race-mythology-redux

Race Mythology Redux

Have you ever heard any bizarre stories or conspiracy theories about race?

I have a relative who believes that modern day Jews are only pretenders and that the “real” Jews–the true people of God–are actually Anglo Saxon white people. A more recent group called the Black Hebrew Israelites, known for their street preaching, have co-opted this story and applied it to people of color.

White racists in antebellum America tried to justify their mistreatment of blacks through other religious stories–speculating that black skin is the mark of the biblical murderer Cain, or that Native Americans used to be white but were punished by God with dark skin for some transgression.

These stories, though rooted in paranoia, pseudo-science, and just plain racial hostility, can be very useful in the creation and maintenance of cultural identities. Race mythologies and race metanarratives give those who hold to them an inflated sense of their own importance which also allows them to justify their hatred or suspicion of the other.

How Did We Nazi This One Coming?

Here’s one race mythology you might not have heard of: Ariosophy. It was a philosophy pioneered by Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, a monk turned occultist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. After leaving the monastery, he wrote the book Theozoology, or the Science of the Sodomite-Apelings and the Divine Electron. In it, he claimed to have discovered the hidden history of mankind–that humans have a divine lineage that became corrupted through interbreeding with apes. He asserted confidently, “the god-men sodomized the ape-people… Through this action they themselves lost something of their higher natures.” This supposedly explains our dual moral nature, for, “he who is of God cannot sin, while he who is of the beast-men must sin.”

Liebenfels hoped to bring humanity back to this divine state, and he had a solution which fit in quite well with his era’s craze for eugenics:

“Indeed we are the ‘children of God’ in its literal meaning, we are children from his semen, from his flesh and from his bone. The purifying secret is selective breeding… God is purified race! — Present-day man has a twofold origin — from above and from below… Obviously the Kingdom of Heaven will be reached through intervention in the sexual life of man. Those of lesser value must be exterminated in a gentle way — by castration and sterilization… If we are striving to being the angelic men to rulership, we should improve the human body through selective breeding and through other means of adaptation which we will only find by investigating further.”

Liebenfels wasn’t alone in this way of thinking. As Eric Kurlander wrote in Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, “the occult doctrines permeating Vienna’s cafés and Munich’s beer halls before the First World War clearly helped to shape the Nazi supernatural imaginary.”

Kurlander also describes the cultural context which made room for these strange ideas:

“The modern world may have been defined by a disenchantment with respect to traditional religions. But there emerged simultaneously a renaissance in new forms of everyday religiosity. This longing for myth and renewed belief in fate and miracles occurred outside the framework of traditional religious institutions…”

In this milieu where applied evolutionary theory commingled (miscegenated?) with theosophic speculation and ethno-nationalist ideology, the question of how to recreate the perfect divine race naturally raised another question: where can purer specimens of this master race be found? The proposed answer to that question was the lost continent of Atlantis, whose citizens were supposed to be the purest race of god-men in its heyday. But since this hypothesized continent had been destroyed long ago, some proposed looking for the descendants of its ancient exiled inhabitants.

Such an important mission would have to be overseen by someone in a high position, and Heimlich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the SS and creator of its Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) unit, saw himself as just the man to do it. He appealed to contemporary German theosophical speculation that the Atlanteans had resettled in India and Tibet and therefore commissioned an expedition to the Himalayas to begin the search. The expedition team looked for signs that Atlantean refugees had once populated Tibet and went around measuring the faces and skulls of locals to determine if they had any Aryan blood.

Atlantis had not been a new obsession for the Nazis. Seven years earlier, in 1931, the House Atlantis was built in the German city of Bremen as a shrine and study center to the Aryan Atlantean myth. A sculpture of the Norse god Odin crucified on the tree of life–a shoutout to another thread in the Nazis’ syncretistic religion of race purity–adorned the facade of the building.

This mythological framework would have been truly fascinating in a science fiction novel, though when believed by actual human beings and applied to state policy, these fantastical, fictional world-building exercises became horrific. These are, after all, the ideas that helped rationalize a genocide.

Put That Thang Down, Flip It, and Reverse It

Though the details might have been new to you, certainly you’ve at least heard of the dangerous race ideology of Nazism. Let me try another one on you.

In 1930, Wallace Fard Muhammad arrived in Detroit proclaiming that black Americans were originally from the tribe of Shabazz–a lost people who had been kidnapped from Mecca and brought to America. Their history and religion had been taken from them, but he could help them retrieve it. After one of his followers committed a ritual murder, Muhammad was ordered to leave Detroit. Another of his followers, Elijah Muhammad (born Elijah Robert Poole), took his place as the leader of his organization–The Nation of Islam. It would find its greatest notoriety through its later spokesman, Malcolm X.

