Gene Roddenberry is often credited with being revolutionary in his treatment of race equality in the characters of Chekov, Sulu, and especially Uhura. The on-screen kiss between Shatner and Nichols is often considered seminal. Certainly all this was groundbreaking to some degree and took a lot of guts.

But here's the thing: Roddenberry was writing about a time four hundred years in the future. So here's the question:

Was Roddenberry's view of equality among all peoples of Earth actually so unusual among his contemporary authors writing about the far future?

(Regarding the idea that people may challenge as opinion-based: I'm looking for answers bolstered by citations about contemporary works by other authors where possible, or references to academic or journalistic research on the matter. These should exist. )

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    Perhaps the Gene Roddenberry tag? 😉 Nov 10, 2015 at 7:52
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    Among scifi writers it was quite usual to write stories where race isn't a major issue. Less so on TV
    – Valorum
    Nov 10, 2015 at 7:57
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    I don't think anyone can argue that Trek is perfectly enlightened (then again, who is?), but TOS was originally supposed to have a female first officer, and TNG even put men in short skirts to try to address the sexism of TOS. Baby steps, maybe, but still more progressive than most TV programs of the time. Nov 10, 2015 at 9:46
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    Your mistake here is in thinking that "Roddenberry was writing about a time four hundred years in the future." -- most scifi is written about TODAY. Providing a different way at looking at today's problems and politics, and pondering direction of current trends (for ST TOS see: Eugenics, World War 3, cold-war esque politics between Federation and other groups, etc). Some hard scifi is really entirely about the future, but even then no other can really escape the lense of the present.
    – zipquincy
    Nov 10, 2015 at 18:06
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    @zipquincy, oh boy, I don't know how to respond to that without seeming rude, but you started by claiming "a mistake in my thinking". This is like "that girl at that party" on SNL who tries to be deep. Yes, of course SF is often a vehicle to comment on today's society. But that doesn't change the fact that writers still need to tangibly cast their works. And when they do that they are either making decisions about what the future will be, or what they wish it would be. The question is about what writers thought about the future. Nov 10, 2015 at 18:36

4 Answers 4


Let me give a bit of qualification for my source, which is me. I was born in late 1962, so I'm working with the memories of someone who was 7 when Star Trek ended its run. But I remember the news stories, since we often ate dinner in the den, while watching the evening news on TV. I remember seeing reporters wearing helmets and ducking down in trenches while reporting on the Viet Nam War, which was part of the milieu, which had a strong effect on Roddenberry and Trek and does tie in with racism, to a point.

I don't think Roddenberry was at all ahead of his time. I think he was merely tuned in to the more forward thinking of the time. I remember student riots about race, along with other protests. I don't remember and was too young to remember the Civil Rights Act (CRA for short), but when you think about that piece of legislation, and that it was already signed in 1964, so it was law before Trek aired, it's possible that influenced Roddenberry with his ideas of a multi-racial crew. But the CRA was law by then, so focusing on racial equality wasn't a new thing.

This was also during busing, which was happening in my area. I had friends going to public school and being bused for the purposes of integration and others going to "white flight" private schools in the counties to avoid that. So race and race relations were a major issue at the time.

Also, many of the sit-ins, the marches, and more, had been going on for a good while. Anti-racism protests had been going on since at least the 1950s. (Yes, there's more to it than the 1950s, I'm thinking of just the Civil Rights Era and the more immediate lead up to the CRA.)

Racial equality was part of the zeitgeist of the time. This is now 2015. A more conservative Supreme Court has ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry. But that's been on the way for a good while. Turn the dial back a few years to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. How forward thinking was Joss Whedon to put Willow in a lesbian relationship? Or for Joe Straczynski to have homosexual relationships in Babylon 5? Even back in the 1990s, there was a push toward gender equality issues. I think one could make a stronger case of Whedon or Straczynski being ahead of their times with those relationships than one can make of Roddenberry being ahead of his time with race relations. (And, notice, even though Trek had the first interracial kiss, there were no actual interracial relationships on the series.)

