How Star Trek Addressed the Issue of Racism

Sun, 5 Apr 2015

At LibrePlanet 2015, I agreed with someone by saying "Make it so." One of my friends pointed out, "Your Trekkie is showing." I've enjoyed Star Trek ever since I first watched it, due to the underlying messages. Disguised as a futuristic science fiction series, the classic Star Trek series boldly explored the issues prevalent in the 1960s. This included the most heated issue of the time: racism.

The United States has had a history of racial struggles. Slavery had been legal in the United States for much of its history as people were able to buy, sell, and dispose of others as if they were property. The abolition of slavery was one of the aims accomplished through the American Civil War.

Even after the war, though, racism flourished. Segregation was practiced in many locations throughout the first half of the 20th century as people were denied basic rights.

This reached a head in the 1960s as the civil rights movement gained ground and as white supremacist groups fought back. In 1963, the bombing of an African American Church in Birmingham, Alabama left four schoolgirls dead and several others injured. In 1965, the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson by a state trooper during a peaceful protest drew attention to the struggle for equality. Jackson's death inspired the three Selma to Montgomery marches of that same year. When those marches were met with violent opposition from law enforcement as well as civilians, the nation was shocked by the images of brutality. Just five months later, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Less than three years after that, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. While the primary racial divide was between white and black Americans, other minorities were also repressed.

This was the backdrop for many Star Trek episodes. In an era when racism was rampant, Star Trek featured a racially mixed crew. Prominent bridge officers included Lieutenant Uhura as a communications officer of African descent and Lieutenant Sulu as an Asian helmsman. Having cast members in such important roles was revolutionary for the time.

Nichelle Nichols, the African American who played the role of Uhura, claims that she considered quitting the series early on. It was at that time Martin Luther King, Jr. contacted her and persuaded her to continue in the role. He emphasized the impact she was having as a black woman seen every week in a prominent and powerful position.

Star Trek, a series about the future, actually created history on November 22, 1968. The episode broadcast on that date - "Plato's Stepchildren" - is recognized for featuring the first interracial kiss to be broadcast on American television.

With characters from racial minorities showing a future of human equality, writers had to look elsewhere to deal with the topic of racism. The most common target chosen? Mr. Spock, the Vulcan science officer. In particular, Dr. McCoy regularly berated Spock and his half-Vulcan/half-human heritage. Since none of the show's viewers were from Vulcan, none of the viewers were offended. Without igniting a personal response, the writers were able to show the ignorance of racism and racist comments.

Even so, an argument can be made that Dr. McCoy was using his skills as a psychologist to force Spock to come to terms with his biracial background. In several episodes, McCoy directly or indirectly expresses his respect and friendship toward Spock.

The episode "Balance of Terror" introduced a new enemy to the series: the Romulans. Romulans and humans had waged a war a century earlier, but neither had ever seen the other. Only audio communication had been used. When the first visual image of a Romulan was seen, it became clear that Romulans and Vulcans had a shared history. They were related. Due to this revelation, the navigator - Lieutenant Stiles - overtly showed his prejudice toward Spock throughout the remainder of the episode. Apparently, Stiles had relatives who had died in the Earth-Romulan War. Yet his bigotry toward Spock was unfounded, distasteful, and disruptive to the function of the crew. This led to a rebuke from Captain Kirk.

In "The Omega Glory," Captain Tracey of the U.S.S. Exeter used Spock's pointed ears to convince the Yangs (a tribal culture on the planet Omega IV) that Spock was a devil. Likewise, in "Patterns of Force," the antagonist Melakon judged Spock based on racial features. "Note the sinister eyes and the malformed ears. Definitely an inferior race... Note the low forehead, denoting stupidity." Viewers familiar with Spock's logic and intelligence clearly understood the inanity of Melakon's racist words.

The most obvious treatment of racial tensions was in the episode ""Let That Be Your Last Battlefield." This episode introduces two characters. Bele, a police commissioner from the planet Cheron, was pursuing Lokai, a political refugee. The distinguishing feature of both men was that they were half-white and half-black, split right down the middle. While the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise did not seem to notice, the colors were reversed between them. Bele was white on the left and black on the right, while Lokai was white on the right and black on the left. This seemingly insignificant difference was the sole reason Bele was pursuing Lokai. On Cheron, those with Lokai's coloration were seen as inferior to those with Beles coloration. The episode concluded with the realization that a racially-motivated war had annihilated the population of Cheron.

Star Trek took some big risks by including racial minorities in the cast in such prominent roles. The series also tiptoed around offending the NBC sponsors and censors. With the potential of a backlash from viewers in the Southern United States - the hotbed of racism in the 1960s - Star Trek presented a future of racial equality. By doing so, Star Trek helped advance the cause of civil rights in 1960s America.