Book Review: Racism, A Short History

racismIn order to truly understand racism, we need to understand where it comes from. I would guess that many black folks have a basic understanding of the beginnings. And in the same vein, I would guess that most white folks don’t.

One of the biggest problems surrounding race relations in this country is that the powers that be have worked really hard to eliminate the harshest parts of the history of racism. We are still close enough to it in time that black folks have the legacy of it in their families through oral traditions, as well as systemic and cultural trappings. They must keep talking about it because it’s necessary for their family’s safety.

White folks have no need of continuing the discussion of racism. Generally speaking, whites have the privilege of exemption from worrying that one of our children will be killed for their skin color. Clearly, there are exceptions to this rule, like parents of biracial children.

Once slavery and the Jim Crow era were erased from our law books, the educational system began erasing it from our history books. White families didn’t sit around talking about the good old days of slavery and segregation (well, not all of them anyway). It has become our shameful past. People rarely discuss shameful histories in earnest.

And while the basics of slavery are still in our history books, we don’t discuss the long-term ramifications that it had on the people who underwent slavery. Ergo, we don’t talk about how we can fix it.

But in this post, I’m looking far earlier than slavery, because that’s not how racism started. Slavery (as well as the Holocaust) in the U.S. was the pinnacle and the boiling point, but there were circumstances that made it possible.

So with that intro, I decided a while back that I needed to understand with more clarity how we got there in the first place.

I recently read, Racism: A Short History, by George M. Frederickson, originally published in 2002.

This book starts long before slavery and examines the reasons why slavery was even able to happen in the first place.

For starters, racism was invented. Yep. It’s not evolutionary. It’s an invention by mankind. I think this is a powerful thing to know. Because if we can invent it, then that means we are not controlled by it under some genetic force. And if we can invent it, then we can erase it.  It’s also important to point out because it forces us to all acknowledge that those uncomfortable and/or fearful feelings we get in certain times and around certain places are something that we learned. They are not based on some natural instinctual need for survival.

Next up, this is important to understand. Racism is not just feeling.

“But racism as I conceive it is not not merely an attitude or set of beliefs; it also expresses itself in the practices, institutions and structures that a sense of deep differences justifies or validates.”

Racism is still alive and well in our country. Just because our brown skinned brothers and sisters are free and potentially able to have the same opportunities as whites, doesn’t mean that they do. Many of our institutions are set up to deny them access based on various sets of factors.

“It (racism) either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God.”

How Racism Started

Sooo, just how did racism begin, you want to know?

One word. Religion.

Yup. That’s right.

Shocking, I know.

The origins of racism didn’t actually start with hatred toward African people. There is no proof that hatred of dark skin existed in the ancient world. It all started with Christians and Jews.

“The notion that Jews were collectively and hereditarily  responsible for the worst possible human crime– deicide– created a powerful incentive for persecution.”

That was only the beginning, however. All this did was allow for one group of people to oppress another group of people. Jews were given the option of conversion, which would absolve them of their cultivated crime. This did not meet the criteria to be considered racism because it was something they could change. To be considered racist, the oppressed person must have characteristics that are inherent and unchangeable.

This persecution didn’t end with the Jews, however. It was extended to the Slavs and the Irish in Europe.

“As the core of Catholic Europe expanded, conquering and colonizing the periphery of the continent attitudes of superiority to indigenous populations anticipated the feelings of dominance and entitlement that would characterize the later expansion of Europeans into Asia, Antartica and the Americas.”

In Medieval Europe, intolerance extended to just about any group, “whose beliefs or behavior smacked of heresy or deviance at a time when religious and moral conformity were being demanded…”

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “But this has nothing to do with racism. Religious persecution is not the same thing. And we all know that the Jews were persecuted for their beliefs.”

Yes, you’re right.

It seems at this point that white over black racism did not have direct roots in the Medieval European religious persecution. But in a moment, you will see how it happened quite quickly. Read on.

Throughout the late Middle Ages, there were signs that religious persecution was turning toward racial persecution. During the Spanish Inquisition, there were many Jews who chose to convert rather than be expelled. This created suspicion that they were secret Jews, rather than true converts. This led to what some would say an inevitable consequence of defining those who had “Jewish blood,” thus leading to the doctrine, “limpieza de sangre” or “purity of blood.”  This eventually lead to laws and the necessity of blood purity certificates needed to enter into specific institutions and organizations.

“It is also highly significant that from the very beginning of the settlement of the Americas, only those thought to be of pure Christian ancestry were permitted to join the ranks of the conquistadores and missionaries.”

So how does this connect to American racism and slavery?

As you may know, slavery was not a new concept for America. During history, slaves had been kept all over the world. They were also various colors and generally speaking, slavery was not based on skin color, but on your station in life. Even Africans participated in slavery. They had their own slaves and there were African slave traders who helped capture and sold slaves to the Europeans.

But slavery is not the same as racism. However, racism was necessary in order to convert continued slavery into racism.

See, at this point, late in the 17th century, slavery was alive and well in the U.S. And it was also at this point that race began to play a larger factor in who were slaves and who weren’t. The Catholics were still working out which set of people were inherently evil sinners. There was some question about whether the Africans were cursed, because initially they were thought to have darker skin due to their climate. But the Brazilians were noted to have much lighter skin, even though they came from a similar climate.

At the same time, it was noted by explorer Alexander von Humboldt that, “In Spain it is a kind of title of nobility not to descend from Jews or Moors. In America, the skin, more or less white, is what dictates the class that an individual occupies in society. A white, even if he rides barefoot on horseback, considers himself to be a member of the nobility of the country.”

However, there was a problem. So far, it was considered that baptism could absolve a person from their inherited curses. The Jews had always been given the option of converting rather than being killed or expelled.

This notion of absolution, and impending freedom from captivity, became a major problem for white slave owners.

“Relatively little mission work was carried out among the slaves because of the masters’ expectation that baptism would give them a claim to freedom.”

So, remember that curse? The one that Africans might have because of having darker skin than the Brazilians?

The curse had been common knowledge among slave traders since the sixteenth century and used as an explanation of why Africans had much darker skin.

“Racial identities were fixed for all time by divine decree… that consigned blacks to perpetual slavery.”

The U.S. cemented the curse into law in the late seventeenth century in Virginia a “made it clear that conversion did not entail freedom.”

And so slavery was, at that point, clearly defined on race, and nothing else.

The Ending

This book was very enlightening and goes on to explain the rise of modern racism and racism in the twenty first century. The history of religious persecution and how it directly relates to slavery is also outlined in much better detail. I should note, for my Christian readers, that there were some Christian thought leaders of the time who spoke out against enslavement. But they were clearly in the minority and other than writing against it, nothing much else was done in favor of the African slaves.

If you are interested in more on the history of racism, I highly recommend this book .