Monday, December 15, 2008

On the Invention of Racism, Part II

Oh, what a way to start the party I referred to a couple days back. From the very beginning. Note to the upstairs party - make sure you read the full post before you let the way it all begins get you, because it was very intentional, and NOT because I hate white people.

For the first installment, see "On the Invention of Racism, Part I."

So, where did I leave off? Oh, right - what history really looked like before it got re-written.

I was talking about the fact that white Europeans were simply NOT superior - AT ALL - for most of the period of time we like to call "written history." In fact, if we were talking about technological and social advances, we'd have to call them plain inferior. To - pretty much - everyone else. Seriously.

And me writing that probably blows people's minds. Because that's not how our textbooks tell it. And isn't that just racist to say in the first place?

My response? I don't know - is it? Is it racist to state the simple fact that white Europeans literally swam in their own sh-- during much of the second millennium while civilizations of color in Africa, Asia, and the "American" continent practiced good hygiene? Is it racist to say that white Europeans in the 1300s were illiterate savages, in contrast to the highly-educated, scientifically-advanced Moors, or Mayans, or Sudanese, or Chinese, or . . . (you get the picture)? Is it racist to speak of the barbarism of white European colonists in contrast to the settled, civilized natives that they butchered? Is that racist? Because it really seems to me that that's what every single American child learned in school . . .

Oh, wait. No. My bad. They learned the opposite. Right. They (we) learned that white Europeans were the advanced ones, while everybody else was backwards. But that wasn't racist because it was true.

Except it wasn't.

No - it was only true after racism was invented. And institutionalized.

Because there was a time (through all these years of primitive European backwardness) when different races of people didn't exist. The concept of race didn't really exist. There was the acknowledgement of different skin color, of course. And of different places of origin and civilizations. But it wasn't about race. The differently-colored civilizations of the world traded with each other, took advantage of the advancements (and weaknesses) of the others, and lived in a relative state of peace with each other (and I specify "with each other," because they were obviously fighting amongst themselves - but more within the same racial groups than without).

And nobody was "superior." Sure, the Chinese have always thought themselves superior to everybody else, but nobody was actually superior in terms of dominance or advancement or anything else like that. One culture had their way of doing things, the other culture had their own way, and that was how it was.

So what caused superiority to happen? It started with wars of subjugation and slavery.

But most wars of subjugation through the majority of historical time were not between different races. No - they were one tribe or group from one race* taking over land or control of another tribe or group of the same race. And, with that, came slavery. Africans enslaved Africans. Indigenous Americans enslaved other Americans. And white Europeans enslaved other white Europeans. And wasn't it all so hunky-dory? No. But it wasn't about race, either.

Wars that happened between different races weren't about race, either. The major ones were about religion - Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. And neither side thought the other was inferior - simply wrong about God. And so it went until the Inquisition. And, at that point, race starts to appear in the picture - because, although it was ostensibly about religion - it fell out to start eliminating people of the wrong "look" or opinions (I believe this is where true anti-semitism really made its first major stand, the dark-skinned Moors were pushed from Europe, "witches" were persecuted, etc.) . . .

And then Columbus' terrorist attacks on the Americas began. As white Europeans gained control of the Americas (again, through brutality and plague), they gained wealth. Wealth in terms of gold and trinkets, but also in terms of manpower - SLAVES. Because the most slaves in the original Americas were not actually Africans - they were Native Americans. So many that there certainly wasn't a need for white slaves, anymore. But then the plague started wiping out the Natives, so the white Europeans, used to all the extra slave help to do their work, had to ship in African slaves to take their place.

And that's about when the invention of racism really began to take full shape. Because Columbus' initial reports on the natives he met were highly positive. Commenting on their regal physical appearance, their kindness, and their civilized culture. That was until he decided he would kill them and take over their land for "God and country." Then, suddenly, he started talking about their "savagery" and their uncivilized nature, likening them to animals.

Because the problem was this: how could a God-fearing Christian man kill off a whole race of kind, regal, and civilized people? He couldn't. Which presented two options: either, a) don't kill them and leave their land and resources, or b) change how you look at them, so you can feel okay about killing them all.

Guess what option Columbus went with?

And the rest followed suit. There are hundreds of accounts of "explorers" and "statesmen" initially having positive things to say about native peoples, only to do a complete 180 in opinion once they started profiting by killing them.

