The Illusion of Race

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“Many of us have been taught to believe that there are distinct biological and genetic differences between races. … But race … is socially constructed. … Race is an evolving social idea,” writes Robin Diangelo in her New York Times bestseller White Fragility.[1] Indeed, “Scientists have long suspected that the racial categories recognized by society are not reflected on the genetic level.”[2] As far back as 1950, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) asserted that “‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.”[3] Perhaps one of the reasons churches are struggling to grapple with Christian responsibility regarding racial issues in our country is that there is neither a scientific nor biblical basis for attributing moral value to one’s racial identity.

The completion of the Human Genome Project at the turn of the Millennium revealed the illusion of race. This historic project sequenced the DNA of the human genome. When announcing the project’s success at the White House, Dr. Craig Venter explained:

We have sequenced the genome of three females and two males, who have identified themselves as Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian or African American. We did this sampling not in an exclusionary way, but out of respect for the diversity that is America, and to help illustrate that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis. In the five Celera genomes, there is no way to tell one ethnicity from another.[4]

The human genome consists of three billion base pairs divided into roughly 20,000 genes, yet human beings are 99.9% identical at the genetic level.[5] Interestingly, the greatest level of genetic variation occurs within geographically distinct groups. In fact, National Geographic reports, “There’s more diversity in Africa than on all the other continents combined.”[6] Harvard Magazine explains, “Of all human genetic variation (which we now know to be just 0.1 percent of all genetic material), 85 percent occurs within geographically distinct groups, while 15 percent or less occurs between them.”[7]

Exceptionally minor genetic variations can give rise to sometimes very noticeable differences, such as skin color and bone structure. Unfortunately, we seem to be predisposed to focus on these differences rather than our common identity, and sometimes these differences become justifications for mistreating one another. As early as 1774 a former plantation owner and jurist in Jamaica wrote a book titled The History of Jamaica, in which he asserted that “the Negro” was “void of genius” and “incapable” of civilization, being so inferior as to constitute a separate species of mankind.[8] Long’s influential book was published as a defense of slavery during a period of rising anti-slavery sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War and its ideals of freedom and equality.[9]

This dehumanization of people based upon skin color and perceived intelligence was given “scientific” credence in a series of three publications between 1839 and 1844 by one of America’s most prominent scientists.[10] Philadelphia physician Samuel Morton developed a field of science called craniometry which involved collecting and measuring hundreds of human skulls to confirm a difference in brain size between groups of humans. This led Morton to establish a racial hierarchy with Caucasians at the top, boasting the highest brain capacity, and blacks at the bottom with the lowest intelligence level. Newsweek explains:

Morton believed that people could be divided into five races and that these represented separate acts of creation. The races had distinct characters, which corresponded to their place in a divinely determined hierarchy. Morton’s ‘craniometry’ showed, he claimed, that whites, or ‘Caucasians,’ were the most intelligent of the races. East Asians—Morton used the term ‘Mongolian’—though ‘ingenious’ and ‘susceptible of cultivation,’ were one step down. Next came Southeast Asians, followed by Native Americans. Blacks, or ‘Ethiopians,’ were at the bottom. In the decades before the Civil War, Morton’s ideas were quickly taken up by the defenders of slavery.[11]

Samuel Morton made the idea of distinct human races a scientific “fact” and is today remembered as the father of scientific racism.[12] Upon his death in 1851, the Charleston Medical Journal praised Morton for “giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.”[13] Equally as influential in establishing the “fact” of a racial hierarchy were Charles Darwin’s books On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, published in 1859 and The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Here again, blacks were assigned the lowest tier in this hierarchy, being classified among the “lowest savages” who have “low morality,” “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and “weak power of self-command.”[14]

Such faulty science attributed moral value based upon one’s racial identity, and the use of metrics to scientifically prove “racial types” justified some of the greatest evils within Western history. A United Nations report to the World Conference against Racism explains:

Race is a relatively new idea. It emerged in the nineteenth century as the evidence for evolution began to accumulate. Prior to this time Europeans generally had believed that the book of Genesis furnished a historical account of man’s creation and the peopling of the world. Race was an exciting idea. Scientists thought it offered a key to human history, one that would explain why the peoples of the world differed so much in their civilizations and in their technological achievements. They were wrong, but it took some years before the mistake became apparent. In the meantime the error was seized upon, magnified, and publicized, because it was convenient from the standpoint of those who held power in the Europe of that day. Europeans were flattered when they were told that they were superior to the peoples of the technologically backward countries. The possibility of a biological origin of these differences was therefore entertained more sympathetically than the evidence warranted. Doctrines of racial distinction and superiority cast a dark shadow over the history of the world in the first half of the twentieth century. They played an important part in imperialist arrogance. Then they were utilized for political ends within nations, most notoriously in Nazi Germany. Six million Jews were sacrificed to beliefs about race which had no scientific validity.[15]

Such scientific racism came under assault in the 20th-century by Franz Boas who rejected the idea that race is a biological concept and that human behavior is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics. Boas argued for the separation of physical traits from the languages and cultures that people carry. Hailed as the father of American anthropology, Boas laid the foundation for focusing on ethnic culture as the primary influence in human behavior rather than biology.[16] This is why the scholar Thomas Gossett declared, “It is possible that Boas did more to combat race and prejudice than any other person in history.”[17][18]

