THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND’S recent report on racism, From Lament to Action, has provoked many refusals. There are refusals of its central claim about institutional racism, refusals of its theological vision, and refusals of its practical recommendations.

These refusals have been gathered together in a recent blog which you can read here. I thoroughly recommend it. It is unusual to have so many tactics gathered in one place. And it is rare to see such an unvarnished specimen of deniability-in-advance.

The blog carries the author’s name, but conveys few views attributed directly to the author. Most of its words are quoted at length from others with minimal commentary. It can be quite difficult to tell which parts are others’ words, and which the author’s.

Should anyone take offence at its content, the author can simply say, quite truthfully, ‘Well, I did not say that’. And should anyone point out that parts of it are pretty extreme, the author can say, ‘Well, actually I agree – I would of course not say it that way myself’. We probably need a term for people who post alarming things by others publicly, and then privately reassure people, ‘No, no, you’re quite right, I’m really a nice person’.

Who is the author in this and other cases? Perhaps it does not matter. It is the tactics that are of interest.

Classic tactics to obstruct action on racism include statements that misrepresent, mislead, and misunderstand. The blog I am referring to also makes use of a tactic that the current UK Government has trialled to its own satisfaction: elevating a person of colour to a prominent position, and then having them denounce those who challenge its racism. This function has been served most recently by Dr Tony Sewell CBE, who chaired the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and whose report absolves the British of racism. His chair’s Forward to the report offered these comforting words:

Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.

I do not mean to suggest that Dr Sewell needs to be told by me what views he should or should not hold, nor to imply that these are not his views, nor that he is an unwitting pawn in a game of chess. It is Hungry Hippos at best [1]. For it is one thing for an Eton-schooled, Oxford-educated white man to say, ‘We’re not racist, phoah phoah!’ But when a man from Brixton, a son of Jamaican immigrants, says to the nation, ‘You’re not racist’, it is quite another.

Are there any signs of this tactic in the blog in question? I invite readers to have a look and judge for themselves.

What, then, of misrepresentation, misleading, and misunderstanding? Are there any signs of this? There is some misrepresentation. Joseph Diwakar is Lecturer in Church History at St Mellitus College in London. He is quoted as follows: “Action 4 in the ‘Education’ priority wants to make compulsory a module on ‘Black Theology’ for ordinands”.

Is that true? Here is the report: “Participation in an introductory Black Theology module… or module on Theologies in Global Perspective… to be a requirement for all ordinands.” (p.33)

So, no, it is not true. Any compulsory module will be up to the institution to determine. The report does not require St Mellitus to teach a compulsory module on Black Theology. Joseph Diwakar is mistaken. But it is misleading to quote him without checking the claims (which is easily done) and without correction. It says something untrue which is known to be untrue (the blog’s author has read the report, after all). It also throws Joseph Diwakar, a doctoral student, under the bus. If challenged, the blog’s author can just say, “Well that was Joseph’s error, not mine”.

It’s interesting to read in the blog how women from ethnic minorities have responded to the report on racism. I encourage readers to pay special attention to how their voices are reported.

There are some misleading comments in the author’s own voice. Here’s one: “Some have criticised the report for buying into the values of Critical Race Theory, even though that idea is not mentioned anywhere.”

This sentence would be swiftly removed from a Wikipedia entry if you tried to include it, and on multiple grounds. First it is a nice specimen of ‘weasel words’, which fall foul of its policy on ‘unsupported attributions’.

Weasel words are words and phrases aimed at creating an impression that something specific and meaningful has been said, when in fact only a vague or ambiguous claim has been communicated. A common form of weasel wording is through vague attribution, where a statement is dressed with authority, yet has no substantial basis. Phrases such as those above [some people say, research has shown,] present the appearance of support for statements but can deny the reader the opportunity to assess the source of the viewpoint. They may disguise a biased view. Claims about what people say, think, feel, or believe, and what has been shown, demonstrated, or proved should be clearly attributed. (from the Wikipedia guide on quality of entries.)

Second, it is a nice specimen of a claim that falls foul of the requirement for ‘verifiability’, and which typically triggers immediate removal of uncited material.

Shall we hold a blog author to the same standard as Wikipedia? Not always, no. It’s hardly a high bar, though. If Wikipedia would reject something on the grounds of unsupported attributions and uncited material, then it falls substantially below an already low standard, especially when the topic of discussion is higher education curricula. This is a serious academic failing.

