There's No Place for Racism in the Final Frontier: Star Trek's Brilliant Episode on Discrimination

We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. 

This post originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.


Star Trek has ever been a beacon for equality. In the sci-fi show's bold vision for a space-faring future, mankind is united. All of Earth's genders and races step out into the vastness of space together.

When the original series first aired back in 1966, such a future was difficult to grasp. Though the Civil Rights Movement opened a portal to equality through which our country walked, not everyone was transported. Individual minds are not as easily changed as laws. No doubt many were uncomfortable when an African American actress, the stunning and intelligent Nichelle Nichols, appeared on screen, not as a futuristic maid, but as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. No doubt even more people were irked when she and William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk, shared what's popularly considered as the first interracial kiss on television.

Over Star Trek's six television iterations, there have been many episodes dealing with discrimination, but none perhaps so masterful and poignant as "Far Beyond the Stars." Appearing in the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the episode sees Captain Benjamin Sisko, portrayed by Avery Brooks, fall into a coma of sorts. In an altered state of consciousness, he becomes Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer on Earth in 1950s New York City. There, Russell is inspired to write a science fiction story about a futuristic space station called Deep Space Nine, captained by a black man: Captain Benjamin Sisko. At first, the story is rejected by his editor, simply for the reason that the protagonist is black. "People won't accept it; it's not believable," he argues. "For all we know it could cause a race riot." But a compromise is reached: what if the entire story is just a vision, dreamt up by a "poor negro"? Excited to have his story published, Russell celebrates with his fellow writers and his girlfriend. Sadly, the compromise fails when the owner of the magazine decides to scrap the entire issue and fire Russell rather than publish his story.

The episode broke through when it originally aired back in 1998, because unlike other charming Star Trek episodes that dealt with social issues, this one did not employ metaphor. It was brutal, at least as much as primetime television would allow. At one point, Benny Russell is beaten by bigoted white cops, similar to how his story is later pulped. The "N-word" was actually used and uncensored, a rarity for the series and for modern American television in general. Russell's story does not end happily. It ends with him, mentally and physically beaten, breaking down and sobbing among his co-workers.

"You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea!" he cries. "Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT'S REAL!"

Keep in mind, it wasn't the mental beating and anguish of being fired and having his story turned down that spurred Russell's breakdown. Nor was it even the physical beating he endured earlier. No, it was fomented by years of pernicious, prejudiced flogging that, ever so gradually, wore away at his psyche. Ounce by ounce, veiled racism weighed him down, until he collapsed.

“What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious,” Avery Brooks later explained. “It’s in the culture. It’s the way people think." The only overt racism in the episode came from the two intolerant cops that beat Russell, the rest of it was concealed in institution.

"It's not personal, Benny," Russell's editor explained when Russell is told that he can't have his picture appear in the science-fiction magazine. The readers simply can't know he's black. That's just the way things are, and the way things have to be. Sexism also made an appearance in the episode. One of Russell's co-workers, a woman, had to use a man's name just to be published.

It was the same institution portrayed in the episode that -- back in 1967 -- attempted to thwartSamuel R. Delany, a distinguished science fiction writer, and yes, an African American. Just like Russell, when Delany submitted his novel Nova to John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous sci-fi editor for Analog Magazine, Campbell rejected it because he didn't feel his readership would be able to relate to a black character.

"It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket," later remembered. "Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry..."

Too bad for Campbell, because Delany's Nova, would turn out to be a smash success.

Unlike what happened to Russell in "Far Beyond the Stars," Delany's experience ended happily. But, all too often, situations like those do not. We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. Eliminating racism is just as challenging as traveling amongst the stars. But if Star Trek is any portent, those two bright outcomes are inexorably linked. And just maybe, by the 24th century, they'll both be realized.

(Image: Star Trek)

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.