Roots of racism

We have some issues with racism in football over here. Not many, it should be said – the Football Association has worked hard to root it out both amongst supporters and players. But the (now removed) England captain is now awaiting trial on charges of racially abusing a fellow-player. It was also reported that at a European game (where to be frank crowd racism is far worse) spectators were chanting abuse at one of the black British players.

The roots of race-hatred are complex. At one end are fairly primitive human impulses like xenophobia. There are also genuine social antagonisms caused by immigration, unemployment and terrorism attributed to racial minorities. And of course, in the middle still lurks the spectre of several centuries of the slave trade. But does racism in sport give any clues as to what motivations – what supposed justifications – are operative?


The slave trade arose, sadly, in a European Christian culture. Theological justification for it, however, was always rather weak, based on the precedent of types of slavery endorsed by the Torah, and the lack of open condemnation of it by New Testament writers, who lived of course at a time when it was the basis of the entire economic and social order. Even so, it is notable that slavery was realised to be less than commendable: one of William the Conqueror’s more enlightened acts was to outlaw slavery from England a thousand years ago, and even in Elizabeth I’s time a court case established that slaves could not be held in England even by those who had obtained them abroad. There seemed to be an idea that Christians should not enslave Christians: non-Christians apparently merited different treatment. Yet for the most part there was a recognition that the “poor negroes” were also beloved of Christ, leading to inconsistent practices like allowing evangelism of slaves but forbidding them to worship.

Except when owners were making up their own self-justification, the humanity of slaves under God was recognised in principle. Perhaps the most sophisticated theological “fixes” were the contention that blacks were from a non-Adamic race (which was never orthodox) or, incompatibly with that, that they were from the cursed race of Ham (despite the Ethiopian eunuch), an argument I actually heard from a South African theological college before Apartheid ended.

The other serious candidate for racism is the Darwinism that, pretty rapidly, flowed into the Eugenics movement and the associated attitudes I’ve written about before. The marked difference from the earlier Christian aberrations is that this was not an argument for slavery based on historical normality, but an argument for eradication at worst, and restriction at best, based on biological inferiority. Quite literally, even at the start of last century, biology was teaching that the black races were evolutionary intermediates between apes and Europeans – or even between apes and man. Mainstream science openly taught the inferiority of non-white races.

As regards the unpleasant and ignorant behaviour seen at football matches, what stream of intellectual bigotry have the crowds (and maybe players) picked up? According to testimony on the news (I confess I haven’t done football matches since Guildford City used to play around the corner from our house when I was a kid), the taunts consist largely of monkey noises, the throwing of bananas and cries of “Get back to the jungle.” You don’t hear shouts of “Where did you leave your chains?” or “Whose father was Ham, then?”

The evidence would seem to suggest that present racism is actually a living legacy of evolutionary theory. There are advocates nowadays for western countriues to apologise for the slave trade. I wonder why nobody’s suggested the body scientific making reparation for racial eugenics?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Roots of racism

  1. Gregory says:

    Nice way to weave in sports and science together, Jon.

    Wrt your final question, who or what body would you suggest could make such an apology?

    One problem is that Darwin himself was not a ‘racist’ the way the term is understood today.

    Another problem is that of ‘political correctness’ and, as Nietzsche said, ‘trying to make equal what is not equal.’ In a theological context, one may speak of equality, whereas in a worldly context, differentness is something we speak about much and easily. Heckling or taunting at sports matches often operates on a ‘whatever works’ level; the primative competitive impulse to protect one’s tribe at any cost, high scientific mindedness aside.

    Would you like to bet on how many white (or caucasian) sprinters will race in the 100m final at the London Olympics this summer, or how many Asians or Africans will compete in the Javelin final?

    One major issue here is to be found in the balance of the ‘scientific’ academy. The human-social sciences have basically given up the concept of ‘race.’ I recall asking directly to the then-president of the International Sociological Association, since he considered ‘race’ a ‘non-scientific’ concept, would he suggest that ‘ethnicity’ is un-scientific as well? He said, in short, yes (probably much to the chagrin of the several in the audience who study ethnicity with scholarly rigour).

    It’s a tough question, unless one simply wants to refer to everyone as ‘human’ – ‘unite the humans!’ – as if previous anthropological categories need no longer apply. I would agree that evolutionary theory plays a significant role here. Particularly the notion of anthropological ‘polygenism’ would seem to be the main obstacle to ‘uniting humanity,’ while in theology the actual fragmentations also divide people along ecclesiastical lines (one might only imagine the taunts at a football match between the Vatican squad and a team from the Southern Baptist Congress!).

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I was being a little tongue-in-cheek in my last remark! I think the business of apologising to previous generations is absurd, given history’s complications: national reparation may be a different matter, or maybe not: it led to the Second World War. I wanted to point out how blind scientists are to the sociological implications of their work – science was at the forefront of Eugenics, but simply chooses to write that out of history, though the effects remain in society. So the direct answer to your question: The Royal Society, since Darwin was a fellow!

    For better or worse, heckling at sports events does come under the law here, partly because bad behaviour has led to deaths. We, or at least the Scots, actually have the equivalent of your Vatican/SBC divide, in the two teams of Glasgow Celtic (RC) and Rangers (Protestant). As you’ll realise, the division is tribal more than theological.

    But I maintain that the equation of people with monkeys is the contribution exclusively of evolutionary science, Darwin’s humanitarianism notwithstanding. The latter was not shared by Galton, Haeckel and so on.

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