Racial Violence

By Mukami McCrum

The use of violence as a method of control and domination of those who are deemed to be inferior and powerless is practised in many cultures, societies and countries of the world. At the domestic level, it is used against women, children and other vulnerable members of the family. At the national and international level, poor people, asylum seekers, refugees, Black and minority ethnic, migrant and Indigenous Peoples are occasionally subjected to, or threatened with, violence by the state and the institutions that uphold and perpetuate violence in the name of peace, order and national security. Any form of violence is harmful to the victim and has wider implications for society as a whole.

Describing racism
Racism is a doctrine of hatred of people based on the belief that certain people are superior to others. It is often argued that, because in the animal kingdom human beings are classified as belonging to one race, the term racism is wrong because it assumes that the perpetrators and victims of racism belong to different races. However throughout history, groups of people who share certain characteristics have been subjected to inhuman, unjust and cruel treatment because of their difference from the dominant group. The difference has been described as racial and therefore it is appropriate to define violence which is perpetrated on grounds of colour, ethnicity and nationality as racial violence.

Racial violence differs from other forms of violence in that the root causes are to do with assumption of superiority and dislike of other people who are deemed to be inferior because of their identity, ethnic origin, nationality, national origins or descent; and because of their appearance and physical characteristics such as colour, language and dress. These are natural and normal attributes, and any attack on them is an attack of the very core of oneís essence as a human being and as a member of the human race. Racial violence manifests itself in many ways. In its mildest form, it can be pushing, spitting, name-calling, teasing, or practical jokes. In more serious cases it involves physical assault, arson, stabbing, rape, murder, attempted murder, massacres and genocide.

There is no continent which is free of racial violence. Racial violence has been the trade-mark of racism throughout history.

While physical violence is easier to recognise, other forms of violence are equally damaging. There is a growing body of evidence that persistent low-level harassment affects the health and wellbeing of people subjected to it.

A global phenomenon
There is no continent which is free of racial violence. Racial violence has been the trade-mark of racism throughout history. In the Americas and Caribbean, the Colombian legacy of dispossession, massacres, violence and near annihilation of the native peoples, and the brutal slave trade have left lasting effects on marginalised communities of that area. The slave trade, imperialism and colonialism, and more recently apartheid, were systematic and legalised forms of racism which used brutal force and violence against Africans, Asians and Indigenous Peoples, including Dalits, Gypsies and travelling people. Violence against these people has excluded them from social, political, cultural, economic and educational benefits because of their colour, caste, descent. In India, the so called "pollution line" still divides Dalits from other castes in spite the abolition of the practice of untouchability fifty years ago. Today, beatings, rape and murder of Dalits still happen.

Historical perspective
The history of the struggles against slavery, colonialism and imperialism reveals atrocities and massacres of people who in most cases were poorly armed and who just wanted their freedom. The vicious methods used to destroy the resistance against the Portuguese in Brazil, the Mau Mau struggle in Kenya, the rape of Dalit women in India and the massacre of the Indigenous Peoples in the Caribbean and the Americas are just a few examples. South Africa was a perfect example of legalised racism. Years of state violence against Africans, Indians and "Coloureds" in South Africa kept apartheid alive, and it has left a legacy of psychological and racial violence. A few years ago, as a member of a WCC solidarity team visit to the Aboriginal people of Australia, I was exposed to stories and images, that still haunt me today, about the history and experiences of the Aboriginal people since the arrival of Europeans in Australia. In the eighteenth century, while the anthropologists and ethnographers studied the life-styles of the Aboriginal people, the "terra nullius" (empty land) policy and legal system refused to classify them as human beings. This did not officially change until 1967. The British Crown had applied a systematic colonisation of the country which included massacre, rape and dispossession of Aboriginal people with long-lasting effects of poverty, disease, exclusion and violence which are visible today.

Effects of racial violence
While physical violence is easier to recognise, other forms of violence are equally damaging. There is a growing body of evidence that persistent low-level harassment affects the health and wellbeing of people subjected to it. It leaves physical and psychological scars which are passed on from person to person in the community and remembered by generations to come. Living in fear because one belongs to a race or a group of people who are subjected to violence and constant harassment is a major cause of mental health and low self esteem. Those who are racially harassed often adopt an identity with the negative images and labels they are given. Resistance sometimes leads to further more dangerous harassment and discrimination. The notion of being "created in the image of God" is meaningless when the image one sees reflected in the "mirror called society" is that of an inferior, rejected and abused woman, man or child.

From murder to massacre and genocide
The horror of racially motivated murders is too painful to comprehend. It leaves a long-lasting negative impression on the minds of the victims family, community and society as a whole. It is a signal and warning which Christians, and people who care about humanity, should never ignore. It is a warning of the consequences of racial and ethnic hatred which, if unchecked, can lead to the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children by other human beings justified by hatred, enmity and dislike of the other. The genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo are recent reminders of the evil that can be generated by political systems. History is littered with similar examples, and we must never forget the systematic violence meted out to slaves, Indigenous Peoples and others during the slave trade, colonialism and imperialism.

