Erasing Race

Staring science in the eye.

Robin Shaw
Robin Shaw works as a recruitment manager at The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is a member of the Junior League of Indianapolis, a volunteer legal analyst for The Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and is on the board of The Children's Bureau.

Smoking was cool.

For decades leading ladies, cowboys, lawyers, and journalists smoked—dramatically—taking long drags from their cigarettes, punctuating each action and phrase with cool. By the 1950s, most people considered smoking not only stylish, but safe, and nearly half of all Americans, including half of all US doctors, smoked regularly.

Meanwhile, rising rates of smoking-related illnesses since 1920 had begun to raise eyebrows in the medical community. By 1957, the US Public Health Service made its first official statement—after nearly forty years of scientific evidence—that smoking was indeed “a causative factor in lung cancer.” Tobacco companies fought back with a decades-long public-relations campaign designed to reassure people that any correlation between smoking and harm remained an “open controversy.” And norms around smoking stayed fairly constant.

Then, in the 1990s, several state attorneys general sued the tobacco industry for repayment of the Medicaid expenses that had been used to care for its sick and dying customer base. The attorneys general won, as did the Department of Justice when it sued the tobacco industry in 1999. Culturally, the tobacco industry’s false advertising campaign was slowed by a requirement that for every cigarette ad that was run on television, an ad that cautioned against smoking would run alongside it. A new generation of American youth was taught to fear the dangers of smoking while watching Saturday morning cartoons, their shows punctuated by advertisements showing black lungs. Eventually, businesses, schools, restaurants, hospitals, and courtrooms banned smoking due to research finding that secondhand smoke also kills, making it increasingly taboo to “light up” in public. Today, while derivatives like vape pens and e-cigarettes seep into the trend cycle, smoking is now widely perceived as more disgusting than cool.

Is this a happy ending? Almost and yes. Everyone, including smokers, now knows that smoking kills. Though tobacco companies have never admitted to the number of deaths they have caused, nor to the deceptive marketing practices used to trap their unsuspecting customers in a web of addiction, smoking is officially a dying habit in America.

The Creation of Race

What if you learned that everything you knew about race was wrong?

In 1619 the first African slaves were brought to America. They endured unspeakable abuses at the hands of slave traders, colonizers, and explorers who they thought were scientifically different from and inferior to people whose skin was deemed “white.”

Delineating human value based solely on physical appearance began getting traction in the sciences in 1735. Carl Linnaeus’s popular study, Systema naturae, classified humans into four races: European, American, Asiatic, and African. Within several years, other researchers like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach sought to outshine Linnaeus’s work with an updated version that would speak of white skin as “shining” and “pure white,” classifying the Caucasian race as the standard, with all other races arranged in a power hierarchy beneath it. Although both Linnaeus and Blumenbach concluded that humans were of one species, the public fixated on the racial differences they noted instead of the human similarities, generating a cascade of scientific and medical literature supporting these conclusions.

How could the way of life for an entire nation be built on a lie?

Thankfully, these ideas, while popular, were not universal. They were decried by leaders like Frederick Douglass as baseless and contrary to common sense, and were scrutinized by other scientists who were unable to replicate their work—a hallmark of scientific reliability.

Today, thanks to The Human Genome Project, which sought to understand the billions of genetic combinations in human DNA, it has been scientifically proved that human beings are more alike than we could ever imagine. The international team of researchers who mapped our DNA found that the way that genes interact with each other is so varied, and the combinations so infinite, that the background of the humans that now exist cannot be accurately guessed by sight alone. In the words of Professor Audrey Smedley, race is nothing more than a “culturally structured systematic way of looking at, perceiving, and interpreting reality,” while ethnicity is the creative expression of our infinitely varied backgrounds in unique, wonderful ways.