In various writings and speeches, Elijah Muhammad expounded on and developed his mentor’s racial metanarrative. In Message to the Blackman in America, he explained that the etiology of whiteness could be found in the work of an ancient mad scientist named Yakub:

“The Blackman is the Original Man. From him came all brown, yellow, red, and white people. By using a special method of birth-control law, the Blackman was able to produce the white race. This method of birth control was developed by a Black scientist known as Yakub, who envisioned making and teaching a nation of people who would be diametrically opposed to the Original People. A Race of people who would one day rule the Original People and the earth for a period of 6,000 years. Yakub promised his followers that he would graft a nation from his own people, and he would teach them how to rule his people through a system of tricks and lies whereby they use deceit to divide and conquer, and break the unity of the darker people, put one brother against another, and then act as mediators and rule both sides.”

The NOI also mirrored the teaching of Liebenfels, claiming that some white men tried to graft themselves back onto the black race but could only get as far as to become gorillas. The white man was a broken corruption of the original man that could never be truly fixed or healed. Muhammad’s solution to this corruption of mankind? The Mother Plane. In his 1973 book The Fall Of America, he wrote:

“The Mother Plane was made to destroy this world of evil and to show the wisdom and mighty power of the God Who came to destroy an old world and set up a new world… The same type of plane was used by the Original God to put mountains on His planets… The Mother Plane is made for the purpose of destroying the present world. She has no equal.”

The Mother Plane seems to have made its way into the broader culture in a fairly short time. For instance, in his 1974 film Space Is the Place, the afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra offers transportation on his spaceship to a new planet that he wants to repopulate with black people. After miraculously surviving an assassination attempt from NASA, Ra and a number of his black followers leave for the new planet while the earth explodes in the background.

It also seems to have influenced the music of George Clinton’s R&B band Parliament, though in a non-violent, inclusive, and consciously fictional form. In 1975’s “Mothership Connection,” black aliens (aka “extraterrestrial brothers”) led by Starchild “[return] to claim the pyramids” while a chorus implores “swing down, sweet chariot, stop, and let me ride” so they can “[party] on the Mothership.” In the Parliament concept album Trombipulation, the perennial unfunky villain Sir Nose is also said to have derived from a distinct evolutionary lineage, though in a twist the “Cro-Nasal Sapiens” were the original funky people. Parliament also released an album about funking in Atlantis, but since the hypothetical continent is more of a feature of Nazi mythology than the NOI’s, this is probably just coincidence.

Though it was itself a creative adaptation of Islam, the Nation of Islam spawned its own offshoots. One derivation called itself the Five Percent Nation (aka the Five Percenters and The Nation of Gods and Earths). The Five Percenters teach that the black man is the original man and God, though they have generally been more friendly to white people and even invited some into their ranks.

While less well known than the NOI which spawned it, Five Percenter ideology and lingo has strongly influenced many hip hop artists including Busta Rhymes, Wu Tang Clan, and Erykah Badu–the last of which presented Five Percent/NOI doctrine in her 1997 song “On & On”:

“You rush into destruction ’cause you don’t have nothin’ left
The mothership can’t save you so your ass is gon’ get left
If we were made in his image then call us by our names
Most intellects do not believe in God
But they fear us just the same”

This pro-black race mythology resurfaced in popular discourse in 2020 when actor Nick Cannon interviewed former Public Enemy member Professor Griff for his podcast Cannon’s Class. While Cannon was nearly unpersoned in Hollywood for comments deemed to be anti-Jewish, such as his claim that “you can’t be antisemitic when we are the Semitic people, when we are the same people that who they want to be,” the most extreme comments were aimed at white people collectively. For instance, Cannon asserted that:

“When we talk about the power of melanated people, when we talk about who we really are as gods and understanding that our melanin is so power and it connects us in a way that the reason why they fear black, the reason why they fear is because the lack that they have of it… Melanin comes with compassion. Melanin comes with soul that we call … We call it. We’re soul brothers and sisters. That’s the melanin that connects us. So the people that don’t have it are a little … and I’m going to say this carefully … are a little less. And where the term actually comes from, because I’m bringing it all the way back around to Minister Farrakhan, to where they may not have the compassion or when they were sent to the Mountains of Caucuses, when they didn’t have the power of the sun, that was that the sun then started to deteriorate them.”

What we find in the Nation of Islam and its derivatives is quite similar, not just in its key affirmations but even in its small details, to Nazi race mythology–the same song but played only on the black keys.

The Introduction of the New Race Mythology

But apart from relics like Professor Griff and your occasional Neo-Nazi or Black Hebrew Israelite, we’ve mostly left race mythology behind, right? Don’t we now live in an enlightened age of individualism and objectivity which eschews collectivized identities rooted in racialized pseudo-science?

Not quite.

