Perhaps the most important thing to say about race, in the typical American sense of the word, is that it does not exist. Unlike sex, it has no biological reality, and unlike ethnicity, it has no cultural reality. The human community simply is not divided into half-a-dozen (or whatever) racial groups united by distinct genetic markers or a common culture. Let me explain this claim. The idea that race exists did not originate in Scripture. Scripture speaks of all human beings descending from one man, and thus the only “race” it knows is the one human race. Scripture distinguishes among humans, but does so in terms of people-groups.
Race and racism are obviously controversial issues. Writing on the subject is a thankless task, bound to provoke accusations that an author is enthralled by some nefarious ideology and insufficiently enlightened by a better one. This essay has no agenda either to call out the church for racism or to strike the death blow against wokeness. It simply offers reflections on race and racism intended to help Reformed Christians work through these matters in humble, wise, and Christ-honoring ways. Five basic ideas guide these reflections. (A terminological note: I use “antiracist” to refer to scholars and activists who use this term to describe themselves, not as a general term for all people who think racism is immoral. Although antiracists differ amongst themselves on some issues, they share many core convictions addressed below.)
1. Race Does Not Exist, although Racism Does.
Perhaps the most important thing to say about race, in the typical American sense of the word, is that it does not exist. Unlike sex, it has no biological reality, and unlike ethnicity, it has no cultural reality. The human community simply is not divided into half-a-dozen (or whatever) racial groups united by distinct genetic markers or a common culture. Let me explain this claim.
The idea that race exists did not originate in Scripture. Scripture speaks of all human beings descending from one man, and thus the only “race” it knows is the one human race. Scripture distinguishes among humans, but does so in terms of people-groups. Egyptians, Babylonians, Israelites, and dozens of others had different customs and religions, but they were not different races. The geographical theatre in which the biblical story unfolded, at the crossroads of Asia, Africa, and Europe, ensured that biblical writers were familiar with people of dark skin, light skin, and many shades in between, yet they gave no hint of regarding Cushites and Galatians (Celts) as racially separate.
Contemporary genetic science comes to the same conclusion. Mapping the human genome is one of the most amazing scientific accomplishments of recent decades. By studying the genetic information of living humans and comparing it to DNA from human remains of past millennia, genetic scientists have been able to reconstruct the migration of peoples and their inter-breeding with other peoples in ways hitherto impossible. Data is still coming in and scientists will undoubtedly modify their reconstructions, but one basic conclusion is clear: the modern conception of race has no genetic basis. People around the world are related to each other in complex and often counter-intuitive ways. Who would have thought, for example, that Western Africans are more closely related genetically to Western Europeans than to Eastern Africans? Population-groups have certain genetic markers distinguishing them from other population-groups, but this does not translate into anything corresponding to the “races” of modern mythology.
Furthermore, race has no cultural reality because, unlike ethnic-groups, modern races (“black,” “white,” “Asian,” etc.) do not share a common culture. Rather, they consist of a multitude of groups with often very different histories, languages, and the like.
I do not know how many contemporary Reformed Christians believe that race is a biological and cultural reality, but they would be well-advised to abandon such a spurious notion.
Race, instead, is a figment of the human imagination. One way to put it is that race is a social construct. Certain people in a certain historical context developed the notion of distinct human races. Although social constructs are not necessarily bad or unhelpful, this one was pernicious. Europeans constructed race in conjunction with the colonization of the Americas and the African slave-trade, and they used it to justify the subjugation of non-Europeans and the elevation of Europeans as morally and intellectually superior.
This explains why racism exists even though race does not. (I take “racism” as treating and judging people not according to what is true about them but according to their racial categorization.) Social constructs can be powerful. Often what we imagine to be true shapes our thoughts, feelings, and behavior more strongly than what is actually true. Christians should understand this. Scripture emphasizes that there is no God but one. Yet idolatry exists and it is seductive. Baal was a construct of the human imagination, but it inspired people to dance around altars cutting themselves and provoked Israel to forsake the living God who redeemed them from bondage. Race is something like a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are based on fabrications, yet they can powerfully re-shape the lives of those who buy into them. They scare people into moving off the grid, rejecting life-saving vaccines, or hording gold coins under their mattress. Likewise, race is based on lies, but the idea became very important to those who believed those lies and forced others to live as if they were true.
2. The Interests of Truth and Peace Call for De-Racialization.
If race is a fabrication of the sinful imagination, there seems to be one fundamental and necessary response: Deal with the idea as the lie it is. Stop acting as though race is real. Stop treating and judging people according to what is false. As people are unlikely to escape Baal-worship until they cease to think and act as though a powerful deity named Baal exists, so people are unlikely to escape racism until they cease to think and act as though race exists.
Some of what this entails is obvious, even if easy to overlook. Most of us have become aware of racial stereotypes and made efforts to give them up, but we all need to stay alert and keep striving to put them aside. Most of us have been warned about the hurt caused by racist jokes, although many people still tell them privately now and then, thinking no one is harmed. But whether in public or private, that is acting as though a destructive lie were true. Or consider some people’s habit of mentioning a person’s racial categorization when it is irrelevant: the European-American, for example, who relates a funny incident at the grocery store and describes one of the people involved as an “Asian guy,” although it has no bearing on the story. Perhaps she intends nothing malicious, but she perpetuates racial thought-patterns that have wrought profound harm.
Recognizing the myth of race calls for de-racialization. That is, to live by truth and at peace with all our fellow humans, we ought to (continue to) strip our minds of racial categories and treat our neighbors without respect to them.
What I just wrote is highly controversial. Its most prominent opponents, however, are not unrepentant racists but antiracists. For antiracists, the preceding paragraph promotes color-blindness, the idea that we should not see other people’s race. They believe this is a terrible thing that impedes racial justice and reconciliation rather than promotes it. Progress, they argue, requires seeing racial tensions and dynamics everywhere. When “whites” do not see race, it manifests their dominant place in society and their privilege over others. “Whites” need to become increasingly cognizant of their “whiteness” and hence remain aware of others’ different identities.
These antiracists have legitimate concerns. If wrongs have been done in the name of an imaginary concept, it is surely impossible to rectify wrongs and change course without mentioning that concept. To return to a previous analogy, the Old Testament prophets did not pretend as though they had never heard of Baal or ignore the seduction of idolatry. Likewise, battling racism throughout de-racialization should not mean that we simply stop talking about race and hope that this clears things up. Antiracists are also rightly concerned about an alleged color-blindness that sees the world only through the lens of one’s own cultural assumptions. Ceasing to judge people according to racial categorization should not mean making one’s own culture the universal standard. Cultural diversity is generally a good thing. Finally, antiracists correctly oppose a color-blindness that evaluates all formally identical racial statements identically. For example, an African-American who says “black is beautiful” and a European-American who says “white is beautiful” make formally identical statements. But in the context of American history, they obviously do not communicate the same thing.
These concerns should keep us from a simplistic color-blindness, but if we are concerned about truth and peace, our goal ought to be the elimination of thinking and acting in racial terms. The best strategy for getting there is open for debate, but it is far-fetched to think that the concept of race might disappear by demanding that people see all things through the lens of race.