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Featuring guest Joseph L. Graves

Joseph Graves | Race, Racism & the Church

We discuss why race is not a biological concept, the myth that athletic ability is tied to race, and the churches inaction, so far, on combating institutional racism.


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We discuss why race is not a biological concept, the myth that athletic ability is tied to race, and the churches inaction, so far, on combating institutional racism.

Description

In Dr. Joseph Graves’ recent book, Racism, Not Race: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, he and his co-author build a case that our concept of biological races was brought about because of the racism that was a part of the fabric of our lives, not the other way around, as is often assumed. In a previous series of episodes, Dr. Graves helped us to understand the nuances of why race is not a biological concept. In this episode, we build on that, talking about institutional racism, the myth that athletic ability is tied to race, and the church’s inaction, so far, on following the call to love our neighbors and enact justice. 

  • Originally aired on February 17, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Graves:

So this is the contradiction I see in the body of Christ: Christians should be the ones leading anti-racism. I point to a book by Joseph Barndt called Becoming the Anti-Racist Church, which I think is an excellent book. It’s so good, you can use it for transforming any social institution. But really, for me, the institution that needs to be transformed the most is the church, because institutional racism in America could not stand one more day if Christians stood up en masse and said, we will not take this anymore. 

I am Dr. Joseph L. Graves, Jr. I am Professor of Biological Sciences in the Department of Biology at North Carolina A&T State University.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

We first talked to Dr. Joseph Graves back in the summer of 2020, not too long after the George Floyd murder, in a two part series on the science of race. Those are episodes 48 and 49 and are worth going back to listen to. In them we heard a lot of Joe’s own story, and talked extensively about the biology of race, building the case that race has no basis in biology. But of course, that doesn’t mean that race doesn’t still exist as a social reality. 

Dr Graves has been writing about race and science for almost 20 years, starting with his book, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millenium, which came out in 2003. In his most recent book, Racism, Not Race, he and his co-author make the case that racism is responsible for bringing about our cultural concept of race and the science — or pseudoscience — that has been used to bolster those racist ideas and practices, not the other way around. We dig into the relationship between race and racism in this episode. And we talk about institutional racism, about athletic performance and race, and throughout the conversation we hear a call for the church to step up, to follow the call of Jesus to love our neighbors, to enact justice, and to bring an end to institutional racism. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

Interview Part One

Stump:

Dr. Joseph Graves, welcome back to the podcast.

Graves:

Thanks for having me, Jim.

Stump:

So we heard a lot of your personal story last time we talked to you. But for those new to the podcast, let me quickly establish some of your credentials and credibility for talking about science and faith. You are the first African American to earn a PhD in evolutionary biology, and a committed Christian who’s active in his church. Anything we need to add to that?

Graves:

Yeah, in the last year, I’ve been serving on the vaccination task force of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

Stump:

And how has that been going, if I may ask?

Graves:

Well, it’s hard to assess how much impact we had in terms of getting people to get their vaccinations. But what is most important is that the leadership of our church understood that a message from faith leaders about vaccination was a very important thing to come out. Because as all of you probably recall, there are a number of individuals within different churches making claims that God was going to protect everybody from SARS, COVID too so you didn’t need vaccination. And, of course, unfortunately, a lot of their parishioners, and a lot of those individuals died when they didn’t have to.

Stump: 

Well, thanks for your work on that. And for listeners who want to hear lots of other interesting details about your work, and what you’ve done in your life, go back to episodes 48 and 49, which we released back in the summer of 2020. We’re going to spend this episode talking about what you’ve been doing lately, more specifically, you’ve just published a book with Columbia University Press Racism, Not Race: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions. This book is co-authored by Alan Goodman; maybe we can start by having you tell us about Goodman, and how you got involved in this project with him?