John McWhorter’s Woke Racism calls out the new wave of “antiracism” seen in influencers like Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. In doing so, he highlights this neo-antiracism’s mythic qualities. What is called “anti-racism” today is, per McWhorter, “not a sociopolitical program but a religion.” He does not mean that it is merely like a religion, but that it is “actually a religion in all but name.” It has a group of people who buy into it and are thus righteous, whom he calls “the Elect.” It has a clergy–the influencers mentioned above. It also has its own version of original sin, which McWhorter identifies as “white privilege.” While McWhorter admits that this concept has some merit in its milder form, it has an exaggerated and detrimental liturgical expression wherein “the Elect testify—yes, testify—to their white privilege as a self-standing, totemic act.”

However, unlike more traditional religions like Christianity, which includes doctrines of grace and forgiveness, these are concepts which “the Elect do not seem to have exactly caught up with just yet.” In the anti-racism of, for instance, Robin DiAngelo, white people can never wash away the stain of racism. Nevertheless they are still morally obligated to continue confessing their racism (both known and unknown) and, perhaps most importantly, to contritely wear the scarlet R whenever it is pinned to them–especially when they don’t believe that they are really guilty.

The comparison of the new antiracism to a twisted, graceless version of Christianity is an apt one. However, one could also argue that antiracism is not so much a paltry copy of Christianity but a Race Mythology akin to that which was invented by the Nation of Islam; though it has been largely de-mythologized for a secular era in much the same way that the New Testament theologian Rudolph Bultmann sought to remove the supernatural elements of Christianity while maintaining its basic structure. What remains is a secular mythology–a racial metanarrative that encompasses all of human society in its proclamations, but without all the exciting science fiction stuff. Yes, white people are born with inherited guilt–a twistedness that people of color do not bear on account of even one drop of non-white blood that purifies them like the blood of Jesus. But please don’t take this dogma too seriously–it’s a metaphor that rational people can claim to believe while also acknowledging that it may not be strictly literal. Though white people are different from people of color and should thus be treated as such in this new mythopoetic drama, they are not actually inferior in a biological sense–race is just a social construct after all.

In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi accurately says that to be opposed to racism is to “recognize… the mirage of race which makes our skin colors more meaningful than our individuality”–an admission that initially places his viewpoint firmly in opposition to the Race Mythologies that we have already discussed. However, he goes on to argue that we must also pay close attention to this “mirage” if we are to fight against it–a true enough observation on its own, but in today’s “antiracist” movement ends up taking the form of strengthening and re-establishing this mirage where it has already begun to dissipate or may not be present at all.

This reification of racism is necessary in order to maintain the Manichean quality of the new religion–a quality which is on full display in How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi writes about his father, a preacher influenced by black liberation theology who “couldn’t care less what judgmental white people thought about him” and “[lived] on his own terms”–a “defiance” which Kendi states with the solemnity of congregants reciting the Nicene Creed, “could have gotten him lynched by a mob in a different time and place, or lynched by men in badges today.”

The religious structure of Kendi’s antiracism is not one I am manufacturing or imagining, but as Kendi himself acknowledges, “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be an antiracist.” And indeed, opposition to racism is a holy calling in the Christian religion. The first century apostles, themselves Jews, corrected fellow Jews for their practice of segregating the gospel message from gentile believers. But for these men, Christ was the center of their religion and an opposition to bigotry flowed therefrom; for Kendi, the all-encompassing mythology of antiracism is the religion.

As a Florida A&M college student, Kendi wrote in his student newspaper column that white people were “raised to be racist,” “socialized to be aggressive,” and had created “the AIDS virus” to fend off their own extinction (a conspiracy theory which he likely has abandoned in adulthood, though he was not shy about asserting that Republican efforts to repeal the individual mandate of Obamacare were “designed to shorten [black] lives” in How to Be an Antiracist). While in college, he was also briefly convinced that white people could actually be aliens. Is any of this sounding familiar?

Of course, we all have said things we regret, and these ridiculous, anti-white sentiments are over twenty years old. Nevertheless, it was not these statements that Kendi turned to when looking for a shameful personal event to open and frame his book How to Be an Antiracist. Instead, he recounted a speech he made as a high school student where he criticized what he believed were cultural flaws too prevalent among black Americans, like suspicion toward education, which he now believes was racist. But at least he can now say that he has left such “racist” ideas behind to embrace an antiracist, monocausal explanation for all of the problems that plague people of color–white supremacy. And since the problem is white supremacy and can be nothing else, discriminatory policies which favor people of color over white people are not actually racist but only corrective in nature.

During Bob Dylan’s phase as a Christian musician, he sang “you’re gonna have to serve somebody… It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” In a cosmic, winner-take-all battle, this conclusion makes good, logical sense. But when Kendi writes that one must choose between racism and antiracism–that “there is no such thing as a not-racist idea, only racist ideas [like colorblindness] and antiracist ideas”–it becomes clear that his antiracism is not a mere social movement but a softer kind of binary religion centered around racism.

