The Very Good Gospel: Race, Dominion, and the Image of God
By Lisa Sharon Harper
Race is about power—in biblical terms, dominion. As a political construct, race was created by humans to determine who can exercise power within a governing structure and to guide decisions regarding how to allocate resources. Racial categories do change over time, but only as governments refine language.
Plato’s The Republic (360 BCE) laid the foundations for the Western belief in human hierarchy. According to Plato, God created a class hierarchy determined by “racial” categories delineated by the kind of metal people were made of: gold, silver, iron, or brass. Each “race” was ordained to hold different stations in society. Book VIII laid the foundations for the belief that the mixing of the races would lead to destruction.
Fast-forward to 1452. Pope Nicholas V paved the way for the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa when he authorized Alfonzo V of Portugal to perpetually enslave anyone not Christian, especially Muslims. Three years later, the same pope issued the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring that Catholic nations had the right to “discover” and claim dominion over non-Christian lands. The bull also encouraged the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of conquered lands.
Fast-forward to the Enlightenment era. In 1767, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, founder of botany’s taxonomy of fauna, published the twelfth edition of his Systema Naturae, which defined the first taxonomy of human racial hierarchy based on skin color.
Twenty years later, the US Congress made official what the courts of the American colonies had already established by precedent. The newly formed United States of America enacted the racialization of power. Congress passed the three-fifths compromise, which increased the number of members in the House of Representatives who represented districts in the slave states. Congress determined that each enslaved person would be counted as three-fifths of a human being. Congress members from the North had argued that slaves should not be factored into the populations of slave states. With the compromise, however, Congress declared that black people would be counted, but as less than human.
Three years later Northerners got their way on the first national census in 1790. Enslaved black people were listed as chattel—nonhuman property—along with pitchforks and horses.
In the same year, Congress passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, which declared that only free white men could become naturalized citizens. This was significant because only citizens can vote, and voting is the most basic form of the exercise of dominion. Other forms of dominion, such as the capacity to steward, to exercise agency, and to lead, hinge on this basic right. With this law in place, for the next century new immigrants to the United States could be legally categorized as white.
In 1922, the US Supreme Court heard the case of Mr. Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who argued that Japanese people are white. Ozawa had been in the country for twenty years and wanted to become naturalized. He had been blocked by the Naturalization Act of 1906, which restricted naturalization to free white people and people of African descent. The court denied Ozawa’s claim to whiteness and, with it, his chances of becoming a citizen.
We see our nation’s struggle to define race in changing categories used when a national census is conducted. In the first US census in 1790, racial categories included free white, free other, and slave. Thirty years later, racial categories were expanded to include free colored and foreigners (not naturalized). And every ten years following 1830, our country has struggled to adjust its racial categories to match the growing complexity of our people groups. By 2010, the census revealed the absurdity of the fundamental category of race. In that census, race, ethnicity, and nationality were combined into a single category of race.7 The 1850 census took place at the height of the American slave trade and in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, which called slave masters to free their slaves. The census that year sought to capture the realities of an increasingly complex human landscape. According to a report on Census.gov, the 1850 Free Inhabitants schedule listed races as white, black, or mulatto (mixed). The schedule had a separate question regarding place of origin, and there was a completely separate schedule for slaves. The slave schedule delineated race using two categories, black or mulatto. Chinese men from Canton Province began arriving in the United States to work for the Central Pacific Railroad in 1850. By 1868, twelve thousand Chinese men worked for the company. The 1870 census responded by adding Chinese to the list of races. The category incorporated all people of Eastern descent. In this year, the census incorporated the category Indian for Native American but only counted assimilated peoples living in or near white communities. In 1890, eight years after the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the census delineated between Chinese and Japanese. It also attempted to capture the complexity of mixed-race heritage by adding quadroon and octoroon to the list of races. A review of the 2010 census shows the categories Hispanic, Latino, and Spanish ethnic origin, with an option to write in one’s nation of origin. The census lists “racial” categories, and respondents choose one or more categories, which were white, “black, African am., or Negro,” “American Indian or Alaska Native—Print name of enrolled or principal tribe,” Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, “Other Asian—Print race, for example Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on,” Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, Samoan, “Other Pacific Islander—Print race, for example, Fijian, Tongan, and so on,” “Some other race—Print race.”
Why does the federal government ask for the nations of origin for Asian and Latino people, tribal affiliation for American Indian people, and include “African American” (a specific ethnic group within the racial category “black”) but does not ask “white” people to identify their ethnicity or nation of origin?
It’s because of power. The only racial category on the national census that did not change from 1790 to 2010 was “white.” In the United States, whiteness is the centerpiece around which all else revolves. That was and is intentional. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin argued to the British ministry that due to the shrinking percentage of white people on earth, America should be kept an exclusively Anglo-Saxon colony to protect the race. In the years following the establishment of our nation, the founders followed Franklin’s lead and white became the identity of power. Race is inherently about power, and whiteness was created to define who would wield it.
The core lie of Western civilization is that God reserved the power of dominion for some, not all. Since the Enlightenment era, that lie has been racialized. With the founding of our nation, racialized dominion was made law with one resounding message: God reserved the right of dominion for white people and no one else.
Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Sharon Harper. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lisa Sharon Harper is an author, Chief Church Engagement Officer and Columnist for Sojourners, and an Auburn Senior Fellow. Click here to purchase her book, The Very Good Gospel. Which Voices leave you wanting to hear more? Email us ideas for interviews at firstname.lastname@example.org.