much wider than just Anthony’s work.

As one indicator of this, look at the academic journal Black Theology. Launched as Black Theology in Britain in 1998, and re-launched (with Anthony as editor) as Black Theology in 2002, it has run through (by my count) more than 50 issues in that time. There are hundreds of articles to explore, by hundreds of authors. Or look at the work of the Centre for Black Theology at Queen’s, Birmingham, under the leadership of Dulcie Dixon-McKenzie, and the line-up of speakers who have addressed the Black Theology Forum there. And if we look beyond the British context, the variety of voices and the breadth of the discipline become even more striking. You could, for instance, look at the many authors discussed in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), and work outwards from there. And there’s much, much more than that, if you go looking – my comments here only scratch the surface.

Black Theology is diverse, complex, and multi-faceted. Any serious investigation will show you that it can’t be reduced to the work of one person, or to one approach, or to one set of conclusions.

Critical Race Theory

But what of the substance of the report’s theology? Ian tells us that ‘Some have criticised the report for buying into the values of Critical Race Theory, even though that idea is not mentioned anywhere’. That kind of ‘Some have criticised…’ formulation is always irritating. It means that an author gets to plant an idea in readers’ heads, but doesn’t have to take responsibility for defending it.

But Ian is right: the report never mentions ‘Critical Race Theory’.

Nor, as far as I can see, is Critical Race Theory mentioned in Anthony Reddie’s SCM textbook on Black Theology (London: SCM, 2012), or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology. In fact, in all the thousands of pages of the Black Theology journal, I can find about five passing references to it.

I would not have any problem if there was a much more substantial engagement with Critical Race Theory in these contexts – but there isn’t, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that those who criticise the report in these terms either don’t really know what they’re talking about, or are erecting a deliberate straw man.

The mention of Critical Race Theory is a complete red herring.

Secular Antiracism

Towards the end of his post, Ian draws on the words of an unnamed friend to describe ‘Secular Antiracism’, and give his post’s fullest characterisation of the substance of the report’s approach. The words used are not Ian’s own, but he does at least partially endorse them, suggesting that From Lament to Action ‘leans too much in [this] direction’. Here it becomes clear that he thinks the theology of the report isn’t really theological, or isn’t theological enough, but is instead being driven by non-theological concerns.

The summary of ‘Secular Antiracism’ given in Ian’s friend’s words is this: ‘white people are not just historically advantaged (white privilege), but irreducibly racist (white guilt), even if they deny they are (white fragility). This racism is the basis of the modern West (white supremacy), and it works it concert with numerous other forms of privilege based on sex, gender, sexuality, ability, colour, fertility and so forth (intersectionality), all of which need to be upended’.

I don’t know what the friend was trying to describe, or what kind of conversation it was. I am interested in these words solely as they are deployed by Ian as a summary of the theological leanings of this report, or of Black Theology, or even of Critical Race Theory. As such, they provide a wildly inaccurate description – quite shockingly so.

  • Take ‘white guilt‘ for instance. You might assume, from Ian’s deployment of these words, that this would be quite a major theme in the report, or in the theologies that he is criticising. And yet ‘white guilt’ is a phrase that I can’t find anywhere in the report, or in Reddie’s Black Theology, or in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology – and the only reference I’ve been able to find in two decades’ worth of the Black Theology journal is a in a book title in a singe footnote.

    Casting the terminological net a bit more widely, there is one pertinent discussion of ‘guilt’ that I have been able to find, in an article by James Cone that appears both in the journal and in the Cambridge Companion, but Cone is talking about the need for people to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from past injustices that have continuing impacts in the present, and the need to take responsibility for correcting the systems that perpetuate those impacts. (James Cone, ‘Theology’s great sin: silence in the face of white supremacy’ in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, pp. 143–155: p. 149.)

  • Something similar is true with ‘white fragility‘. I happen to think, myself, that this is a useful concept. It is useful to have a name for the various forms of defensiveness that commonly emerge when White people are made uncomfortable by discussions of racism that suggest that, however well-meaning they might be, they might nevertheless be complicit in institutions, systems and practices that perpetuate racial inequalities. I can, however, find no significant mention of this concept in any of the sources I’ve just mentioned.

  • By contrast with ‘white guilt’ and ‘white fragility’, ‘white privilege‘ is a concept that does turn up quite a bit in these sources – though I don’t think it turns up at all in From Lament to Action. It is another useful and important concept, though I’m not sure you could tell that from the deeply unhelpful summary given here. I’d recommend as a starting point an influential 1988 paper by Peggy McIntosh: ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies’ (Working Paper 189, Wellesley Center for Women, Wellesley, MA). There’s more to say than you’ll find in that paper, but it is one good starting point.

    The very simple idea is that, in our society, people who are not perceived as White tend very widely to experience a range of specific and serious difficulties, that tend not to be widely experience by people who are perceived as White. ‘White privilege’ refers in particular to the second half of this sentence. It names the fact that people who are perceived as White do not widely experience these specific, serious, widespread difficulties; that is their privilege. This claim is entirely compatible with the claim that there are in our society other sources of widespread disadvantage – in relation to poverty, class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, geographical region, and so on. In fact, the same discussions that focus on white privilege often include discussion of the complex interactions between multiple sources of prejudice (and that, incidentally, is what is meant by ‘intersectionality‘).

  • Finally, there’s the phrase ‘white supremacy‘, which also turns up quite a bit in these sources, though it too does not turn up at all in From Lament to Action. It can be used in a variety of ways. It can refer to the blunt belief that White people are superior, Black people inferior. But it is also widely used to refer to less blatant realities – for instance, to patterns of speech and action that trade silently on the assumption that Whiteness is the norm, Blackness the exception. That is still a very crude summary, but it is a little more recognisable than the one Ian presents.

Summaries can play an important role in enabling wide discussion within the Church. Not everyone has the time or expertise needed for independent engagement with complex bodies of work like Black Theology. Judicious summaries, based on careful engagement by those who do have the time and the expertise, can be a real gift. The summary that Ian promotes here is, however, not one of these gifts. It is a caricature, that neither displays such careful engagement nor invites it.

Yet there is a rich, complex, exciting world of theological discussion of race and racism out there, in Black Theology and beyond. If you take the trouble to engage, you will find material you agree with, and material you disagree with; you will find ideas that challenge you deeply, and ideas that excite you; you will find passages that infuriate you, and passages that delight you. You will get drawn into extended, diverse and lively conversations.

Don’t let yourself be scared away from all of this by misleading caricatures. Dive in!

Further Work Needed?

Having said that, however, there is one last element of Ian’s post that I want to mention. He notes that From Lament to Action ‘speaks of gathering evidence of “theological prejudice, European and white normative frameworks in our theological foundations”‘. This report therefore, he says, ‘assumes that fundamental prejudices and normative frameworks are there’ (my italics). But Ian is not convinced. ‘I would want further work,’ he says, ‘and a much wider conversation, on all of these things before devising actions on anything like this scale.’

What is missing here – unsurprisingly, perhaps, in a post that shows a marked unwillingness to engage with Black Theology in any serious way – is an acknowledgement that we have been talking about this stuff for more than thirty years. We have produced, as a Church, endless reports, and their production has been one small part of a much wider theological discussion of race and racism – rich, vibrant, and multi-faceted, as I said a moment ago.

The task of From Lament to Action was not to initiate a discussion of all these matters – that happened a long time ago. It was not to summarise the mountains of analysis and discussion that we have already produced, for the sake of those who have not been listening. Its task was, rightly, much more limited. It was asked to review the many recommendations made in the course of the endless discussions and debates that we have already had, and to try to move us, at long last, to action.