Response to racial violence
The state response to racial violence indicates the way society, the institutions and the political systems behave towards those who are perceived to be different. In many countries, people have been murdered because of their ethnic origin, nationality or their colour. In Britain the list stretches to over a hundred Black people murdered over the last ten years. The most well known case is that of Stephen Lawrence, stabbed to death on 22 April 1993 as he waited for a bus in London. The attack was unprovoked and the only reason for his murder was that he was Black. His death was tragic, but the failure of the justice system to catch and prosecute those responsible added to the grief and injury felt by his family, the Black community and anti-racism activists everywhere. The enquiry which ensued, following his parentís persistent campaign in pursuit of truth and justice, revealed entrenched institutional racism within the police force which had led to inexcusable errors in the caring for Stephen as he lay dying. There is no doubt that racism played a crucial role, not just in the stabbing but in the subsequent response made by the police. Stephenís life was meaningless not only to his killers but to the system in the country he called home.

The state responds to resistance against racism with ever-increasing sophistication, including legal measures and advanced military force. The increase of extremist political parties who distribute materials which incite racial hatred, and the fact that government condemnation of racism, in most cases, amounts to meaningless platitudes, has meant that perpetrators of racial violence feel empowered and encouraged to continue their racist practices. States sanction racial violence by legal documents, rules and procedures which portray certain groups of people as inferior, as criminals or scroungers.

Across Europe, and no doubt in other parts of the world, anti-racism campaigners and organisations have documented and monitored a large increase in racial incidents and violence. In recent years there has been an unprecedented increase in the numbers of internally displaced people, refugees and migrant workers. At the same time, powerful countries have introduced stringent control measures to keep those displaced people out. There is an undeniable body of evidence of the role of the state in perpetuating racism and racial violence. The Migrant Newsheet (published by the Migration Policy Group, Brussels) produces a monthly digest of the experiences of refugees and ethnic minorities in Europe. In March 2000, it reported that an Austrian high-ranking police officer, who was accused of suggesting that Africans should be beaten before asking them any questions, had his case dropped by the public prosecutor.

The role of religion
The role that major religions played in causing and perpetuating racism, and the associated violence that went with it, must be acknowledged and the sin of racism must be confessed as part of the healing process. The churchesí recent record of standing with the oppressed is notable. It is essential that the church continues to speak out against oppression and support those who resist violence. At the dawn of the WCCís Decade to Overcome Violence, as churches draw up their action plans, the issue of racial violence must be included from the start. For many people it is easy to recognise and name violence associated with wars, ethnic cleansing, and state aggression against its own citizens. However we must understand and make links between the root causes of violence against individuals and other forms of violence. The fear, hatred, dislike and the negative attitude towards people because of their ethnicity, colour, cast, religion, class or gender, when nurtured and fuelled by those who have the advantage of possessing economic, military or political power, can be turned into the ugly and obscene annihilation of people and a total disregard of their humanity.

The church can, and must, nurture a culture of non-violence and restore through a healing process a world where we can live in peace and without fear. To do this, the church must be bold and confident in leading the way to a better common understanding and respect for human rights of all people.

Mukami McCrum is the Moderator of the WCC Womenís Advisory Group and was previously a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission. McCrum was born and raised in Kenya where she worked as a teacher before moving to Scotland where she raised her family and studied at the University of Edinburgh and at Moray House College of Education.

She is a sociologist and has previously worked as a community worker and as a project coordinator. She was a founder member of Shakti Womenís Aid, a project for Black women against violence. She is a member of the Board of Akina mama wa Afrika a development NGO for African women in Europe and Africa. She plays an active role in the SISTERS network of the JPC team. She has been a member of government race forums in UK and Scotland and is currently employed as the Director of Central Scotland Race Equality Council in UK.

Meeting at the end of the most violent century ever in human history and at the threshold of a new century, the VIIIth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, declared 2001-2010 as the Decade to Overcome Violence. It is an urgent call to churches and ecumenical organisations to work together for peace, justice and reconciliation in a world overwhelmed by a culture of violence. The Decade is to be launched in Berlin on February 4, 2001 during a meeting of the WCC Central Committee. The emphasis of the Decade is on "overcoming". An honest way to overcome violence is to deal with its causes. These are often structural and cultural in nature, affecting social, political and economic relationships. As a result, certain categories of people are always the victims of various forms of violence. Racism is one such cause of violence all over the world today. It is domination based on discrimination and oppression of the powerless, akin to other dominations such as patriarchy, caste and xenophobia. It is hoped that the Decade will address these shameful traits of our modern generation within and outside the churches.

For more information on the Decade write to:
WCC/Decade to Ovecome Violence
P.O.Box 2100, 1211 Geneva 2
Email: DOV
WCC webpage:

Table of Contents // Editorial // Environmental racism: old wine in a new bottle by Deborah M. Robinson // Racial Violence, by Mukami McCrum // Interview with M. Deenabandhu On the subject of casteism // Redefining understandings of racism, by N. Barney Pityana // Theological deconstruction and reconstruction in the fight against racism by Maria-Cristina Ventura // Ethnicity and racism by Steve Fenton // Inter-racial church Communities, by Rev. Marjorie Lewis-Cooper // Rio de Janeiro Declaration // The WCC Special Fund to Combat Racism // Two groups who received a Special Fund grant // The UN World Conference against Racism and the WCC Ecumenical Study Process on Racism // SISTERS in the struggle to Eliminate Racism and Sexism by Sammy Toineeta, Betty Ruth Lozana Lerma, Silvia Regina // Publications

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