OP-ED: “YOUTH OF AMERICAN SAMOA IN UNITY AND SOLIDARITY”
This past Saturday, American Samoa witnessed a road side wave of a group of youthful men and women. It wasn’t a wave for a campaign candidate or a fundraising function as we often would see on Saturday afternoons. It was a wave of a group of young spirited adolescents expressing solidarity and unity with the Black Lives Matter movement protesting the unjust death of George Floyd, a man of color from the state of Minnesota in the United States.
As seen in social media and news outlets in the past week across America, four peace officers are undergoing investigation when one officer pressed his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd for nearly nine minutes causing his death. Communities ignited in protests, riots, and looting across the nation. The peaceful protests by the Black Lives Matter movement and many others of all colors marshaled an unprecedented number of supporters who flocked in unity and solidarity. For far too long colored men and women in America suffer discrimination and racial injustice. The sense of being fed up may lie behind the reason for this national wide uproar. What’s more is a sense of wide recognition and acceptance of systemic racism by those from all walks of life.
The question that may have raced across the minds of those passing by Saturday was why would it matter to these young men and women here in American Samoa, the racial concerns in the United States?
After all, being in the middle of the South Pacific would isolate us. Moreover, problems of police brutality, let alone injustices involving black and brown men and women, are rare here in American Samoa.
However, to ask this question means to be uninformed about what the issue consists of on at least three points. First, racism is everywhere. Second, racism is a sin against humanity that results in division and destruction. And third, our children and people continue to seek their well-being in America where racism would subject them as vulnerable.
Racial categorization identifies people according to the color of their skin and other physical features of the body. More often than not, the categorization of race is made to correlate with one’s ethnicity, which is why race and ethnicity are sometimes interchangeable. The United States Census recognizes five racial categories (1- White American, 2- Black or African American, 3- American Indians and Alaska Native, 4- Asian American, and 5- Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander). Indeed, such categorization is problematic and a misconception stemming from past imperial ideology.
It was once believed that a superior race of humans has distinct physical features from a more inferior race. Features such as the size of skulls would posit superior intelligence between races. Unfortunately, some to this day maintain these false understandings.
Racial categorization is nonsensical for there is only one human race on earth. Nevertheless, the mistreatment of people due to race and ethnicity is racism. The Oxford dictionary online defines racism as, “The unfair treatment of people who belong to a different race; violent behavior towards them” and, as another entry states, “the belief that some races of people are better than others.” Despite the attempts to correct this ideology, to reveal its fallacy in order to erase it, the system that runs today’s American society has unfortunately been tainted deeply by it.
The most salient of features is the privileging of those with white skin, placing those of color in a place of secondary status and subjecting them to unequal treatment. Racial categorization has manifested itself through all facets of society, from the federal to the judicial, economical, and educational system, even down to everyday public encounters.
As some would like to believe, racism is foreign to the experiences of societies isolated in the Pacific Ocean. This could not be farther from the truth.
From the above description, the roots of racism are discrimination, partiality, and favoritism based on racial categorization. On those bases, American Samoa would not be immune to racism. For example, if white skinned individuals looking down, to use an idiom, on colored people count as racism, then colored people looking up to white skinned individuals at the expense of colored people may also count as racism. They are one and the same.
We may also refer to the days of colonization when the powers of political giants imposed their ways of governing among the people of both Samoas and Manu’a. One example is the referral of family and village disputes to court rooms as a means of settling issues in a more “civilized” manner. The more “civilized” and Western custom presupposes a superior mentality that does without the communal wisdom and process that Samoans are more accustomed to.
We may also refer to Christian missionaries that deemed much of our cultural practices as either barbaric or evil. We see this even to this day as Samoan culture is pushed out of the doors of our churches, while welcoming American and European liturgical practices.
The most obvious effects of these are the loss of our language, cultural values, and customs.
Another example of racism that occurs here on the island is to discriminate against someone simply because of being from a foreign country. In other words, the practice of mistreating immigrants such as Koreans, Chinese, Western Samoans, Fijians, and Tongans based on physical and outward expressions of ethnicity can be racism in so far as we involve discrimination, partiality, and favoritism.
Thus, American Samoa is not immune nor unfamiliar with racial concerns.
Therefore, when the young men and women stood up next to the road side last week Saturday, they were standing up for George Floyd and much more. They were standing for all faces of racism that have possibly tainted our society and continue to do so. Like the corona virus, racism is a virus that traverses across boundaries and has no partiality for any country, culture, or ocean. It only has a proclivity for human destruction. Unlike corona, however, racial categorization leads to destruction by dividing. Racism will only cause division among our families, communities, and churches. Interestingly, this is of no insignificant matter to teachings of the Bible.
