Racial Equality is a Secular Value
While there are many sources of racism today, Christianity has a long history of developing and enshrining systematic and institutionalized racism in the United States.
Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
He said, “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”
He said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem.
May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth."
—Genesis 9:24–27, NIV
The goal of this page is to locate the history of race and racism as a secular issue. Deeply embedded with this history is the separate but deeply related issue of white supremacy. On a forthcoming page we will explore the issue of white privilege and white supremacy from a secular perspective.
Looking Back - A Brief History of Racism in America
According to the Biblical story of the flood and it’s aftermath (Genesis 6-9), the so-called Curse of Ham (actually placed upon Ham’s son Canaan) was interpreted by Christians, Muslims, and Jews as an explanation for black skin and, later, as a biblical justification for slavery and a taproot of racism. Europeans used the curse of Ham to create a social hierarchy on phenotypic differences and “race” to promote economic motivations for colonialism.
For slave owners in the US American South, the curse of Ham was used to formulate an ideological defense of slavery and the Mark of Cain was interpreted as black skin. Southern Baptists furthered different races with the appeal that Noah and his family were white, so any blacks must have been among the animals. In 1860, a Southern Baptist preacher by the name of Thornton Stringfellow defended the enslavement of millions of African men and women, saying, “Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command… Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham’s descendants among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.”
Immediately following the Civil War and adoption of the 13th Amendment in 1865, most states of the former Confederacy adopted Black Codes, laws modeled on former slave laws and intended to limit the new freedom of emancipated African Americans. By the 1890s the expression “Jim Crow” was being used to describe laws and customs aimed at segregating African Americans and others - separate but equal. These laws were intended to restrict social contact between whites and other groups and to limit the freedom and opportunity of people of color. The most ruthless organization of the Jim Crow era, the Ku Klux Klan, was born in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, and grew into a secret society terrorizing black communities and seeping through white Southern culture, with members at the highest levels of government.
In the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants came to the United States seeking the “Gold Mountain” of California. But instead of finding riches, many of them became hard laborers on the transcontinental railroad, blasting through the Sierra Nevada under brutal working conditions. When the railroad was finished in 1869, many workers settled in Chinatowns on the West Coast, becoming farmers, fishermen, launderers or domestic servants.
But while the immigrants might have been initially accepted as cheap laborers, they were abhorred as they formed their own communities, especially as a deep recession sunk in beginning in 1873. Asians were seen as bringing unfair labor competition, vice, disease. Horace Greeley, a prominent political figure and the founder of the New-York Tribune, labeled Chinese-Americans as “uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations.”
From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1924 to Japanese American internment during World War II, the United States has a long history of anti-Asian policies, with organized and well-funded opposition to discrimination that involved some of the most powerful public figures in American politics, business, religion, and academia.
Christians did everything they could to eradicate the Native American traditions via boarding schools. In 1872, the “Christianization” of the Native Americans was still ongoing. Early Christian colonists referred to them as “devils” and “heathens,” and were working to wipe away any trace of their culture and inflicting brutality on Native Americans in the form of violence and murder.
Starting 30 years after the Civil War, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) is an American hereditary association of Southern women established in 1894 in Nashville, Tennessee. a white Southern women’s “heritage” association, established in 1894 in Nashville, Tennessee, who's members aspired to transform military defeat into a political and cultural victory, where states’ rights and white supremacy remained intact. The UDC has probably been the single most effective propagandist for the Lost Cause myth, an alternative-fact-ridden version of history that denies slavery as the central cause of the Civil War while also insisting that slavery was a mutually beneficial institution—a win-win for both enslavers and the enslaved. UDC textbooks have taught generations of Southern children that the Confederacy—a nation whose founders were unequivocal about its cornerstone being white superiority and black enslavement—was a valiant and valorous cause.
In 1921, a white mob descended on an affluent black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now referred to as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The Greenwood District, which was known as “Black Wall Street,” was decimated in a matter of days. Roughly 1,200 homes were burned, 35 blocks burned, and an estimated 300 black people killed.
On June 3, 1943, white U.S. servicemen and police officers descended upon a majority-Mexican American neighborhood in East Los Angeles, California, and harassed, beat, and detained hundreds of Mexican American youth. The violent riot, now called the Zoot Suit Riots, was sparked by a misunderstanding and scuffle, which occurred the day before, between a group of local Mexican American youth and white sailors, but it had been fueled by centuries of colonialism and white supremacy.
During the 1970s, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants became increasingly worried about the moral direction of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court had banned official prayers in public schools, upheld abortion rights, and protected free speech for pornographers. Popular evangelical authors like Francis Schaeffer warned that these decisions were the fruit of a campaign by "secular humanists" to transform America from its true origins as a Christian nation. In the 1970’s, the religious right organized to protect Christian schools from being desegregated. As a result of Green v. Kennedy, a 1970 decision stripping tax-exempt status from “segregation academies,” private Christian schools were set up in response to Brown v. Board of Education, where the practice of barring black students continued.
