I recently had a friend approach me with a question regarding the relationship between racial inequality and the Christian faith. She and her sister had been debating back and forth as to how one can accept the idea of a loving God when the social and economic conditions within black communities throughout the world today seem to be the same. Before diving in to this complex topic, it’s important to consider that the answers to this are neither simple nor complete. Also, because this question is directed at the God Who is described in both the Old and New Testaments, we need to understand that God’s original plan for mankind did not include prejudice or inequality. When He created humanity, His intent was to provide a perfect environment for humans to inhabit. The fall of Adam and Eve set the corruption of the human nature in to motion. The message in the biblical account of the fall also illustrates to us that we as individuals are the ones who choose to turn against what is good, and the consequences of these choices often lead to suffering, injustice and conflict. It also reminds us that the problem of racial inequality does not signify a contradiction in God’s love, it does however, point to the evil that exists within the human heart. Understanding this concept provides a better framework for the topic being examined, and it helps to start with the word “today.”
When we speak of today, we’re referring to the low social and economic state in which many individuals of African descent currently find themselves living in. However, much of what is true about the black community at large is by no means a reflection of the way things have always been. The truth is that the history of African people as well as those of African descent is one that is varied. At times, territories were conquered, empires were built and technological advancements were made; other times entire cultures were destroyed, people became enslaved and lands and resources were stolen.
The current state of the African diaspora in the 21st century points to a specific legacy left behind by waves of exploitation, slavery and racism; and each of these were introduced to the world by western European powers during the Age of Exploration. This period in history lasted from the late 15th century up until the 18th century; it was also a time when European explorers sailed across the Atlantic and Indian oceans in search of new trade routes. Prior to this era, there were many empires on the African continent that had risen and fallen. City-states, tribes and nations, dating back to antiquity, had already made advances in the areas of agriculture, warfare and architecture, which put many of the African people groups ahead of their contemporaries. For example, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, “At its peak, the Mali Empire extended across West Africa to the Atlantic Ocean and incorporated an estimated 40-50 million people.” The Mali Empire, which lasted from the 9th -16th century AD, was also renowned for its lavish wealth. The Smithsonian National Museum of African Art also states that “the wealth of the Mali Empire is illustrated by Mali emperor Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324. His entourage reportedly included thousands of soldiers, officials and attendants, 100 camels – each carrying 300 pounds of gold and 500 maids and slaves to serve Mansa Musa’s senior wife.” In order for an empire to possess this level of wealth, its society must have a highly organized political structure, a developed system of education and vast mineral and agricultural resources. The history of the Mali Empire contradicts the misconception of a backwards pre-colonial African continent that was introduced to civilization only when the European explorers arrived. A similar case can be made for the communities that once comprised the Swahili Coast, which according to pbs.org, was an “1,800 mile stretch of Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline . . the site of cultural and commercial exchange between East Africa and the outside world – particularly the Middle East, Asia and Europe – since at least the second century A.D.” The Swahili Coast was also known for its culture of trade, which helped to develop a successful economy. PBS.org also explains that “Between 500 and 700 A.D. they shifted to a sea-based trading economy and began to migrate south by ship. In the following centuries, trade in goods from the African interior, such as gold, ivory and slaves stimulated the development of market towns such as Mogadishu, Shanga, Kilwa and Mombasa.” What’s interesting to note is that prior to the rise of capitalism, many of these east African towns had already begun to put in to practice the principles of free market enterprise. It would be centuries before Adam Smith would write The Wealth of Nations, yet the merchants of the Swahili Coast would have already enjoyed the benefits of economic prosperity.
“The arrival of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco de Gama in 1498, signaled a new era of foreign rule on the Swahili Coast”, according to PBS.org. The Age of Exploration had just begun as Spanish and Portuguese sailors began arriving to Africa. Eager to discover new routes of trade, these Iberian navigators saw within these Swahili coastal towns, great opportunities for expanding their own aspiring empires. As PBS.org explains, “By this time , Mombasa was the dominant Swahili power, so control over this city meant control over the coastal region. Portugal, seeking to monopolize trade throughout the Indian Ocean trade, built fort Jesus in Mombasa, and also set up a customs house on Pate Island.” It was during this period in history that European rulers vigorously sought to bring wealth to their homelands. These nations also began competing with each other for land and resources, particularly in what was known as “The New World” or the Americas. The Spaniards eventually seized most of what is now Mexico, Central and South America, while the Portuguese took Brazil and the British ruled over what is now the United States. In the race to amass territory and riches, these western European leaders would eventually implement a system of slavery. The establishment of slavery was not a new phenomenon. For most of human history, empires have relied on slaves in order to sustain their existence. What made the system of slavery in “The New World” so distinct had to do with how European settlers and colonists used race to subjugate an entire group. In order to justify the horrific abuse suffered by African slaves, new theories about race were invented. It was widely held among settlers in the Americas that blacks were intellectually inferior and thus not fit for anything else other than harsh physical labor. This idea also posited that Africans had the appropriate build for rigorous work, which is why they were capable of working for endless hours in the blazing sun as well as performing back-breaking labor. It’s easy to assume that these racial attitudes about the inherent “inferiority” of blacks is one that always existed. The reality, however, is that to a large extent, this particular brand of racism, was created for the purpose of perpetuating a system of free labor that in the end, served to be very lucrative. Over time, these racist worldviews became entrenched throughout western society. A few centuries would pass before such paradigms would begin to change. In the U.S., an entire nation would to go to war with itself in order to abolish the system of slavery. In different parts of the Spanish empire, criollo leaders would make the decision to emancipate slaves in order to enlist their support for the burgeoning independence movements.
