A Dialogue on Racism in the Time of COVID-19

A dialogue between Ganoune Diop, Seventh Day Adventist Church and a leader in interfaith work and Audrey Kitagawa, Chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. 

Ganoune Diop:

It would not be an overstatement to suggest that we are witnessing and experiencing a historical moment during which the world is searching for its soul. There is what many have called a revolution, actually, against racism. A global mobilization to protest against racism has seen the day and unquestionably one would hope, of course, that this means a development of a global consciousness of what it means to be human, and to treat each other in more humane ways. There is a global “No,” one would say, to the trampling of any person’s dignity. And that is core to today’s resistance movement. And I can say also there is also a global “No” to police brutality. A global “No” to law enforcement and vigilante unlawful biases and violence against people of African ancestry. The moment has been compared to the challenges the abolition of slavery presented in the 1850s. It seemed almost impossible.

Today, the issue is the abolition of inequality and inequity. The challenge seems to be the stubborn belief in the inferiority of people of color in general, and Black people in particular. This alleged inferiority has given rise to personal stigmatization of Black people along with institutional, structural and systemic racism, which pervade all sectors of human relations and experiences for Black people.

The context of the current mobilization against racism and violence against Black people is the murder of an African American. The history of African Americans who went through slavery, denial of citizenship by the Supreme Court, segregation, Jim Crow laws, and a host of demonizing tactics and practices are too well-documented. They are also part of a guilt too massive and destructive to stifle. The belief in the inferiority of Black people has been nurtured not only to justify the various historical slaveries, and I’m referring here to, yes, the trans-Saharan slavery from the seventh century on, the Oriental slavery, the trans-Atlantic of course, which is the most well-known, and the intra-African slavery also. But it has also been nurtured by religious texts of adherence of major religious traditions, which assume that Black people are actually inferior. And that is part of the problem. And I can say here, there is a mixed record from religious traditions; suffice it to mention the so-called “Curse of Ham,” a misinterpretation of the text of Genesis IX, to promote the idea that Black people are cursed. Not to mention the so-called “Mark of Cain,” also attributed to Black people. This criminal hierarchization and/or the racialization of the human family have made our world unsafe and actually a violent place. So the problems of racism are multifaceted, and so will be the solutions. But before we get to that, I am privileged to ask Audrey to expand our horizon of understanding regarding racism and discrimination by telling us something about the intersections between your own personal experience and racism. Audrey, please.

Audrey Kitagawa:  

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, Ganoune, for those introductory remarks. In this search during this historic moment of the world for its “soul,” as you put it, Ganoune, and the question which you posed about the intersections between racism, stigmatization, and my life experience, I would like to share that I recently produced a video to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Just this past Saturday I was on a panel sponsored by the Parliament of the World’s Religions Next Gen Task Force on the interfaith perspectives on nuclear weapons. Having had a world premiere for this video on August 6th and a rebroadcast on August 9th, the two days in August when the nuclear bombs were dropped on these two Japanese cities, the Next Gen Task Force wanted to address a multi-generational approach to nuclear weapons. During the question and answer period, this question was posed: “What is your opinion about the moral position of the US that the use of nuclear weapons on civilian Japanese targets ended the war?” Basically, I indicated that this argument is one of “the end justifies the means.” I answered that we need to ask why a bomb was dropped on the Japanese by the Americans? Germany and Italy were also considered enemies. Further, why during World War II were the Japanese who lived in the US forcibly interned in camps created to confine them behind barbed wire compounds, patrolled by armed soldiers, to ensure that no one could escape? There were literally prisoners denied the due process of law and all of the rights and privileges accorded to all US citizens under our Constitution. And yes, many of the Japanese interned were in fact US citizens. A Presidential Commission in 1982 identified racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership as the underlying causes of the government’s interment program. On August 9th, the day the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, President Truman received a telegram from Samuel McCrea Cavert, a Protestant clergyman who pleaded with the President to stop the bombing before any further devastation by atomic bombs could be visited upon the Japanese people. Two days later Truman replied. “The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast.”

