Terence Keel is an associate professor with a joint appointment in the African American studies department and the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics. He has investigated how Christian precepts have shaped racial and scientific attitudes into the 21st century.
Your scholarly interests range from medicine to philosophy. Where did your expansive outlook come from?
I was raised in a Pentecostal African American church. Early in life, I thought I would become a preacher, but I was turned off by the capitalist approach and the “prosperity gospel” aspect [the belief that God grants wealth and good health to those with strong faith], so that did not work out. I went to university to become a doctor, but the death of my mother at 36 got me asking big questions about society, [such as] why cancer affects so many people of color at early ages. So I turned to research in literature, philosophy, theology and history. I changed my major and took a different direction in my scholarship. My Ph.D. was in religious studies.
How did you develop the links between Christianity and ideas about race?
I read the late [Princeton professor of religion] Albert J. Raboteau, who blew my mind with a book [Slave Religion, 1978] that showed how American slaves shaped rituals for survival on the plantation in secret, but also how religion wears disguises. His book prompted a deep curiosity in me about where else religion could hide in our society. Is it possible that religious ideas hide within science and medicine? Scientists say they are working from facts, but their questions are based on the traditions from which they come. [Those traditions] dictate the way they analyze data and influence their answers, especially on issues of race.
How have attitudes toward race evolved?
From the 1940s, in the wake of the anti-Jewish belief that was behind the Nazi Holocaust, there was a mounting consensus that you could not divide people by stable genetic traits. UNESCO declared this in the early 1950s. But in the 2000s, there was a doubling back down [on the idea] that “race” is genetic. That was more about faith than rationality, stemming from the Christian intellectual tradition, in the questions [scientists] ask, the way they analyze data and narrate the development of history from a small set of ancestors. Our sciences inevitably reflect a society where racial inequality is prevalent and pervasive.
“You may miss significant social and political factors if you are still looking for racial commonalities.”
Some might think science and faith have been at loggerheads since the Enlightenment. But you don’t buy that?
I am not saying that modern scientists are somehow “Christian” by faith or conviction, or that they are not. But I argue [in the 2018 book Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science] that scientists have appropriated key elements from Christian intellectual history — a European way of looking at the world — in their effort to construct theories about human variation and race. And they still use [the Christian tradition] to frame their thinking today — sometimes at the expense of best scientific thinking. [This philosophy] reflects Christian supersessionism, the idea that Christianity trumps every religion that came before it. Modern scientists have built upon that certainty.
Where did this Christian theory of race originate?
The idea of separating people into races predates Christianity, back to the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, which tells the story of how Noah’s three sons repopulated the earth after a global flood. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther’s illustrated Bible, published in 1534, commissioned the painter and printmaker Lucas Cranach to depict God, Noah and his sons with European features. This is a subtle claim about which human traits [white skin, etc.] are closest to God.
The religious aspects of this problem are important to recognize, because by the 18th and 19th centuries, when the reach of biblical authority takes a back seat to scientific reason, Christian ideas about human origins are disguised as race science. For example, the late 18th-century secular ethnologist Johann Blumenbach used skull measurements to divide humanity into five races, helping inaugurate a tradition of secular scientific racism that has been profoundly shaped by Christian ideas. Today’s scientists who continue to argue that race is genetic are not only shaped by this hidden Christian intellectual history but are also engaged in a secular form of theology, which I call “secular creationism.” The scientific pursuit of race is held hostage by the belief that God/nature is destiny.
Tracing ancestors through genetic testing is popular, but is it helpful?
The benefits of seeking a historic racial identity, in genetic terms, is very limited. Doctors maintain that some health issues are based on race, like sickle cell [anemia] in Black communities. But if you look widely enough, you will find more significant factors than race, like the environment. Sickle cell is related to malaria, which is related to standing water. But the Christian legacy has suppressed our curiosity. You may miss significant social and political factors if you are still looking for racial commonalities. I would urge scientists to be more aware of the cultural and theological backgrounds of traditional thinking and question them. That [concern] has segued into my new area of work, which involves the Los Angeles coroner’s office.
So, what is happening in the L.A. coroner’s office?
With my colleague Nick Shapiro [assistant professor, UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics], Helen Jones of the social justice organization Dignity and Power Now and my colleague Lauren Brown [school of public health, San Diego State University], I am looking at how doctors classify the deaths of Black and brown people while in police custody.
This has been a political issue since the days of Alpheus Hodges, the first mayor of newly incorporated Los Angeles in 1850. He was also the county’s coroner and was responsible for conducting the scientific, medical and legal investigation into the circumstances leading to one’s death. When Hodges took on this role, white settlers were continuing a campaign of killing, exploiting and displacing the Indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva peoples, the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar [the Los Angeles basin and Southern Channel Islands], so how deaths were recorded was political.
My interest in the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner started after the murder of George Floyd. We all saw nine and a half minutes of Derek Chauvin [kneeling] on his neck, but the autopsy said he died of a heart condition.
Turning people’s biology into the cause of their own death is another example of the religious notion that God/nature, not society, determines our destiny. I have retrained in data science to look at the records of approximately 350 people in Los Angeles killed by law enforcement over the past 20 years, not by gun but by taser, chokehold or other methods. Many are categorized as “natural” deaths due to preconceived ideas associated with their race, mental health and preexisting conditions. This project reflects my evolving interest in understanding how religious values remain hidden within the scientific and medical study of human difference.
Read more from UCLA Magazine's April 2022 issue.