Although Boas’ arguments had little impact on the public at the time, they laid the foundation for what has become the dominant view among anthropologists. Today, race is considered to be a social construction—something that does not exist apart from society agreeing to the concept.[19] According to Stephen Cornell and Douglas Hartmann in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, race can be defined as “a human group defined by itself or others as distinct by virtue of perceived common physical characteristics that are held to be inherent … Determining which characteristics constitute the race is a choice human beings make. Neither markers nor categories are predetermined by any biological factors.”[20]

Often this choice is made by others. Individuals may have no choice over their racial identity as it is generally imposed upon them by outsiders. Ethnic identity, on the other hand, is a personal choice as ethnicity refers to “a sense of common ancestry based on cultural attachments, past linguistic heritage, religious affiliations, claimed kinship, or some physical traits.”[21]

As Christians, none of these discoveries should come as a surprise. There is no concept of race in the Bible—only ethnicities. The Bible teaches that every human being is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27), shares a common ancestor (Gen. 1:28), and belongs to an ethnic group that can ultimately trace its origin to a single family responsible for populating the nations of the earth (Gen. 10:32). This is why the Apostle Paul told the philosophers at Athens that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:26–27). The term translated “nation” is the Greek word ethnos, from which we derive our English word “ethnicity.” From one race, God created many ethnicities by creating national identities as an integral part of His plan to draw the hearts of rebellious people back to Himself and to redeem mankind.

Ethnic identity is one of the tools God is using to ultimately bring people together under His lordship. Indeed, when the Apostle John was shown a vision of the future, he described a great multitude of redeemed saints from every ethnos (translated nation): “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number from every [ethnicity], from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9–10). Likewise, the prophet Isaiah declares, “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’ … these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer … for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all [ethnicities] (Isa. 56:3, 7).

There is coming a day when all ethnicities will worship God together. There will be unity because their focus is on God, not on their differences. To the best of our ability, let us strive to realize this today, beginning in our churches. Perhaps this can begin by repenting of our eagerness to frame our Christian mission, purpose, and worldview according to the unscientific and unbiblical notion of racial identities. Perhaps it is time that we confess the artificial concept of race as an inherently divisive idea with a sordid history that deserves to be rejected. Perhaps we ought to focus more on understanding who God is than we focus on understanding our superficial differences. Perhaps we should identify and dismiss moral arguments on the basis of race as misguided applications of an illusion.

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Timothy Zebell

Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Bacon Press, 2018. 

2. Angier, Natalie. “Do Races Differ? Not Really, Genes Show.” Science. New York Times, August 22, 2000. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/08/22/science/do-races-differ-not-really-genes-show.html.

3. Hiernaux, Jean and Michael Banton. “Four Statements on the Race Question.” United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization, 1969. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000122962.

4. “June 2000 White House Event.” White House East Room, June 26, 2000, 10:19 a.m., EDT. National Human Genome Research Institute, n.d. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://www.genome.gov/10001356/june-2000-white-house-event.

5. “Race in a Genetic World.” Harvard Magazine, May–June 2008. https://harvardmagazine.com/2008/05/race-in-a-genetic-world-html.

6. Kolbert, Elizabeth. “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-up Label.” National Geographic, March 12, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/race-genetics-science-africa/.

7. “Race in a Genetic World.”

8. Encyclopedia Britannica. s.v. “Scientific Classifications of Race.” Accessed August 18, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/race-human/Scientific-classifications-of-race.

9. Encyclopedia Britannica.

10. Gould, Stephen. “Morton’s Ranking of Races by Cranial Capacity.” American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 6, 22012, 10:38 p.m. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7992/a09d112b464fda63a8cae2859877cc2e0cde.pdfHere’s. Source: Gould, Stephen. “Morton’s Ranking of Races by Cranial Capacity.” Science, New Series, 200, no. 4341 (1978): 503–509. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1746562. Source: Stanton, W. The Leopard’s Spots: Scientific Attitudes Towards Race in America, 84. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

11. Sussman, Robert. “There Is No Such Thing as Race.” Tech and Science. Newsweek, November 8, 2014, 3:01 p.m., EST. https://www.newsweek.com/there-no-such-thing-race-283123.

12. Kolbert, “There’s No Scientific Basis for Race—It’s a Made-up Label.”

13. Kolbert.

14. Anderson, Austin. “The Dark Side of Darwinism.” Philosophy for the Many, Literary Theory, Fall 209. Williams Sites, November 16, 2016. https://sites.williams.edu/engl-209-fall16/uncategorized/the-dark-side-of-darwinism/. Source: Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, 36, 97. London, 1871.

15. Sane, Pierre. “United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.” Address to World Conference against Racism, Durban, South Africa, September 2, 2001. United Nations. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://www.un.org/WCAR/statements/unescoE.htm.

16. Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Scientific Classifications of Race.”

17. “Columbia 250: Franz Boas.” Columbia University, n.d. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/remarkable_columbians/franz_boas.html.

18. Gossett, Thomas. Race: The History of an Idea in America, Oxford University Press, July 21, 1997. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Race/WUucYTW6ug0C?.

19. Boghossian, Paul. “What Is Social Construction.” New York University, Arts and Science, n.d. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://as.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/philosophy/documents/faculty-documents/boghossian/Boghossian-Paul-socialconstruction1.pdf.

20. James, Michael and Adam Burgos. “Race.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer Edition. Ed. Edward Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/race/.

21. James.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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