It was simply a matter of propaganda. If you can convince your people that the "enemy" is less than, then they will have no problem killing them. This kind of dehumanization during wartime has always occurred (and still does).

But it stopped happening only during wartime. Because the majority of slaves became black slaves. And - again - no God-fearing man or woman could whip another man or woman, split up their family, rape them, murder them, etc. No. But they could do all these things if they changed their mind about who those people were. In fact, changed their mind to not even make them people.

And so history had to be re-written. Because if the conquerors acknowledged the previous power (and superiority) of these peoples' civilizations, then how could they adequately justify their current actions? Again - they couldn't. So they - very intentionally - changed history to put white folks on top, from beginning to end. Suddenly, Europeans conquering and colonizing the world wasn't an act of epic brutality and fascist Empire - it was inevitable. It was the ever-constant march of progress. Something that nobody could stop.

They took the morals right out of the equation. And never put them back in. Think back to your history lessons of your childhood - how often was this battle presented as "more advanced" versus "less advanced"?** Manifest Destiny. Exploration. Africa became the "Dark Continent" as slavery reached its peak. None of this was a coincidence.

Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry - they all owned slaves. They had them beat. They broke up their families. They acknowledged the wrong of it all (in a way), but they continued it. Because that was how it was. Because it was easier to let it continue than to function without it.

But slavery did end (at least in the most literal, legal sense). And, afterwards, Reconstruction occurred. Black Americans were given full rights, put into positions of authority, sat in government. But it fell through. Not because the black folks were unable to handle the new way of things, but because white racists (which was the majority of white folks) were murdering black officials. They attacked entire towns. Burned the homes of the most successful black folks.

And suddenly the rights were revoked by the government. But they couldn't admit that it was because the white racists had won - of course not. So it got re-written as the newly-freed slaves being unable to handle authority. Being too uneducated to be successful. Because that story felt better for the authors.

And that story was so effective and became so ingrained, that few people today even realize that black people actually served in government and had legal equality any time before the Civil Rights movements of the 60s. We're taught to believe that things have steadily been getting better. That the racist institution of segregation had to bow to the "inevitable" might of "progress." Uh-oh. Sound familiar?

That's the story we keep hearing. That things "are getting better." Which is often code (when said by people with power) to mean, "stop complaining - be thankful for what you're given;" a justification for those same people to do nothing active to change how things are.

But the problem is - things haven't "been getting better." Things are better now than they were during the 1800s and early 1900s, for sure. But, as far as race relations go, they aren't better than a few hundred years before that. So, if we're looking at the BIG PICTURE, things (racially speaking) have actually been getting WORSE over the course of history. But that kind of outlook doesn't really help the current straight*** white male power system keep us blind and apathetic. If we become too aware of all that, then we might actually start doing something about it, instead of passively talking about "progress" and waiting for the "inevitable" improvement.

In the meantime, racism prevails. We continue to think that welfare recipients are black, single parents that are waiting for handouts without working for it (when data proves to us that those black, single parents actually tend to work MORE than any other demographic). We talk about how our Irish immigrant forefathers "pulled themselves up by the bootstraps" in the face of adversity, while black Americans have not done the same (ignoring the fact that those black Americans who did exactly that were lynched, beaten, and threatened with no legal recourse up to a couple decades back****). We talk about McCain being a "true patriot" because he was tortured at the hands of Vietnamese savages (while we torture and hold "terrorists" without trial or direct evidence to this very day). We pillory black athletes who screw up, chiding them for not being role models (then go out to see another movie that only casts black males as thugs and convicts).

We tell our kids to value their educations - then pump lies down their throats.

Progress is NOT inevitable. It has to be fought for, tooth and nail. Because racism has been the most successful, enduring invention of the last thousand years, and I'm tired of paying for it.

* At least what we would now call "one race."

** Which implies "more intelligent" versus "less intelligent," of course.

*** I could do a very similar post about the invention of homophobia (and will at some point).

**** And it's arguable whether or not equivalents are truly a thing of the past.


uglyblackjohn said...

I'm suprised that you didn't mention the demonization of Muslims and our current war.

This tactic almost worked to get Mccain/Palin elected.
But the fact that it failed still gives me hope in this country.

Georgia Peach said...

(side note to ugly black john) If he mentioned the current demonization of Muslims he'd have to go into internment as well. When it comes to the manipulating masses of people through fear and war hysteria the players have changed, but the rules are the same.

