[This is post is part of a five-part series. You can find a link to all five here.]
Let’s just cut to the chase, shall we? Whites mean something different than non-whites when they use the term “racism.” This effectively stalls one of the most needed of national conversations on the topic of race, because our semantics on the pivotal word are incongruent.
I’m going to use the terms “white” and “non-white” in a broad sort of way here. Firstly, I really mean most whites (the generality of the white community) and most non-whites. Secondly, blacks and indigenous Americans have the most direct and tragic history with the concept of race and racism in our nation, but the carryover onto every community of color has been enfolded into our nation’s cruelest legacy.
And while a mutually-understood employment of the term “racism” is critical toward any meaningful dialogue, it must be said up front: whites are wrong on this, and non-whites are right.
My previous post was aimed at clarifying our understanding of race in general; namely, that it doesn’t exist. Race has, however, been conjured into existence as a means of sub-dividing humans in a fashion more akin to species. But why would anyone want to do that?
Race is a pseudo-scientific socially engineered construct for sub-classifying peoples based on superficial physical traits in order to justify sub-human acts of exploitation toward them.
Read that again. If you miss it, the rest of this will be lost on you.
Of course, there are physical traits that characterize people-groups from various regions of our world; skin color, hair color and type, other facial variations. This is undeniable. But this is not race—not as it has been deployed in the history of the West and in our nation!
And the socio-scientific concept of “ethnicity” is categorically valid; involving a multifaceted study of geographical, genealogical, cultural and lingual factors. Ethnicity is a sociological and anthropological category for understanding meaningful features of people-groups. But this is not race! Race it different. Ethnicity is benign. Race is malignant.
The fiction of race is the basis for the fact of racism—a superficial, systematic and societal sub-classification of people for the sake of exploitation.
But this is not how white people define racism.
White people define racism this way: treating people differently based on their race.
Non-whites define racism this way: societal systems based on the notion of sub-divided races in order that one race might subjugate the others and be justified in doing so.
The former is actually “racial prejudice” and can indeed be practiced by anyone. The latter is “racism” and originates from Western, white colonialism.
Because our entire “civilization” has been constructed on this justifying principle, and because the principle retains power, purchase and structural integration to this day (both culturally and in societal dynamics), racism must be understood as a macro-societal entity more than a micro-social event. Should a non-white “race” come to socio-political prominence in our nation, they might resort to the “reverse-racism” of subjugating, exploiting and marginalizing whites. But even this this would be akin to a victim wounding his attacker by seizing control of his assailant’s weapon, as race was devised by Western white colonialism as a weapon with which to assail the non-white world.
If I asked a baker in Soviet Leningrad, “How much are you asking for that loaf of bread?” It would be strange for him to say, “Leave me alone! That’s capitalism!” While it was using capital to purchase a good, we would never deem this capitalism, per se.
Similarly, if a neighbor came by and asked, “Can I borrow your lawnmower?” I would never say, “Absolutely not! That’s communism!” My neighbor may be operating out of a function of community, but this is not communism.
Micro-features of the system are not equivalent of the system; that is a false equivalency.
Race and racism were birthed from the colonial enterprise. There were free lands to be “discovered”, but there was a catch—people were inhabiting them. Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could sub-classify those inhabitants as somehow inferior or inherently un-entitled to them? Also, wouldn’t it be convenient if we had an inexhaustible source of free “human like” labor, so that we could stop starving to death and achieve economic viability? Come to think of it, I’m not all that sure these natives are really “human”, nor are those black Africans. Problem solved!
A horrific subsequent realization materializes, “How much more mileage can we get from this?” The chilling answer? Immeasurably more.
The cancerous dehumanizing concept of race mutated from the muddled religio-imperialistic impulses of 15th Century Europe. As evinced in Pope Nicolas V’s 1452 Papal Bull and the “Discovery Doctrine”:
…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.
The 350 year period between the early 1500s and the late 1800s witnessed a monstrous duality of human evil, the enormity of which is unparalleled in human history! By conceptual mechanisms of race, the kidnapping, cargo-shipping and chattel enslavement of 10 million West Africans would find justification; nearly 3 million more would die in transit. While the justification was rooted the spiritual authority of the church, and, shortly thereafter, in an Enlightenment era scientific authority, the utility was entirely economic (read, greed).