Though one might think that the subtlety and biological realism of this modern religion would weaken its power, New Race Mythology is perhaps even more dangerous than the stories of Yakub and the Mother Plane because it is not believed and spread by wide-eyed street preachers, but by academics, journalists, and presidents of the United States. This legitimation makes its divisiveness and shaming much more potent.

Moreover, even if antiracism is not intended to be a new religion, in our contemporary secular world which has been slowly but surely leaving traditional religion behind, we must never forget Kurlander’s description of pre-Nazi Germany which serves as a warning to our time also:

“The modern world may have been defined by a disenchantment with respect to traditional religions. But there emerged simultaneously a renaissance in new forms of everyday religiosity. This longing for myth and renewed belief in fate and miracles occurred outside the framework of traditional religious institutions…”

The Danger of the New Race Mythology

It shouldn’t be difficult to see what this New Race Mythology must produce in the real world. Take a closer look at Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility–the runaway bestseller that all forward thinking people seemed to be reading after the death of George Floyd in 2020.

Much like the sinners in Paul’s epistle to the Romans “who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18), white people who are told plainly by DiAngelo that they are “connect[ed] to the system of racism” respond with anger, fear, guilt, argumentation, or withdrawal–anything but admitting that they are sinners in need of salvation. According to DiAngelo, “these responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.” In other words, white people suppress the truth to remain comfortable in their sin. Kendi invokes explicitly religious language to describe this alleged phenomenon when he writes in How to Be an Antiracist that, “the heartbeat of racism is denial” while “the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.”

But unlike the apostle Paul’s theology, which sees all human beings, Jews and gentiles, black and white alike, as equally “under sin” (3:22), DiAngelo’s harmartiology (doctrine of sin) is inherently racialized. Everyone in “the white collective” has “a white frame of reference and a white worldview.” For those who have been corrupted by whiteness, “racism is unavoidable… it is impossible to completely escape having developed problematic racial assumptions and behaviors.”

Paul, faced with a similar fate, cried out, “o wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me” (Romans 7:24)? But unlike Paul, who saw in the death and resurrection of Christ a promise of release from guilt and a hope for wholeness, DiAngelo has no “good news” in answer to this plaintive query–only the moral requirement to live a life of constant shame, repentance, and submissiveness.

This mythology will inevitably produce one of two things in those who put their faith in it: for people of color, it will produce a suspicion of and resentment toward their white friends and colleagues, driving them into segregationist patterns of thought and living. For white people, it will produce self-loathing, insecurity, shame, and a desire to confess and be flogged for sins that they have not actually committed.

But it will produce something arguably much worse for many of the white people who reject it.

Being told that you are on the bad team–a team you never asked to be on in the first place, has a tendency to create in many a sense of team comradery. If I’m on the bad white team, I can choose to accede to your demand and cover myself in shame, I can choose to opt out of the race game entirely, or I can put on the jersey and play ball with gusto. This is the choice that the New Race Mythologists force white people to make. Not surprisingly, there are many white folks who would rather drum up team spirit and feel good about themselves than take on the deficient identity that others have forced upon them. In an act of self-protection not unlike the creation of race mythology by the Nation of Islam, they reason that, “maybe white isn’t bad and maybe black isn’t good; maybe it’s the exact opposite.” And just like that the New Race Mythology has created the conditions to exacerbate real life, actual racism that harms people of color.

Coleman Hughes warns us about the certainty of this outcome in his book The End of Race Politics:

“The neoracist road leads to a grim world in which whites and minorities eternally swap the roles of the oppressor and the oppressed, the guilty and the blameless–a world with no conception of the common good but one where individuals put the interests of their own racial group first, whatever the costs to others.”

The Remedy to the New Race Mythology

If we are to fight this New Race Mythology, we have to be evangelists for a different kind of story. We must reject a metanarrative about humanity that tells us that the most important identity marker we have is our skin color; that our skin color tells us who we really are–a victim, an oppressor, a god, a devil, a thief, an apeling. In short, racial collectivism must give way to two seemingly opposite but complementary mindsets–individualism and universalism.

To be an individualist means seeing each person as a distinct moral agent–with equal potential to be friend or foe. To be a universalist means seeing the shared humanity in each of us, to see each person as intrinsically valuable regardless of their race. Both outlooks are summed up in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for a colorblind future wherein each person would be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. Or, as Hughes puts it, “a nation without second-class citizens.”

This colorblind nation or society would also be one without Race Mythologies–at least in places of social respectability. It would be a society where going on the news or standing in front of a classroom and claiming that all white people are racist would make one look as reasonable as if they were declaring that the Mother Plane is coming to destroy the world after making a stop in Atlantis. It would be a rational and neighborly society–a society we had begun to pursue and must pursue again.

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