How Racism Was Made, Ctd

Mar 13 2013 @ 1:37pm


Readers debate the issue using a variety of historical snapshots:

You say that “I don’t think group hatred will ever end in human consciousness.” I suspect this is true, but it’s also irrelevant. The ways that groups have defined themselves changes over time and from one place to the next. “Race” as a concept didn’t exist until the 17th-18th century, which is what academics mean when they say race is “constructed.” Before that, Europeans disliked Africans and vice versa because they spoke different languages and followed different religions and had different cultural norms. Neither side had the modern idea that some people are biologically different as a group, and that these different groups are visibly distinguishable from each other. Of course Europeans knew that Africans had darker skin. But they typically thought this was a natural consequence of living in hot areas for generations, not that people with dark skin somehow belonged to a separate category.

Back then, Spanish Christians thought that practicing Islam or Judaism left a kind of ineradicable spiritual taint that could be passed on from parent to child, a belief that “justified” persecution of converts and the children of converts. Few people believe this now. TNC is suggesting that our ideas of race could pass out of favor in a similar way.  I don’t see why this couldn’t happen, with some luck. Probably it is impossible to eliminate hatred, as you say, but it is not impossible to push back on a type of hatred.


American racism isn’t just about us vs. them.  It’s all wrapped up in the doctrine of white supremacy, which seeks to diminish or entirely deny the humanity of non-whites. They had slavery in the classical world, obviously, but it was a state in which human beings, through misfortune, found themselves.  A slave then was a human being with a really bad job.


One of the most surprising revelations of Hugh Thomas’s great book, The Slave Trade, is the persistence and continuity of slavery in the Mediterranean world from classical times through the nineteenth century. For most of that time racism was not an ideology used to justify slavery, which was seldom thought to require justification. A religious prohibition emerged among Christians and Muslims not to enslave members of their own faith, but for most of history the accidents of conquest, not a philosophy of racial inferiority, determined who served whom.

In fact, as Thomas describes it, the movement of the slave trade down the African coast was accompanied by admiration for the physical and mental hardiness of the slaves who thereby became available because they were better able to survive the rigors of the transatlantic trade and American plantation slavery than North Africans. In the writings of sixteenth and seventeenth century slavers, it is the superiority of these southerly people, not their inferiority, that rendered them appropriate objects for purchase.


slavedealerAs you speak to this topic, you continue to state things that are completely at odds with the historic record. “I don’t dispute this, but equally, the slave trade itself, along with colonialism everywhere, presumed a racial inferiority before the Southern states codified it so precisely along Nuremberg lines.” That is simply false. The slave trade was owned and operated by … Africans! Europeans tapped into it as an easy supply of necessary labor for the brutal conditions of plantation staple crops (specifically sugar), but Europeans were entirely incapable of penetrating beyond the coastline due to the disease environment. European involvement altered a long standing slave trade along the Slave Coast, with fascinating political and economic dynamics. However, racism had nothing to do with the enslavement of Africans.

Another offers an excellent historical narrative that supports both sides of the debate:

The debate you are having with TNC and Jamelle Bouie about the roots of American racism is one that has a long tradition in academic historiography. TNC referenced Edmund Morgan’s 1977 work, American Slavery, American Freedom, which argues, in effect, that the establishment of the system of African slavery in Virginia was a conscious decision by wealthy elites, and that racism grew out of slavery.

The gist of the argument is that the growing population of landless whites in late 17th-century Virginia became a threat to wealthy landowners, who turned to legal means (increased terms of service for minor legal infractions) to try to keep them subservient.  However, most of the landless poor were English, and they came from a cultural tradition in which they could claim the “rights of Englishmen” that guaranteed them certain legal protections (access to courts, trial by jury, property rights, and liberty of their persons).  Because of this heritage, wealthy elites realized they couldn’t create a system of perpetual servitude for English subjects, so they settled on imported African slave labor as the solution.

