Race: A Brief History of its Origin, Failure and Alternative
A Christian geneticist reflects on a lifetime journey to understand the origin and challenges of racism.
In 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, Paul encourages the Christian believer that, through Christ, they have divine power to demolish “strongholds:” Ideas and philosophies that prevent people from knowing God. The concept of race—that humanity is divided into a few distinct groups based on external characteristics—has been one such stronghold. Even though the credibility of this claim has been greatly weakened, race yet casts a long shadow over culture.
My experience with race
Racial issues confronted me from childhood. I grew up in a multiethnic Chicago community in the 1960s (the era of the Civil Rights Movement) in a neighborhood bounded by steel mills. “Race” was assumed to be as real a part of the landscape as Lake Michigan. However, the leadership at our family’s Swedish-Baptist church emphasized that Jesus died for all, and our church needed to be for all. The church had long ceased to be predominantly Scandinavian, and included members with roots in diverse countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia—many of them immigrants. Welcoming black members was, however, a struggle.
Outside of that church, beliefs and behaviors of our white neighbors varied, but bigotry blending into hatred was not uncommon. Shortly after the riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination, one of the men at my neighborhood barbershop said to all, “We need an Adolf Eichmann in this country.” Among those who most despised blacks, there was also a tendency to mock faith and to invoke science as having proven that blacks were inferior.
Perhaps linked to all the social chaos of those years, by the end of high school I had written off college. Later, taking occasional classes at night as a diversion from a boring job, a childhood aptitude for science was re-discovered, especially for biology.
Science just kept getting more interesting, year by year. (Still true.) Eventually, from a desire to apply genetics to global agriculture, I earned a doctorate, and received a plant breeding job in the Caribbean.
During those years, I also experienced a profound Christian renewal, often in settings with people from many racial and ethnic backgrounds worshipping God together, sometimes praying and weeping with each other. I carried a lot of bitterness and anger from racial incidents, and began to repent of those before God and sometimes with African-American friends. It was a spiritual change with social implications in a place like Chicago.
A decade later, living and working in a Spanish-speaking community and attending a Puerto Rican church, provoked new questions about “race.” Families were often blends of many complexions, hair types, etc. In Caribbean churches, skin color seemed largely irrelevant compared to the U.S.
I had sought to repent of racial hatred, but never wondered where the idea of “races” originated. Both North America and Latin America experienced the African slave trade and the concept of “race,” yet the cultures had evolved in quite different ways. Was “race” just arbitrary, or was there supporting science, as my more bigoted neighbors in Chicago had always claimed? Over the next ten years, I tried to educate myself better about the history of racial concepts, about genetics of human diversity and about biblical takes on these and how Christians have responded. Pieces of that work became case studies in science classes, then a semester course focusing on science and values, and eventually a small book. I’m still learning, but here is a synopsis.
Bigotry by complexion lacks a firm foundation
The essence of bigotry, including racism, is the belief that easily identified categories reliably predict behavior, intelligence, and character. Racism, as it developed with the African slave trade, European trade empires, and the Conquest of the Americas, especially focused on skin color. The biological unity of the human species, however, challenged this idea. Essentially any man and any woman can conceive a child. Distinct complexions become a range of shades in about two generations, whether through marriage—or masters abusing slave women.
Believers in “race” fumbled for centuries with shades of complexion. In the Spanish Caribbean, “white” often became defined by any European ancestry, even distant. That explained bewildering experiences like dark-skinned Dominicans referring disdainfully to “those black Haitians,” (implying they were 100% African). They saw themselves and me as fellow “whites.” In English-speaking countries, “black” often became defined by any African ancestry, even distant: a rude shock to immigrants from the Spanish Caribbean! Science textbooks from the 1920s, written by professors at major universities, drew the color line between Southern and Northern Europe, lumping Italians, Greeks, and Spaniards with Africans. Darker Mediterranean complexions were attributed to “mixing” of races, indicating genetic inferiority. The textbooks advocated curtailing Southern European immigration in response.