Here you have the classic dehumanization of a whole race of people to justify the killing of them en masse. Isn’t this what Hitler did to the Jews? Totally dehumanize them, marginalize them, and then exterminate them? In challenging the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who was a US citizen, argued that his rights and those of other Americans of Japanese descent had been violated. In Korematsu versus the United States, the Supreme Court ruled six to three in favor of the government, saying that military necessity overruled these civil rights. In his dissent, however, Justice Frank Murphy stated that the exclusion of Japanese Americans falls into the ugly abyss of racism. In Trump versus Hawaii in 2018, the Supreme Court explicitly repudiated and effectively overturned the Korematsu decision, characterizing it as gravely wrong the day it was decided, and overruled it in the “court of history.”

It was unfortunately too late for my paternal grandfather, who was summarily sent to a secret internment camp on the Island of Oahu in Hawaii during World War II. He was a humble fisherman, and then one day was just interned without notice, no due process, no notification to any of his family members; he just disappeared. Later on, my parents found him, but when he eventually returned home, my mother said he had completely changed. He returned home a frightened man and refused to talk about his experience during the internment. Soon after he was released, he developed cancer and died. With his death went any understanding of what sufferings he endured, and a valuable part of history died with him.

What will the court of history say about our own conduct that continues to treat people of color as inferior and has allowed many situations of current state action that have killed Black people disproportionately and have put into cage-like facilities, migrants, refugees and their children from countries south of the border?

Now, Ganoune, from your perspective, how did we get to this pandemic of racism?

Ganoune Diop:

A deep problem. I mentioned the issue of the alleged inferiority of a segment of the human family. But there was a deeper problem, actually even in a reverse manner: the belief in the superiority of one people group over another. Throughout history it has been the same story. It is also part of the logic of empire-building and slogans and propaganda, whether political/social, social/cultural, or religious, as far back as we can go. Ancient Egyptians believed they were superior to others. The Assyrians, then the Babylonians, the Medes, and the Persians and the Greeks. One would remember that Aristotle wrote even about the hierarchy of races. For example, the Greeks were superior to Barbarians, and of course the Romans and the Byzantine empire and the Arabs, and then the Mongols operated according to the same logic. Fast forward to the European hegemony, especially during the Renaissance, the belief in the superiority of a segment of the world, of one part of the human family to another, actually perpetrated acts of dehumanization. And fundamentally, this belief is also consonant with the legitimization of violence. And that has been the historical norm.

We can go back to the munera or the mid-day executions during the Roman empire, to assert again, the power, the domination or supremacy of the Emperor. So yes, we got where we are right now because of the legitimization of violence. That is clearly one of the historical norms. Now, of course, we don’t have public executions as before, except through some violent terrorist groups. But still, the legitimization of violence is present, and it is acted out through racism actually.

Now, Audrey, how do we move from where we are to a better place for the human family? We have heard, and I think it seems that a consensus is emerging somehow, that we need to recover our humanity, one human family. What would you say? How can we move from where we are to where the human family could be?

Audrey Kitagawa:

Thank you, Ganoune. What I feel is important is for each person to understand that we have personal responsibility to actually develop our inner spiritual lives, our character, and our codes of conduct that are in alignment with honoring and respecting others. It is about changing mindsets, attitudes, and stopping participation in hierarchical systems that can render someone less than we are and create dehumanization processes that allow for the marginalization and mistreatment of others. We must teach ourselves the importance of developing values, principles for living, and ultimately, the heart of loving and caring for each other, all sentient beings, and Mother Earth. This will help us to find conduct, whether in thought, word, or action, that is antithetical to our core values and principles for living, which violate the golden rule of treating others as we would like to be treated, abhorrent. The importance of developing our inner life is to ultimately help us to become better people and to deepen our hearts that we may share our respect, kindness, and love with each other.

