Race and racism are confusing ideas. They are meant to be. To understand them, we need to grasp where they come from.
Where does “race” come from?
Racism is not rooted in hate. It stems from self-interest. Racist ideas are irrational rationalizations generated by people to exploit and abuse other people. Race artificially divides humanity into categories like superior and inferior, civilized and barbarians, master and slave. In this way, it mimics tribalism or nationalism. Race, however, imagines wider categories not tied to land or language, but set by color. Race in modern times is color-based, but there many pre-modern prototypes for race in history. The ancient term Habiru (likely from where we get Hebrew) was a proto-racist slur. Aristotle’s division of Greek and barbarian were like racial categories. The ideas of Jew and Gentile group people beyond language and land categories. Gnosticism was an early heretical branch of Christianity that divided humanity into superior and inferior race-like levels. Many other pre-modern forms exist. Modern forms of race subjectively label people by color using physical, cultural, and genealogical characteristics. If you think the basic understandings about race are dizzying, the everyday racist ideas surrounding them are even more. And again, they are meant to be.
Color-based racism in the West was first deployed in the early 1400s by the Portuguese Kingdom to justify the exclusive trafficking of African bodies. Henry the Navigator portrayed his ventures into Africa as missionary expeditions to bring Christ and civilization to a land he marketed as backward and inferior. His real motive was to find a new source for the lucrative business of human trafficking across western Europe. Before this time, enslavers across western Europe and throughout the Muslim World captured souls primarily from eastern Europe. So many Slavs were seized for slavery that the whole enterprise took on their people’s name (Slav -> slave). These easterners, however, eventually learned how to build fortresses and defend themselves, throttling the heinous slaver market. Amid a plunging market, Henry’s new direction for trafficking and his exclusive trade in Black bodies became perversely and eminently profitable. To rationalize this commercial practice, racist ideas had to be produced.
Employing racist misinformation had long been used to rationalize African trafficking and enslavement. For instance, in 1352, Muslim polyglot Ibn Battuta recorded his travel through the Mali Empire with glorious praise: “There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.” Yet, Ibn Khaldun, of world renown, contradicted Battuta’s account with completely unqualified antagonism. He suggested, “People in [the elite classes] whispered to each other that [Battuta] must be a liar.” Instead, assuming his people’s general ignorance of distant lands, he broadly castigated Black people to defend their general enslavement. In his feted history of civilization, Muqaddimah, “The [Black] nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery because [Blacks] have little that is human and possess attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals.” It is unconscionable Khaldun’s audacious scholarship missed the power, prosperity, and knowledge of Mali and Songhay with their expansive borders, fabled libraries (i.e., Timbuktu), amazing culture, and expansive travels stretching to the Americas. These expeditions would later guide Henry the Navigator’s seafaring forbear Christopher Columbus on his initial journey. Khaldun’s summaries reinforced negative stereotypes to support the enslavement of Black people against clear and present evidence.
Race and racism expanded throughout Europe in the 1500s and 1600s as more nations engaged in exclusively African trafficking. European trans-Atlantic trade began with spices but was soon replaced with commodified Black bodies. This enterprise required the sanctioning of the Church and, under the guise of evangelistic mission, the Church readily gave its consent. How could Christians enslave the people they ostensibly were evangelizing? How could Christians justify forcing anyone into slavery? Racist justifications abounded and race-based doctrines suddenly appeared. Racist ideas emerge out of vile necessity. They are not discovered, but fabricated. They are myths, and as fitting for this genre, they can emerge from anywhere and be adapted everywhere. Racist ideas sprouted, spread, and mutated through Christian Europe and the Americas like a spiritual and social pandemic. Whatever the source, the basis for most racist ideas related to one or two major theories: Aristotle’s climate theory and the curse of Ham (curse theory). Understanding these two theories can help decode how racist ideas work.
