What About Racial Superiority?
HOW do you view the races? To be specific, do you consider whites to be inherently superior to blacks? Regardless of your verbal answer, what do your attitudes and actions reveal?
People often say that they have no racial prejudice. Yet, the fact is, racist views have long dominated. And so the view persists among many that blacks are innately inferior to whites, and are meant to occupy a lower status permanently.
How did such ideas originate? What makes them so persistent?
The modern idea of inherent superiority of whites had its origin with the conquest and enslaving of African blacks. The slave trade needed justification, particularly since those engaged in it were professed Christians. Charles de Second in Montesquieu, French jurist and political philosopher, explained how the traders reasoned: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow, that we ourselves are not Christians.”
Professed Christians in America also needed justification for slavery, for the economy of the southern cotton planters was based on Negro slavery. Thus an American historian says:
“The South searched the Scriptures for Biblical endorsement of the practice. . . . Constantly the South argued that slavery was sanctioned and in fact commanded by the Bible, and was a divinely-appointed institution especially beneficial to the Negroes.”—“A Complete History of the United States,” by Clement Wood, pp. 217, 337.
The churches took a lead in justifying slavery. It was taught that Negroes are a cursed race, which is why their skin is black. In 1844 Methodists split North and South over slavery. The Baptists in 1845 and, about the same time, the Presbyterian Church divided right down the political Mason-Dixon line. As late as 1902 a Bible House in St. Louis published the widely circulated book “The Negro a Beast” or “In the Image of God.” It includes a chapter entitled “Convincing Biblical and Scientific Evidence that the Negro is Not of the Human Family.”
So, with church approval, blacks were viewed as inherently inferior to whites. The Encyclopædia Britannica lamented: “It was the misfortune of the African to be enslaved in America by Christians, who, unable to reconcile their beliefs with the practice of slavery, recast their conception of the Negro so that they came to regard him as property, not as a human being entitled to rights and liberties.”—Vol. 16, p. 200D, 1971.
But it was not just the churches that championed such views. Philosophers and scientists did also.
Others Champion White Superiority
Around the 1830’s southern philosophers in the United States formulated the principles regarding the natural inequality of man, a concept by then already accepted by most Southerners. And the leading American physical anthropologist of the time, Josiah C. Nott, attempted to provide biological support for this concept. The view of some came to be that the various races evolved separately and that blacks are more closely related to apes. After noting certain characteristics as evidence, The Encyclopædia Britannica observes: “The negro would appear to stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man, and to be more closely related to the highest anthropoids.”—Vol. 19, 1911, p. 344.
Some hold similar views today, including Professor Carleton S. Coon, former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He asserts that five races of men, in isolation from one another, “evolved independently into Homo sapiens not once but five times.” In a national United States television broadcast, a spokesman claimed that Coon “presents evidence, and takes the position, that the Negro race is 200,000 years behind the White race on the ladder of evolution.”
Such views, long held regarding blacks, help us to understand how early Americans could speak ‘of all men being created equal,’ yet sanction a form of slavery in which persons were viewed as inferior. The Sociology of Social Problems, Third Edition, by Paul B. Horton and Gerald R. Leslie, explains:
“The ‘all men are created equal’ dictum did not apply to Negroes, since they were ‘property,’ not men. Theories of a biblical Hamitic curse, of incompleted or separate evolutions, of geographic determinism, and of intelligence test evidences were successively employed to justify treatment of Negroes as inferiors. As long as such notions were believed—and most people did believe them—there was no inconsistency in professing democratic ideals while practicing discrimination.”
Probably few persons today claim that blacks are “not men.” Yet many still believe that they are inherently inferior. Their higher illegitimacy and crime rates, lower economic and social status, and, particularly, lower average scores on IQ tests, are considered “proof” of their biological inferiority. But is this evidence really proof of biological inferiority? Are there circumstances that account for the shortcomings of blacks, on an average, when compared with whites?
Origin of Americas Blacks
Many persons in the U.S. believe that the African forefathers of American blacks were savages, without culture or civilization. They feel that they were dull mentally, childlike, incapable of accomplishing complex tasks, or of developing an advanced civilization. But the facts are otherwise, as The World Book Encyclopedia comments:
“Highly developed Negro kingdoms existed in various parts of Africa hundreds of years ago. . . . Some of the Negro kings and their nobles lived in great wealth and splendor. Their capitals sometimes became centers of culture and trade. Between 1200 and 1600, a Negro-Arabic university flourished at Timbuktu in West Africa and became famous throughout Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.”—Vol. 14, 1973, pp. 106, 107.
True, African culture is quited different from European, even as Oriental culture also is different. And, unfortunately, some equate difference with inferiority. Yet, at the same time, there is no denying that in recent centuries the development of African life and culture was arrested. There was a lack of progress, a backwardness. But why?.
The reason was due, in large part, to the slave trade, about which The Encyclopedia Americana said: “It disorganized Negro culture and industry, stopped the development of art, overthrew governments and was the cause of that modern stagnation of culture which has marked the Dark Continent since 1600.”—Vol. 20, 1927, p. 47.