So what is this claim – without attribution or citation – doing in this blog? Why raise critical race theory, something that does not appear in the report at all?

Your speculation is as good as mine. A cynical reader might wonder if this is a signal to fellow culture warriors. Such folk are very strongly against critical race theory, which some conservative Christians denounce as ‘secular’ and therefore unsuitable for ‘Biblical’ intellectuals. To portray the report as buying into the values of critical race theory is, for such folk, to weight its feet with lead and chuck it into the ocean. It’s no use challenging the author. “No, no, I didn’t say that – other people said that!”

What about misunderstanding? It could be argued, without much difficulty, that there is a lot of misunderstanding of the term ‘institutional racism’. It is a term that is frequently misunderstood, and the reasons for this are interesting.

It is a common phenomenon reported by members of ethnic minorities that white people say, “I feel attacked!” when issues of racism are raised. I believe them. But why do they feel attacked? Good question. Perhaps it is because many white people think racism is an individual failing, so even if you say it is a structural matter they hear it as an attack on them personally. Getting people to think about structural matters is as difficult as getting people to think historically, as any historian or sociologist will gladly tell you.

But one reason for this difficulty is often of the Upton Sinclair variety: it is hard to get someone to think structurally when their moral superiority depends upon them not thinking structurally. If racism is something that other people – monsters! – are guilty of, then I am white as snow, in so many senses. But if racism is embedded in structures – a feature more than a bug – then my moral self-certainties come under threat. I come under threat. I feel attacked.

This is all very tiring for those who find themselves offering trauma counselling to the attacked, to such an extent that some people say they’re no longer talking to white people about racism. ‘Some people say’? Just kidding, Wikipedia. It’s Reni Eddo-Lodge, in a book of that title, published in 2017.

What does the blog author say about institutional racism? Apparently it’s the kind of racism you get in a single monolithic organisation with a single chain of command that has no theological basis. Exhibit A: the Metropolitan Police. circa 1999.

The author has some extremely good news for the ‘I feel attacked!’ constituency. Three pieces of good news, in fact. First, the Church of England is not monolithic – it is diocesan. Second, the Church of England has no single chain of command. Third, the Church of England has a theological basis distinct from its institutional identity, so its institutional shortcomings can be corrected by the theology which guides it, or should guide it.

Thank God for that. Not only is the C of E not institutionally racist, but it cannot be racist, because it is not monolithic. Only monolithic institutions can be institutionally racist!

This looks like nonsense. But I have found nonsense to be somewhat rarer than one might suppose. We might show a bit more curiosity about the kind of claim that it is. I wonder if it has something to do with thinking structurally.

To use the term institutional racism is to raise an imperative: think structurally! Now it is a real threat to those who benefit from institutional privilege if its members start thinking structurally. Such threats need to be neutralised and fast: when people start thinking structurally it often transforms their outlook long-term, and is not easily reversed. That’s bad news for those benefiting from structural distortions. So to prevent this inconvenient circumstance, an alternative imperative is swiftly raised: think narratively! This is a defensive move.

It is effective. If you read just about any online opinion piece you will notice that it often starts with narrative. “I was sitting on a bus minding my own business when it happened.” We’ve all read opening sentences like this dozens of times by now. Some of us have written them, may God forgive us. Narrative connects with people. It draws us in.

To think in terms of narrative is to tell particular people’s stories, to identify individuals (goodies and baddies), to focus on events.

To think in terms of structure is to look at habits, rules, tacit knowledge, unspoken expectations, principles of order.

A narrative response takes the form, “that was a terrible thing” or “what a terrible person”.

A structural response takes the form, “what a terrible way to do things” or “what a rotten state of affairs”.

Narrative focuses on bad apples, structure on the barrel.

The imperative to think structurally is often countered tactically with an imperative to think narratively. Do we see this in the blog to which I have been referring?

From Lament to Action asks the reader to think structurally and historically. The blog swiftly invites the reader to think narratively instead.

It offers a few cherry-picked statistics (not in its own voice, mind) narratively, to undermine the structural argument.