My first exposure to Trek was at (I think) the age of 7, when I saw Let that Be Your Last Battlefield during the first run, before Trek was syndicated. I remember, even at that age, I got the point that white/black was the same as black/white. It was in line with what I was learning at a "white flight" school and on TV shows and from many sources. I got the message, even at 7, that it applied to black people and white people and that the message was, "Don't hate others who don't look like you." I remember that was largely due to that being the general message I was getting from shows like Bonanza and the news and other TV shows at the time.

So I don't think he was ahead of his time, just in tune with those of the time who wanted to bring about change.

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    NBC probably wouldn't have allowed an ongoing interracial relationship since they were already worried that stations in the South wouldn't air Plato's Stepchildren (NBC insisted that their lips never touch). In fact, they were supposed to film 2 versions of the scene (one without the kiss for the southern states), but the actors intentionally flubbed every take of the bowdlerized version. There's also evidence the studio scrapped another interracial kiss from an earlier episode. Nov 10, 2015 at 9:35
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    I think there was a feeling things were going to change (maybe more than they did). Also look at the contemporary series UFO set in the future 1980, Gerry Anderson also speculated that racial problems would come to a head in the 70s and societies would be past these issues. Nov 10, 2015 at 12:35
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    It's always seemed odd to me that people herald Star Trek for the first interracial kiss, when the reason behind it was "psychic aliens forced them to do it", which sounds like rape to me. Nov 10, 2015 at 18:21
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    Regarding Willow kissing Tara on-screen, it's amazing to me that I remember "Money For Nothing" by Dire Straits being all over the radio and MTV in 1985 and afterwards, and no one thought twice about the fact that the f-word referring to homosexual men appears in it several times. Then, by 2001, there is a lesbian sex scene in "Buffy..." and most everyone is offended by the word that was not an issue 16 years earlier. In some ways that seems like a long time, but looking back it was like the blink of an eye. Nov 10, 2015 at 18:34
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    I think there is a difference between merely saying "racism is bad" and having regular black and Asian characters right there, working side by side with the white characters. I think that Dr. Daystrom was one of the first black characters on TV to be a PhD. Whoopi Goldberg vividly remembers being excited by seeing Uhuru on the bridge of the Enterprise, presumably because other shows of the time were not putting black characters, or women, in such roles.
    – swbarnes2
    Nov 10, 2015 at 22:46

Was Roddenberry really so far ahead of his time on race?

I think it is easy to underestimate how far ahead he was. See this from wikipedia (emphasis mine)

Uhura was an important part of the original series' multicultural crew and one of the first characters of African descent to be featured in a non-menial role on an American television series.

This quote shows how unusual it was to see.

Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be. — Whoopi Goldberg

This also seems relevant

Nichols explains below, she gave [sic] considered leaving Star Trek at the end of Season 1, hoping to pursue a broadway career. But MLK asked her to reconsider. A big fan of the show, Dr. King underscored the importance of her character, of what it meant to future African-Americans, of how her character, through the power of TV, was opening a door that could never be closed.

I think it is one thing to write about a future where people are equal, actually showing it with real people is another matter.

and I would say still ahead of his time considering this from Chris Rock:

go to the movies almost every week, and I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie.