One of the greatest ways that we can move out of self-absorption, pure self-interest, and self-centeredness is through this very powerful word called “sewa.” Sewa is a Sanskrit word which means “selfless service,” where you give of yourself, your time, your commitment, and your resources to help others without looking for the return of any self- glorification or self-aggrandizement. Mother Teresa said, “Love cannot remain by itself. It has no meaning. Love has to be put into action and that action is service.”

Our ethical, spiritual, and moral values are set forth in religious and sacred texts. In contemporary times, we have the Parliament of the World Religions’ signature document, The Global Ethic. I want to call attention to its first directive, which is respect for life and nonviolence. Nonviolence is not only physical, but also verbal and within the mind. The preamble of the constitution of UNESCO declares that, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Many people are more and more willing to become activists and to manifest their values and what they truly care about through their activism. This activism, however, must always be undertaken with the view that whether dedicating ourselves to the elimination of racism, sexism, classism, or any cause, we must ensure that we are not conducting ourselves in predatory or exploitative ways that cause harm to others. When we truly do Sewa, we are putting our love into action. That is unconditional. May we all be blessed to move from that place of true love, knowing that we may not live to see the benefit of what our love has brought forth into the world. But knowing that whatever legacy we leave behind, we have given each day along the way as we lived our lives, and that it was done so with the help of the Divine Hand that cultivated the soil of our holy ground, upon which we all stand.

As I see the fervent dedication of many people today to devote their time and effort into this examination of racism, its history, consequences, and solutions, I am heartened to know that these important conversations are taking place. May these conversations take us out of denial about our own failures, shortcomings, blind spots and prejudices that have caused harm and suffering to others. Even as we have these conversations, however, may we simultaneously work toward addressing the institutional and systemic racism that continues today that has wrought inequalities in treatment, opportunities and equal access to people of color, and increase our activism to help those in need. This is a special purview of religious and faith communities to bring solace to hearts that grieve, to feed the hungry, and to minister to the needs of the poor and the marginalized. And may our hearts in this and all efforts that we undertake be filled with great kindness and compassion. We must each transform ourselves and be willing to dilate our lens of insularity to the global lens of engagement, and together embrace each other in love.

Now, Ganoune, I turn the floor over to you to give the concluding remarks.

Ganoune Diop:

Thank you very much, Audrey, for your words of appeal to really recover our humanity. And I hear very clearly the call to selfless love. The problems, the evil, and I can even say the sin of racism, are multifaceted. So must be the solutions. The abolition of racism can only be achieved, and its toxic, nefarious, and harmful effects neutralized or mitigated when addressed from comprehensive perspectives. At a personal level, it can be achieved through the regeneration of hearts and the healing of minds. The word repentance actually has a double sense of change of attitude in the Greek epistrephein, but also transformation of the mind, the metanoia.

But at systemic and structural levels, laws in place to perpetuate racism must be changed and rulings to make racism unlawful put in place. New amendments to constitutions may be one of the best ways to design a new trajectory in human consciousness about the necessity to welcome and embrace the dignity of every human person. Institutional structures geared towards maintaining the injustices of discrimination, the restrictions to having access to goods, to jobs, to housing, to positions, or simply to decent living must be reformed. This will, of course, necessitate a further mobilization beyond the streets to chambers of lawmakers to perennially better the condition of living of the whole human family in peaceful coexistence, in all equity and equality before the law, but also before the sanctity of every person’s life, recovering that sense of one human family, the need for human solidarity, and the need to change our perception of others. No more objects to be instrumentalized, but rather, full human beings to be respected in the dignity of difference. That could take us to a better place.

 Ganoune Diop, Ph.D., is General Secretary of the International Religious Liberty Association and Director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist World Headquarters. He serves on the G20 Interfaith Forum Board of Directors and the Anti-Racism Working Group.

Audrey E. Kitagawa, JD, is the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, President/Founder of the International Academy for Transcultural Cooperation, the President of the Light of Awareness International Spiritual Family, and the former Advisor to the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict at the United Nations. She is the current Chair of the UN Task Force of the Parliament of the World’s Religions.