The Historical Uniqueness of Race and Racism (A “New” Perspective on Christian Antiracism, Part 1)

Make sure to catch the Introduction here: A “New” Perspective on Christian Antiracism: Introduction

The Historical Uniqueness of Racism 

In his final book before assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asks, “What is racism?” In answer, he quotes Dr. George Kelsey’s The Christian Understanding of Man

Racism is a faith. It is a form of idolatry… In its early modern beginnings, racism was a justificatory device. It did not emerge as a faith. It arose as an ideological justification for the constellations of political and economic power which were expressed in colonialism and slavery. But gradually the idea of the superior race was heightened and deepened in meaning and value so that it pointed beyond the historical structures of relation, in which it emerged, to human existence itself. (Where Do We Go From Here?, p. 73) 

That is, racism, as we know it, is a unique evil developed relatively late in world history. It is not a natural antipathy toward those who “look different,” a mere prejudice resulting from “in-group/out-group” dynamics, nor a symmetrical contestation between families, tribes, or nations. It is also not a product of mere religious privilege or cultic separation. The early African American sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox explains well in his 1948 magisterial work, Caste, Class, and Race

If we had to put our finger upon the year which marked the beginning of modern race relations we should select 1493-94. This is the time when total disregard for the human rights and physical power of the non-Christian peoples of the world, the colored peoples, was officially assumed by the first two great colonizing European nations. Pope Alexander bull of demarcation issued under Spanish pressure on May 3, 1493, and its revision by the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494), arrived at through diplomatic negotiations between Spain and Portugal, put all the heathen peoples and their resources—that is to say, especially the colored peoples of the world—at the disposal of Spain and Portugal. 

This, then, is the beginning of modern race relations. It was not an abstract, natural, immemorial feeling of mutual antipathy between groups, but rather a practical exploitative relationship with its socio-attitudinal facilitation—at that time only nascent race prejudice. (Loc. 8548; emphasis mine) 

Therefore, Cox defined racism, or “race prejudice” as it was called prior to the advent of the term, “a social attitude propagated among the public by an exploiting class for the purpose of stigmatizing some group as inferior so that the exploitation of either the group itself or its resources or both may be justified” (Loc. 10083). 

Frederick Douglass, addressing anti-Black racism in America, argued much the same in 1881: 

During all the years of their bondage, the slave master had a direct interest in discrediting the personality of those he held as property. Every man who had a thousand dollars so invested had a thousand reasons for painting the black man as fit only for slavery. Having made him the companion of horses and mules, he naturally sought to justify himself by assuming that the Negro was not much better than a mule. The holders of twenty hundred million dollars’ worth of property in human chattels procured the means of influencing press, pulpit, and politician, and through these instrumentalities they belittled our virtues and magnified our vices, and have made us odious in the eyes of the world. … Out of the depths of slavery has come this prejudice and this color line. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 652) 

And realizing that I have already exceeded my quotation quota, I will only add that W.E.B. Du Bois came to the same conclusion: 

I think it was in Africa that I came more clearly to see the close connection between race and wealth. The fact that even in the minds of the most dogmatic supporters of race theories and believers in the inferiority of colored folk to white, there was a conscious or unconscious determination to increase their incomes by taking full advantage of this belief. And then gradually this thought was metamorphosed into a realization that the income-bearing value of race prejudice was the cause and not the result of theories of race inferiority; that particularly in the United States the income of the Cotton Kingdom based on black slavery caused the passionate belief in Negro inferiority and the determination to enforce it even by arms. (Dusk of Dawn [1940], p. 65) 

Unfortunately, the vast majority of U.S. Americans are convinced of the opposite, viz., that a natural “group” antipathy from time immemorial led to racial exploitation, rather than understanding that racism itself evolved as justification for exploitation—the clear consensus of the abolitionist and civil rights tradition. 

The Historical Uniqueness of Race 

And “race” itself is a product of this historical evolution of racialization. In our own U.S. context, prior to the development of colonial governments in the Americas, people-groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of six years under British common law. 

But as it became increasingly clear to the colonists invading the Western hemisphere that Africans were not only capable farmers, but also in abundant “supply,” with the trade in humans itself quite profitable, efforts were made to separate this group of people from those of European descent, cobbled together from many tribes, nations, and tongues, a people with no previous sense of Pan-Africanism. 