Graves:

Alan actually reviewed my first book, The Emperor’s New Clothes, for the American Medical Association. He really was impressed by what I wrote and agreed with most of those things. At some point around, I would say 20 years ago, we ran into each other at a scientific conference, probably the American Anthropological Association, of which he is a past president. So we developed an intellectual relationship over many years. In 2019, when Allen called me up and said, Joe, you really need to do a book to address these ongoing misconceptions that people have about the concept of race, I was already working on a book to do that. We had both thought about a question and answer format. So it was one of these things where they say great minds think alike, that we started this project, independently, both thinking about how question and answer would be an effective medium to get our message across. Then he calls me and I say, I’ve been working on that. And so we got to work on it. We wrote most of this book before the George Floyd murder and before the election cycle of 2020. In the next to last chapter, we spent a great deal of time discussing our vision of the future, but one of the things we warned was that the then incumbent President Donald Trump would use every means at his power to stay in office, including lying, including possibly using force. So while we didn’t directly predict the assault on the Capitol, neither of us was surprised when it happened.

Stump:

Well, let’s dig into some of what you’ve said here. I’ve just finished reading the book myself and have to say that it is so helpful, this question answer format you talk about, is accessible enough so that anybody can find some really engaging information. But there’s also depth and data in citations for people who want to dig a little deeper into some of these. A few of those topics that I’d like to pursue with you further here are things like athletic ability, and then systemic racism. But let’s start with the big idea, which comes from the title Racism, Not Race—explain the difference between racism and race and why it appears, at least in the title that you’re affirming, that there is such a thing as racism, but not race. Is that fair to say? 

Graves:

That’s correct. And what we argue is that it was actually racism that created biological conceptions of race, particularly beginning after the European voyages of discovery and colonization. I just gave a lecture at Seattle Pacific University, which is a Catholic institution, earlier this week. One of the points that I wanted to get across to my audience was that biology in the 16th century is not the biology that we know today, which is organized around evolutionary principles. Biology in the 16th century was organized around Christian theological notions of God’s plan of creation, including the plan of creation for humans. It was really Christian ideas about race and racism that led to the classification schemes that developed early on by people like Linnaeus, then in the 19th century, by people like Louis Agassiz, Swiss born zoologist, and Samuel Morton, who, by the way, was an Episcopalian, who measured skull sizes and made claims about intelligence amongst races. So we argue in the book that it was racism that created social conceptions of race, not the underlying biological variation within our species, because that variation does not allow us to define biological races in a way that is unambiguous and supported by the science.

Stump:

As a way to help us understand why this science that was appealed to is really illegitimate and do this, let’s go back to something you mentioned earlier about the variation that there really is among the human population, but that it’s continuous rather than clumpy, from Nigeria, in West Africa, all the way up to Sweden, you’d find that continuous variation. But the problem for a lot of people in understanding this is that that variation is at least partly a result of our differences in genetics, right? So we differ from each other, on average, at a few million nucleotides out of the few billion nucleotides in our DNA. So is the problem just that when we do put together people in groups, it’s just going to be arbitrary, when we try to define where one group starts and another group stops? Is that the issue?

Graves:  

That is exactly the issue, Jim, it depends upon which set of genes you’re using. We have established that human genetic variation is continuous, unfortunately, and this goes to what we talked about in terms of the racial smog of the last few centuries, people are born without racial notions or racist thought. They are trained into racism in racialized, racial-structured societies of the Western world. They come to think along logical fallacies that are consistent with the maintenance of white supremacy. If one looked at the genetic data objectively, one would realize that there’s no reason to use, for example, skin color alleles, of which skin color is determined by 5 protein coding genes out of 20,000, with about 10 to 15 more modifying genes, so if you put it together, 20 out of 20,000 genes. That’s less than 1% of the variation of the protein coding genes that determine human variation. Why are those more important in determining membership in race than, say, the ABO blood groups? We could define, for example, A blood type, AB blood type, and O blood type as biological races. Why do we use skin color and not ABO blood groups? Why do we use skin color instead of altitude adaptation? There are populations that are adapted to high altitude all over the world, in the Himalayas, and the Andes plateau, in East Africa, in the Kalenjin portion of Kenya. Why don’t we use those as determinants in membership and race where we could use anti-malarial adaptations, which appear wherever malaria is present? Why are they any less significant than the 20 or so genetic loci that determine skin color? It’s completely arbitrary.