Climate theory reaches back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 350 years before Jesus Christ was born. Aristotle suggested Greece was the center of the world, and its select climate grew superior people. People distant from Greece were considered less developed and less civilized. However, they could be civilized with proper cultural evangelism. Aristotle’s climate theory ideas were ridiculed by his rivals and disproved by contemporary historians and travelers. But he persisted, “humanity is divided into two: the masters and the slaves … the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command, and those who are born to obey.” His ideas had purchase not because they were true but because they supported the economic system of slavery and Greek expansion across the world map. Racist ideas never have to make sense so long as they make money and sustain exploitive power. Aristotle did not introduce color-based racism in his day (even though his judgmental statements about some African and Asian people went a long way toward it), but his ideas provided a formula that would be employed nearly two thousand years after he wrote them.
Race dogma expanded mainly through the Church. In the Middle Ages, the Church had already routinely committed race-based atrocities like the periodic extermination of Jews in Europe. Christendom versus Islam makes for an interesting case study in religion-based racism. (Today’s care-over are policies like Muslim-bans) The Church instituted color-based racism through the fable of Ham’s Curse. Two versions of this doctrine exist. One is based on the story in Genesis 9, where Ham commits a heinous offense against Noah. The story says Noah curses Ham’s son, Canaan, and his descendants to be subservient to Noah’s other two sons and their descendants. Racist readers twisted the curse to apply to Ham and all his descendants. The other version of Ham’s curse comes from the Babylonian Talmud. This story was a fabrication written between the fifth and sixth centuries. It says Noah cursed Ham while on the Ark for breaking a divine mandate not to have sexual intercourse while on the Ark. This story sailed through the Islamic world first. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, a famous Persian historian and Islamic theologian, wrote the first commentary on the Qu’ran and carried the myth into the age of Islamic expansion in the ninth century. Though a popular story, it had little purchase among Muslim enslavers who were getting a substantial portion of their enslaved population from Eastern Europe. Church scholars pick up this popular fable however to justify the lucrative trade in African peoples. With this manufactured doctrine and the race talk that allowed the Church to eradicate Jews, it could find a perverted and convoluted way to justify trafficking Black people.
Curse theory and climate theory help to view how racist ideas and racist systems work. One view offers a supremacist view, noting some people are made to be subservient to others. The other view suggests some people are better than others due to some kinds of evolutionary factors—but inferior people can get better if they learn from and become more like superior people. Some views are religious. God favors one race over others. Others use science (or scientism) to mark differences among people and weigh some more dearly and others more severely.
One additional note about the Church and racism needs to be struck. The Church’s leading role in establishing a racially exploitive world is utterly astonishing. The Gospel and the Church are meant is to bring renewal, reconciliation, and justice in the world. Yet, churches, whether eastern or western, Catholic or Protestant, have been used to do the exact opposite. Those who look at this case with spiritual eyes must see the significance. Race and racism embed religion, culture, politics, education, and most every other area of the world, but the force animating them is, in Paul’s words, “the spirit that works in the children of disobedience” – namely, those who were called God’s people, but refuse walk in God’s way. Getting God’s servants to choose self-interest and direct their spiritual authority to do evil is patently Satanic. Race and racism have deep spiritual ties because of the Church. Should race and racism be definitively addressed in the world, a profoundly spiritual grassroots movement of strong Christ-followers must rise to make it so.
Race in America
Simultaneous to the rise of anti-Black racism in the trafficking of Africans was the European invasions westward into the Americas. Color-based racism was quickly employed to castigate and caricature American Indian peoples. Racist ideas blew over countless atrocities, starting with Christopher Columbus’ enslavement and slaughter of the native Taino people. Like many others, the Taino had met European explorers with hospitality and grace. In a report to the Court of Madrid, Columbus wrote, “The Indians are so naive and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it.” When he returned to Spain, he promised he would bring “as much gold as they need … and as many slaves as they ask.” Sixty years after Columbus arrived, the estimated number of Taino people plummeted from 250,000 to a few hundred people.
