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 .

WWJS #Abortion and the Bible

Jesus loved him some women.
Jesus loved him some women.

My thoughts on abortion/reproductive health and rights are pretty liberal. I’m all in favor of legalized abortion and have zero moral qualms with the act, but I was not always this way.

Growing up in the Church of Christ, in west Texas, with a preacher grandfather, I was influenced heavily by the conservative side and until I was an adult and began to contemplate having my own opinions and was able to examine facts, rather than Biblical beliefs, I was essentially told what to believe by the church.

Until I was confronted with my own sexual nature and began giving it some genuine thought, I was completely in the mind that abortion was a sin and murdering babies was wrong. Then I began weighing the aspects of abortion with potential slip ups, combined with not 100 percent effective birth control methods and human nature’s chemical desire to practice procreating without any intention of giving birth.

For all my caterwauling on Facebook and Twitter, I still wonder privately about the few friends I have who consider themselves pro-life a term I use hesitatingly, but for this occasion, I will. I use the term because I do believe that there are some people out there who genuinely believe that life begins at conception and that they are mortified and ill at the thought of abortion. I believe that these people are few and far between. I do not believe the politicians or the celebrity-status religious mouth vomiters. I think these people are playing on the naive and devoutly religious. For all the ways I disagree with these people, I still understand that this is what they truly believe. And they are the only ones on the opposing side that I have any sympathy for in this debate.

So, even though I have my doubts as to the existence or truth about the man Jesus in the bible, who I think was likely a myth or perhaps a really great guy who was blown out of proportion, I wonder, what would Jesus say about this debate?

From what I know of Jesus, which is plenty, although admittedly rusty memories from my childhood, he was a pretty loving sort of guy. He hung out with prostitutes. He preached love and acceptance. He healed the sick. He hated the greedy. And he he was beloved by all who met him. Hell, he even had followers. Oh, and wasn’t he the guy who said we shouldn’t judge people?

So, here’s what I think Jesus would say about the current debate over abortion.

I think he would likely not be a big fan of abortion. In fact, he might even say it was wrong. I’m not sure about that. But here’s what I am sure of. I am 100 percent positive that he would not be at all happy about people using his name and image to revile women who abort their unborn children.

I believe that he would say we should love them and he would ask what is it about our society that makes these women feel the need to abort children? He might ask what we could do to help women not feel the need to have abortions. I think he would ask why on earth the republicans think it’s a good idea to close down clinics that provide reproductive healthcare to women. He might even ask why we weren’t educating young people, men and women, about sex and birth control choices. I’m not sure what his stance would be on the pill or condoms. I think that’s a pretty gray area even amongst the varying Christian denominations.

But I do know for sure that Jesus would be loving and wholeheartedly accepting of the women who choose abortions. I imagine that if he visited an abortion clinic he would tell the picketers to put down their signs and look at the women with eyes of love instead of screaming “murderer” at them. I think he would ask how we could offer better choices.

Well, I’m no son of God, but I do think that I get a pretty good feeling as to how he would feel about this issue and I’m pretty sure he would dislike Rick Perry intensely, although, he would also say we should pray for him as well, since he is clearly on the path to hell.

 

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The Backwater Religion I Grew Up With

Image source, Salon.com

I have a story to share about my childhood. I don’t know how it fits in exactly with the current debates and legal changes to the abortion laws, but think and feel that it is an important story to share.

Throughout my adulthood, I’ve thought of this afternoon off and on, never knowing exactly what to make of it. I now know, with certainty, that it was about politics. And even back then I knew it was an important thing to remember. So maybe I will make sense of it one day.

When I was about 10 years old, one afternoon, when church service was over all the men filed out of the auditorium, the women and adolescent girls were asked to stay. Or, as I remember it, were told to stay.

The church I went to from the time I was 7 until I was 14 was a white-steepled small town church. We had stained glass windows, but no air conditioning in the west Texas Church of Christ. This particular church is very likely still going strong. And I suspect has probably not changed much in the past 30-ish years.

Cardboard fans printed with pictures of the Last Supper poked out of the pew-back trays that held extra Bibles and song books.  We sweated with our preacher who preached in front of purple velvet curtains. Behind the curtains lay our salvation, a five-foot (or so) dunk tank, or as they liked to call it, a baptismal.

I was baptized there when I was 11, but at the time of this story, I was saved only from the burning hell fires under the exemption of being-too-young-to-sin. Apparently, I had  not yet reached the age of enlightenment where I was responsible for my sins. As far as I could tell, there was no specified age in our church’s rule books on that. But my mother assured me that I would know when I was ready to be baptized and that would mean I reached the hell-burning age if I didn’t just go ahead and request a dip in the salvation waters.

But back to the afternoon in question, why I was asked to stay for this presentation remained a mystery to me until recently when it occurred to me that a stage was being set. Not just for me, but for all the women-folk in my church, including my mother and sister. I imagine that we were not the only church-women being shown this video, as it was a presentation from an outside source.

Some people, whom I vaguely remember to be men, but I could be remembering wrong, set up a film for us to watch.

The entirety of the video is long gone from my mind, but flashes still haunt me to this day. It did not have the desired effect. Instead of leaving the impression of murderous mothers in my head, it just left a bad taste in my mouth for The Church.

The video was about abortion and how it was wrong. Throughout the video, blood-red, dismembered babies were splashed across the screen.

A cartoon image of a baby inside a uterus wondered sadly why its mother was killing it. And then the salt water bath burned its skin and it was suctioned out, ripping the limbs from the body while the baby screamed.

We left, with the firm belief that abortion was wrong. It hurts babies. Abortion = murder. Simple.

Simple is the right word. But not for this complex argument. Simple is what those people presenting images to small town women and adolescent girls believed us to be.

Whether we were simple or not is irrelevant though. I think it is a destructive approach, vilifying women who fear pregnancy and motherhood enough to make such a difficult decision.

It is never that simple. And to portray it that way dehumanizes all of us, the women who are having abortions, and the people who choose to view them without compassion.

This film and the perpetrators of the film, were (are?) horrible people distributing a political agenda to small-town folks. I know that for sure. I wish I could remember more about it. I wish I knew who they were and how they came to be in our church.

It is a sad story. And one I don’t know what to do with. But I wanted to share it.

As laws continue to be passed in our this country, turning women into murderers and victims at the same time, I can’t help but feel betrayal and anger as we march forward in time, but march backwards away from feminism and equality.