Stump:  

Socially, though, we have, for whatever historical reasons, lumped people together into groups, often within attempts to use continents as where they came from, right? Another one of the really interesting things you talked about here is, when we try to use genetics to define groups, there is some trend. I remember there’s a program called structure, I think, you need to do this. But you make the point that, when genomic methods really are used to divide humans, you can put them into 19 different ancestry groups according to genes, none of those actually rise to the level of genetic difference that we would by any stretch of the imagination call races. But among those 19 groups, when you define them, the majority of them come from Sub Saharan Africa. So you can’t take this one continent and say there’s a race when the best sort of genomic methods we could use to do that would make so many things different races just out of Africans themselves. Am I understanding that correctly?

Graves:

Yeah, absolutely correct. If you sample two Africans at random from different parts of the continent, and compare them to one African and one European at random, and one African and one, say, Han Chinese at random, it turns out that the two Africans have more genetic distance between them than the African and the Han Chinese and the African in the European. That again explodes the old social definitions of Sub Saharan Africa as one place. And let me make it real clear to your listeners. If you look at the geography of the planet, you would recognize right away that the notion that Africa is one place is absolutely absurd. Africa is six times larger than Europe, it passes through more lines of latitude than any landmass on the planet. There’s more skin color variation on the continent of Africa than there is in the rest of the world. There are over eight climatic zones on the continent of Africa, and climatic zones mean that you have different fauna, you have different flora, you have different disease exposures. So the notion that there’s just this one African thing, or one African group is just ludicrous. But people think that way, because we’re still mired, even in the 21st century, in 18th century typological thinking. Again, this goes back to special creationism. I don’t talk about that in this book, but I have a paper coming out in a volume entitled, Thinking Critically About Science and Religion, which is also going to be published by Columbia University Press, where I address issues of people accepting the science of Africa. So the chapter is entitled “Out of Africa, Where Race, Science and Faith Collide”. Not surprisingly, when you survey people in the United States about whether our species, anatomically modern humans, began in Africa, most people do not accept that science. Even though the science is now ironclad, it’s supported by Y chromosome analysis, it’s supported by mitochondrial DNA analysis, it’s supported by all of the analysis of autosomal genes, the ones that aren’t sex chromosomes, as well as all the fossils of anatomically modern humans are first found in Africa. You have four different lines of evidence, but people do not accept the science. They want to believe anything other than the idea that our species began in Africa.

Stump:

This is really interesting, because as you know we at BioLogos interact with people in groups who deny the science of evolution. And they often try to persuade their audiences by saying that evolution is inherently racist, or that evolution has been used to bolster racism or eugenics. Of course, there’s no argument that some people have used evolution in racist ways. But you’re flipping this argument on its head, right, when one of the lines from your book is that “evolution is the main scientific discipline that demonstrates that biological races do not exist within our species.” Do you see any hope in being able to get a better understanding of evolution in our society that will eventually lead to making our society less racist?

Graves:

