The Modern Origins of Race Theory

Some people look different. Some people act different. But the idea that humanity is divided into a few distinct “races” is one of the useful fictions of modernity, first developed by liberals, for the purpose of perpetuating capitalism.

There have always been words to describe different cultures, such as the word ethnē, which appears frequently in Sacred Scripture. Ethnicity is rooted in local traditions, such as shared language and dialect, music and dance, customs and rituals. Over time, ethnic cultures shift and evolve. Just as someone can learn a language by immersion, one can enter a new culture by being accepted into a community.

The word “race”, on the other hand, can only be traced back to the 16th century, in Italy or France. Its meaning became solidified in the 17th century around the time that Francois Bernier published “A New Division of the Earth” (1684) which argued that there are “four or five species or races of men in particular whose difference is so remarkable that it may be properly made use of as the foundation for a new division of the earth.” In this era of “Enlightenment”, racial theorists claimed to be working in the name of scientific inquiry.

Among Christians, especially WASPs, unorthodox theology was developed to justify racism. The heresy of polygenism became widespread. In the early 19th century, white supremacist Christianity in the American South invented new readings of the Mark of Cain and the Curse of Ham to justify their profitable plantation economy. These deceptive myths of modernity rejected our universal brotherhood as descendants of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 3:20) and disrupted the unity of the one human family.

These lies were taught most effectively by the mercantile capitalists of the transatlantic slave trade, who enforced brutal slave codes to break the solidarity between poor whites and African slaves. Additionally, many liberals in Europe eagerly embraced scientific racism. The supposedly “universal” human rights of liberalism could now be limited or ignored for “uncivilized” or “irrational” races, such as slaves in their imperial colonies. During the mass migrations from Europe to the Americas, the belief in the one “white” race was used to melt away the diverse identities and cultures of Europe and to convince poor whites to support the new racial order of modernity. From that time onward, racism has been a constant tool used to divide the working-class and prevent them from organizing an effective workers’ movement.