Which came first, the African or the Racism?
It is useful to go back to the beginning on all this. It is what the 1619 Project alleged to do, but they didn’t even get the date right: the first slaves being brought from Africa to the Americas some time in the 1520’s. Of course, the 1619 Project isn’t history – it is Propaganda. An attempt to make out that the United States was uniquely responsible for slavery and that slavery and racism were central to our being as a people. But it isn’t like that, at all.
The only reason there was an African slave trade to the Americas is because labor was wanted; lots and lots of labor. And not skilled labor, either; what was wanted was a huge number of strong backs and arms to do the intensely physically demanding labor of plantation agriculture and mining. The reason Africa became the source of the labor is because it was the closest, non-Christian population to where the labor was needed. If the people of Africa had been white, they still would have been taken as slaves. It was just happenstance that they were black.
And that is very important to realize, because it shoots down entirely the concept that white people are inherently racist or motivated by animus towards other races. That all whites are racist is an article of dogma on the Left these days: you are not allowed to question it and you must accept it and proclaim, if you are white, that you believe it and will thus “check your privilege” for all time to come. But the historical reality just doesn’t support such an interpretation. We didn’t come here to be racist: we came here to build a new civilization. Labor was needed to do that. And when there is a market for something, that market will be filled.
Now, you can still say that it was wrong to enslave anyone – and you’re right by the standards of today. Not of the standards of 1520 or 1619 or even 1776. It was only about the time our nation was founded that people started to question the heretofore never questioned concept of slavery. And I mean really heretofore: prior to the rise of the Abolition movement in the Christian West no one on Earth had ever proposed the notion that no human being may be owned by another under any circumstances.
It was a very new and radical idea: that we all, being the sons and daughters of the same God, have an inherent right to our liberty. It was a very good idea and it is splendid that it was thought up and adopted as a guiding principle. But to blame people for not adhering to it before it was even thought up is absurd. To be really at liberty to do as you please, live where you want, think as you desire is still very new in human history. It really only dates as a concept to the middle of the 18th century and even to this day is only partially applied, but most broadly in the United States.
If you were a commoner in, say, 17th century England, you could be forced to work if the authorities thought you were a vagabond. Every country on Earth in one manner or another pressed down on ideas it didn’t like. There were many restrictions on where you could live and what you could do for a trade. Until the early 19th centuries, you could be impressed into Naval service (especially by the British) entirely without your consent and if you bucked against it you would be mercilessly whipped until you accepted your fate.
And that’s another thing to remember: extraordinarily brutal punishments were not reserved merely for African slaves: anyone who wasn’t high up in the socials strata was at risk of suffering the most astonishing punishments for crime. Whipping, of course: but also being branded with a red-hot iron; having your nose slit; your ears cut off; being placed in stocks to suffer abuse from the crowd; a host of offenses were capital and if you really did something the authorities didn’t like you would be hung, drawn and quartered (that is; you would be hung by your neck until you nearly suffocated and then you would be cut down; your living guts would then be ripped out of your body and while you were still alive, you’d then be tied hand and foot to horses who would be induced to rip your limbs off: a jeering and cheering crowd would watch all this). It was only after such punishments started to be eliminated from the criminal codes of the west in the late 18th century that people started to get offended that slaves were still being whipped. Prior to that, nothing would be thought of it…lots of people were whipped for all sorts of offenses.
If you were of the lower orders of society you were expected to serve and be obsequious. No talking out of turn and no back chat. Employers could use sanction in the law against you if you were insubordinate or substandard in your performance. It is true that you couldn’t be sold – but you could lose your position and wind up shipped to a colony or sent to a workhouse. Most people grovelled. They had to: it was that or starve or be subjected to horrible things. It was only with the birth of freedom in the late 18th century in the United States and France that people started to get off their knees, look the upper classes in the eyes and start talking back.
And that is another key thing to remember: things started to change after the United States became a nation (and, later, France had her Revolution). That’s the dividing line: that is when the worth of people as individuals really came to the fore. Prior to that time, even the Church was only really concerned with your soul, not your social condition. The Church would insist that all people be treated humanely but the Church wasn’t about you being free like a modern American is free. The point here is that it was only after common people learned that they didn’t have to grovel to upper class people that they started to see slaves, who were still required to grovel, were being treated unjustly. And that is where racism stepped in.