The magnitude of the slave trade, and its impact on African society, shocks the senses. According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, 1976, “estimates of the slaves shipped across the Atlantic run from 30,000,000 to 100,000,000.” More conservative estimates give the figure “as about 15 million.” But even the lesser estimates are staggering, especially when one considers the casualties involved.
It must be acknowledged that Africans were captured both directly by whites and in wars and raids by blacks, who sold their countrymen to white slave traders. No matter who bore initial responsibility, the captives were then marched to the coast, and held at embarkation stations. Then, chained together by twos, they were crammed below in the holds of ships in a space only large enough for them to lie down. There they spent most of the fifty-day Atlantic voyage without light or fresh air. About a third of the prisoners are estimated to have died even before boarding ship, and another third in passage.
It was in the early 1500’s that the first slaves were brought to the West Indies and South America to work the mines and plantations. In 1619 a Dutch slave ship delivered the first blacks to North America, not as slaves but as indentured servants. However, later in the 1600’s slavery was fully established, and, in time, there were some four million black slaves in the United States.
What Slavery Did to Them
Africans commonly were delivered first to the West Indies, where they were “seasoned,” or broken in as slaves, before being shipped to America. The policy was to separate people of the same tribal origin, to prevent any mass uprisings. Even families were broken up, and new names were given the slaves by the traders or by their new masters. The aim was to make blacks subservient, obedient. In the process, their personalities were distorted, their mentalities suppressed, and, realizing the futility of resisting, blacks often began to behave as if they were inferior.
Slave codes were formulated to assure their complete subordination. The Encyclopedia Americana says:
“Slaves could not own property, possess firearms, engage in commerce, leave the plantation without permission from their owners, testify in court except against other Negroes, make contracts, learn to read and write, or hold meetings without the presence of white persons. . . . the murder or rape of a slave or of a free Negro by a white person was not regarded as a serious offense.”—Vol. 20, 1959, p. 67.
In most slave-holding states, the punishment for teaching a black to read or write was either a fine, a whipping or imprisonment.
In 1808 the United States made the slave trade illegal. However, the trade continued despite the law, since slaves were in greater demand than ever. This led to an ultimate perversion—producing slaves for sale. The Encyclopedia Americana explains:
“A large-scale and profitable domestic slave trade developed, and some of the most cruel and cold-blooded incidents of the slave system were associated with it, such as the breeding of slaves in the older states for sale farther south, and the constant breaking of family ties by selling members separately.”—Vol. 20, 1959, p. 67.
Yes, the view that blacks were “not men” led to the breeding and selling of them, as is commonly done with livestock. Then, abruptly, in 1865, slavery was fully abolished in the United States. Yet attitudes persisted, and blacks were kept “in their place”—that of subordination to whites—by segregation laws and other means.
Lynching by hanging was one important instrument of control. There were, on an average, 166 lynchings annually between 1890 and 1900. Also, as The Encyclopedia Americana relates:. “The sexual exploitation of Negro women by white men continued to be tolerated. Negroes received grossly unfair and discriminatory treatment at the hands of police and frequently in the courts.”—Vol. 20, 1959, p. 70.
Are we talking about ancient history? No, the grandparents of many living blacks were slaves. And people living today have heard from the lips of former slaves what life was like then. Even into the 1950’s the mass media in America portrayed blacks as inferior—invariably their role was as servants to whites.
Generally, however, blacks were not visible at all, neither in magazines, on television nor in newspapers, except in stories of crime. They were discriminated against at every turn, receiving second-rate schooling, and being barred from certain types of employment and from many other benefits enjoyed by whites. Practically everywhere doors of opportunity were shut to them, robbing many of any hope of improving their lot.
In view of these circumstances, can one really expect blacks to do as well, on the average, as whites in educational and other achievements? Would it be fair to judge them inferior as a race when they do not measure up to a certain standard? What happens when opportunities are open to them?
Opportunity and Motivation
Prior to 1947 blacks were barred in the U.S. from major-league baseball. That year, as racial tensions often ran high, a black was permitted to play. Soon blacks began to excel in baseball. In 1971, the year that they were world champions, in one game the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded a team of nine players—all black. The situation is similar in other sports, causing the New York Times this year to say, “pro basketball is virtually a black game.”
What does this mean? That blacks are biologically superior physically to whites? Or does it mean that when opportunities are opened and instruction and motivation are provided, blacks can do well? Obviously the latter. Races are not born with talent to be ballplayers, musicians, scientists, college professors, and so forth. These things must be learned.
It is wrong to stereotype races, saying that one race is naturally dull and slow, another aggressive and militant, still another gentle and subservient, and so forth. Races are the way that they are particularly due to the education, training and motivation that they receive. For example, the Chinese were often characterized by many as being naturally gentle and subservient. But given the different education and motivation that they have received over the past several decades under Communism, few would characterize them that way today.
Yet the view persists that naturally, biologically, blacks as a race are slower mentally and less intelligent than whites. Is there reliable evidence that this is so?
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Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations