Moving the Race Mountain
In the United States the idea of races was created by colonial legislatures to divide poor European laborers from Africans and Indians. 1 Wealthy and privileged European planters in the 1700s could not have remained wealthy without the ideology of racism, nor could their class privileges have survived without racist divisions becoming institutionalized in the law of the land and being maintained by violence and coercion. Races, as we know them, were created and sustained by government and were only dismantled as legal entities by legislation in the twentieth century. The current wisdom that government cannot bring about racial equality is interesting, if puzzling: in effect, it asserts that government cannot remedy what it created. The notions of race set forth by the state legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina in the eighteenth century are still used to characterize human beings, but the mountain of oppression and exploitation has been moved over the last one hundred years. 2
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two principal ways of understanding the world—scientifically and theologically—used the idea of race to explain and justify the exploitation and oppression of people of color. As a scientific concept, it explained the inferiority of African Americans through reference to natural selection. 3 The different races had varied capacities for civilization—like different animal species had different behavioral capacities—and different evolutionary trajectories. The superior European populations were destined to expand and develop, while the inferior blacks, Native Americans, and Asians suffered physical and moral degeneracy and faced extinction. Given this, the survival of a vigorous white race was dependent upon maintaining racial purity, which in turn required separation from the lesser races by any expedient method.
As a theological concept, race explained the lesser status of people of color in terms of divine selection: the God of the Old Testament had cursed the children of Ham to be hewers of wood and carriers of water. If