It rehearses several individual stories of racism narratively to undermine the structural criticisms. Misha Mansoor’s personal story (a rare opportunity in the blog to hear a woman) offers a narrative of racism within ethnic minorities in London, including the claim quoted in the blog: “What I am struggling to understand at the moment is why white people are getting all the blame for racism.” Blame attaches to individuals. Blame is a narrative matter. (It reminds me of a familiar tactic to distract from discussions of police violence in the USA: “What about black on black violence?”). Misha Mansoor is marshalled as a minority voice to cast doubt on a structural claim (‘there is institutional racism’) via a narrative of personal experience (‘I have seen racism among minorities’). This culminates in the claim, not quoted in the blog, “As someone from an ethnic minority, Britain does not seem to me to be a ‘systemically racist country’.” This is to dismiss structural claims within an entirely narrative frame. It’s a familiar tactic: stories trump analysis, as any PR consultant will tell you (for a fee).

Racism thus morphs repeatedly from a structural problem into a series of narrative stories – this is all quite explicit in the blog. The problem becomes the individual acts of particular persons – monsters! – rather than the rotten state of affairs that shapes individual actions – our actions.

To say ‘the Church of England is not institutionally racist’ is in this blog not an empirical claim about the Church of England, which a bit of data here, a bit of data there will clear up. It is a claim that has the effect of protecting the reader against having to think structurally, and thus protecting against feeling attacked. As an added bonus it also relieves the reader of the strenuous burden of thinking structurally: that kind of offer can be hard to refuse.

When I say that this blog misunderstands institutional racism, I do not mean that it makes a mistake about semantics or facts. I mean that it misunderstands structure and recasts it as narrative.

Is this an accidental failure to think structurally, or a recognition of the threat that structural thinking poses and a determined attempt to undermine it? It’s worth reading the blog and forming one’s own judgement.
But it may also shed a bit of light on the odd remarks about critical race theory. If the problem is that critical race theory has a defective structural analysis, then the cure is better structural thinking. But if the problem is that critical race theory is structural analysis, if the problem is any structural analysis, then the cure is narrative – a comprehensive shift from barrels to apples. Again one can read the blog and decide for oneself.

Should we ignore the stories that don’t narrate things our way? No. It’s disappointing when men only tell the stories of minority ethnic members of churches when it suits them, and ignore them when it doesn’t. This is also true when telling women’s stories. They are not witnesses for the defence, to be called and dismissed at will; they are witnesses to the Gospel.

Should we dismiss individuals’ stories in favour of structural analysis? No more than we should dismiss biblical stories in favour of doctrine. There have been theologians who suggested this, like D F Strauss in the 1830s, or Rudolf Bultmann in the 1940s. But it’s a false dichotomy (the theologians’ fallacy par excellence). Jesus was born to Mary: narrative. Jesus is the Son of God, eternally begotten: doctrine. No-one is forcing a choice.

Structural analysis is a bit like doctrine: it is not arrived at via narrative but via enquiry (‘theology’ in my discipline). ‘Jesus was born to Mary’ is not a theological claim but a narrative one. But to refuse the theological claim, ‘The Son is eternally begotten’, by making the narrative claim, ‘Jesus was born to Mary’ is to exhibit deep misunderstandings about theology. I think we see the same misunderstandings in the blog, where structural claims are countered by narrative ones. The stories people tell are precious. Powerful, too. But they do not tell us directly about structural matters. How could they? When they are made to, as for Misha Mansoor, and in the blog which uses her stories for this purpose, confusions set in. Are those confusions engineered? If they are, they are a weapon, where the purpose of the stories is to create confusion.

Where does this leave us? With a little more clarity than before.

This is a conspectus of obstructions – many tactics against attempts to address racism all in one place. That is immensely useful and I am grateful for it.

It tactically deploys bad academic practice (failure to attribute views). It tactically deploys minority voices. It tactically undermines structural analysis and recasts it as narrative. It tactically deploys misrepresentation, misleading claims and misunderstandings. Is it intentional or incompetent? It does not matter: our interest is in structural matters.

What shall we do with such a recipe for lament and inaction? I think it’s obvious what I think we should do with it: observe how it works and adapt.

Enough narrative lamentation. It’s time for structural action.


[1]  h/t to Brent Forrester.
See also Nicholas Adams, Church action on racism: what is at stake? 
On the issue addressed above, we and the author also recommend Dr Mike Higton’s piece, How should the church respond to race? 


© Nicholas Adams is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Birmingham.  Dr Adams’ latest Ekklesia articles can be viewed here. Previous contributions are archived here.