Not even a month ago America’s attention was seized by the violent and racially charged events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. Reportedly, the citizens of Charlottesville voted to have a statue of Confederate icon, Gen. Robert E. Lee, removed from a public park. In response to this decision, an angry band of neo-Nazis, Klansmen, other assorted hate groups, along with more garden variety white supremacists descended upon the Charlottesville courthouse with tiki torches blazing and racialized rhetoric filling the air. This demonstration was a crescendo of the so-called “Unite the Right Rally”. The intent of these demonstrators was clear; engender white pride, assert white power, and send a message to non-whites that the “white race” is on top and plans to remain so.
These strident defenders against moral progress in America were met by a motley crew of counter demonstrators who showed up to oppose fascism and white supremacy. As we all know this encounter did not end well. I’m not sure if anyone knows who “threw the first punch” so to speak but one way or another things got ugly. Before the dust settled a war of words and picket signs reached a fever pitch, violence ensued, and most tragically Heather Heyer’s life was taken by a white supremacist who decided to mow down a group of counter-protestors with his vehicle.
As the nation looked on and attempted to grapple with what happened in Charlottesville, there were so many questions to be asked: Were the white supremacists the voice of a small minority or an overt reflection of what America really is? Why is our country still so divided along racial lines? Is President Trump to blame for fostering an environment wherein race hatred can thrive? Who the heck is Antifa? Where do we go from here? As the major news outlets gave us the play by play and leaked videos provided a front row seat to the horrific scene, the social media world swelled with expressions of mourning and outrage.
However, as I write this article the clamor surrounding the Charlottesville debacle has already begun to fade. As it was with Trayvon Martin, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, the mass shooting in Charleston, Newtown, and so on—The Charlottesville riot is rapidly approaching the twilight of its news worthiness and will soon find its place alongside black hoodies and “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts. Nowadays current events don’t remain current for very long. I think this is part of the problem. All too often something like the Charlottesville riot takes center stage until the next news cycle comes around with a brand new big event for us to set our focus on. It’s like we have been groomed to live headline to headline and with each new crisis we vent how we feel about it, discuss what we might do about it, but we don’t spend much time on how we ought to think through these sorts of things.
Initially I tried to sit down and write a relatively short emotionally stirring rant-style article in response to Charlottesville but it just didn’t work out. Brevity is not a gift of mine and aside from that it seemed to me that in sharing what I feel about the incident I would, for the most part, just be preaching to the choir rather than adding something unique and/or meaningful to the conversation. To say that I hate all forms of racism and anything akin to it sums up how I feel about what happened in Charlottesville but I wanted to take it a step further than that. As a Christian, how can I apply a biblical worldview to the events in Charlottesville and make sense of what occurred?
Identity Claims Matter
My goal here isn’t to tackle the Charlottesville riot from every possible angle. Over the last few years I’ve devoted quite a bit of time digging into the spiritual implications of what I believe to be a sort of identity crisis in the black community. I began studying the topic of black identity with the assumption that, from the time that Europe began to colonize the Western world till now, “black identity” is something that has been in a constant process of reconstruction against the backdrop of a fixed and clearly understood sense of identity which centered around “Europeanness” or “whiteness”—I was wrong about that. I have now come to realize that the identity problem that first caught my attention within the African-American context isn’t just “a black thing” after all; it is a feature of the fallen state of mankind and if you look hard enough you will find it popping up in the strangest of places. I would say that an erroneous concept of identity was at the heart of what went terribly wrong a the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville.
To ask, “Who am I?”, is to engage one of life’s biggest questions and how we answer it can have profound implications. For that reason I think we should take identity claims more seriously than we typically do. If the biblical worldview is correct then there is a “fact of the matter” which serves as a foundation and guidepost for understanding who we are and where we stand in relation to others. It seems to me that when we make the centerpiece of our identity something that diverges from that guidepost then we find ourselves out of step with the world as it really is. In the same way that denying the existence of gravity won’t prevent you from falling to your doom if you jump out of a plane without a parachute, holding to a worldview in which the base of your identity is out of alignment with that identity guidepost will be problematic. I think this becomes evident when we consider how concepts of identity seem to intersect with morality. For example, if there is anything that the Holocaust, chattel slavery, and America’s “Strange Fruit” should have taught us it is that it is impossible to debase fellow human beings and disregard the intrinsic moral worth they possess without ourselves becoming something less than human in the process. I said “should have taught us” instead of “has taught us” due to the fact that as I write this article abortion clinics across the nation are murdering and dismembering human children because many in society continue to entertain the falsehood that they are merely a clump of cells or are on some other grounds undeserving of basic human rights. Who we understand ourselves to be and where we believe we stand in relation to others informs how we navigate the moral reality that undergirds society and is fundamental to the human experience more broadly. Identity claims really matter.