Nevertheless, before the miracle of genetic mapping could set us straight, ideologies based on mythological theories of race were baked into the US Constitution, legislative actions, and Supreme Court decisions. In Dred Scott v. Sanford(1834), Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote, “The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported to this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to its citizens?” He went on to answer, “No,” because at the time of the ratification of the Constitution, slaves were but “a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated to the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority. . . . The Court reviewed the laws that existed in 1787 and concluded that “a perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.”

While the wording of the laws gradually progressed, the American legal system builds on precedent, so the issue of race was preserved, discussed, relitigated, and rewritten ad nauseum in our legal history for years, and still we battle to find the right words to legislate equality in America.

How could the way of life for an entire nation be built on a lie?  Consider that this information was coming from then “reputable” sources, including doctors, scientists, and renowned professors, and was also supported by lawyers and judges. Misinformation about race, biology, and slavery even made its way into schools (which were also separated by race), with textbooks transferring this racial hierarchy onto children. Until recently, these professions have held huge sway in the minds of the public because they have been seen as neutral and beholden only to their oaths, especially in the absence of any discernible financial benefit. So the concept of race lodged itself in the subconscious of every mind as an immovable, indisputable fact. Skin was believed to be white, brown, black, yellow, or red, as sure as the sky was blue, and countless other terrible and equally wrong conclusions flowed from this tragic, woefully incorrect line of logic. Like the doctors who urged unsuspecting consumers to consider smoking safe, people clung to the concept of race even after becoming aware of the conclusions that humans are all one species—giving birth to a reckless disregard for human life around the world, which persists to this day.

The Spiritual Work Ahead

Forty years after they were told that it kills, smoking continued in America. Why? Beyond what we know about addiction, there is something at play in the mind that keeps rational beings doing irrational things despite what we learn to course-correct. Deep within our frontal cortex lies the seat of decision-making, and while we are taught that this function works unscathed by emotion, more recent neuroscience suggests otherwise.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2 NKJV)

The word “mind” as the apostle Paul uses it here could be interpreted in a variety of ways, including “the power of judging calmly and impartially.” He goes on to teach that in order to change or “be transformed” into people who can so judge (and therefore correctly discern the will of God), the mind with its sinful modes of thinking must first be renovated, or made new. This has to be the work of the Holy Spirit.

There is something at play in the mind that keeps rational beings doing irrational things despite what we learn to course-correct.

People who quit smoking do so at different times, for different reasons. Some are sick, some are pregnant, some lose a loved one to smoking, others finally hear what the anti-smoking campaign has been trying to tell them. People change their minds when the Holy Spirit meets them on their unique and personal Damascus Road—a meeting that can then lead to a long obedience and a new way of life, most effectively sustained in a community of love and accountability. As we work alongside the Holy Spirit, the church can spread an anti-racist message of truth and love as we spread the gospel, which means that for the Christian, every conversation about race should be bathed in prayer.

More broadly, racism should be treated as the public health crisis that it is, with decisive action planned and taken to end it.  After four hundred years of living in this land, African Americans have worse health outcomes in nearly every category, from infant mortality to life expectancy to contracting and dying from COVID-19. Additionally, the stress and disadvantage produced by the racism that African Americans regularly face in the workplace, at school, and in society results in greater rates of poverty, lack of opportunity, incarceration, and violent death for far too many. It is time for civic and faith leaders to speak and act to heal hearts and save lives.

A systematic anti-racism campaign should be introduced nationwide to change minds and actions just as the anti-smoking campaign did. Citizens, civic leaders, and all levels of government must be engaged in creating the plan of action. This is Public Health 101 and has been for over one hundred years. It worked to stop the spread of the 1918 flu pandemic and, in the states and countries that used it, COVID-19. Why wouldn’t it work to slow the spread of racism? Trainings like Be the Bridge and those provided by the Racial Equity Institute will help educate the public that what they have been taught about race is incorrect and deadly. In another sixty years perhaps the thought of racism will be as ludicrous as the idea that smoking is safe. Will there always be vape pens and prejudice? Of course. But their impact will decline as more and more people are taught how truly dangerous they are and learn that disgusting and insidious lies were used to addict them to a way of thinking that is hazardous to their own lives and to those of the people around them.

