Race and Racism

From our September 6th, 2015 service

Pew Research Center on RaceLast month, the Pew Research Center reported that a growing number of Americans consider racism a serious problem. 59% feel additional changes need to be made to achieve racial equality while 32% feel enough changes have been made. There is a substantial racial divide on this question with 86% of blacks having the opinion that more needs to be done. Unfortunately, the Pew researchers did not explore what, exactly, people think should be done. They asked people their opinions about the Confederate flag recently being taken down from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. Their findings show a substantial lack of understanding about the nature of the Confederacy and the war that defeated it. Those who objected to the flag being taken down said things like:

It is a symbol of heritage, not hate … people have the right to honor their ancestors … it is a symbol of the government fighting for freedom … it represents Southern history … the flag didn't do anything.

The April 2015 NTCOF bulletin compared the falsity and absurdity of racism to that of Creationism. Here we see another reason to suppose that the comparison is apt. For to believe such things is like believing that the moon is really made of green cheese. Perhaps the way that our schools teach history is to blame. Are students asked to compare the US Constitution with the Confederate Constitution? Are they made familiar not only with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address but with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens' Cornerstone Address made just a few weeks before Fort Sumter was attacked? Stephens made it clear what the struggle was about. It was not about "fighting for freedom" or states' rights or other matters now mentioned. Here is what Stephens said:

African slavery … was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. … The prevailing ideas entertained by … Jefferson … and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. … Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

This is not a heritage to be proud of. It is not an ideology that anyone should want to honor their ancestors for believing in, much less fighting for. At best it can be seen as a colossal, horrendous, ghastly and obscene mistake and at worst, yes, as something fueled by a burning hatred of the principles and spirit of liberty on which our country — under the "old" Constitution — was founded. We don't like to be intolerant, do we? Yet how could we say that anyone who agreed then — or may still agree — with Stephens is not only a racist but utterly ignorant of the facts of what racism is, of how and why it came about, and how the very "concept" of "race" poisons everything?

Even the Southern Baptists, who split from the Northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery, finally got around — in 1995! — to repudiating their racist roots. The SBC pledged to "eradicate racism in all its forms from the Southern Baptist Convention and its people." What it should have done was to explicitly reject all Christian theological justifications for racism and work to eradicate it from society generally.

"Purity of blood" is a term that sounds like something the Nazis came up with. In reality, the Nazis stole it from the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition came into being in the late 15th Century — 1478 — to deal with the problem of "conversos," Jews — and some Muslims — who converted to Christianity, usually under a considerable degree of compulsion. The Catholic Church at that time did not recognize forced conversion but their idea of "force" was being held down and having holy water poured on you. It was "voluntary" if the force was being tortured or threatened.

Remember, this was close to the time of the final expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Conversos were regarded with suspicion by the Christian authorities and as traitors by those who remained Jews. It became an even greater problem when conversos and their descendants started moving into positions of influence and power. It was said by the "Old Christians" that these "New Christians" secretly continued to practice their previous religion. It was then cleverly asserted that, while Jews might convert to Christianity, their "Jewishness" remained a permanent inborn trait that even baptism could not remove.

Now think of what that implied given both the origins of Christianity as a Jewish sect and the deeply-ingrained Christian idea that Jews were "Christ-killers." By the middle of the 15th Century — the 1400's — formerly Jewish Christians may have been more hated than those who remained Jews. Laws began to be passed that barred conversos from holding public and private offices unless one had a certificate of limpieza de sangre — "purity of blood" — proving that one had no Jewish ancestry back at least to one's grandparents. When the Spanish Inquisition began in 1478, it continued with this practice. And the limpieza de sangre laws remained in use in Spain until they were finally removed in 1870.

You will recognize that the year 1492 is important for another reason. The European voyages of discovery, besides challenging established ideas about geography, were also creating problems for what the Bible teaches about the origins of humanity. We are familiar with the findings of Copernicus and Galileo separating astronomy from biblical myths. We seldom think of how the science of anthropology came about. It began in the same way, when doubts arose about what had always been believed based on the Bible. Just where did the native inhabitants of the Americas come from, after all? There was no framework for fitting them into the biblical scheme of things.