First let’s talk about the sort of the obvious, which is, evolution is good science. It’s one of the most solidly supported disciplines of science that exists. Then there’s a question of why is there such dissension within the body of Christ about teaching this good science? If you look at the main Christian denominations, depending upon the denomination, for example my group of churches would be called mainline Protestants, and our parishioners, about 60% of them accept the science of evolution and about 40% of them reject it. But when you go to conservative Protestants, it’s 70% rejecting, you go to black Protestants, it’s around 65% rejecting, the Catholic Church, which by the way the Pope came out with several documents stating that evolution is good science, there’s still dissent within the Catholic Church about accepting evolution as good science. This is really not a debate about science because special creationists, folks who try to make all these claims about fossils and the age of the earth, their science is so infantile, it just falls on its face. So there’s no reason to go into a debate about what the science is. It really comes down to our understanding of Scripture. That’s where that’s where the debate is, whether one reads scripture literally, whether you understand it, as my denomination does, as I do, as symbolic. And in particular, whether scripture is a textbook of natural science, which it is not. To try to make arguments against science using scripture just doesn’t make any sense. It means that you’re disrespecting what Scripture is for is not to teach us about nature. I mean, the ancients thought that the brain was the organ for filtering blood and that consciousness resided in the heart muscle. There’s so many ways that they didn’t know about the nature around them. There’s so many misconceptions that they had about basic chemistry and physics, that if we were to take any scientific concept, and compare it to what people thought, at the time in which the scriptures were written, they all would be in conflict. Unfortunately, and I don’t mean to offend anyone, but again, I believe that I have been called to speak the truth and so now I’m going to speak the truth to my Christian brothers and sisters. Let us hear it. Christians are the ones who prop up structural racism in the United States. And this has been well documented by Robert Jones’s book. Too long the legacy of white supremacy in American Christianity, when you measure various Christian denominations on various indices of racist ideas, Christians come out in first place, compared to non religiously associated people. That’s true of Catholics, it’s true of mainline Protestants, it’s true of evangelicals. The struggle is not so much to teach evolution in the schools, which we should teach evolution in science classes, we should teach theology and religion classes. But the struggle is in the body of Christ, to get people on the side, in my view of the cross, because we were called to love our neighbor. It’s one of the most clear things that Jesus says in the New Testament, first love God second love your neighbor. What’s what is confusing about that text, Jim? I’m lost. I don’t get it.

Stump: 

Well, we’ll push further into some of that here in a little bit. Let me have you also, while we’re doing broader overview things, talk about a couple of terms. I know language can be a tricky thing sometimes, as the meanings of words change with how people actually use them. But in your book, you’re careful to distinguish between racism and bigotry. Can you explain that distinction and why it’s an important one for us to keep in mind as we get talking then a little bit more about institutional racism.

Graves:  

Thank you, Jim. Anybody can be a bigot. A bigot is a person who has irrational hatred for another group, bigots use logical fallacies like stereotyping, to categorize other groups of people. But racism requires power. You might think that that’s a subtle distinction, but it’s not subtle at all. To be able to implement racist policies you have to have control of the political, economic, educational, and other institutions within a society, and the United States was founded as a racist society. Of course, when people hear that they jump to, well, not everybody who was in America when it was founded in 1776 was a racist. I completely agree. There were people who were not racist, not all of the founding fathers were racist. But the structures that were set up to begin the United States of America were in the interests of slaveholding and that required an acceptance of racial ideas and racism. Institutions were created that maintained racial injustice and differentially treated people by socially defined race throughout the entire history of the United States. I’m going to give you an example of one of these things: a recent paper calculated the value of the unpaid labor of enslaved people from 1776 to 1860. And by the way, during that time period over 60% of the foreign exchange that came into the United States was based upon enslaved labor, mainly in the form of cotton. So would anyone hazard a guess of what the value of that unpaid labor was from 1776 to 1860? I’m asking you, Jim, just throw a number out there.

Stump:

How many zeros can we put on? Billions and trillions? How far are we gonna go here?

Graves:

Actually, you missed it, it’s quadrillion.

Stump:  

Oh, man.

Graves:

18.5 quadrillion dollars. I looked at the calculation, this was in the Journal of Economics, the calculation looks right. It’s based upon two cents an hour, which was the going labor rate at that time, times the population, applying a 3% interest over those years, and you come up with 18.5 quadrillion dollars. There’s 18.5 quadrillion dollars of wealth that went into the European population, but it was generated by the African population. That’s just getting a handle on the way structural racism operated in the basis of the American economy. And then the laws which buttress that economy, such as the three-fifths clause. The revolution against England was fought on the principle of taxation without representation. But yet representation in Congress was decided by the numbers of enslaved people in slaveholding states, counted as three-fifths of a human being, which gave the slaveholding states differential representation in the Congress. That also translated to differential representation in the Electoral College, which, by the way, still holds to this day. States that were former Confederate states and states that have a very high proportion of persons of European descent have greater representation based on their numbers, than they should, than states with a more diverse population, which is one of the reasons I argue the electoral college needs to go and we need to simply have direct election of the president.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. Here at BioLogos we think that asking questions is a worthwhile part of any faith journey. We hope this podcast helps you to think through long held questions and consider new ones but you probably have other questions we haven’t covered yet. That’s why we want to take this quick break to tell you about the common questions page on our website. You’ll find questions like “How could humans have evolved and still be in the image of God,” “how should we interpret the Genesis flood account?” and “What created God?” Each with thoughtful and in depth answers written in collaboration by scientists, biblical scholars and other experts. Just go to biologos.org and click the common questions tab at the top of the page. Back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