So too, the lands of indigenous Americans were seized with impunity, while tribal populations were reduced from around 10 million to 1 million. There is only one term for this: genocide.
Our inability to come to terms with these gruesome realities—whether in justification or minimization—indicates a residue of racist constructs which remain on us even now.
The expedient ideology of race gave licensure to white Europeans to enslave, exploit and eradicate whole civilizations of people. (And if you are suspicious of the intentional macro- and micro-engineering that were involved in this, let me assure you the extant evidence tells a crystal clear story.)
Racist ideology metastasized into intellectual frameworks of otherwise brilliant and pious Christian leaders like Jonathan Edwards:
If they continue to cry out against those who keep Negro slaves… Let them also fully and thoroughly vindicate themselves and their own practice in partaking of negroes’ slavery… or confess that there is no hurt in partaking in it.
And into our nation’s founding documents like the Declaration of Independence, which referred to indigenous Americans as “the merciless Indian Savages” only 30 lines after the statement,
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…
Indigenous Americans were de-categorized from “all Men”.
Our Constitution denied indigenous people’s citizenship until 1924 (some states persisted in denying voting rights until 1957) and deemed black slaves 3/5 of a person on the basis of racist constructs.
Andrew Jackson would share with the country his views on indigenous Americans in his fifth State of the Union (1833):
Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.
Our nation re-booted a version of the Discovery Doctrine, latching onto the pseudo-Christian concept described by columnist John O’Sullivan in his 1845 essay,
And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us…
The displacement and eradication of indigenous Americans would march on: treaty after treaty broken as people were slaughtered and displaced to make way for our “great experiment of liberty”. (Even as I write, the American government is breaching a 1851 Treaty to make way for the Dakota Access oil Pipeline.)
Although the slave trade in America was abolished in 1808, illegal slave shipments would continue arriving until 1859.
Racism informed and infected the burgeoning Darwinian scientific perspective, as Darwin wrote in 1874:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world…
The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
(Note that the “savage races” were not “of man”. I hope this is all hard to read.)
His colleague Thomas Huxley would add,
…no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average Negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man…
The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins, though it is by no means necessary that they should be restricted to the lowest…
It was tempting to use a 19th century “scientific” diagram as a header-image for this post, but I found them all so grossly offensive that I couldn’t bring myself to do so.
Finally the issue of slavery erupted into a 4 year Civil War (1861-1865). During Lincoln’s second inaugural address (2 months before the end of the war), he would deftly name the malignancy of slavery:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Our nation had been realized through racist greed; herein Lincoln acknowledged that if it were to dissolve in the undoing of this it would have to be embraced as right.
The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were made to the Constitution, ending slavery, granting citizenship and suffrage respectively, but the category of race cannot be conquered by either war nor legislation. The Reconstruction Era of the south devolved into new societal structures aimed at maintaining racial subjugation—racist attitudes, racist laws and political systems and vigilante enforcement groups coalesced into the Jim Crow south. (The reality of which lived robustly until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.) Segregationist laws, rules and socialized norms were born out of the ongoing notions of racial hierarchy.
Meanwhile, the campaigns of indigenous displacement and eradication continued, as the western United States took shape (13 new states in the next 40 years). These clashes can be categorized under the broad heading of The American Indian wars, but these were mostly punctuated by broken treaties (500 by some counts) and massacres (e.g., 1864, Oak Run, California, 300; 1864, Sand Creek, Colorado, 150; 1870, Marias, California, 173; 1871, Camp Grant, Arizona, 144; 1890, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 250). Scores of American Indian boarding schools were established during this time, with assimilation was the overriding goal—the stripping of culture, renaming, reclothing and re-styling—and students were often brought to these schools against their parents’ wills.
But yet, let’s be truthful, in the cowboys and Indians motif, who were the good guys and bad guys? I know I grew up with a dementedly skewed cultural framework regarding what really went on.
Responding to the 1909 death of the Apache leader Geronimo, venerated President Theodore Roosevelt would quip,
I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.