Fast-forward to the mid-twentieth century, where Jim Crow laws by this time would have tyrannized blacks in the southern part of the U.S. for decades. Once again, a system had been set up in order to subjugate the country’s black population. In his book, Life Under Jim Crow Law, Charles George writes that “With passage of the first Jim Crow law in 1888, the “place” of blacks as an inferior race became recognized by states throughout the old Confederacy. By law, blacks’ segregation from whites in every aspect of life became mandatory.” Fear and resentment, as a result of having lost the Civil War, fueled hateful attitudes towards African-Americans. As a newly freed community, blacks began advancing within American society, and this created anxiety within the white community that both groups would now have to compete with each other on equal footing. Charles George writes that “these laws were the result of fear and anger on the part of southern whites. Some feared that blacks would take their jobs, and many blamed blacks for the destruction and loss the Confederacy suffered as a result of the Civil War.” Once more, we see those in power propagating myths about African-Americans’ supposed inferiority in order to keep them from advancing. Understanding these historical patterns of racial oppression and its relationship to hateful ideologies helps to clarify the role that a racist system of laws played when it came to creating the social and economic conditions that many blacks in the U.S. currently live in.
What about the status of the African community outside the western context? One could argue that the case made for the repercussions created by slavery and exploitation in the western hemisphere only help to explain part of the problem. What about the actual African continent? As we briefly look at the motherland, it obviously has a very different history. However, there exist patterns of colonization that played a large role in contributing to the modern state of affairs in what is referred to as sub-Saharan Africa. Around the 19th century, European powers began to seize and colonize territories throughout Africa in what historians have termed the “Scramble for Africa.” According to Wikipedia, “In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under European control; by 1914 it had increased to almost 90% of the continent.” Some similarities exist between what happened during the “Age of Exploration” and the “Scramble for Africa.” For example, towards the end of the 1900s, the nations of Britian and France were experiencing an economic decline; the fact that African territories looked very different from their European contemporaries when it came to governance, also made the unchartered lands of the continent too difficult for the imperialists to resist. The demand for colonization was also due to the growing competition that existed among these imperialist powers as each sought to enlarge its own empire.
At this point, the Asante Empire had ruled West Africa in what is known today as the nation of Ghana. The colonizers referred to this region as the Gold Coast. It was known for its gold deposits, which of course is what made the land extremely attractive to foreign powers. Towards the end of the 1800s, the Ashanti, which was the name for the people of the Asante empire, had fought against the British in a series of fierce battles known as the Anglo-Ashanti wars. Ashanti fighters were known for their impressive and courageous warfare tactics. Even the British army knew this to be true. What’s more, the Ashanti were able to inflict massive casualties on the British military despite the fact that their weapons were not as technologically advanced, given that the British fought with guns. In the book, The Fall of the Asante Empire, Robert B. Edgerton writes that “In the final conflict of 1900, despite the British use of machine guns and powerful 75mm artillery, the Asante several times forced British columns to retreat.” Despite these military feats, the British eventually took control over the Gold Coast. The ongoing battles that took place between the Asante Empire and the British is just one example of how land grabs were conducted by western colonizers.
Following World War II, a wave of independence movements began to sweep the continent. Independence, however, didn’t lead to economic development for many of these nations. This was largely due to the fact that western ideas about trade and commerce had been forced on to societies that had an entirely different set of customs and practices going back centuries. Colonization also meant the rearrangement of territories, the destruction of long-held traditions and the regrouping of various people hailing from different tribes. All of this would make post-colonial development very difficult for the newly formed African nations. From the mid-twentieth century up until now, countries throughout Africa have been plagued by famine, genocide, corruption and civil strife. Many factors have contributed to these modern crises, however, the role of imperialism at the beginning of the 20th century altered the course of events in a dramatic way. In the 21st century, these issues continue to affect most of Africa is some way or another; and in the western world, black communities are still working to advance within society. This is why understanding black histories is not only important, it’s also crucial. It allows us to comprehend that the concept of inferiority was created in order to maintain a system of slavery, and that black history is not simply one comprised of exploitation and destruction. The past has so much to teach us about the present, and if we become students of history, we’ll understand that there were great moments of economic prosperity and powerful empires as well as slavery and segregation. There are also redemptive moments that are not merely anecdotes, but evidences that inequality can be overcome and oppressive legacies can be eliminated. It all, however, starts with recognizing where the source of corruption originates and tragically that begins with the human heart.
Grace Castro is of Afro-Latin descent and studied History at the University of Miami. Also a devout christian and lover of apologetics.