(note to CVT) Nice post - very thorough. I'm inspired to do some extracurricular research on this topic. No comments yet...

Ms. Sis said...

what never ceases to amaze me are the amounts of people who find this is new information, which shows how well the system does its job of maintaining racism and misinformation. False propaganda goes way back and we internalize it and fertilize it if we aren't aware of its nature and history and being active in fighting against its influence on every aspect of our lives.

glotto said...

I agree with a lot of what you say here, but I have to question whether people really didn't see others as inferior before racism came on the scene. I'm inclined to think that racism has tapped into a capacity we have -- and have always had -- for just that: dehumanization, seeing others as less than when it serves our own ends. For sure, institutionalization of racism and the building of societies around that lie means racist ideas are built into our culture and our minds. But was this really the first time people were seen as inferior? What about women? "And neither side thought the other was inferior - simply wrong about God". How do we know that?

This is an honest (not rhetorical) question. I don't know the answer and would like to know what others think.

CVT said...

I was just touching on the surface, so I didn't go too deep into any one thing - especially more current stuff, that has come up long after racism was packaged and delivered.

Glotto - thanks for chiming in. I'm not saying that we never saw others as "inferior" - human beings have likely been ranking their groups against others since the invention of language. I'm talking about specifics in regards to race - because there was no overall "superiority" or otherwise before we started subjugating people on the BASIS of race (as opposed to all the other things folks were subjugating those of their own "race" for back in the day). Does that make sense? I'm just touching on the invention of RACISM (and how it was bought and sold, post-invention) here, so that doesn't cover sexism and any other ism that's been going on since (likely) before that. That's a discussion for another point in time.

As for the "wrong about God" statement - I'm going off of both sides sort of acknowledging the power and abilities of the others (during the Crusades), and not just lumping them into the "inferior" category. Obviously, they considered each other MORALLY inferior, but again - that wasn't necessarily a racial thing.

glotto said...

Yup, thanks for the clarification. It wasn't clear to me you were talking solely about perceptions of racial inferiority and not about any perceptions of inferiority. Got it!

ansel said...

Great post, CVT. With all the BS about a newly post-racial society with the Obama's election, this big picture counter-narrative is really helpful.

One thing - I think you said racism was really invented when Columbus and other explorers needed a rationale to enslave Native Americans. I looked around on Wikipedia and some other places to confirm or deny this but didn't find anything definitive. But my sense is that racism, particularly against black Africans, must have been well-established when Europeans first began enslaving Africans and long before they started sending them across the Atlantic.

uglyblackjohn said...

I think Dr. Seuse had it right in his book about the Lorax (those guys with the stars an their bellies).
If it's not something, it's another.

Anonymous said...

@uglyblackjohn, I think you mean the Sneetches. There were star-bellied sneetches who thought they were superior and the plain-bellied sneetches, with none upon thars, who were treated as inferior and then all hell broke loose when Sylvester McMonekey-McBean came along with his star on and star-off machine. My Mom and I used to joke that the star-bellies were white people.

There is a comprable, more literary work, called "Black No More" where something similar happens and black people become white, it was even made into a play.

mthgk said...

Yeah, a thorough treatise on the origin of racism and the human tendency to dehumanize others when expedient could probably fill volumes. My step-father (who is a mix of basically everything) and I have had several talks about these issues.

You touched on racism as related to justifying resource acquisition. I am beginning to feel like a lot of discrimination has its roots in the impulse to

a) justify treating people as resources to be used by other people (e.g. sexism originating from men thinking of women as property or racism to justify using slave labor).

or b) justify stealing resources from other people (e.g. the Nazi's fired-up resentment amongst the economically depressed Germans against the relatively wealthy Jews to justify taking their wealth or the racism against Native Americans used to legitimize land grabs and genocide by the Europeans).

My step-father doesn't think it is so simple, but I find it interesting that you mention this connection here.

Ms. Sis said...

The story you are talking about Anonymous is called Black No More and it was a novel written by George S. Schuyler in the early 1930's.

I co-teach a college course on "Race and Gender in Sci-Fi Film." And we have students read an anthology called Dark Matter which includes an excerpt from the novel.

cool to see people discussing real history. we can't do things differently if we aren't aware of how all these pieces inform the present tense.