Colonial America would have a unique instantiation of race and racism in the 1600s. In 1618, Black and White colonials in Jamestown lived together as equals. They worked together, built houses together, drank together at the local pub; they fought each other, hated each other, loved each other, and helped each other in ways you would find in any typical community. When the first enslaver’s ships arrived in 1619, they brought both chained black bodies and embodied white superiority. Under the shadow of a new economy, some colonists put on whiteness as a badge. They embraced race as a pathway up an imaginary social ladder and degraded their fellow colonists who shared the color of the enslaved. Self-interest reigned.
In the years after the American Revolution, racist ideas were written into the new country’s founding documents and states across the country. These ideas populated the country as rapidly as people did. They pervaded banks, schools, courts, hospitals, theaters, and churches. They undergirded more than 500 broken treaties with Indian nations. Racist ideas in the United States Constitution defined Black people as three-fifths human and the Supreme Court applied these same racist ideas to declare Blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Racist ideas birthed the doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” an 1845 phrase used recently in the 2020 presidential campaign that claimed white people had divine right to claim the North American continent and forcibly remove Native Americans from their homes. White Americans paired their story with Israel’s complicated story invading the Promised Land and dispelling the Canaanites. However, enslaved Africans in the United States saw a stronger parallel between America and Moses’s Egypt Land.
Race was the way to locate yourself on one side or the other of Aristotle’s line of two types of people—master or slave. The enslavement of American Indians and Africans in the Americas fostered a battery of racist ideas and race-based laws. Racist ideas and laws were bolstered by scientific studies, religious dogma, philosophical assertions, and political postures. Undoubtably, white racism benefitted whoever could wear the badge of whiteness—a privilege not even all Europeans could don all the time. But the chief beneficiaries lived among the elite. Poor Whites could feel like they were superior to Black people. The Church and the law would back them up. But their unwitting lives were often disadvantaged by racist policies and practices as well. Sometimes, a rare group of poor whites and self-emancipated Blacks would realize their common problem and they would work together. For instance, a rag-tag band of runaways, Confederate Army deserters, and poor farmers, resisted the Confederate Army at the close of the Civil War. They formed their own state and set their own constitution. After the war, they formed a fusion political movement to elect Black leaders to political positions. Sadly, the end of Reconstruction brought an end to everything this motley group had done.
Following the Civil War, the United States attempted the most robust overhaul of its racial imperatives. American Reconstruction began with changing the US Constitution. The 13th Amendment—the first rendered in sixty-two years—banned slavery in all forms, except as a punishment for a crime. The 14th Amendment defined citizenship as any person born or naturalized in the US and overturned the Dred Scott ruling invaliding the rights of Black people in America. The 15th Amendment prohibited governments from denying US citizens the right to vote based on race, class, or past servitude. (Women could not exercise the right to vote until the 20th Amendment in 1920.) Fusion political parties of Blacks and poor Whites elected representatives to Congress and the Senate and prevailed in State and local elections until the early 1900s. Yet, repressive politics resurfaced from the Compromise of 1877—the unwritten deal between Congress and Republican presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes who was deadlocked with Democrat Samuel Tilden. To become president, Hayes agreed to remove US troops, who were enforcing Reconstruction efforts, from the South, provide investment to restore the Southern economy, and allow Southern states to deal with Black people without Northern interference. What followed was a tsunami of repressive laws and domestic terrorism—including more than 4,700 lynchings—that resulted in land-stealing, Black political disenfranchisement, and the re-enslavement of Black people with sharecropping, penal labor forces, and indenturing measures.
Race in the 20th century proved the quagmire W.E.B. Dubois had predicted, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” From the vanishing of Native Americans to their uprisings in the 1960s, Jim Crow segregation to the New Jim Crow of prison escalation, public lynchings to police murders, bombing Black Wall Street in 1920 to satchel bombing West Philadelphia in 1985, Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Executive Order 9066 for WWII Japanese-American internment camps, the J. Marion Sims gynecological experiments on Black woman to the 1932 Tuskegee experiments, FDR New Deal forced segregation to present-day redlining, killing of Civil Rights freedom workers to assassinations of racially progressive politicians, COINTELPRO to the Southern Strategy, the War on Drugs to Immigrant Detention Centers, the United States has wrestled with race in the mud. The 21st century now presents as a time of awakening for many people, and many people are realizing, despite Civil Rights Movement, integration, and individual advancements, how much ground was lost over the last 40 years.
