The magical world of Harry Potter with its incantations, broomsticks, exotic creatures, and complicated spells may not mirror our own world much, but there are exceptions to the rule. One example that seems especially poignant is the presence of evil that revolves so tightly around the issues of race, racism, and identity politics.
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that J. K. Rowling’s depiction of Lord Voldermort, with his incessant thirst for wizard supremacy and his preoccupation with blood purity, is a theme that should be easily recognizable to anyone living in the United States with its history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.
A closer look at the magical series reveals numerous similarities between Harry’s world and ours. Below, you can see some of the terms used in the books, and it doesn’t take a genius to relate them to other words we are more familiar with (terms and definitions taken from the Harry Potter lexicon; words in italics at the end of each definition are my extrapolations):
Pure-blood: a witch or wizard of “pure” wizarding ancestry, without any Muggle ancestors as far as can be determined – though, truth be told, an actual “pure-blood” may not exist at all, as in the case of the Sirius Black’s family who simply erased portions of the family tree that were objectionable. Rowling herself says as much here. Examples of pure-blood families: Black family; Weasley family; Longbottom family (White or “whiteness”; many wizards own elves in the same way many whites owned slaves; Hermione is actually the first character to lead a abolitionist movement to free the elves – of course this could be completely reversed with illuminating results also – seeing pure-bloods in comparison with pure African/Black ancestry and Muggles as magically inferior but still feeling psychologically superior to wizards as Aryans or white supremacists would)
Muggle: a non-magical person/human; example: The Dursleys (Black or non-white)
Muggle-born: a wizarding person born of two Muggle parents; ex: Hermione Granger; Ted Tonks (Mixed; black, or at least non-white according to the “one drop rule“)
Mudblood: literally “dirty blood” – a nasty term which means the same as “Muggle-born” but not a term used in polite company
Half-blood: a witch or wizard with at least one wizarding parent but at least one Muggle parent or grandparent; examples: famous half-bloods include Harry Potter, Tom Riddle, Rubeus Hagrid (mixed; mestizo; person born as a result of Miscegenation)
Blood Traitor: a pure-blood who doesn’t insist on maintaining his or her purity (N—lover; sympathizer; disgrace to the race)
Squib: a non-magical person born of two wizarding parents; a much rarer phenomenon than a Muggle-born witch or wizard
I am aware that there are could be a lot of different ways to configure which terms relate to which real life realities in our own world, but perhaps this quick overview will at least make my point that there is indeed some fodder in these books for reflection on race, identity, genetics, and power.
Of course, I am not the first nor likely the last person to make such an observation, as is evident from this excerpt from an interview of J. K. Rowling in Entertainment weekly:
Entertainment Weekly, 9/7/2000
One of Goblet‘s biggest themes is bigotry. It’s always been in your books, with the Hitlerlike Lord Voldemort and his followers prejudiced against Muggles (nonmagical people). In book 4, Hermione tries to liberate the school’s worker elves, who’ve been indentured servants so long they lack desire for anything else. Why did you want to explore these themes?
Because bigotry is probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of “that which is different from me is necessary evil.” I really like to explore the idea that difference is equal and good. But there’s another idea that I like to explore, too. Oppressed groups are not, generally speaking, people who stand firmly together — no, sadly, they kind of subdivide among themselves and fight like hell. That’s human nature, so that’s what you see here. This world of wizards and witches, they’re already ostracized, and then within themselves, they’ve formed a loathsome pecking order.
For Christians, at least those who are OK with reading books like Harry Potter, there is something here worth contemplating. Race is a social invention that has no basis in science or biology – and in the Church, we have a name for things like racism, white supremacy, Arianism, and bigotry – we call it sin.
The danger for all of us Muggles is that it is not just the Lord Voldermorts or Hitlers of history that succumb to this alternate story about blood and purity. This demented narrative sucks life, happiness, and joy out of our relationships with others, finding its way into corporate boardrooms, law-making bodies, immigration policy, small town communities, large urban centers, family dynamics, and personal thoughts and impulses that may never be spoken aloud. Such is the nature of sin and evil – it creeps slowly and deliberately, often masquerading as virtue, truth, or reason.
Baptism, on the other hand, opens us up to a different world and a different reality. It is not magical, but it is mystical and awe-inspiring. In Christ, we are no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black nor white, Anglo nor Hispanic. We are all one in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall between us. In other words, baptism says that “water is thicker than blood,” and familial ties to sisters and brothers in Jesus are more binding on us than our biological family trees. (Matthew 10:37 and Luke 14:26) And purity, blood purity, is not about who in our past had sex with whom, but about who died on our behalf and shed his blood so that we might be pure, spotless, and blameless before our Creator and our Lord.