Why is Race Such an Issue?
EVER since the beginning of recorded history, the idea of “them” and “us” has dominated people’s thinking. Many have convinced themselves that they are the only normal people with the right ways of doing everything. This is what scientists call ethnocentrism, the idea that one’s own people and ways are the only ones that count.
The ancient Greeks, for example, did not think much of the “barbarians,” a term they applied to anyone not Greek. The word “barbarian” developed from the way that the foreign tongues sounded to Greek ears, like a lot of unintelligible “bar-bar.” The Egyptians before and the Romans after also felt superior to peoples other than themselves.
For centuries the Chinese called their country Zhong Guo, or the Middle Kingdom, because they were convinced that China was the center of the world if not of the universe. Later, when European missionaries with red hair, green eyes, and ruddy complexion came to China, the Chinese branded them “foreign devils.” Likewise, when Orientals first showed up in Europe and North America, their slanted eyes and what were considered strange customs made them easy targets for ridicule and suspicion.
Yet, there is a significant fact to consider, as the book The Kinds of Mankind says: “To believe in one’s [racial] superiority is one thing; to attempt to prove it, by using the findings of science, is something else.” Efforts to prove that one race is superior to another are relatively new. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu wrote that “the conception that there are natural or biological races of mankind which differ from one another mentally as well as physically is an idea which was not developed until the latter part of the eighteenth century.”
Why did the issue of racial superiority become so prominent during the 18th and 19th centuries?
Slave Trade and Race
A major reason is that the profitable slave trade had by then reached its apex, and hundreds of thousands of Africans were being taken by force and pressed into slavery in Europe and the Americas. Often families were broken up, with men, women, and children being sent to different parts of the world, never to see one another again. How could slave traders and slave owners, most of whom claimed to be Christian, defend such inhuman acts?
By propagating the view that black Africans were naturally inferior. “I am apt to suspect all negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the white,” wrote 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. In fact, Hume claimed that one could find “no ingenious manufactures amongst [Negroes], no arts, no sciences.”
However, such claims were wrong. The World Book Encyclopedia (1973) noted: “Highly developed Negro kingdoms existed in various parts of Africa hundreds of years ago. . . . 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.” Nevertheless, those involved in the slave trade were quick to adopt the view of philosophers such as Hume that blacks were a race inferior to whites, indeed, even subhuman.
Religion and Race
Slave traders got considerable support for their racist views from religious leaders. As early as the 1450’s, the edicts of Roman Catholic popes sanctioned the subjugation and enslavement of “pagans” and “infidels” so that their “souls” might be saved for “God’s Kingdom.” Having received the blessing of the church, early European explorers and slave traders felt no qualms about their brutal treatment of native peoples.
“In the 1760s, as for many decades to come, black slavery was sanctioned by Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed churchmen and theologians,” says the book Slavery and Human Progress. “No modern church or sect had sought to discourage its members from owning or even trafficking in black slaves.”
Although some of the churches talked about universal Christian brotherhood, they also promoted teachings that intensified the racial controversy. For example, Encyclopaedia Judaica states that “it was only after lengthy struggles and theological discussions that the Spaniards recognized the native races they found in America as men endowed with souls.”
The implication was that so long as the “souls” of the people of such native races were “saved” by being converted to Christianity, it was unimportant how they were treated physically. And when it came to the situation of blacks, many religious leaders argued that they were cursed by God anyway. Scriptures were misapplied to try to prove this. Clergymen Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, in their Bible commentary, assert: “Cursed be Canaan [Genesis 9:25]—this doom has been fulfilled in the destruction of the Canaanites—in the degradation of Egypt, and the slavery of the Africans, the descendants of Ham.”—Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Whole Bible.
The teaching that the forefather of the black race was cursed is simply not taught in the Bible. The truth is, the black race descended from Cush, not Canaan. In the 18th century, John Woolman argued that using this Biblical curse to justify the enslaving of blacks, depriving them of their natural rights, “is a supposition too gross to be admitted into the mind of any person who sincerely desires to be governed by solid principles.”
Pseudoscience and Race
Pseudoscience also added its voice in an effort to support the theory that blacks are an inferior race. The book Essay on the Inequality of Races, by the 19th-century French writer Joseph de Gobineau, laid the groundwork for many such works to follow. In it, Gobineau divided mankind into three separate races in descending order of excellence: white, yellow, and black. He claimed that the unique qualities of each race were carried in the blood and that thus any mixing through intermarriage would result in degradation and loss of the superior qualities.
Gobineau argued that once there existed a pure race of white, tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed people whom he called Aryans. It was the Aryans, he argued, who introduced civilization and Sanskrit to India, and it was the Aryans who established the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. But through intermarriage with the inferior local people, these once-glorious civilizations were lost, along with the genius and fine qualities of the Aryan race. The nearest people to pure Aryan still remaining, asserted Gobineau, were to be found in northern Europe, namely, among the Nordic and, by extension, the Germanic peoples.
Gobineau’s basic ideas—the three-race division, the blood lineage, the Aryan race—had no scientific foundation whatsoever, and they are completely discredited by today’s scientific community. Nonetheless, they were quickly picked up by others. Among them was an Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was so enamored with Gobineau’s ideas that he took up residence in Germany and championed the cause that only through the Germans was there hope of preserving the purity of the Aryan race. Needless to say, Chamberlain’s writings became widely read in Germany, and the outcome was ugly.
Ugly Outcome of Racism
In his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle), Adolf Hitler asserted that the German race was the Aryan superrace that was destined to rule the world. Hitler felt that the Jews, who he said were responsible for sabotaging the German economy, were an obstacle to this glorious destiny. Thus followed the extermination of Jews and other minorities of Europe, which was indisputably one of the darkest chapters of human history. This was the disastrous outcome of racist ideas, including those of Gobineau and Chamberlain.
Such ugliness was not limited to Europe, however. Across the ocean in the so-called new world, the same sort of unfounded ideas brought untold suffering to generations of innocent people. Although African slaves were finally freed in the United States after the Civil War, laws were passed in many states prohibiting blacks from having many of the privileges that other citizens enjoyed. Why? White citizens thought that the black race did not have the intellectual capacity to participate in civic duties and government.
Just how deeply such racial feelings were entrenched is illustrated by a case involving an antimiscegenation law. This law prohibited marriages between blacks and whites. In convicting a couple who broke this law, a judge said: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.”
The judge said this, not in the 19th century and not in a backward area, but in 1958—and not more than 60 miles [100 km] from the U.S. Capitol! Indeed, it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all laws against interracial marriages.
Such discriminatory laws—as well as segregation in schools, churches, and other public institutions and discrimination in employment and housing—led to the civil unrest, protests, and violence that have become the realities of life in the United States and many other places. Destruction of life and property aside, the anguish, hatred, and personal indignities and sufferings that have resulted can only be regarded as the shame and disgrace of a so-called civilized society.
Thus, racism has become one of the most divisive forces afflicting human society. Surely, it behooves all of us to search our own hearts, asking ourselves: Do I reject any teachings that proclaim one race to be superior to another? Have I sought to rid myself of any possible residual feelings of racial superiority?
It is also appropriate that we ask: What hope is there that racial bias and tension, so rampant today, can ever be eradicated? Can people of different nationalities, languages, and customs live together in peace?
[Picture on page 7]
Blacks were viewed as subhuman by many whites
Reproduced from DESPOTISM—A Pictorial History of Tyranny
[Picture on page 8]
Nazi extermination camps were a disastrous outcome of racist ideas
U.S. National Archives photo