According to Morgan, this strategy “allowed Virginia’s magnates to keep their lands, yet arrested the discontent of the repression of other Englishmen.”  Though the white society that emerged would be highly stratified and unequal, the presence of a debased class of enslaved black that inhabited the bottom of the racial hierarchy effectively became a release valve for class antagonisms within the white community.  If some whites weren’t as rich as others, they were at least always above the permanent caste of enslaved blacks.  And thus the rise of an institutionalized anti-black racism in Virginia and later the United States.

Though Morgan’s interpretation has become standard within the academic community, there are dissenting voices.  A historian by the name of Winthrop Jordan wrote a book a few years before Morgan called White Over Black, which argued that Europeans in general, but the English in particular, had a cultural predisposition to view blackness as “a symbol of baseness and evil.”  When they encountered black Africans for the first time, the English came to view them as the antithesis of whites – uncivilized, sinful, irreligious, over-sexed, and dangerous.  His evidence for this interpretation ranges from English travel narratives to a brilliant exegesis of the sexual imagery of Shakespeare’s Othello, which was, for its time (1965), cutting edge.  Ultimately, for Jordan, it was the combination of economic expediency and preexisting cultural prejudice that caused the English to make what he calls the “unthinking decision” to embrace African slavery.

If you subscribe to Jordan’s interpretation, Bouie’s argument that “white Europeans had contact with black Africans well before the trans-Atlantic slave trade without the emergence of an anti-black racism” is historically inaccurate.  In fact, Jordan’s interpretation is probably closer to your contention that there is a “deep evolutionary urge to determine friend from enemy.”  In this case, the English tendency to see blackness as debased and evil – inculcated and reinforced, as Jordan argues, over countless generations – was far more important in the flowering of anti-black racism than was the economic logic of African slavery or the need to relieve intra-community social pressures amongst whites through the creation of a black underclass.

Of course, I’m not sure how comforting it is to think that the English were inherently racist before they even encountered black Africans.  But then again, you’re of Irish ancestry, so you probably understand English racism – er, “group loyalty” – at an instinctual level.


Slaves_Zadib_Yemen_13th_century_BNF_ParisBouie’s claims that racism among white Europeans was non-existent prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade is demonstrably false. Consider, for example, the notion of blue-blooded royalty,which arose in Spain at some point around the 9th century, during the early stages of the Reconquista. While the first legal codification  had to wait until Toledo in 1449, pale white skin – which allowed blue veins to show through -was a sign of royalty since the early days of the Spanish aristocracy.  Much more research refuting Bouie’s claims can be found on the Wikipedia page on “Racism in the Middle Ages“.

The image to the right is of a 13th century slave market in Yemen. Another reader:

The most interesting theory I’ve heard about modern racism is that it is actually a subset of anti-Semitism, and it has roots in the Spanish Inquisition. A little odd, perhaps, but I find it fascinating for several reasons. For one thing, for most of European history (and the history of Christendom), if a Jew or Muslim converted to Christianity, then he ceased to be a heretic and the rules of Christian society applied to him. Talk of Africans or strange folks from other parts of the world were along those lines. It was a wholly religion-based society, and xenophobia and other ugliness were defined in religious terms.

Then in 1492, with the Spanish expulsion of the Jews and forced conversions, for the first time you had the theory that baptism was not enough – that there was something in the blood that was different and stronger than the power of baptism. Generation by generation after 1492, Spain increased the blood purity needed by conversos to be considered real Christians. Xenophobia became a blood issue for the first time.

(Top image via Wiki: “An illustration from the influential American magazine Harper’s Weekly shows an alleged similarity between “Irish Iberian” and “Negro” features in contrast to the higher “Anglo-Teutonic.” The accompanying caption reads “The Iberians are believed to have been originally an African race, who thousands of years ago spread themselves through Spain over Western Europe. Their remains are found in the barrows, or burying places, in sundry parts of these countries. The skulls are of low prognathous type. They came to Ireland and mixed with the natives of the South and West, who themselves are supposed to have been of low type and descendants of savages of the Stone Age, who, in consequence of isolation from the rest of the world, had never been out-competed in the healthy struggle of life, and thus made way, according to the laws of nature, for superior races.”)