These issues of systemic racism are super important. I want to get us talking more about those in a little bit. Before we do that, though, I’d like to talk about another issue, which sometimes, I think gets lost in these conversations, but might have a more sort of direct applicability to some people. Specifically I want to talk about athletics, athletic ability, and race. So I count myself blessed to have a wife who likes to watch sports. So we watch a lot of sports together and not just these marquee sports of basketball and football, but lots of smaller quirkier sports that give us a bigger sample of people with athletic ability. But for people who only watch basketball and football at the professional or D1 college level, it’s hard for them not to feel like African Americans must have more natural athletic ability. I know the first response to that is what you say over and over in the book, which is remember, there’s no such thing as biological races. So saying that a particular race has a biological tendency for something is just nonsense, right? But go beyond that a little bit and address whether there’s any legitimacy for thinking that the best athletes tend to have a higher percentage of African ancestry.

Graves:

First, the problem that these folks have is that they’re only watching football and basketball. So we’re starting with ascertainment bias. Now, folks who read our book will know that Alan and I both talked about our own athletic careers. Alan, who’s a tiny guy, but he was a star halfback, and by the way, for those who don’t know, Alan Goodman is of European descent. He was a star halfback in high school. He didn’t play at the college level, because he’s a tiny guy, but I guess he had a lot of guts, because to pick up all those yards at his size, I have to hand it to him. I didn’t play organized basketball in high school, but I was a very good basketball player. I played against a lot of guys that ended up going into the NBA. Because I didn’t play organized basketball in high school, when I decided to go out for basketball in college, I just didn’t know the drills. I would bump into other players and go the wrong way and get hit in the head with the ball. But I had tremendous athletic ability. So the coach cut me after tryouts. I was walking out of the gym in the most dejected fashion when the captain of the volleyball team was waiting for me. He said, kid, do you want to learn how to play volleyball? I said, well, sure, I’m not going to be playing basketball. So I started training to learn how to play volleyball. First thing I realize is volleyball was a much more difficult game to get the skill set than basketball, but it required the same sorts of athletic abilities. Okay, rapid ability to change direction, the ability to jump, stamina, strength. In fact, one of the things we cite in the chapter on athletics, is that sports medicine has data on the injuries that basketball players and volleyball players incur and they’re the same set of injuries. Which indicates you’re using the same muscle groups, and so forth, hand-eye coordination. The US men’s volleyball team is historically persons of European descent, most of them born in Orange County, California, to give you an idea of how localized it is. And I know; I played volleyball in Orange County, California, and those guys are good. I played in a couple of beach tournaments and I know why most of the volleyball players who make the Olympics come from Orange County. I’ve played basketball all over this country, and interacting with these athletes, they have the same set of skills. But culturally, basketball was picked up as an inner city sport primarily in the 1950s going into the 1960s. One of the reasons why it became an inner city sport was because it didn’t take a lot of resources to play. You got one ball, and you got a court full of people waiting to play. Typical inner city courts that I would go to, you’d see them two courts running full court all afternoon, if they had lights all evening, and hundreds of people would be there trying to get in a game. So this was a cultural thing, not a thing that is related to specific athletic abilities. I’ve written some work that specifically deals with claims of race and athletics, and athleticism, like anyone would guess, is a complex genetic trait, of which now I think over 165 genetic markers have been identified that contribute to athletic ability. When you look at this, and you look at the frequencies of alleles, and these 165 markers, they’re spread all over the globe. Then the question becomes, why are certain regions or people from certain regions better at certain sports? 

Let’s take long distance running. Because so recently, in the 20th century, the latter portion of the 20th century beginning of the 60s, East Africans have dominated the 10,000 meter, the 20,000 meter steeplechase, and the marathon. Why is that true? First and foremost, these are East Africans that come from high altitude in eastern Africa, so low altitude East Africans in the same country don’t become elite world class runners. The reason for this is there are genetic adaptations to high altitude. Which leads us to the question, what about the Himalayas? Because the Serpas and people in the Himalayas also have adaptation to high altitude, but what they don’t have are body proportions, which are conducive to running long distances. East Africans have both high altitude adaptation and body proportions that are conducive to running long distances, but they’re not a race. They are a group of people with a set of adaptations because members of their population from low altitude don’t show these adaptations. So it’s not a race. I can go on — one of the really good examples of the fallacy of this is looking at sports besides basketball and football. What about European football? Quite frankly, anybody watched a Sportscenter in the morning like I do every morning, if you look at the athleticism of European football players, I’m sorry, but I think they far surpass American football players. They do incredible things with their body, and they have incredible stamina and speed, and they’re from all over the world. Now, let’s end with the women’s 400 meter hurdles in the 2022 Olympics, one of the greatest races I have ever seen. I’ve been watching track and field since 1960. So if you remember, the three runners who medaled: bronze medalist Femke Bol, she was a woman of European descent from the Netherlands. And she finished right behind silver and gold, silver medalist Dalilah Muhammad, primarily of African descent, but the average European descent in African Americans is about 16%. She finished silver, breaking the old world record. But the winner was Sydney McLaughlin, who broke her own world record. Sydney has one European American parent, her mother, and one African American parent, her father. When I calculated the percentage of European polymorphic genes and African polymorphic genes standing on the metal stand at the 400 meters, it turns out that 1 and 14/16 or 1 and 7/8 of that genetic material originated in Europe and 1 and 1/8 of that genetic material originated in Africa. That’s hardly an argument for African superiority in sprinting.

Stump:

So just for the sake of our listeners, you have a whole chapter in the book on athletics, and you’ve done a lot of analysis of Olympic medal winners and where this comes about. I just found this super interesting. Let me see if I can give just a quick summary — see if this is accurate — that there are some genetic components to pretty narrow or specific athletic abilities. But the people who have those specific genetic sequence sequences don’t map onto races, first of all, as we’ve defined socially defined races, and then the cultural component of this is so significant, where you see things where similar kinds of athletic abilities that we see in one socially defined race dominating don’t translate to others. You gave the example of basketball and volleyball, you could probably do the same thing with distance runners and something like cross country skiing. I’ve never seen a person of African descent on the metal stand in cross country skiing. Or you discuss at some length, sprinters on land and in the water and the very different racial discussions that arise around those. Is that fair to say that there are some narrowly genetic narrowly athletic abilities narrowly defined athletic abilities that have a genetic component to them, but those don’t map on to races as we’ve defined them, and that the much more important part is that is the cultural situation that pushes athletes into certain sports. 

Graves: 

Yeah, you’re absolutely correct. I think the example of sprinting in water and sprinting in land really makes that case because it’s actually harder to sprint in water than it is to sprint on land for obvious reasons. On land, you’re running through air, in the water, you’re moving through water, and water is far more viscous than air is. The final point I want to make about this is that you cannot understand human genetic variation for athletic ability by looking at elite athletes. Elite athletes, by definition, are people far beyond the abilities of most people. That’s why they get paid hundreds of millions of dollars. So you’re looking at a real exaggerated case of ascertainment bias. If you really wanted to make racial arguments about athletic ability, you need to look at the average people in these populations and see is there really a difference in the ability to run fast or jump high amongst people who are closer to the average? There that argument completely collapses into the level of just total fantasy.