When did the concept of race develop?
How far back did this idea go? Not as far as we might think. Prejudice in Classical and Biblical times apparently focused on cultural items: clothing, hair and beard styles, food customs, etc. That’s important to the parable of the Good Samaritan: a Mediterranean man beaten and left stripped in Jesus’ day, would lack most clues to his ethnic origin. He could be anybody! The Roman physician Galen traveled in the Ethiopian Empire. He recorded his curiosity about differences in the skin of Ethiopians and Romans: Ethiopians had drier skin, and Romans, oilier skin. Skin color didn’t even merit mention. Potential slaves in the classical and biblical worlds could be prisoners of war, debtors, or kidnap victims from anywhere—not people of any particular skin color.
There is scholarly evidence that Arab slave traders in the Middle Ages introduced skin color into Noah’s curse on Ham (Genesis 9), to justify keeping Muslim Africans as slaves. Whatever that strange passage once meant, no physical descriptions are mentioned. Scholars tie it—perhaps—to Canaan being a son of Ham, legendary ancestor of the Canaanite people whom Israel dispossessed. Since the tribe of Judah—of David and of Jesus—is half-Canaanite in ancestry (Genesis 38), the Bible doesn’t support Noah’s angry words as some curse to the end of time.
By the 1500s, the Spanish and Portuguese became major players in the African slave trade, as well as brutally enslaving Native Americans. They could refer to the Curse on Ham, but stressed the authority of Aristotle. He wrote there were “men born to be slaves,” extended now to mean entire peoples.
In the English Colonies, slavery was initially based on a seven year bondage, after which the slave was freed. Many of the slaves were Scottish or Irish. African slaves sold in the Colonies, were initially also freed after seven years. Colony by colony, laws were changed to declare black slaves and their children in bondage forever. Ham was sometimes cited, but English apologists for slavery in the 1700s, such as David Hume, now invoked Linnaeus, the father of scientific taxonomy, who defined each “race” as a separate species identifiable by skin color, behavior, and character.
Claims of racial inferiority gradually adopted a pseudo-scientific argument that there were inferior and superior races. Darwin despised slavery and described atrocities he saw on Brazilian plantations. Evolution as a struggle for existence, however, was quickly claimed as justification for the subjugation of all peoples under fitter Europeans. By the late 1800s, evolution was the metaphor for “eugenics,” a program to reduce or eliminate inferiors within European nations, while promoting superior types, but also to eventually eliminate inferior peoples worldwide. This was accepted wisdom across a wide political and academic spectrum.
Did science support race?
Although race was considered an established fact, those who attempted to verify this scientifically couldn’t demonstrate reliable boundaries. For visible traits claimed to define “races”—skin colors, head size and shape, facial features, etc.—distinct categories didn’t hold up to scrutiny. In the 20th Century, psychological tests, such as the IQ (“Intelligence Quotient”) were used for extravagant claims. Robert Yerkes, a professor at Harvard and a President of the American Psychological Association, working with similar luminaries, tested IQs of millions of soldiers during World War I. Their report to Congress included claims that the average mental age of American blacks was 10 and of Italian-Americans was 11, illustrating the “genetic peril” we faced as a nation.
IQ was one of the last “race traits” to fall apart, but today is understood of limited predictive value. Human intelligence has been shown to be far too complicated to reduce to a single number on a line, except in the most severe disabilities. “Intelligences” in multiple areas is more accurate. Most of these aptitudes seem to be inherited independently of others. Scores on aptitude tests for any of these can have rank-order changes over lifespans, and even within a few years of childhood. Numerous cultural influences exist—including contemporary narrowing distributions of aptitude scores across formerly disparate ethnic groups. Even playing certain types of electronic games affects particular aptitude scores.