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    I think "There's a black lady on TV and she ain't no maid!" from Whoopi Goldberg would be relevant as well. Nov 10, 2015 at 19:00
  • @mu thanks. I could not place that quote. Nov 10, 2015 at 19:18
  • Do you know of any quotes about the contemporary response to Dr. Daystrom? I tend to think that Spock calling a black guy a super genius might have left an impression.
    – swbarnes2
    Nov 10, 2015 at 22:49
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    A good answer, but very US centric. It was very progressive for US television, not so much for e.g. European TV, and much less for written science fiction. It was a bold step in US television, that's certain - and it must have been a big fight to make the TV networks finance and air the show (being both sci-fi and politically controversial, for the time and place). Of course, it's a bit hard to find reliable materials nowadays with "black" being replaced with "african american", which is especially ridiculous when talking about e.g. French blacks... Oh well.
    – Luaan
    Nov 11, 2015 at 10:14
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    It is US centric and it is focused on TV, but that's also the field in which Roddenberry was working, which pretty much sets the stage for the question in the first place. Discounting a question about Roddenberry's work because it's focused on one country and one media is like saying, "This answer about Van Gogh is incomplete because it doesn't include what was going on in the world in Asia at this time." Unless what was going on in Asia is proven to have a significant effect on Van Gogh, it's outside the arena of that particular discussion.
    – Tango
    Nov 13, 2015 at 3:14

It definitely wasn't unique among creative SciFi people in general. It may have been ahead of its time for TV; but it's hard to tell if it was attributable to external pressure of TV studio execs as opposed to creative talent.

Far before Roddenberry, R.A.Heinlein had a Filipino protagonist (with a romantic interest in a Latin girl) in 1959 Starship Troopers. (Plus, Manuel wasn't white in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", proving it to be a trend for RAH.

Then of course we have the usual suspects, e.g. Ursula Le Guin with 1969? Earthsea protagonist being non-white.

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    Seven years is "far before"? It wasn't unique in science fiction, but you've got a sea of apparently white protagonists in science fiction.
    – prosfilaes
    Nov 11, 2015 at 3:46
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    @prosfilaes - given the cultural changes at the time, yes 1959 is far before 1967. Nov 11, 2015 at 5:33

Star Trek may have been ahead of its time for American television; it was not ahead of its time for science fiction. You may wish to read the article "Race in SF" in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I will just give a few examples of the treatment of race in classic science fiction.

1935: Odd John by Olaf Stapledon; you can read it at Project Gutenberg Australia. Stapledon was a very influential writer; he originated many of the familiar themes of science fiction. Odd John is a story of tension and conflict between two races: Homo sapiens and Homo superior. (The term Homo superior was coined in this work.) The Homines superiores, few in number and scattered around the world, come in various shades:

Looking at the slight naked figures of various shades from Ng-Gunko's [n-word]-brown to Sigrid's rich cream, all seated round the table and munching with the heartiness of a school treat, I felt that I had strayed into an island of goblins. This was in the main an effect of the two rows of large heads and eyes like field-glass lenses, but was accentuated by the disproportionately large hands which were busy with the food. The islanders were certainly a collection of young freaks, but one or two of them were freakish even in relation to the standards of the group itself. There was Jelli with her hammer-head and hare-lip, Ng-Gunko with his red wool and discrepant eyes, Tsomotre, a Tibetan boy, whose head seemed to grow straight out of his shoulders without the intervention of a neck, Hwan Tê, a Chinese youngster, whose hands outclassed all the others in size, and bore, in addition to the normal set of fingers, an extra and very useful thumb.

Since the death of Yang Chung the party comprised eleven youths and boys (including Sambo) and ten girls, of whom the youngest was a little Indian child. Of these twenty-one individuals, three lads and a girl were Tibetan, two youths and two girls were Chinese, two girls were Indian. All the others were of European origin, except Washingtonia Jong. I was to discover that of the Asiatics the outstanding personalities were Tsomotre, the neckless expert in telepathy, and Shên Kuo, a Chinese youth of John's age who specialized in direct research into the past. This gentle and rather frail young man, who, I noticed, was given specially prepared food, was said to be in some ways the most "awakened" member of the colony. John once said half seriously, "Shên Kuo is a reincarnation of Adlan."