Some said that the native Americans just looked like people but were really soul-less beasts. This anticipated modern ideas about "philosophical zombies" by centuries! But people who only looked like people also made it easy to justify their enslavement and slaughter by the conquistadores! Others — including the Pope, to his credit — insisted otherwise. Still, the question of how these different people fit into the whole Adam-and-Eve and Noah-and-the-Flood business remained. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, famously claimed that native Americans descended from Israelites who had sailed there. This idea was not new with Smith, though, and had already been current for a long time, even being mentioned by Cotton Mather of Salem Witch Hysteria fame.

Meanwhile, there was already a tradition that dark-skinned people were "Hamites," or the descendants of Noah's son Ham who the Bible has dishonoring his father and being cursed for it to be "the servant of servants." If you read the passage in the Bible, though, Noah actually curses Ham's son Canaan. Maybe that was a redaction needed to justify the Canaanites being driven off their land. There are Talmudic traditions of Ham having sex with one or more of the animals on the Ark and being cursed for that reason. Or, alternatively, dark skin was connected with "the mark of Cain." The devil had long been pictured as black. But at least the Bible seemed to teach that all of humanity had a common origin.

Or did it? This began to be questioned with what were called "Pre-Adamite" theories. It had been known for a long time that some ancient peoples traced their ancestry back much earlier than the beginning of biblical chronology. Even devout writers mentioned this, and then dismissed it as lies. But where did Cain's wife come from? The Bible doesn't explicitly say that Adam and Eve were the only people that God made. What if some other people had already been made and the Bible was only the history of the Jews and other descendants of Adam and Eve? This idea was advanced by a French converso, Isaac La Peyrere, whose book on the subject, Pre-Adamitae, or Men Before Adam, was published in 1655-56. La Peyrere was forced to recant and his book was burned. But by the 19th Century, this idea of polygenism — of separate origins for different peoples — had become attractive to some believers as a way of explaining things like where Cain got his wife, to others of a more scientific bent who were happy not to have to repudiate the Adam and Eve story, as well as to those who were offended to even consider that non-Europeans had the same ancestry as "the superior race."

"The rest of the story" becomes more complicated and convoluted. Various philosophers offered their opinions, including Hume and Kant. Colonialism and slavery drew on ideas about racial categories, racial hierarchies and certain races being incapable of creating and maintaining advanced civilization as the Europeans had. Scientific ideas and methods began to be applied beginning in the 19th Century incorporating Darwinism, Mendelian inheritance and eugenics. This, in turn, had an important influence on immigration policies in the United States and the immigration restrictions that affected Japan may have even played a role in that nation's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Quite late in the process, the concept of culture and a more sophisticated approach came into the mix with the rise of modern anthropology.

After the end of World War II UNESCO issued statements repudiating racism as well as the idea of fixed hereditary types or "races." Excerpts were in the April 2015 bulletin. As the 20th Century wore on, anthropology and genetics, bolstered by the ability to directly look at genes and DNA, steadily converged on the same conclusion: that although there is quite a bit of genetic diversity in our species, the concept of different human "races" as it had been understood is biologically invalid. In 2000 , when the draft results of the Human Genome Project were announced at a White House Rose Garden event, Craig Venter, one of the chief scientists involved, stated that the data showed that "the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis."

Of course, human beings are just one of many species. Among large mammals, some species do exist as different races or subspecies. But this is decided by statistical methods, not by "eyeballing" them and subjectively considering their general appearance and how different they seem to be. It's decided based on whether reproductively isolated populations of a species have become genetically distinct from one another such that there is more or less variation between the populations than amongst them.

Fixation Index

One such measure used is known as the fixation index or Fst which can range from 0, meaning no divergence between populations to 1 or greater, which would mean they are separate species. Generally, for large mammals, you need an Fst of .3 or greater for two populations to be considered subspecies.

Fixation Index of Humans

As you can see, the figures for different populations of humans are far below .3, whereas the figure comparing Eastern with Western populations of chimpanzees is .32. "Hausa" by the way, is a population of people in sub-Saharan Africa in the general region of northern Nigeria. As might be imagined, though, racists — a term which can now, given the facts, be legitimately applied to anyone who believes that humans come in different races — dispute where the line should be drawn. They also dispute which genetic sequences should count when calculating Fst. Some, for example, would like not to count "junk DNA" which is not known to code for proteins. Whatever supports their case better. But facts are facts. And figures don't lie, as it is said, but liars figure.