Twenty years later, his likeness would be carved into a mountainside.
During the middle of the 20th Century (1916-1970) over 6 million blacks fled from the Jim Crow south to the north during what we call The Great Migration. The accepted narrative about this era has been that this constituted a mass movement toward opportunity, but the oral histories being compiled paint a darker picture. Bryan Stevenson describes it this way,
And the African Americans in these communities did not come as immigrants looking for economic opportunities, they came as refugees, exiles from lands in the South where they were being terrorized.
Between 1880 and 1940, over 4,000 blacks were lynched in the south. (More than one each week.)
The southern fundamentalist Bob Jones (the Bob Jones of Bob Jones University) gave a radio address in response to the growing tide of de-segregation and decisions by the Supreme Court such as Brown v the Board of Education in 1960:
White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot run over God’s plan and God’s established order without having trouble. God never meant to have one race. It was not His purpose at all. God has a purpose for each race.
His racially hierarchical ideology is plain as day. Not until 2008 did Jones’ great grandson issue an apology on behalf of this school and its founder. I wonder what would have prevented him from doing so until so recently?
Just as indigenous Americans were portrayed as beastly savages in media, so blacks were portrayed as dangerous and predatory—especially toward women. This was front and center in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansmen), where the Ku Klux Klan were portrayed as heroic champions of civilization and decency.
Whether menacing or craven, imbecilic or conniving, both blacks and indigenous Americans were cast in sub-human caricature. And one might object that these all only represent an aberrational subset of our society, or at least the relics of a bygone era, yet these unexamined stereotypes latch stubbornly onto our societal pathos. The 1990s “super predator” hysteria being one such recent apparition—wherein a Princeton sociologist predicted the rise of a predominantly non-white generation of super-predatory “feral youths devoid of impulse control or remorse.”
The language itself is abhorrent and dehumanizing; describing human children as inevitable “feral predators”. And yet, the idea was broadly adopted into cultural perspectives and informed a host of law enforcement and sentencing initiatives aimed at staunching this “blood bath of violence.” The vehicle of such theorizing remains rooted in racist categories. This is only one of many modern examples. (The Discovery Doctrine has actually informed US Supreme Court decisions denying indigenous property claims as recently as 2005!)
The turf of racial categorization has never been yielded voluntarily in our nation, and it is far from a southern phenomenon. Blacks arrived to northern cities interwoven with racism, and ad hoc racist systems like red-lining, contract selling, segregation, corrupt policing and exploitative employment practices fell together. Martin Luther King Jr. would tell a crowd at Soldier Field in 1966,
We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the north…
Northern cities remain the most segregated in America.
No war, no law nor legal enforcement can begin to confront the abstraction of racial ideology, they can only confront its symptoms. King famously noted this:
Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also.
The repercussive societal forces of ideologies must serve as diagnostics for their ideological origins. In the case of the racist ideologies, by which our nation came into existence, we must be willing to unambiguously name their heinous evils.
The insidiousness of racist sub-categorization in our nation is that it has subsequently been employed to deconstruct non-white newcomers, justifying sub-human attitudes and treatment of Chinese, Latino, Middle Eastern and, in a cruel turn, genuine African immigrants. No non-white “race” has evaded the tendrils of this Leviathan.
Canadian aboriginal leader George Erasmus articulated the crucial need for a truthful reckoning with history,
Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.
The myth of a post-racial America is stubbornly persistent. The history of race will always be inextricable from America. Our nation can never be post-racial, but it may still journey toward being racially redeemed. But redemption never comes without cost.
It would be unconscionable to interact with a Polish Jew or Roma “Gypsie” insisting thus, “Well what I mean by fascism…” Stop right there. Do not finish that sentence!
The same must be understood of racism.
Any effort to reduce the concept of “racism” to a merely semantic realm, let alone insist that non-whites agree to use the preferred white meaning of the word, is, at best, an exercise in egregious denial. At worst, it is a coercive racist maneuver—whether or not it is seen as being so.
The reality of racism and racial ideology are so embedded in our national history—and, therefore, the histories of those harmed by them—that we must be disabused of thinking otherwise.