Stump:

Just to close this section off, we’ll say again, there are no such things as biologically defined races, we make somewhat artificial groupings of people. Would you say that within those groups, the range of athletic ability should be expected to be the same as the range of athletic ability and the population of Homosapiens as a whole?

Graves:

Yeah, again, it depends upon which population where they’re located, for example, we would expect that high altitude adapted individuals will do better at long distance running than people who are from low altitudes. I will give you another example of that. So I looked at the times in the 10,000 and 20,000 meter across the 20th century. One of the things that people out there who know something about track and field know is that every generation times improve because of better nutrition, better training, and so forth. So you really can’t compare a runner in the 1920s to a runner in 2020. That’s an illegitimate comparison. But what you can do is you can look at the times that runners post for their time period, and what you can do is look for the runner, who was farthest off the mean for elite runners of their time period. That person you can call the greatest long distance runner of all time. When I did that analysis, I did not find that an East African was that person, I found that Lasse Virén from Finland was that person. Now, did he grow up in high altitude? Yes, Finland is a mountainous country, they’re adapted to high altitude there. That’s the thing, high altitude adaptation with the correct biometrics in terms of body limb proportions, produce great runners, some populations have the correct combination of that to produce elite runners, some do not. Similarly with sprinting, it has to do with the distribution of power muscle fibers to distance or endurance muscle fibers. Again, some populations display that. In addition, you have to add to that all of the cultural social aspects that we’re talking about, they produce great sprinters. But we’re talking about elites here, not the averages, and we should never confuse elite athletes for the characteristics of entire groups of people.

Stump: 

So let’s talk here and some more now about institutional racism or systemic racism. I think many people have a kind of reflexive response to claims of institutional racism that it just can’t be true because that would mean we who have grown up in the dominant socially defined race have had unfair advantages and then there may be moral implications for what we should do about that now. That can be scary and threatening, I know, but I just don’t see any way around this. Because all you have to do is point out the massively differential outcomes and things like incarceration rates, or family wealth for the socially defined races and ask why things are that way. And unless I’m missing something, there’s only two options, right? You can say, well, that’s just the way black people are, which is obviously and overtly racist, judging an entire group of people to be inferior in some way by their nature. Or you can say there are systemic reasons for these differential outcomes, which is just what we mean by institutional racism. Am I missing something here? Why is it hard to get people to see this very obvious truth? 

Graves:

You’re not missing anything. And again, I’m going to speak to my Christian brothers and sisters now. If a bunch of atheists were saying there’s no institutional racism, it’s just inferior black people, they can’t compete, I would have less of a problem with that, because they don’t claim to answer to a higher moral authority. But we Christians say that we do. We say that we answer to a God who doesn’t play favorites. Even the prophet Amos tells us that God didn’t play favorites. If we answer to a God that says that all of the people on this earth who claim his name, are under his protection, and are worthy of his grace, then why are so many Christians fighting to maintain institutions of injustice? That’s what I’m having trouble trying to understand. King talked about this, you know, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, that we talked about driving through the South and seeing the wonderful spires of all the, you know, great, you know, churches that he would visit along the way, but then encountering their ministers who would talk about love and Jesus on Sunday, but in the rest of the week, support segregation. This is the contradiction I see in the body of Christ. Christians should be the ones leading anti racism. I point to a book by Joseph Barndt called Becoming the Anti-Racist Church, which I think is an excellent book. It’s so good, you can use it for transforming any social institution. But, for me, the institution that needs to be transformed the most is the church, because institutional racism in America could not stand one more day if Christians stood up en masse and said, we will not take this anymore. By the way, Jim, the title of my next book, which is publishing in the fall of 2022, is called A Voice in the Wilderness. I think you probably recognize where that title comes from. But in that book, I amplify this call for justice and righteousness because that’s really to me where the movement needs to happen. What we do in Racism, Not Race, is we give people the tools to dispel all these mythologies and false ideas. But having the tools doesn’t really matter, if you don’t have the motivation to work for justice. That’s really what it comes down to.