Anger about forced desegregation of private schools galvanized conservative Christians. Bob Jones University resisted admitting black students, forcing the IRS to strip its tax-exempt status in 1976, an event that spurred evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell to marshal evangelicals into a Republican voting bloc. The argument used to defend school segregation: “religious freedom.” As Yale professor of American History, Tisa Wegner, wrote in the Washington Post, “In battles over slavery and racial segregation, religion and scripture were often cited as justification for maintaining inequality. Until the civil rights era, refusals to serve African Americans were often cloaked under the guise of religious freedom. As social norms changed, the religious justifications for this bigotry became legally untenable.” The Moral Majority, an American political organization, was founded in 1979 by Jerry Falwell, a religious leader and televangelist, to advance conservative and religious social values.
In 1995, Southern Baptists apologized for their endorsement and tangible support of slavery, segregation, and white supremacism, but did not acknowledge the role the Bible and Chrsitian theology played in that support. As Emma Green pointed out in The Atlantic, to this day they fail to address institutionalized racism or support the remedies that are necessary to undo centuries of slavery and Jim Crow.
Understanding Race and Racism Today
In spite of this long history and the benefit of hindsight, we are still a nation broken by racial animus and violence. The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police department set off the most recent round of national uprisings which may finally transform our approach to public safety and community justice.
While our approach in this essay has been Christianity as one origin and ongoing source of racism, it is a mistake to think that if religion disappeared tomorrow there would be no racism. Racism is a hydra and we need to understand other sources, including the history of race science and white supremacy.
Still, many white people struggle face the truth about racism. According to The 2015 American Values Survey, conducted by PRRI, more than four in ten (43%) Americans say that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. The 2017 PRRI American Values Atlas shows that white evangelicals are overwhelmingly more likely to see discrimination against themselves than against minority groups. In part, this is a reflection that they are losing the power, influence, and demographic dominance they once had.
Institutional racism does not require conscious complicity or overt bigotry. It simply requires that no one challenges its skewed premise about belonging, human worth, and dignity. Religious beliefs still inform our views of race and personhood. If we are to be a thriving and just nation in the 21st century, we need to accept the overwhelming evidence of institutional racism in order to identify and eradicate pockets of deep-seated injustice that are holding back significant numbers of our fellow citizens: the criminal justice system, housing and banking, public education, and more.
Racial equality and anti-racism are secular values. As secular people, we reject the notion that religion is the foundation of our democracy, support the separation of religion and public policy, understand that we are all one human species, and stand against the heritage of segregation, racism, and racial violence that persists to this day.
Secularism and Racism
It would be overly simplistic to say that secularism leads unequivocally to racial equality. The reality is that the dawn of secularism in the mid 19th-century is accompanied by its own justifications for racism.
Early evolutionary and anthropological theories of human origins led to pseudoscientific theories and practices such as phrenology and eugenics, and allowed for racist interpretations of the evidence. It was often outspoken atheists and freethinkers, eager to debunk the Bible, who championed these theories. Nathan Alexander, in his book, Race in a Godless World, has shown that freethinkers in the mid-19th to early-20th century largely accepted and repeated the racial science of the time, but due to their own cultural marginalization as minorities in a majority Christian country, had a measure of skepticism about their own groups racial and civilizational superiority. As scientific discovery advanced, erroneous views about evolution and race were replaced by the accepted scientific consensus today: that race is a meaningless category in biology and genetics.
"What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded," Svante Pääboa, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, who worked on the Neanderthal genome, told Live Science. "It is all a question of differences in how frequent different variants are on different continents and in different regions."
In some quarters of the secular community today we see a resurgence of interest in the discredited ideas of race science. In 2017, Sam Harris had Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, on his popular podcast. In spite of a decades long debate about Charles Murray’s ideas in that book, many of which have been widely discredited, Harris titled the episode, Forbidden Knowledge. Nathan Alexander has suggested that as atheists and freethinkers move from the margins to the mainstream their skepticism is at risk of backfiring. He writes,
There is, however, a danger now that, as atheists and other nonreligious people move into the majority, this skepticism will be redirected and that science and reason will instead be used to buttress the status quo by insisting on the innateness of race and gender differences (Race in a Godless World, 216).
Systemic racism affects every area of life in the US. From incarceration rates to predatory loans, and trying to solve these problems requires changes in major parts of our system. Here's a closer look at what systemic racism is, and how we can solve it
The Next Step
For secular white people living in the United States, it is not enough to be “not racist.” The depth of the problem demands that they be anti-racist. That is, white people should take up the cause of racism as something they actively oppose, starting with their own habits and thought patterns.
This work is extraordinarily difficult as it requires individuals to be deeply self-reflective and resist defensive impulses that arise when they are challenged about their words and actions. Two mental habits can be helpful: nonjudgmental listening and perspective taking.
Nonjudgmental listening means that when a person is telling you about their experience or the experience of others with which they are familiar, you listen without evaluating the legitimacy of their comments. Just listen. Take in what the other person is saying, understanding that unless they are acting deliberately in bad faith and lying to you, they are telling you their experience of the world. If you care about this person, you will listen to their testimony and take it in as one piece of evidence of how the world really is.
