Our puzzling race problem


The issue of race preoccupies Americans. Of course, it comes from the continuing burden of the injustice that predates our founding. This preoccupation was evident once again in the constitutionally mandated 2010 census, the results of which the U.S. Census Bureau reported just before Christmas. When the results are fully published, we will know how many of us are white, how many are black, how many are white non-Hispanic as opposed to Hispanic, who is up and who is down.

The 1790 census distinguished only among free whites, other free persons, and slaves. The first recognition in the census of a race other than "white" and "black" was in 1870 when "Chinese," by which the bureau meant Asians in general, and American Indians could identify themselves in these ways. The first time the word "race" appeared was in 1890. The 1930 census instructed persons of complex racial background to identify themselves by their predominant non-white lineage. The 2000 census allowed people for the first time to indicate multiple categories for racial identity, though I did not notice that option on the 2010 version. Surprisingly few people made use of the "two or more races" choice, designating themselves as "White," "Black or African American," or other such broad visible differences.

But what we call "race" is a vague and thus questionable basis for identifying people. A race is, after all, only an extended family that reaches far beyond one's immediate family, community, or clan. As descendents of Adam, we are all part of the same universal family, and thus one "human race." The census calls me "white," but for the Census Bureau that category includes everyone from Swedes to Southern Italians, and even Arabs. But I am a Scot, so I am racially Celtic (as are the Irish, the Welsh, and the Bretons of northern France). We are racially distinct from the English, the French, and the Germans. The same significant distinctions exist among Africans, Asians, and people of other regions.

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Not only are racial groups much narrower and more numerous than people often think, they are also increasingly hard to identify in people. In an ethnic melting pot like the United States, most people are of mixed ancestry. Golfer Tiger Woods is Chinese, Thai, African, and Dutch. So what is he? He's Tiger! In my church, we have families that combine Caribbean and Italian, Jewish and Italian, Jewish and Chinese, Chinese and Korean. But this has always been the way of the world. Because of migration over the centuries and the conquest of one people by another, we are all a Heinz 57 of one kind or another. Look at me. I'm almost all Scot, but that makes me a mixture of Pict, Irish, Viking, and who knows what else. Even so, most people in the United States, regardless of their racial mix, just think of themselves as Americans or, say, Iowans, Michiganders, Vermonters, or Texans.

But this question of race on the census, like our general obsession with the matter, has always been political, not biological. But unlike this merely human society, the Kingdom of God brings a new kind of politics, or at least it should.

The apostle Paul, speaking of how Christ had united Jews and Gentiles in His church, wrote:

"His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility" (Ephesians 2:15-16 NIV).

A Christian's identity is primarily in Christ, not race. God calls Christians of every race to love one another. This means, among other things, recognizing each other as brothers and sisters who are "born again" into a family that will last for eternity. Even in our natural families, one child may be darker-skinned than the others. One child may have straight hair whereas the others have curls. But the children are happy to be what they are without ever scornfully dividing the family over those differences. God calls His church to live in this way. Paul told the mixed church in Galatia:

". . . you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:26-28).

And he calls all people-every nation, race, tribe, and language group-to unite in Christ's church.

People think they can end racism through dialogue, legal mandates, or by just getting to know each other better. But the tensions and even the overt injustices remain with us because the problem is not fundamentally political. It grows out of the sinful human heart. Only sin could make such a big deal out of such nonsense. Only Christ can break the power of sin. Ultimately, the problem will recede only as the knowledge of God in Christ comes to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14), and as the church of Christ comes to resemble her Lord in the beauty of His holiness.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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