IDEMA: Is 'race' an obsolete term?

May 13, 2012


On the other hand, maybe this is the best of times to do some serious thinking.

Let's begin with this famous quotation from Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). Paul is not arguing that distinctions will no longer exist in the church (after all, he never argued against slavery). What Paul meant is that these distinctions pale in comparison to the unity Christians have in Christ.

The Church has failed to live up to this high ideal. Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour in our culture. Women cannot be priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Jews have been persecuted by Christians for centuries, and until recently could not be members of the Grand Rapids-area country clubs.

However, Paul is not talking about "race" as we use this term, although his ideal could be expanded to include skin color.

Isn't skin color what we are talking about when we talk about race? The idea of race evolved from the theory of evolution and the field of anthropology. Skin color, body structure, culture and place of origin were the points of differentiation among human beings.

But today in America, where we are unified by one culture, skin color is the main criterion of what constitutes "race." We no longer think of how pigment was distributed in evolution (e.g., one way in Africa where the sun is hot, or in the Scandinavian countries where the sun is cold). We just look at the color of one's skin and then label a person as white, Native American, Asian, Hispanic or African-American.

Jews are not a race even in the "old-fashioned" anthropological way of thinking, although Hitler thought of Jews as a separate race with a separate culture. And "blood" was his obsession. He would have anybody executed whom he believed had even a drop of Jewish blood. In our thinking about race, we have also confused skin color with blood.

Many slaves in the 1850s in the South were white in pigment; but had, once again, that proverbial drop of blood, here belonging to an African-American — although that polite term was not used then.

Our president is considered black, and he considers himself black, even though he is half-white. If someone in his situation called himself white, he or she would be accused of denying one's black heritage. But what about his white heritage? Will the voters in November consider that along with his black heritage? I doubt it, in some political circles.

So my main point is that, when we are talking about race today, we are primarily talking about skin color.

Why are so many white people (and why am I considered white? I am rather pink, like the crayon that used to be called "flesh" color and perhaps still is, but isn't flesh all different colors?) prejudiced against what we now call "people of color" (which apparently does not include white or pink)? What we call "racists" are really "pigmentists" — which isn't a word in the dictionary, but you know what I mean.

I find it one of the gravest sins in our culture that certain people hate other people simply because of the color of their skin, no matter who is doing the hating. Maybe one day we will achieve Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision that we will judge people for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. That day cannot come soon enough.

But until that day comes, when we think of hate crimes, and when we think about the make-up of a student body, we need to be thinking about people of all colors. And no student body — whether at the University of Michigan or the University of Texas — can lack diversity of skin color since skin color still arouses so much emotion, especially prejudice and violence, especially hate crimes.

I hope the day will come when we will be truly color blind (except appreciating the beauty of all colors), a day when the ideals of St. Paul and Martin Luther King Jr. will dominate our thinking and inform our actions. We are, after all, one race — the human race.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist


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