As humanity advanced in its concept of freedom and human dignity in the last 18th and early 19th centuries, it became ever more untenable to hold slaves. It was viewed a hidebound and corrupt: and it was also being shown that free labor was simply better than slave labor. But those who held slaves and who felt their livelihood and social position were dependent upon holding slaves didn’t want to change. And that’s when you started seeing people cook up the idea that Africans were inferior to whites and only suitable to be slaves.
To be sure, strands of what we call today racism started to appear earlier – but mostly in relation to the sexes. European women didn’t want to compete with African women for the most-prized males and so made it socially unacceptable for a white man to marry a black woman. It still happened, of course; but over time it ceased entirely to happen in the upper classes. Sexual relations went on, but marriage didn’t (a similar pattern happened in British India – in the 18th century British men would often marry Indian women…but as British women started to arrive in India in the 19th century, that practice became socially unacceptable; once again, competition for mates was the guiding force here). The real racism – the blacks are inherently inferior sort of vicious racism – that only started to appear in response to the growing clamor against slavery, as such. It was a rationalization made by people who simply didn’t want to lose what they had. After a time, a whole bizarre mythology of racism was created to buttress the argument of retaining slaves and it started to seep into the general population with even many of those opposed to slavery conceding that black people were inferior.
So, we aren’t dealing with a 400 year old legacy of racism nor are white Americans inherently racist and racistly racisting their way through life trying to keep the black man down. What we’re really dealing with is about 200 years old and the crucial aspect of it – the main American failure on the subject – happened post-Civil War when we failed to craft a just settlement for the freed slaves. We weren’t stained from the beginning with it: when we were founded in 1776, hardly anyone was yet on board with the idea that slavery was inherently wrong and no one was writing books trying to claim that black people are inherently inferior.
It was that post-Civil War failure which is really at the root of the problem: because we failed to secure the basic civil rights of black Americans, we laid up the legacy of woe that we are actually dealing with. Had we done it right back then, then by now most problems would be ameliorated. Because Jim Crow endured in law until the 1960’s, we’re still rather fresh into this problem. Immense strides have been made – we did, after all, elect a black man President, something that would have been inconceivable 80 years ago; and that is very fast change for a social organism. But, the bottom line is that there’s still a long way to go until a time comes when it doesn’t matter. That is, when what a person’s skin color isn’t even thought of when dealing with a person. We’re much further towards that then anyone had a right to expect 50 years ago, but still a long way away.
And that brings us to one of our crucial problems of today – just as, once upon a time, the slave owners twisted themselves into knots trying to justify holding slaves, so we today have people twisting themselves into knots trying to justify retaining a level of anger about, and contempt for, the United States of America, as such. For a lot of people, there is no upside to black and white people living peacefully together. In fact, there’s a lot of downside: hosts of people make their living off of continued racial animosity. What on Earth would Al Sharpton do for a living without it? How would Democrats keep 90% of the African-American vote? How would scores of critical race theory professors and hangers-on justify their fat salaries?
And so the fires are stoked. A few genuine racists are also still at it, usefully providing a patina of justification for the Left to assert that racism in inherent. And there is no solution – mostly because no solution is wanted. If white people are inherently racist then no action and no amount of time will change that. There will always be things to be offended about. The killing of George Floyd probably had no race aspect to it. I really doubt the cop got up that morning and said to himself, “man, I’m gonna kill myself a black man today”. But because the cop was white and the victim black, it is cast as proof that America is inherently racist…and let’s go loot Target because Reasons…and when order is restored well, whitey, you’re still inherently racist and no amount of you saying “Black Lives Matter” actually changes that…but your guilt is useful because it means you won’t look into things too deeply and thus the race grifters will stay on the gravy train and everything will keep going until the next incident which can be cast in racial terms.
And more’s the pity on that – because we do need a lot of reforms and all that gets buried under the rubble of a looted shop. We do need to reform the police. And the prosecutors. And we do need to find ways to bring about increased minority ownership of productive property.
I don’t know quite how this comes out. I’m hopeful that especially under Trump’s second term, great strides can be made in minority prosperity, which always lessens tensions (people with plenty don’t cause a ruckus and money buys you entree into even the most exclusive clubs). But we’ll just have to see.