The Art of Persuasion

But will this work? It has been scientifically proved that changing people’s minds is difficult, and we have all been to a Thanksgiving dinner where conversations about race and politics start with good intentions but do not end well. Long-held beliefs don’t go down without a fight. So where does one begin?

Racism should be treated as the public health crisis that it is, with decisive action planned and taken to end it.

Understanding the underlying cause is always helpful. Why does the person we are trying to persuade think the way he or she does? Research shows that there may be many reasons, but they can be placed into three broad categories: (1) the person has a strongly held (but plausible) belief, (2) he or she has a logical reason, or (3) the person carries a personal grievance.

Let’s get uncomfortable for a moment and acknowledge the elephant in the room—when we look at people we can see that they look different. We aren’t imagining variations in skin, hair, and eye color—phenotypical differences are real. So how can we ensure that people don’t draw wrong conclusions from what their eyes are showing them? By ensuring that all people know the science and sociology behind race, are trained in correct thought processes about that science, and have opportunities to dialogue about their strongly held beliefs.

Most entry-level biology courses teach students about DNA. Almost all students learn about genotype (the actual genes that provide the code for every living thing) and phenotype (the observable characteristics of those genes). What most students don’t learn, however, is that it is difficult to draw any certain conclusions about the organism from phenotype alone and that the differences we see in other humans are a function of “population genetics” more than anything else. What you see is not what you get when it comes to humans.

Science has proved that our notion of race is not biologically supported. Without taking great care not to place a hierarchy of value on certain genes, features, or abilities, we end up back at a racist classification system. What if every student was taught this kind of science in school? Imagine the misinformation that could be prevented if every biology textbook contained this information. Careful studies like the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion do a masterful job of teaching that the genes that produce skin color are not related to the genes that determine intelligence, creativity, or athletic ability.

Over time we could train ourselves to notice and appreciate biological and cultural variation but not to judge incorrectly and to evaluate people as God does, “on the heart.” Through relationship-based study groups like Be the Bridge, adults would have an opportunity to discuss the strongly held beliefs about race they may have collected in a nonjudgmental setting, and get to know people they’ve historically perceived as different and part of “them” and “other.” With time, mutual vulnerability, and openness, “the others” gain credibility and become friends and trusted resources who can educate us, share logical insight, and speak into our lives. It’s not easy, and it won’t just happen, but intentionally pursuing honest conversations in a small group of trust is one of the most healing balms in an era of suspicion and negativity. By persevering, with patience and long-suffering, the “perpetual, impassable barriers” between us dissolve, making way for new bridges to be built.

People of the first two minds mentioned above are naturally open to this type of change, but those of the third mind will likely require a different approach.

How do we settle a four-hundred-year-old score or pay a debt that’s as old as time? How do you make peace between the remnant of humans bound and determined “not to come to the table”?

How do we settle a four-hundred-year-old score or pay a debt that’s as old as time? How do you make peace between the remnant of humans bound and determined “not to come to the table”? Address the grievance and apply the gospel’s balm. For those who hold fast to what they believe in the face of logic, science, and strong evidence, a personal grievance might be the reason why.

Capitalism has complicated racial matters a thousand times over. As we unpack our shared history of race, those who grew up in poverty or in the working class see the story differently. They may have friends and neighbors of different races but eschew the notion of “white privilege” because they feel anything but. For those who truly “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” the world is unfair to everyone and their own pain and anger is real and deep. The mind toughened by the realities of this fallen world—adversity, unemployment, poverty, and substance abuse—is the hardest to change.  Even as America awakens to its painful history of redlining, Native American reservations, internment camps, mass incarceration, and other channels for systematic racism that left minorities without boots or straps, the pain of a hard-knock life speaks louder in the gut. All need health care, education, safe housing, and opportunity. These are not color-coded issues. It baffles the mind, then, when the families who need these things resist standing as one with others who need and want the same things—unless we understand how anger works to block the mind from receiving and embracing logic. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “the tide rises all boats,” but if self-preservation has been baked into us, our grasp will prevent us from receiving the blessings that come from an open hand and open heart.

