What is 'race' and what is 'racism'? (2).
Human subspecies don't exist. Unlike many animals, modern humans simply haven't been around long enough or isolated enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface appearances, we are one of the most similar of all species. Large-scale comparisons of human genomes from many individuals through DNA sequencing show that the gene pool in Africa contains more variation than elsewhere, and that the genetic variation found outside of Africa represents only a subset of that found within the African continent. From a genetic perspective, all humans are therefore Africans, either residing in Africa or in recent exile.
* Skin colour really is only skin deep. Most traits are inherited independently from one another. The genes influencing skin colour have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, eye shape, blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence. Knowing someone's skin colour doesn't necessarily tell you anything else about him or her. Most variation is within, not between, "races". Of the small amount of total human variation, 85% exists within any local population, be they Italians, Kurds, Koreans or Cherokees. About 94% can be found within any continent. That means two random Koreans may be as genetically different as a Korean and an Italian.
* Slavery predates race. Throughout much of human history, societies have enslaved others, often as a result of conquest or war, even debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority. Due to a unique set of historical circumstances, the European enslavement of Africans in the so-called New World was the first slave system where all the slaves shared similar physical characteristics.
* Race and freedom evolved together. The US was founded on the radical new principle that "All men are created equal". But the early economy in that country was based largely on slavery. How could this anomaly be rationalised? The new idea of "race" helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted.
* Race justified social inequalities as natural. As the race idea evolved, white superiority became "common sense" in America. It justified not only slavery but also the extermination of Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that professed a belief in democracy. Racial practices were institutionalised within American government, laws, and society.
* Race isn't biological, but racism is still real. Race is a powerful social idea that gives people different access to opportunities and resources. Governments and social institutions have created advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power, and resources to white people. This affects everyone, whether we are aware of it or not.
So why did the "race scientists" go to such lengths to categorise the human groups and then assign different meanings and ranks to the various groups?
The attempts to categorise the so-called races were born out of an ideology of white supremacy--an ideology which holds that the white race is superior to the non-white races. "Scientific" racism was invented to rationalise this ideology. The ideology of white supremacy itself stemmed from Social Darwinism, a racist, sexist, and classist theory based on the premise of "survival of the fittest".
The term "survival of the fittest", coined by the English sociologist Herbert Spencer, was a vulgarisation of a more complex theory: his compatriot Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Herbert Spencer perverted Darwinism, which sought to explain the origin and evolution of the plant and animal species through natural selection and struggle.
The assumption of Social Darwinism is that some societies, races, etc, are endowed with superior genes, while others inherit inferior genes. Those fortunate enough to have superior genes are better able to survive and thrive and control their social environments, which includes those others unlucky enough to have been endowed with inferior genes.
Social Darwinists drew on the idea of struggle and survival as natural mechanisms for improving the "stock"--i.e, genetic characteristics--of human beings. In fact, inferior races and societies, it was hypothesised, would "naturally" wither away. Any attempts to save them were in defiance of the laws of nature.
Subsequently, Adam Smith's laissez-faire economic theory, which proposed non-government intervention in economic affairs of individuals and the promotion of free-market economy based on the "invisible hands" of the market, was incorporated into Social Darwinism. The aim was to let the "natural laws" of the market take their due course, during which the "economically deficient" peoples would be weeded out and the "economically progressive" would thrive.
According to the history professor, Wallace G. Mills, in the 19th century Europeans increasingly became preoccupied, even obsessed, with "race" for various reasons:
(a) The development of technology (particularly military technology) gave Europeans tremendous weapons and power superiority over non-white peoples. Power indeed corrupts and breeds arrogance. Europeans came to regard "race" as an explanation for the disparities between their societies and other societies. Ultimately, they began to attribute military and technological advantage and superiority to the actual characteristic of "white-skin" or "race"!
(b) The social sciences (especially anthropology--social as well as physical--and sociology) were heavily influenced by biological sciences both in method and the adoption of analogies; thus social scientists set out to classify different "races" by attempting to perceive of human beings as members of different sub-species or even different species.
