23 May 2022

The Origins of Racism

Someone asked me on Twitter what I thought the origin of racism was. Was it just a matter so skin colour, or was it more an economic thing?

That's a big questiopn, and can't be properly answered within Twitter's 250 or so character limit, so I just said it was a matter of both, but the proportions of the mix might vary according to circumstances. The bloke who asked wasn't too happy with that, so I thought I'd try to respond at greater length. He asked for my personal view, but I hadn't given too much thought to the origin of racism, seeing it more as a thing that is there and that we have to deal with whenever and wherever we find it, regardless of its origin.

He also asked for my personal view, so what follows is what I think, and not necessarily what anyone else thinks.

One way of answering the question is by evolutionary biology, which can be used to give an explanation for the origin of racism, xenophobia and prejudice. Human beings seem to be hard-wired with a distrust of things that are strange. Strange people, strange animals, strange plants, strange or unusual events. If you see something strange, treat it as dangerous until it is proved to be safe. In terms of evolutionary biology, in the past, some people didn't do this, and they died, because the strange thing turned out to be dangerous. If they died as children, they did not grow up to have kids of their own, and so those with the trustfulness gene did not pass the gene on to their children, and those with the supicion gene lived to pass that on.

It's also a learning thing. Once, when I was about 4-5 years old, we came home and found a large puffadder lying stretched out in the garden path. I thought it was dead and my parents called me away and said it was only sleeping. And so it proved, when it woke up. And so I learned to distrust apparently sleeping snakes. If my parents had not been with me and warned me, I might not have lived long enough to write this. And so we learn prejudice. I am prejudiced against sleeping snakes. And those who learn prejudice young tend to live longer than those who don't. It is an evolutionary survival trait.

And so we learn to distrust strange people, those whose language, customs appearance etc differ from our own. And that is partly learned behaviour. amd partly an inherited evolutionary characteristic. Those who are suspicious of strange things tend to live longer and to breed more. So much for evolutionary biology.

But there is also a mythical/theological explanation.

One of the best descriptions of this is in C.S. Lewis's science fiction novel, Out of the Silent Planet. In the story two men, a mad scientist and a greedy financier, build a spaceship to go to Mars, which they want to colonise and exploit. They kidnap a philologist, who quickly learns the language of Mars, whose population is in three races that live in harmony. Mars, which the locals call Malacandra, has a spiritual ruler, a planetary angel, called the Oyarsa, and it turns out that earth, the "silent planet" of the novel's title, has a bent Oyarsa, who has corrupted his planet and its inhabitants. The mad scientist speaks to the Oyarsa of Malacandra, a racist rant about the human racve being superior to all others, and so destined to dominate and displace them. The Oyarsa of Malacandra says he sees what the bent Oyarsa of earth has done -- he has taken one good, the love of kin, which is not the greatest good, and twisted it to persuade the human race that it is the only good. In other words, racism comes from the devil.

While I see the explanatory value of both of these -- the evolutionary biological, and the mythic/theological, it is only the latter that enables us to fight racism. From the point of view of evolutionary biology, racism is neither good nor bad; it just is.

The National Party (NP), which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994, defined "nationalism" as "love of one's own". The NP claimed that its policy of apartheid was based on "Christian Nationalism". But what is "Christian Nationalism". B.J. Vorster, who became Minister of Justice in the NP government in 1961, and Prime Minister in 1966, said in 1942, when the NP was still in opposition:

We stand for Christian Nationalism, which is an ally of National Socialism. You can call the anti-democratic system dictatorship if you like. In Italy it is called fascism, in Germany National Socialism, and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.
But it was very clear that in spite of the "Christian" epithet that they tacked on to it, race trumped Christianity. One's "own". in the NP worldview, were not one's rellow Christians, but one's fellow white Afrikaners, who could accept other white as allies, provided they served the Afrikaner nationalist cause, but not fellow-Christians of other colours or races. The blood of kinship, of volkheid, was thicker than water, even than the water of baptism. "Christian Nationalism" meant that the "volk" came first, and Christ was second or lower, and certainly did not count in determining who was "one's own". And this the God who said "thou shalt have no other gods before me".

And so, in C.S. Lewis's story, after the mad scientist has ranted on about the superiority of the human race, its civilization, its science, medicine, law, armies, architecture, commerce, and the right to succeed other races as the right of the higher over the lower, the Oyarsa of Malacandra says.

I see now how the lord of the silent world [the devil] has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [intelligent creatures] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly, and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little blind oyarsa in your brain.
And that is the essence of racism, "love of one's own" blown up out of all proportion until it becomes thoroughly evil.

The Herstigte Nasionale Party, a far-right breakaway from the NP, put a further twist on the concept of "one's own" when they coined the slogan "eie volk, eie land", and I wonder if the irony of the English translation escaped them or was intentional -- "own people, own land", when owning people, of course, is slavery. They seem to have dropped the Christian epithet by then, because their concept of owning land took no account of the God who said "Woe to those who add house to house and field to field until there is no more room" (Isaiah 5:8).

So yes, I believe that the ultimate origin of racism is the devil.

But what about the relation of racism to skin colour and economics?

That varies from place to place and time to time.

I suspect that a lot of white racism in America is economic in origin. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade period thousands of black slaves were exported from Africa to America. During that period in the Americas nearly all black people were slaves, and nearly all slaves were black people. And slaves were ipso facto at the bottom of the economic pile, and so inferior in status, in power, and in almost every other way to non-slaves. And so in the Americas slavery became associated with blackness, and blackness with slavery, and hence with inferiority. This, in itself is probably sufficient to account for racism in the Americas. There may have been other causes too, but the historical link between blackness and slavery is certainly the main cause.

Something similar happened in southern Africa. Slavery in the Cape Colony, which lasted until 1835, was mostly of black people from other parts of Africa and people from southern Asia. But it differed from America in that on the eastern border of the Cape Colony, during the slave period and after, there were large umbers of free and independent black people, who outnumbered both the slaves and the free people of the Cape Colony.

It is also worth noting that white racism increased exponentially at the time of the New Imperialism, which lasted from about 1870 to 1914. White Christian missionaries who came to Africa from Europe before 1870 may have had a certain amount of ethnocentric chauvinism, in preferring their own customs and culture to those of Africans they encountered, but they had no problems, for example, with appointing a black Yoruba ex-slave, Samuel Crowther, as Anglican bishop in Yorubaland, which later became part of Nigeria. But their successors during the New Imperialism denounced that as unwise and premature, and it was a long time before there was another black bishop in Nigeria. This was not so much economic, as about skin colour and culture. The New Imperialist white missionaries (and colonial officials, and businessmen) were imbued with a sense of their own superiority as white men.

There was a connection with economics too, but skin colour drove economics rather than the other way round. In the British colony of Natal laws were passed to diadvantage black farmers and favour white ones, limiting cattle trading and the like. And in the Union of South Africa in 1913 the Natives Land Act prohibited black people from acquiring any more agricultural land. And later, in the 1950s-1970s the NP government tried to deprive black farmers even of the little land they had, simply because they were black.

But the question of the origins of racism arose in the context of a different discussion on Twitter, when Jay Naidoo observed that he went to a restaurant where the food was good and the garden was good, but he was the only darkie there, and he wondered why that was.

I commented that at most of the restaurants I've been to recently there have been people of all colours there. But most of the restaurants I've been to in the last 10 years have been in the middle-class eastern areas of the City of Tshwane, Other places may differ. But (and this is where the economic factor comes in) most of the patrons of those restaurants, regardless of colour, have clearly also been middle class. That particular part of the city is also embassy territory, so in any given middle-class restaurant, on any given occasion, there might be a fairly cosmopolitan clientele.

But imagine if a homeless person, dark or pale, came in for a meal. Middle-class people, whether black or white, would ne likely to notice and wonder what was going on. They might think it too rude to stare, but they would notice. And perhaps some of the proprietors might invoke "right of admission reserved" notices to turn away someone of an obviously different class, lest the middle-class patrons be put off and not return, because they feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is so obviously not one of them.

So, regardless of the origins of racism, and though I think it is still a factor in South African life, I think class is a more important factor, which is why in South Africa the gap between the rich and the poor is among the highest in the world, and the attitude of many seems to be that expressed in the following verse, sung to the tune of "The Red Flag" (O Tannenbaum):

The working class can kiss my arse
I've got the foreman's job at last.

1 comment:

Wurmbrand said...

A thoughtful, informative, and convincing posting, Steve.

I used to encourage my Shakespeare students, when we were about to discuss Othello, to try to imagine the play and its protagonist in a time prior to modern racism. At least I think modern racism hadn't yet developed. I base that on two things. (1) So far as I know, slavery based on exploitation of black people had not developed in Britain and British colonies. It was about to, in the New World; but at the time when the play was new, race-based slavery would not have been a British thing. A Londoner seeing a black sailor on the street with a couple of white fellow sailors would not, I suppose, have thought "slave." (2) The theory of evolution had not enabled racism. Racism got a tremendous boost from Darwin and others who could say that certain races were inferior to the Northern European because these others were closer to the ape. I have no doubt that satan has exploited the theory of evolution to intensify racist hatred while giving it a veneer of being scientific unlike Christianity with its preposterous ideas of people coming back to life after death and so on. Eugenics, whether of American or Hitlerian flavor, is intimately bound up with evolutionary racism. But that would not have been a factor when Othello was first on the boards. I don't say that Shakespeare didn't tap into a different source of anti-Black feeling, with the idea of the Devil and demons as black figures in some iconography. You as an Orthodox Christian might have some thoughts on that. Their blackness is brought to the Biblical accounts; it's nowhere in the text.

Dale Nelson


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