The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is [as they think] of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. (David Walker, Walker’s Appeal [1832], p. 5) 

Further, by offering protections to indentured servants from “Christian” nations and removing protections for those from “pagan” nations, leaders were able to quell organized rebellions by peeling the European poor away from those with whom they’d formerly worked side by side, and ultimately accorded life-long servitude to those of African descent alone—they and their children. A class to be exploited, stolen from Africa, separated from family, religion, and hallowed soil, this socially manufactured “Negro Race” became the, comparatively, ideal subject of colonial exploitation. At first this was justified by the distinction between “Christian” and “pagan”; later it would be by phenotype, “proving” the African uniquely suitable for heat and toil; then it would become their supposed stupidity, lack of culture, and need of white fathers; then the so-called Curse of Ham, the example of the Patriarchs, and the writings of the Apostle Paul; then the development of the pseudoscientific field of racial biology, including categorization into “white,” “black,” “brown,” “red,” and “yellow” according to assumed historic developments through climate, separate creation, or evolution. And the manufactured “white race” was legally and socially understood to be supreme. In fact, the very first act of the very first Congress of the United States (1790) was to limit citizenship, with all its benefits, to the “white person.” 

And this only represents one axis of racialization in America. For example, the Indigenous American nations which stood in the way of European expansion were racialized as savages with no right to their land due to lack of religion and civilization. “Mexicans,” once understood as a nation of many races, were racialized as ruthless sub-humans when the cotton industry wanted their land, then unintelligent and docile workers when the U.S. needed their labor, and finally as lazy usurpers of U.S. economic plenty when economic decline called for their expulsion. And we can tell similar stories, though each decidedly unique, of the Asian, South American, and Middle Eastern experiences of racialization in this nation as well.  

In short, “race” is a socio-historically constructed phenomenon, a product of human imagination, with purpose. It is not a natural, biological, “out there” entity such that it exists independently of law and society. Rather, it is a product of human social interaction, a construction of social reality. Race and racial categories were historically created to justify and maintain social hierarchy, slavery, and other forms of group-based exploitation, as well as to distribute rights, citizenship, privileges, access, and disparate advantages/disadvantages. 

Dr. Ian Haney Lopez has helpfully defined “a race” as, 

a vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry. … [R]ace must be understood as a sui generis social phenomenon in which contested systems of meaning serve as the connections between physical features, races, and personal characteristics. In other words, social meanings connect our faces to our souls. (“The Social Construction of Race,” p. 7) 

Historically, race has functioned as a hierarchical categorization scheme wherein human physical features and ancestry (both defined in different ways at different times) can be used to determine physical, intellectual, moral, and cultural value as means to allocate and justify social standing and function. But race has also served as a source of social identity and group activism in response to group exploitation, thereby extending its construction beyond the illicit to the liberative. As many have pointed out, we are all race-makers, and we all participate in its continued construction and rearticulation. 

Finally, it must be emphasized that the “ocular” component of race has proven most significant in U.S. racialization—the “face” that connects to the “soul.” Again writing of anti-Black racism in 1881, Frederick Douglass notes that though “color is innocent enough,” it nevertheless functions to “advertise[] the objects of oppression, insult, and persecution.” The “office of the color line,” he argues, 

is not the maddening liquor, but the black letters on the sign telling the world where it may be had. It is not the hated Quaker, but the broad brim and the plain coat. It is not the hateful Cain, but the mark by which he is known. (Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings, p. 654) 

Consequently, we read in Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s seminal work, Racial Formation in the United States, that 

[r]ace is a concept, a representation or signification of identity that refers to different types of human bodies, to the perceived corporeal and phenotypic markers of difference and the meanings and social practices that are ascribed to these differences. (p. 111) 

Conclusion to Part 1 

Understandably, many questions and contestations come to mind in response to this brief presentation, including, “why don’t we, then, just discard the concept of race?” This, I promise, will be addressed in due time (and the answer is hinted at above). But my intent here is only to demonstrate the singular point: There simply is no Old or New Testament correlate to 17th to 21st century “race” and “racism.” 

And there isn’t. At least not if we are going to understand them according to our rich abolitionist and Civil Rights history. Neither “Jew” nor “gentile” designate a race. Not even close. Neither group exists as an historical product of exploitation. And the ocular dimension of race is completely lacking. As we have argued, race is a historical construction of relatively late human origin, which has consistently been understood in the abolitionist and Civil Rights tradition as an illicit human hierarchy created to justify various historical forms of exploitation, control, and separation. Racism has also consistently been understood in this tradition as “the myth of inferior peoples” (Martin Luther King, Jr.) symptomatic of exploitative social systems, including the associated circumstantial harm and disparities. There simply is no close parallel in the Scripture. There is of course exploitation and prejudice displayed throughout, but nothing like a human hierarchy constructed along a manufactured “color line” to justify exploitation. Again, though much application can be made from 1st century Jew/gentile controversies, the relatively modern phenomena of “race” and “racism,” along with the corresponding asymmetrical group dynamics, are fundamentally different and in many ways unique. 

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