In perspective taking, an individual attempts to see the world from another person’s point of view. Listening, as discussed above, is a key part of perspective taking. Once you’ve heard what another person is telling you, ask yourself the question, “What if the world is as this person is describing it?” What if those things not only happened to her but happen to lots of people, every day? What would that mean for me?”
With practice you can begin to see the world a bit more as it is and not just as you are. Try engaging with the resources below and expand your perspective on the world.
Six ways to be anti-racist (based on the book, How To Be Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi)
- Understand the definition of racist
- Stop saying "I'm not racist"
- Identify racial inequities and disparities
- Confront the racist ideas you've held or continue to hold
- Understand how your antiracism needs to be intersectional
- Champion antiracist ideas and policies
Get involved with organizations that are working to undo racism
- Black Lives Matter | blacklivesmatter.com
- The Movement for Black Lives | m4bl.org
- Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) | www.showingupforracialjustice.org
RaceWorks Toolkit (Stanford University) | sparqtools.org/raceworks
When They See Us. Ava DuVernay, creator. Neflix, 2019.
13th. Ava DuVernay, writer and director. Kandoo Films, 2016
Anthony Pinn: Your Footsteps Matter
Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility
Eddie Glaude: A manifestation of the ugliness in us
The Color of Fear - "Just Be American"
Religion and Racism
From Noah's Curse to Slavery's Rationale, by Felicia R. Lee (New York Times, November 1, 2003)
EXCERPT: ''The question is: where does this thing we call racism or racial hierarchy start, and it's been very contentious,'' he said. ''It's a huge question and has a big blame attached to it. Is it the Christians, the Muslims or the Jews? You find evidence for all three.''
White Supremacist Ideas Have Historical Roots In U.S. Christianity, by Tom Gjelton (NPR, July 1, 2020)
EXCERPT: "As long as that [African] race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists side by side with the white," [theologian James Henley] Thornwell declared in a famous 1861 sermon, "bondage is its normal condition." Thornwell was a slave owner, and in his public pronouncements he told fellow Christians they need not feel guilty about enslaving other human beings."
Southern Baptists and the Sin of Racism, by Emma Green (The Atlantic, April 7, 2015)
EXCERPT: That is a distinctively Christian casual claim, one that defines how the Southern Baptists are thinking about racial reconciliation within the church. To a certain extent, it also shapes how the church’s leaders are—and aren’t—thinking about racial disparities as a public-policy issue: Notably absent from the [Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission]’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and the decades of Jim Crow that followed. For Southern Baptists, it’s ironic to embrace the former but ignore the latter, for a simple reason: Their denomination helped define the history of American racism.
In 1860, a Southern Baptist pastor from Virginia, Thornton Stringfellow, defended the institution of forced enslavement of millions of African men and women in Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, with the full force of scripture: ‘Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command. … Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham's descendant's among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.’
The White Protestant Roots of American Racism, by Alana Massey (The New Republic, May 26, 2015)
EXCERPT: Even those founding fathers—who identified primarily as deists—shared views that aligned with Christian theologies. American society is heavily informed by this religious foundation, specifically in terms of racial injustice, even as religious identification declines.
Study: when it comes to detecting racial inequality, white Christians have a blind spot, by Tera Isabella Burton (Vox, June 23, 2017)
EXCERPT: The idea that certain groups misjudge the amount of discrimination that other groups struggle with is probably not such a shock. But more surprising may well be what’s one of the clearest indicators of perspective on bias in America: faith.
History of Racism in America
The 1619 Project (New York Times Magazine)
An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, by James Baldwin (New York Review of Books, January 7, 1971)
What Is White Privilege, Really? by Cory Collins (Teaching Tolerance, Fall 2018)
Tim Wise on White Privilege (VIDEO)
There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. by Radley Balko (The Washington Post, September 18, 2018)
The racist roots of American policing: From slave patrols to traffic stops by Connie Hassett-Walker (The Conversation, June 2, 2020)
Housing & Education
White People: Here’s Why Moving to a “Good School” in a “Good Neighborhood” Is Racist, by ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson (Chicago Unheard, January 21, 2020)
EXCERPT: One of the main ways that racism is enacted, personally and systemically, is through housing. We are all familiar with the “Whites Only” signs from the chapter in the social studies book that talks about civil rights. But today, just because a community no longer has a “Whites Only” sign out front, doesn’t mean that community allows Black people to live there.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010).
Nathan G. Alexander, Race in a Godless World: Atheism, Race, and Civilization, 1850-1914 (New York University Press, 2019).
Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014).
Christopher Cameron, Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism (Northwestern University Press, 2019).
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, When They Call You a Terrorist (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Books, 2018).
Sikivu Hutchinson, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (Infidel Books, 2013).
Sikivu Hutchinson, Humanists In the Hood (Pitchstone Publishing, 2020).
Sikivu Hutchinson, Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars (Infidel Books, 2011).
Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books, 2016).
Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be Anti-Racist (One World, 2019).
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (Seal Press, 2018).
Anthony Pinn, When Colorblindness Is Not the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Pitchstone Publishing, 2017).
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This is just the beginning of a ever growing body of historical and contemporary research. If you have something to add, a correction to offer, or a comment to share, we'd love to hear from you.