Blood and Soil
One of the main chants heard from the pro-white protestors was the repeated shout of, “blood and Soil.” As I understand it, blood and soil is a phrase that originated in Nazi Germany. The slogan encapsulates the idea of maintaining a pure race/lineage and ethnic heritage. Apparently, the Germans considered themselves to be people of the soil in that they were traditionally agricultural as opposed to the urbanite Jews the Nazi’s intended to do away with. I find it hard to imagine that all of the pro-white protestors in Charlottesville were of German descent so I assume the original meaning of blood and soil must have been broadened for purposes of inclusivity—inclusivity among white’s only of course.
This broader conception of white identity as a unifying factor has been articulated by “Alt Right” founder, Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer, who is credited for coining the term “Alt Right” has been a lightning rod and public proponent for what most would call racism and white supremacist ideology. Spencer, was one of the key note speakers at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. It is fair to say that Spencer is a face of the movement and he has been very open as to what the Alt-Right means to him. According to Spencer, the Alt-Right is a corrective measure in that it is about replacing conservatism and ideally re-inventing America by rebuilding them on a foundation of white identity. He considers the Alt Right to be an “identitarian” movement and takes race to be the guidepost within his framework of identity. As Spencer said during a Q & A session at Texas A & M, “Race is real, race matters, and race is the foundation of identity.“
The idea of adopting one’s race as the guiding point of identity seems like fickle ground to build a worldview on. Moving forward, the central theme I hope to get across is that the biblical worldview—properly understood—provides a foundation for identity that is more firm than the race-based view which Richard Spencer and the Unite the Right protestors in Charlottesville seemed to represent. I believe this to be the case because, at bottom, the position of the Unite the Right protestors is grounded in subjective claims about themselves and others rather than objective truths about the world. I think the first step toward understanding this is to draw a clear line of distinction between biological diversity and the concept of race that plays out in our human interactions.
One Big Happy Family
First of all, no one can deny that there is genetic diversity among humans. However, the scientific account of human origins and admixture throughout human history militates against the notion that the clearly delineated race categories we take for granted and structure society around are a fact of our biological story. While the findings of the natural sciences are always provisional, the mainstream view is that homo sapiens first came on the scene about 200,000 years ago in Africa. After hanging out on the African continent for about 100,000 years, these earliest modern humans began to migrate in different directions with some groups becoming isolated from one another. As environments changed and human migration continued, groups who had been separated for extended periods and undergone localized genetic shifts during that time, started coming in contact with each other once again. Due to these previously separated groups “exchanging DNA” with each other, new variations of humankind emerged with shared traits from the formerly distinct populations. This scenario continually repeats itself in different parts of the globe throughout human history right on up to producing us humans of the present day; a diverse group of genetic blends from the same single homo sapien family which has its roots in Africa. In his paper titled, “Human Races: A Genetic and Evolutionary Approach”, A.R. Templeton of Washington University’s Department of Biology reports:
“Genetic surveys and the analyses of DNA haplotype trees show that human “races” are not distinct lineages, and that this is not due to recent admixture; human “races” are not and never were “pure.” Instead, human evolution has been and is characterized by many locally differentiated populations coexisting at any given time, but with sufficient genetic contact to make all of humanity a single lineage sharing a common evolutionary fate.”
The notion of there being a particularly advantaged race or even the fixed and distinct races we tend to be pre-occupied with simply does not do justice to the biological story of mankind. Any reasonable person who wants to engage the matter of race and identity has to account for the fact that our modern race concept does not reflect an adequate picture of our biological history.