1951: "Dark Interlude", a much-reprinted and translated short story by Fredric Brown and Mack Reynolds; originally published in the January 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction, one of the leading science-fiction magazines of the time; you can read it at the Internet Archive. It tells of a visitor to the Twentieth Century from forty centuries in the future, a time when there are no more racial differences, who married a white woman in the rural United States. His brother-in-law confesses a murder to the sheriff:

"I got to asking him some questions about things in his time and after a while I asked him how they got along on race problems and he acted puzzled and then he said he remembered something about races from history he'd studied, but that there weren't any races then.

:He said that by his time—starting after the war of something-or-other, I forget its name—all the races had blended into one. That the whites and yellows had mostly killed one another off and that Africa had dominated the world for a while, and then all the races had begun to blend into one by colonization and intermarriage and that by his time the process was complete. I just stared at him and asked him, 'You mean you got
[n-word] blood in you?' and he said just like it didn't mean anything, 'At least one-fourth.'"

"Well, boy, you did just what you had to," the sheriff told him earnestly, "no doubt about it."

"I just saw red. He'd married Sis; he was sleeping with her. I was so crazy-mad I don't even remember getting my gun."

"Well, don't worry about it, boy. You did right."

1967: Galactic Odyssey by Keith Laumer; full text available from Baen Books. Here is a plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

Down on his luck college dropout Billy Danger shelters from a sleet storm in what he thinks is a corn silo, but which turns out to be a spaceship containing a party of upper-class hunters from the planet Zeridajh, from half-way across the Milky Way. They take him on as a gun-bearer, and after landing on a desert world, the two men are both killed, and Billy is left alone with the beautiful Princess Raire. Since only the men knew the password to re-enter the spaceship they are effectively marooned. They signal for help via a radio they find in an abandoned spaceship that has crashed into a nearby ravine. Unfortunately some none-too-friendly aliens answer the call and kidnap the princess, and then, clumsily, try to kill Billy. He survives, and is nursed back to health by a giant tabby cat who survived from the derelict spaceship. A more friendly bunch of aliens arrive and give him a ride to another planet, where he sets out in his quest to find the princess. He has many adventures across the galaxy, including being captured on a spying mission, where he is forced to ransom his friends' lives by giving up his right eye. Eventually he finds the princess, but she has been enslaved. He buys her freedom, and that of another human, but the human slave kidnaps the princess and he is forced into slavery himself. He eventually escapes, revenges himself on his enemies, and flies away with the princess.

There is nothing about race or skin color in that synopsis, and in fact such details are not an issue in the story, but it so happens that the hero is black, while the highborn lady whom he heroically rescues and whose love he wins is white. The heroine, the Lady Raire, is described near the beginning of the book; the hero, Billy Danger, is the first-person narrator:

The girl . . . I had to stop and get the other eyelid up. No girl could be that pretty. She had jet black hair and smoky gray eyes big enough to go wading in; an oval face, mellow ivory-colored skin, features like one of those old statues. She was wearing a white coverall, and the form it fit was enough to break your heart.

The hero's dark complexion could easily be missed by the careless reader. It is first hinted at about halfway through the story:

I looked up a local surgeon who examined my wounds and clucked and after a lot of lab studies and allergy tests, put me under an anesthetic and rebuilt my shoulder with metal and plastic to replace what was missing. When the synthetic skin had stitched itself in with the surrounding hide, he operated again, to straighten out my ribs. He wanted to reupholster the side of my neck and jaw next, but the synthetic hide was the same pale color as the locals; it wouldn't have improved my looks much. And by then, I was tired of the pain and boredom of plastic surgery. My arm worked all right now, and I could stand straight again instead of cradling my smashed side. And it was time to move on.

And only near the end of the book do we learn that he is black:

"Sir Revenat," someone started, and let it drop. I could almost hear his mind racing, looking for the right line to take. But nobody, even someone who had only talked to me for five minutes three years before, could pretend to have forgotten my face: black-skinned, scarred, one-eyed.

Here's how Billy Danger was pictured by cover artists Tom Kidd and Richard Martin.

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