(c) Exclusionist ideas of nationalism contributed to and drew from racist thinking; thus a homogenous "nation" (one which shared a language, and whose people shared physical characteristics, culture, etc.) constituted a "race"; there were frequent references to the British "race", French "race" or to the German "race".
Writes Prof Mills: "Alternately, it was asserted that many of the homogenous characteristics (not only physical characteristics but also moral, intellectual and 'spiritual' characteristics) were transmitted genetically and were thus racial." Mills outlines several consequences of Social Darwinism and ultimately, white supremacy:
(a) Ranking: This generated the ideas not only that human beings could be classified into different "races" but also that the "races" could be ranked on a scale from higher to lower. As a criterion for ranking, sometimes culture or technology was used, but especially as the "new imperialism" and the "scramble for Africa" ensued, military power (brute strength) seemed to be the chief criterion to determine ranking.
Thus "proficiency in subjugating or even exterminating one's opponents" was the measure of "higher" races relative to "lower", "more primitive" races. Someone who kills with a spear or bow and arrow is more primitive than someone who kills with machine guns and artillery. Of course, those who obliterate with atomic weapons must be a "higher" race still!
(b) Morality: Social Darwinists rejected the idea of morality as an important consideration in human affairs. It was not "right" but survivability or plain might that mattered. Nature, they argued, was amoral. In the law of nature, might is right--the strong should and would inherit the earth, with no namby-pamby platitudes about the meek.
The hungry lion does not care whether or not the antelope in its view is sick or is only a calf. Thus any people or "race", which could not defend its land deserved to lose it. This, of course, was the rationalisation for colonisation of vast stretches of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
(c) Competition: Social Darwinists saw competition and struggle operating both internally and externally in societies, and competition separated the efficient and able from those less evolved, at least if laissez-faire policies were in place. They called for an end to "interference" in the natural processes and for the "survival of the fittest". While they did not condone physical violence and destruction, they sought to achieve their objective--the destruction of their rivals--through economic means.
Moreover, they insisted that the prosperous and dominant peoples should produce children at high rates while the poor and unsuccessful, with fewer resources and opportunities, should be discouraged and even prevented from producing children on as large a scale. Societies worldwide, however, were not in accord with Social Darwinism. Fertility rates were declining among the upper social and economic classes but on the rise among the lower classes.
Eventually Social Darwinists began to argue that society and government should become actively involved to ensure that what they thought should happen actually did happen, and this line of thinking led to the birth of eugenics--biological engineering and selective breeding of humans. Eugenicists tried to apply to humans the knowledge and practices that had been developed for the breeding of domestic animals.
In Canada and the USA, eugenicists and Social Darwinists tended to focus on immigration policies. Both countries passed anti-Asian legislation and erected political and social barriers to immigration. In British Columbia, serious riots and public pressure induced the legislature to pass laws to restrict the immigration of Indians from Asia.
Among the Imperial Federationists in Canada (many of whom were Social Darwinists), there was a great deal of concern about immigration from southern, eastern and central Europe, from which increasing proportions of immigrants were coming in the last two decades before 1914. These immigrants were regarded as greatly "inferior" to the "British", "Germanic" or "Nordic" "races", and therefore their presence threatened to reduce the quality of the "racial stock" in Canada.
Prof Mills offers amusing sidelights to this Social Darwinism. Charles Kellogg was a Social Darwinist and a zealot for "moral purity". He thought that eggs and meat stimulated sexual appetites and urges. Thus his invention of corn flakes was an attempt to find a quick and easy cereal substitute for bacon and eggs.
He hoped this switch in diet would help young men to preserve their "moral purity". The concern for "moral purity" was certainly partly religious (Kellogg was active in the YMCA, which was a religious organisation at that time), but it was also related to his concern to maintain and even to raise the quality of racial stock among young American men, as he was convinced that only the "pure" could father healthy, sturdy children.
The Christian scriptures were also used to sanctify race bigotry and to justify slavery and social inequality. For example, the Bible's story of Ham's curse, it was suggested, told Christians that God had ordained Africans to be the slaves of Europeans.