To Be or Not to Be
Secondly, there is nothing in the genetic code itself that instructs us on how and when to use particular traits to associate ourselves with or distinguish ourselves from others. In Charlottesville, the Unite the Right protestors rabidly shouted “You will not replace us.” I submit that, when it comes to racial identity, the determining factor of who is considered to be the “you” and the “us” is not a purely biological one. There is no doubt that most of the discussion about race in America revolves around the relations between “Black” folks and “White” folks. If we take a look at these two race identities it seems the non-biological nature of race becomes more apparent.
Prior to the Transatlantic Slave Trade there doesn’t appear to be some unifying black identity present in West Africa. Africans self-identified and distinguished themselves from other Africans based on a number of things such as clan, tribe, form of spirituality, language, and so on. As Africans from various parts of West and central Africa found themselves in the same predicament as enslaved persons, their shared experiences became a shared history and over time a diversity of people from the African continent forged a new identity as a collective. Given the ideas about race categories that were becoming prominent among Europeans during that period, Africans went from being Igbo, Yoruba, Congolese, and whatever other African people group to just “black”. In the case of white folks, “whiteness” has undergone a few facelifts over the last few centuries. Today, we tend to think of the white “race” as a singular classification that applies to all Europeans. This is a relatively new conception of what it means to be white.
Prior to the early 1900’s it was believed that there were multiple “white races” and not all of them were on equal footing in the social order. For example, when the Irish—attempting to escape a terrible potato famine—began immigrating to the United States in the 1840’s they didn’t find themselves to be all that welcome here. “White” people who believed themselves to be descendants of Northern Europeans (i.e. Anglo Saxons) considered Irishmen to be about a half-step above black people and treated them as such. Likewise, Eastern Europeans who moved to this country were granted social standing somewhere in between negro status and just below “fully white”. However, that all began to change around the 1940’s when public policies that segregated black people from whites and afforded white people certain benefits (i.e. housing choices, and stimulus programs), included provisions that broadened “whiteness” to include the Irish and Eastern Europeans. So, as it pertains to black racial identity and white racial identity, we see these concepts coming about due a response to oppression on the one hand and adaptation to socio-economic change on the other. In either case, how these racial identities came to be what they are today is clearly not a direct entailment of genetic diversity. Rather, these race categories by which people define themselves and align with or reject others were forged through human interactions that revolved around power and social positioning in the West.
Worthy or Worthless
Thirdly, there is no biological fact about who we are that mandates how we should assign value to those we believe to be of our race and people of other races. We can either use “otherness” as a reason to de-value those of another people group or we can look to our “sameness” as human beings to value others as we value ourselves. Assuming that free will exists, our genes don’t force us in either direction on how to make that call. I’m sure most folks hold the people group they are a part of to a high level of esteem even if members of other people groups do not. If objective morality is not a feature of reality then nobody is wrong or right about which race group has moral worth and which one doesn’t. If moral worth is a real objective thing then I see no good reason to think that one’s genetic heritage is of any help in determining which race has it.
Till Next Time
What I hope to have demonstrated is that our modern race concept is not firmly rooted in some objective fact of biology. Race, as we see it operate in society, is essentially a social construct which runs parallel with certain physical distinctives that we collectively grant social meaning to—it’s all subjective. In other words, the race concept that pervades so much of our experiences, is just a commonly held belief about who we are, who “others” are, and how we assign value to people. This collective belief has no weight to it on its own but rather thrives off of the validity we choose to give it. In order to rescue this social construct of race from having both of its feet firmly planted in mid-air one would have to turn to something other than biology to do so. If genetics is off the table as an objective anchor for race then it would seem that those who adopt Richard Spencer’s framework of identity—in which race is the starting point for who we are—find themselves with a foundation for identity that ultimately has no foundation; at least not one that corresponds to reality independent of our collective imaginings anyway. (to be continued)
Fields, B. J. (1982). Ideology and race in American history. Region, race, and reconstruction: Essays in honor of C. Vann Woodward, 143-77.
Hirschman, C. (2004). The Origins and Demise of the Concept of Race. Population and Development Review, 30(3), 385-415. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2004.00021.x
Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real: Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American Psychologist, 60(1), 16-26. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.60.1.16
Templeton, A. R. (1998). Human Races: A Genetic and Evolutionary Perspective. American Anthropologist,100(3), 632-650. doi:10.1525/aa.1918.104.22.1682