Yet another consideration is that, contrary to beliefs once held, the best science is confident that all human beings share a common ancestry in Africa. It's not the case, as was once speculated, that different human "races" share ancestry with different apes. And the 100,000 to 200,000 years that have passed since modern humans appeared is thought to be not enough time for races or subspecies of humans to have evolved, especially with the degree of interbreeding that has been going on during that time. Isolation of human populations for the time necessary for significant genetic divergence to have occurred has just not happened.

Here is a short video that in just a few minutes summarizes some of what you've just heard and adds in a few other things:

And here is another video that suggests that human migrations and inter-breeding have resulted in some surprising genetic facts. Unfortunately, the media presenters simply do not "get" that the sharing of genetic markers show shared ancestry and not that ancient Egyptians were white Europeans. Also keep in mind that Herodotus wrote that the Egyptians of his time were definitely dark-skinned and had "wooly" hair:

Old errors always take a long time to die. But the idea of "race" was and is clearly a mistake. It didn't work for the Nazis, it didn't work for the South Africans and it certainly isn't working for 21st Century America. We should learn the lesson of the Human Genome Project on which we spent almost $3 billion, a lesson that subsequent work has only reinforced. Things like skin color and hair form are traits which, like many more, vary from person to person. Their frequency varies in different populations but it depends on how such groups are drawn. Few traits reliably assort with other traits. Of course, they are hereditary. But just like other "family resemblances" with which everyone is familiar, no sensible person would say these are "racial" in the sense of the historical meaning of that term.

These traits vary even within populations — and families — just as Darwin noted. Indeed, these variations are the raw material on which natural selection can work. Skin pigmentation from melanin, in particular, is an adaptive trait that protects us from the harmful effects of solar radiation, including the destruction of folic acid, Vitamin B9. On the other hand, too dark a skin for the intensity of solar radiation where one lives can reduce the ability to form Vitamin D. In fact, it has been found that, on average, women are a bit less pigmented than men. Why? Probably because of the need for more Vitamin D to absorb and utilize calcium during their reproductive years. In fact, we know that various human populations have gotten more or less melanin in their skin as they have migrated to various locations with more or less intense sunlight.

One wonders how the course of human history and ideas about "race" would have been different if melanin were colorless, like most artificial sunscreens. Or what if, instead of skin color, what distinguished people from one another was mostly inapparent? Oh, wait — that's true! Blood type, tissue types, like HLA — human leukocyte antigens — and many other things are invisible but are arguably far more important genetic and hereditary differences between people. If we could see molecules, not just their shapes and sizes but their distribution of electric charges, something our immune systems can do, we would sort and classify ourselves in a completely different way than by skin color or hair form or facial features. But guess what? These differences don't reliably correlate with "race." Nor does another invisible trait, handedness, which, if anything, is more related to brain function — and one might suppose cognitive function and behavior — than things like skin color or the shape of one's nose. There are, in fact, published reports that left-handed people are more intelligent than right-handed people. Does that mean they should rule the world?

So again: the inescapable conclusion is that "race" is a mistake. We need to erase and eradicate that mistake. We need to teach our children the facts. We need to confront people and their ways of speaking and their ways of thinking that are at odds with the facts. We need to begin growing into the sort of society that recognizes that variations in human physical traits — and many other not-so-apparent traits — are nothing more than that. There is no such thing as "race!" And we ALL need to participate in this, regardless of whether or not we "look like" the historically oppressed or the oppressors, the slaves or the ones who sold others into slavery. Of course, we must also be vigilant against any and all practices and policies that unfairly discriminate however they once came about.

Now there is much more to this whole problem of racism. There's the whole persistence and legacy of segregation, of fears and suspicions that are not well-grounded but serve other purposes, of people profiting from discord between "races." And how do we even begin to address the terminology that further complicates matters? Black and white are color opposites but no two people are "opposites." "Black" is bad/angry/evil and "white" is good/happy as in black and white magic, the Black Knight and the White Knight, "being in darkness" and being "enlightened." How does that affect us, consciously or unconsciously? Are white people even white? No, they're pink! Are black people black? No, they're various shades of brown! Then there's Ebonics. And "white privilege" as discussed in the bulletin today. And there are a lot of other related and inter-related issues about which much has been thought, said and written. We could talk about some of them at future NTCOF services.

Here is some recommended reading: The Myth of Race by Robert Wald Sussman. I found the full text online at so it seems the author is someone who rightly feels this sort of information should be out there. I agree.

The Myth of Race