This mind needs the voice of God and the hands of his people. Paul was convinced that his mission in life was to live perfectly and discard anyone who didn’t, until he met Jesus who asked him, “Why are you persecuting me?” Imagine Paul’s shock—Jesus’s words spoke clearly that “my people” are “me”—the people you kill are “me.” Ananias was then sent to lay hands on him and the scales fell from his eyes. For the mind hell-bent on not participating in racial reconciliation, a savior and a champion are just what the doctor ordered. Now more than ever, we need our church leaders, government officials, and respected individuals in every field to ask the questions, “Why are you persecuting me? Why won’t you come to the table? Why won’t you let us heal?”

Recall that when someone who is respected, admired, and trusted speaks, people listen. Now is the time for those in authority in every realm of life—from politics, to business, to government, to education—to quiet the storm. We all have a personal sphere of influence, and now is the time to act in it by speaking truth to power. The mind that stands in the rain when everyone else has come in to dine with Christ at his universal table needs to hear someone who looks like them, and thinks like them, pray for them, and speak truth to their aching hearts. Anger and fear of “the others” must be displaced with something better because “the opposite of fear is hope, defined as the expectation of good fortune not only for ourselves but for the group to which we belong.” As long as we believe that life is a zero-sum game, we will struggle.

Finally, it bears stating that while changing hearts and minds is what we seek, America is the “land of the free,” complete with free speech and free thought. As Jon Meacham wrote in his book The Soul of America, “The measure of our political and cultural health cannot be whether we all agree on all things at all times. We don’t and we won’t. Disagreement and debate—including ferocious disagreement and exhausting debate—are hallmarks of American politics.” Meacham teaches us that what we should strive for is a “workable consensus” that moves us forward together. For those of us in the church, “in view of the mercies of God,” we must allow our line of thinking to become one with our benevolent Creator and realize that we are one body—the body of Christ—and that we should seek to care about and include all members. We must resist those who would divide us and pull us toward our basest selves. Jesus healed and saved. He was a friend of the brokenhearted, impoverished, and down-trodden, including the orphan and the foreigner. Jesus built bridges and paved the way for the reconciliation of all to his good, good Father.

As Paul continues in his letter to the Romans, “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” When we allow what we know to be true through the miracle of science and marry it to what the Bible says about humankind we can only come to the conclusion that our good, creative God made a beautiful array of humans all in some way bearing the imago Dei, “made in his image,” all dealt “the measure of faith,” and all called “good” by the loving Father. To fail to agree with the creator of heaven and earth is folly of the highest degree. In Genesis, God created them, and he blessed them, and although many harmful interpretations of this Scripture abounded after its writing, it is undeniable that what the author of Genesis did not do is describe them. He describes where they were, but not what they looked like. Perhaps it would have been evident to the first readers based on their understanding of geography, or perhaps our intelligent God knew that we would take that bit of information and run with it to a place he never intended for us to go.

The idea that race is a biological absolute and not a social construct is the root of all types of evil.  It grows long and deep beneath the earth and sparks a chain reaction of misinformation that passes from the eye to the brain in milliseconds, just like the chain reaction that takes place in a smoker’s brain when its shocked by that first hit of nicotine. Interestingly, tobacco was one of the first crops to necessitate slave labor in the new world. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned tobacco plantations and were financially drained by British tobacco import taxes just before the American Revolution began. All types of evil indeed. Let’s stamp out the fire that tobacco started once and for all, with truth, prayer, love, and reconciliation.