According to that Biblical narration (see Genesis 9:18-27), once upon a time, Noah, a lover of wine, had had too much to drink (people who are intoxicated sometimes do funny things) and went to bed naked. Ham, one of Noah's three sons (the other two are Shem and Japheth) had entered his father's room and saw his father's nakedness. He burst out of the room, poking fun at his father to his brothers. His bothers did not take kindly to Ham's behaviour. They covered their father with a cloth, approaching him backwards. When Noah awoke and discovered Ham's indiscretion, he supposedly cursed Canaan, Ham's son (but curiously not Ham), saying he would be the servant of servants of his brothers. In turn, Noah praised Shem and blessed Japheth. By some absurd logic, Euro-Christians came to believe that Africans are descended from Ham. Thus, the curse of Ham and the colour black came to be equated with punishment, evil and sin in Christendom.
In the Middle Ages, the tripartite division of the world into Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as the Three Kings or Wise Men who came to worship the Christ child, were based on that Biblical logic. This quotation from Saint Simon, one of the founders of Western social thought, explains it all: "Know that Europeans are the sons of Abel ... Asia and Africa inhabited by descendants of Cain. See how bloodthirsty Africans are. Note the indolence of Asiatics."
This colour symbolism in Christianity explains why the image of Jesus
Christ, for example, is that of a blue-eyed European ("white") male, his Jewish origin obscured through a kind of artistic cosmetic surgery. Of course, this also explains why Satan or the Anti-Christ is symbolised by the colour black. God created man in His image; Europeans created God in their image. This is not surprising. To paraphrase one sage: If horses could draw and you ask them to draw their god, that god would look like a horse.
According to Jan Nerdeveen Pieterse, author of Black on White, the crucial issue is not so much the actual punishment meted out by God to Cain or by Noah to Ham, but rather it is the fact that Christians later came to understand such punishment in a specific way and to act on the basis of that understanding. The colour symbolism and the imagery of Eurocentrism succeeded the colour symbolism and imagery of Christendom, and passed over into European colonialism and slavery. The images of Africans and blacks in the minds of Euro-Americans were built on several foundations, the most prominent of which are:
(1) The European slave trade, which saw the forced importation of millions of Africans as human cargo to the so-called New World for over 400 years.
(2) Slave-master relationships in the plantations of the Americas.
(3) Colonial-and neo-colonial-subject relationships based on European colonisation of the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.
(4) Majority-minority relationships as well as dominant-subordinate relationships stemming from White-Anglo-Saxon domination in both numerical terms and power-wise of the social, economic, ideological and political directions of multi-ethnic/multi-racial society.
According to Pieterse, in each of these relationships, Europeans constructed the images of non-European people in general, and of Africans and "blacks" in particular, on the basis of selective perception, expedience, and secondhand information mingled with reconstructed Biblical notions and folklore, along with a dash of "scientific" ideas that were popular at the time.
European views of Africans and their continent were formed over an extended period of time, dating from antiquity. Thus, contemporary Anglo-American views of Africans are a crystallisation of images distilled from the travelogues and accounts of European explorers, Christian missionaries, and colonial (European) administrators.
Added to these was imagery taken from popular "scientific" literature, particularly fiction and yellow journalism. During the colonial period, H. Rider Haggard's type of romantic popular tales, coupled with yellow journalism and pseudo-scientific reportage, painted the image of a dark continent inhabited by rude savages and godless heathens. The colonial remedy to this myth was the civilising and proselytising mission of the Christian West. I hear you say, "So what? This happened long ago. We have come a long way from the H. Rider Haggard years and the times of Jim Crow racism."
Well, my answer is that, yes, indeed, a great amount of water has passed under the bridge of time since the civil rights movement in North America and wave of the independence movement in Africa and other parts of the African Diaspora.
But the mere passage of time is not a proof that things have changed for the better in race relations between the people of African descent and their former oppressors, enslavers and exploiters. Time, it is said, heals. However, in the case of racism, described by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's pioneer president, as the "foulest invention by man", time has only managed to help its more obvious and odious forms to mutate into less visible and less "reprehensible" forms.
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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