Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.