Institutional Racism: Lessons from South Africa

by The Rev. Matthew Cowden, Rector, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, South Bend, Indiana

Our Cohort 3, WPLP pilgrimage to South Africa in 2014 continues to be strikingly relevant; acutely so now in 2020. We saw firsthand that systemic, institutionalized racism doesn’t end with a legislative vote. We heard the difficult truth that until those who have the power to opt out choose to opt in, choose to come to the table to share power and risk everything for the sake of the Gospel, nothing substantial changes and systems of oppression persevere.

At the end of South Africa’s Apartheid in the 1990’s the countries that had supported the boycotts and sanctions for ending Apartheid began to move on with a “mission accomplished” attitude. In contrast, during our pilgrimage, we Wabash pastors witnessed the ongoing ravages of Apartheid’s institutionalized racism and the continued economic disparity still painfully present along racial lines. Before arriving in South Africa we had heard successful soundbites from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which had brought us tears of pain and redemption as we witnessed recorded confessions from white oppressors, murderers being forgiven by those families they had hurt. On our pilgrimage, however, we heard of the sadness and disappointment that the TRC had only scratched the surface in the healing of the country. Only those who might have been brought up on criminal charges had an incentive to testify. They could tell the whole, painful truth and receive amnesty. There was, yes, Christ-like redemption for those who entered the process. But the TRC fell short of its goal to heal the nation, as ground breaking as it was, because those in power who could escape charges chose to stay away. Reconciliation fell short because those who could opt out chose to do so.

Our pilgrimage gave me a lens for understanding the systemic, generational racism and oppression we have here in the United States. Like the crucified body of Christ, racist oppression was held up on the cross of Apartheid and became an unavoidable tragedy for the world to witness in all it agony. Witnessing such overt, institutionalized racism in SA, allows me to more clearly see and unmask the insidious, and “accepted” racist practices we have here. I am moved most by the witness of disappointment in the limited healing done through the TRC. We have means at our disposal for Godly transformation. But I see those of us in the dominant, white culture in America choosing to opt out of these opportunities. They require much that threatens the systems that are in place. But those systems are eating away at all our souls, and the soul of our own country. Without risking confession, though, there can be no reconciliation. Healing for all of us only comes when those who have the power and privilege to opt out of these changes in practice choose to opt in. Those in power cannot choose opt out and still expect to keep our souls (Mark 8:35).

Leave a Comment