Stump: 

People need to read through this section of the book that you give a lot of data in this regard. Just so people might get a little taste of the kinds of things we’re talking about here with the obvious institutional racism that has been at play for so long. You had a graph of the incarceration rates of African Americans that look startlingly like graphs we see when a new COVID variant comes out and the number of cases that spikes are dramatic, or maybe like the national debt which has this unbelievable slope to it. But for African Americans, starting in the 60s and 70s, the incarceration rates give us just a little taste of where did this come from? And why do we see this massively differential outcome today, in incarceration rates among socially defined race?

Graves:

The scholar that’s done the most important work on this is Michelle Alexander. And she’s written the book, The New Jim Crow. What should be amazing to our listeners is that if we go to Jim Crow, and remember Jim Crow had a series of black codes that were unjust and unfair laws designed to give the police a reason for putting black folks in jail. So during Jim Crow, the ratio of African Americans and this is per capita, the ratio of African Americans to European Americans in jail was three to one. In a society based upon racism as clearly as Jim Crow was, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. But after Jim Crow officially ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ratio of incarceration of African Americans began to go exponential. So by the time I was in college, it was four to one. And by the time I was working on my PhD, it was six to one. And as of the last data, it’s 7.1 to one. This is, by the way, in a nation that has more people incarcerated than any other nation in the world, which really does not make any sense when you claim to be the defender of democracy and human rights. What’s wrong with this picture? And by the way, we have adequate evidence to show that African Americans do not commit crimes at a different rate than European Americans do. They’re just more likely to end up going to prison for the same crimes. Once again, we’re in a position where the injustice is so starkly clear. It’s impossible to even describe and you got to be like those three monkeys, hear no evil, see no evil, right, speak no evil, to not understand how wrong structural racism is and how murderous it is in the United States. Again I ask what group of people have the greatest incentive to end it. And it’s supposed to be us, those who claim the cross. But in fact, we have come up short, we come up missing in the anti-racist struggle.

Stump:

We could give similar stories about things like educational attainment and family wealth. And you’ve got lots of data in the book on that too. Another of the topics we’ve been increasingly discussing at BioLogos is climate change in the environment. Turns out there’s a connection to institutional racism there. What are those differential outcomes for people of color related to that?

Graves:

Well, it’s simple. As climate changes and we get stronger storms, for example, the areas where racialized people live are the ones most likely to be damaged by the results of the storms. Hurricane Katrina was a perfect example of that. Not to hit on the same theme, but when Hurricane Katrina hit, there were Christian ministers throughout the South saying that this was punishment for the wickedness of the people in New Orleans. But the fact that this hurricane spanned across several states, including Mississippi and Alabama, I mean, I guess God’s a poor marksman, right? Just wanted to punish the wickedness of New Orleans, but then hit Texas and Mississippi and Alabama too. Sorry, I don’t get that.

Stump:

Well, you’ve done us a tremendous service in bringing these things to light here. I want to thank you, personally, again, so much for the work that you’ve done in this regard. I encourage people to buy your book, read it. Again, the title is Racism, Not Race co authored with Alan Goodman. I’ll mention too here that you are going to be a featured speaker at the BioLogos conference coming up next month and people can find out about attending or streaming options at conference.biologos.org. We look forward to being with you in person there. And I look forward to the new book you mentioned and for the exhortation to our community of faith that is so desperately needed. And finally, thanks so much for talking to us on the podcast again, Joe, I hope we do it again soon.

Graves:

Thank you, Jim, for having me and God bless you. 

Credits:

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Dr Joseph L Graves

Joseph L. Graves

Dr. Joseph L. Graves Jr. is a professor of biological sciences at the Department of Nanoengineering, which is part of the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering at North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina Greensboro. He received his B.A. in Biology from Oberlin College and his PhD from Wayne State University. His research includes the evolutionary theory of aging and the biological concepts of race. He has published two books, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America and has appeared on several documentaries including the PBS documentary Decoding Watson and the Ken Burns documentary The Gene. Graves is a confirmed Episcopalian and has spent time on the Racial Justice and Reconciliation Commission of the Diocese of North Carolina.

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