The letter of James in the New Testament was written around the year 50 of the common era, about twenty years after the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. In that letter, James, who some suggest may have been the brother of Jesus, uttered a fundamental teaching of Jesus that believers should follow throughout the diaspora, places where believers dispersed throughout the known world, which included the Roman Empire, Egypt, Babylonia, Antioch, and beyond. I would only like to turn attention towards James 2:8-9. It states”
8You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scriptures, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (Jas 2:8-9 NRSV, italics are mine)
Following the teachings of Jewish scriptures was the way of life among Jewish circles, of which James and Jesus followers at the time were very much a part. The scriptures were the center of their culture. It dictated their behavior, rituals, food consumption, worship, their ins and outs, and even the way they related to others of different beliefs. One of the central beliefs that Jesus followers, including James, took to heart was the golden rule, “love your neighbor as yourself,” for this is similar to loving God (Mt 22:36-40).
A profound component in the above passage from the letter of James is specifying what stands in opposite of this fundamental rule, namely to show partiality, which translates in the New International Version as to show favoritism.
The Greek verb used is προσωπολημπτέω (pro-so-po-lemp-tέ-o), which means “to take one before or in favor of another” and renders in English as “to show favoritism.” James 2:9 is the only place in all the New Testament we find this Greek verb. A noun form of this verb is προσωπολημψία (pro-so-po-lemp-sί-a) and found in James 2:1. Paul uses this noun often to speak up against favoritism as he does in Romans 2:11. In Ephesians, Paul teaches that God himself is against favoritism (προσωπολημψία, Eph 6:9). Our passage above shows clearly why partiality and favoritism goes against the teachings of Jesus. It is because it judges unjustly to choose one over the other and is the opposite of loving your neighbor. If loving your neighbor is divine law, then to do the opposite is to commit sin. In other words, to show partiality and favoritism, the root of racism, is to break the divine law of loving your neighbor.
To show partiality and favoritism, to enact racism in all of its forms, is ultimately the act of judging another. In the Old Testament, the act of judging while showing partiality and favoritism equates to making judgment of someone based on his or her facial features, as seen in the Hebrew expression הכר-פנימ (hach-cher-panim, e.g. see Prov 24:23), which expresses judgment based upon facial features or features at the surface.
When placing this side by side with racism where white privilege becomes the most salient feature, what we ultimately see is the correlation between racism, partiality, and favoritism as cognates of the same underlying evil. This form of racial judgment is opposite of what the Lord does, as the Lord says to Samuel:
7Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (1Samuel 16:7 NRSV).
While the New Testament clearly places racial judgments at opposite poles to the love of the neighbor, the Old Testament proposes a solution, namely looking rather at the hearts of people than their physical and outward features. Thus, when the young men and women stood waving on the side of the road last Saturday, they are standing for what is divinely right. They are standing for the teachings of loving one’s neighbor and advocating the need to perceive what is more important, the hearts of men rather than the color of their skin.
The irony is that while categorizing humans under races do not exist – according to physical features, which is why multiple races is a fallacy – the profiling and categorizing of races continues.
Why then would it be a concern for, say, the little islands of American Samoa isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? We now live in a globalized world where no place is out of reach and our children often leave the nest and settle in foreign lands, in the diaspora for educational and career goals. They leave the comforts of their homes and sojourn with others who subject them with judgment every day. Some may judge them based on their skin color and ethnic behavior, on whether they are fit to join a club, to get a job, to be eligible for advancements, or what not. Or even the validity of their ideas and thoughts that they express in college classrooms or elsewhere may not have the benefit of the doubt or be brushed off, yielding to those of “ideal” physical features and ethnic identities. Their values and customs may not be a viable excuse or justifiable reasons. All of these probable scenarios are real in the United States where black and brown bodies fight at the forefront of racial inequality.
Therefore, what does it concern these young men and women on what is happening in the United States and George Floyd?
I answer by saying it involves a lot of what they will face in this life as black and brown bodies.
Standing on the side of the road to wave and show solidarity with Black and Brown Lives Matter show that our children are not ignorant of issues of importance. I commend their valiant efforts and tip my hat off for their courage.
If I may, I would like to suggest, that the next time we pass by, please honk our horns, wave a hand or two, or even stop by and join because it concerns all of us. It is not just an issue in a far-off place. It is an issue of humanity that needs recognizing and addressing for the sake of our children and all God’s children on earth – Youth of American Samoa for #BLM!
Samuela E. Lafitaga