William Wilberforce was a British white man who was born into wealth, and quickly attained significant political power. He was elected as a Member of Parliament at the age of 21, while still a student. From such a position of privilege, what could Wilberforce ever legitimately say about racism? He had no personal experience of slavery. And yet, it was Wilberforce who spent most of his life and strength spearheading the effort to end the slave trade in the British Empire.
What motivated him to fight for the rights of those who were oppressed in ways he had never experienced personally? His relentless drive came from his strong Christian faith. He believed that every person of every race is created in the image of God himself, that every person of every race is equally valued and loved by their Maker, and equally offered salvation in Christ. “Am I not a man, and a brother?” became the slogan of the abolition movement. Wilberforce saw God’s precious creation being abused and mistreated, and he refused to rest until he could see all people valued by each other as they are valued by God. After slavery was abolished, he also worked to end child labour and to reform the prison system—for the same reasons.
Fifty years later, another British white man was born into wealth, and attained significant fame and influence. His name was Charles Darwin, and both of his grandfathers were prominent abolitionists who worked with Wilberforce’s movement to end the slave trade. Following that heritage, Darwin also spoke against slavery. But his foundational philosophy was different from Wilberforce’s, and the results eventually differed as well. As his theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest developed, Darwin began to draw out its implications for relations between human races in his book, “The Descent Of Man”:
“The Western nations of Europe . . . now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilization. . . . The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races through the world.”
Darwin did not directly say that racial extermination was desirable, but his language, and the theory it rested on, was used to justify racist policies and genocide all over the world—from the American government’s treatment of native Americans, to apartheid in Africa, to the holocaust, and more. In 1876, while Darwin was still alive, The Melbourne Review argued that “the inexorable law of natural selection [justifies] exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races”, and Darwin raised no objection. He simply observed that “I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilised over a savage race.”
Yes, Darwin spoke out against slavery specifically, but he did so as someone speaking against cruelty to animals (humans and animals were the same to him, after all), not as someone who believed that all people were created equal, like Wilberforce. Darwin taught the world that some races are more fit to survive than others, and the consequences of his teachings have brought untold suffering to millions of precious humans, made in the image of God himself.
Two white men. Two very different approaches to race and racism, built on two fundamentally different views of where people come from and what gives them value. It’s important to note that the approaches of both men were consistent with their foundational beliefs. Which man would you rather was right?
In our own stand against racism today, we need to look carefully at what we are standing on.