Genetics revealed the staggering reshuffling of traits—visible and invisible—in each generation. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes, resulting minimally in about 8.3 million combinations possible, (actually many more), in any one sperm or egg of a man or woman. The probability for any particular conception of a couple is thus (8.3 million) squared. That child will equally shuffle his or her received DNA for the next generation. Any one gene or a few genes—for skin color, hair color, whatever—cannot predict the rest of the person.
Genomics—reading DNA—is showing that all human populations carry most of the same genetic variations, contrary to what we would expect if “races” existed. Even among billions of people, our genetic diversity is far less than many mammals, including primates like chimpanzees or gorillas. Genomic estimates of human roots currently suggest an extended family group emerging together in Africa 150,000-200,000 years ago. That story differs profoundly from early 20th Century stories of white, black, yellow and red “races” evolving separately over a million years, but also from the story that we descended from one couple 6,000 years ago. However, it supports that we really are one extended family after all, (even if quite dysfunctional).
Christians and the social reality of race
Although scientific credibility for “race” seems over, Christians, along with everyone, must now overcome the suspicions and divisions among us that the idea of “race” created.
In fact, Christians confront challenges not unlike those in the New Testament: Jews and Samaritans (e.g., John 4); Greek-speaking Jews and Aramaic-speaking Jews (e.g., Acts 6); Jews and Greeks and Romans (e.g., Galatians 2). Jesus and the Apostles taught that, through the Cross and Resurrection, God opened up the way to adoption as a child of God, a new, spiritual reality distinct from one’s natural birth. The Christians of the New Testament, however, yet struggled with the social categories of their daily lives, products of real histories producing distinct cultures. And so do we. When Paul said, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), it certainly includes trying to discern what lives should look like, based on the tearing down of “the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14) among the diverse groups joined in Christ, in any age.
Questions of policy and law to undo the effects of “race” are important, but beyond this essay’s focus. The question of how we should live is linked to one’s belief about what it means to be human.
The New Testament teaches that humans are temples meant for God’s presence (I Corinthians 6:19), which comes when Christ comes into a person’s life. This is presented as a radical expectation that the Person of God can actively and creatively help guide decisions. Supposedly “chance” encounters with another, become providential opportunities to bless another in word or deed. “Diversity” ceases to be a goal in itself. However, since God loves the whole world and thus sent Jesus (John 3:16), God loves to break down barriers like “race” among people. For example, not long ago, I was at an evening of worship and prayer packed into an old row home in Philadelphia, the home of a Jewish friend, an agnostic into his 60s, who then became a Christian along with his wife, a Gentile. I informally counted at least 14 nationalities (from every “race”), praying for each other and needs at large, singing together and later eating together and talking with others late into the night. It was not a work to demonstrate diversity, it was a work of God.
During the centuries of widespread belief in “race”, some Christians—though certainly not all—faithfully opposed slavery and racism on biblical grounds that all were equal before God, and that Jesus’ redemption from evil was for each person. These Christians were often almost the only voice speaking out. The Christian and social impacts of Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1556), John Wesley (1703-1791); Frederick Douglass (1818-1895); William and Catherine Booth (1829-1912 and 1829-1890); William J. Seymour (1872-1922); and others like them, are not always told together, or told at all. I knew nothing or little about them before beginning my personal research into the history of “race.” Their appeal to the conscience changed laws, and eventually aided acceptance of scientific results showing “race” was a myth.
As I delved into the history of Christian response to “race,” I found that those who fought “race” and its outcomes, shared traits—whether Catholics (Las Casas), Methodist (Wesley), Pentecostal (Seymour), or any of the many other Christian traditions they came from. Common themes run in their histories: a personal encounter with God through Christ; belief in the reality of the spiritual world and prayer; the authority of Scripture over their lives; a morally disciplined (and often less materialistic) life, and an ability to make deep friendships outside their own culture, which often began when a providential encounter with an outsider was recognized as God’s direction. That kind of life, of course, usually cuts across the priorities of their times and cultures. It still does, today. But may their priorities be ours, as we also seek to undo the damage from the myth of “race.”
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