Racial discrimination is not the folly of ignorant people. Racism creates ignorance. It does not come from hate and bigotry. It comes from centuries of systematic exploitation by princes, politicians, scientists, philosophers, historians, preachers, and enslavers who created racist ideas to further their self-interest. Racist ideas are confusing, and they are meant to be. You cannot pin them down. They are irrational rationalizations. They show up in unspoken rules and hidden policies. They lay buried everywhere, and, like landmines, we often do not recognize them until we have stepped on them. And the impact of racism does more than offend; it cripples entire communities wholesale and extends for generations.
The color-line problem—Aristotle’s human divide, Kant’s taxonomy, Ham’s curse theory—remains the problem of the 21st century. And the issue is firmly not merely Black and White. Attacks against Asians in America and around the world is on the rise. Native communities still fight against further encroachments of their lands and communities. Black communities struggle to affirm that Black lives matter amid police brutality and the New Jim Crow. Immigrants from non-European nations face stigmatization (and even sterilization!) with high-level propaganda, creating a quagmire for migrant policy. But there is also a rising in the Church to meet the challenge.
Oakland churches banded together to spearhead significant public safety overhauls in Black and Brown communities. The results speak for themselves. Fifty percent violent crime reduction. Seventy percent police shooting reduction within five years. Dallas Black churches came together to advocate for wages and health care, issues highly impacting communities of color. They successfully won increases for low-income wage earners and paid sick-time leave. Atlanta churches mobilized communities of color to vote amid extraordinary voter suppression. These communities accomplished a shocking political turnaround that speaks more to the power of the people than which party won. At large, many Asian churches picked up the Black Lives Matters mantle and now lead the public conversation about anti-Asian violence.
These few examples echo the import and impact of the Church for unity and justice throughout history. From the Black Freedom Movement to Caesar Chavez’ workers movement to housing and job placements for southern migrants in northern cities to fusion political movements during Reconstruction, faithful churches have been on the front line. Churches of free- and freed-women and men established primary and secondary schools and college and universities to educate marginalized Black communities post-slavery and into the 20th Century. During American slavery, the Underground Railroad stations were led largely by strong Christian disciples committed to righteousness and justice.
The story of Gospel impact against racism goes back further. Moravians established multiethnic communities in colonial America. Wesleyanism spiritually infused the fight that abolished the Slave Trade. While many denominations upheld racist ideas and institutions, many strong disciples swam against the tide and worked for racial unity and justice. Women like Jarena Lee and Phoebe Palmer led cross-racial movements in the Second Great Awakening. John Brown, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Jonathan Blanchard, and Frederick Douglass made their mark. Many names are known. Many more names are not known. In 1801, a justice-oriented spiritual awakening spread across the United States through the Cain Ridge Revival. In this camp meeting, the Holy Spirit ignited women and men, children and adults, Blacks and Whites, enslaved and free people, to preach the Gospel and work to abolish slavery.
Unity and justice have been the Church’s charter from the very beginning. In contrast to Aristotle's climate theory, early church father, Augustine notes in his venerated work, City of God: “whoever is born anywhere as a human being, that is, as a rational mortal creature, however strange he may appear to our senses in bodily form or color or motion or utterance, or in any faculty, part or quality of his nature whatsoever, let no true believer have any doubt that such an individual is descended from the one man who was first created.” Irenaeus, whose teacher sat at the feet of John the Apostle, wrote a five-volume set against Gnostic anti-Jewish racism. John’s Apocalypse includes a vision of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” standing before God’s throne. Paul noted that through the Gospel there was “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female.” All are one in Christ. All are equal in Christ.
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God is Red by Vine Deloria, Jr.
Mystic Way of Evangelism by Elaine Heath
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi
Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore
Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 by Brenda Salter McNeil
Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin
Rediscipling the White Church by David Swanson
They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima