Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Inextricably Interwoven": Christianity, Modernity, and Racism

This post consists of a few excerpts from works by modern scholars on the nature of racism. These excerpts highlight two important features of racism: its modern origins and it's close association with the Christian religion.

The first excerpt is from George M. Fredrickson's 2002 Racism: A Short History. Fredrickson, who died in 2008, was one of the leading modern American scholars on the subjects of race and racism. He was a professor of history at Stanford, a Navy veteran, a Fulbright scholar, and a past president of the the Organization of American Historians. Here are obituaries of Fredrickson from the New York Times, the Stanford Report, and the professional journal Perspectives on History.

This is from Chapter One of Fredrickson's Racism: A Short History
It is the dominant view among scholars who have studied conceptions of difference in the ancient world that no concept truly equivalent to that of "race" can be detected in the thoughts of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. The Greeks distinguished between the civilized and the barbarous, but these categories do not seem to have been regarded as hereditary. One was civilized if one was fortunate enough to live in a city-state and participate in political life, barbarous if one lived rustically under some form of despotic rule. The Romans had slaves representing all colors and nationalities found on the frontiers of their empire and citizens of corresponding diversity from among those who were free and proffered their allegiance to the republic or the emperor. After extensive research, the classical scholar Frank Snowden could find no evidence that dark skin color served as the basis of invidious distinctions anywhere in the ancient world. The early Christians, for example, celebrated the conversion of Africans as evidence for their faith the spiritual equality of all human beings.

It would of course be stretching a point to claim that there was no ethnic prejudice in antiquity. The refusal of dispersed Jews to accept the religious and cultural hegemony of the gentile nations or empires within which they resided sometimes aroused hostility against them. But abandoning their ethnoreligious exceptionalism and worshipping the local divinities (or accepting Christianity once it had been established) was an option open to them that would have eliminated most of the Otherness that made them unpopular. Jews created a special problem for Christians because of the latter's belief that the New Testament superseded the Old, and that the refusal of the Jews to recognize Christ as the Messiah was preventing the triumph of the gospel. Anti-Judaism was endemic to Christianity from the beginning, but since the founders of their religion were themselves Jews, it would have been difficult for early Christians to claim that there was something inherently defective about Jewish blood and ancestry.
[pp. 17-18]
Michael Yudel, A Short History of the Race Concept
Historian Frank Snowden, looking at black-white contact before the sixth century A.D. found that although there is an "association of blackness with ill omens, demons, the devil, and sin, there is in the extant record no stereotyped image of Ethiopians as the personification of demons or the devil."3 In ancient Greece and Rome "the major divisions between people were more clearly understood as being between the civic and the barbarous," between the political citizen and those outside of the polis, and not between bloodlines or skin color.4 Most scholars now accept the viewpoint that in the ancient world "no concept truly equivalent to that of 'race' can be detected in the thought of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians."5 Rooting human variation in blood or in kinship was a relatively new way to categorize humans. The idea gained strength towards the end of the Middle Ages as anti-Jewish feelings, which were rooted in an antagonism towards Jewish religious beliefs, began to evolve into anti-Semitism. These blood kinship beliefs rationalized anti-Jewish hatred instead as the hatred of a people. For example, Marranos, Spanish Jews who had been baptized, were considered a threat to Christendom by virtue of their ancestry because they could not prove purity of blood to the Inquisition.

Beginning in the eighteenth century, at the height of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe, these ideas were applied to explaining the diversity of humankind. This was driven in part by the experiences with new peoples during colonial exploration, the need to rationalize the inferiority of certain peoples as slavery took hold in European colonies, and the development of a new science to assess and explain diversity in all species. The Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus also made lasting contributions to the race concept at this time. Linnaeus's "natural system," which became the basis for the classification of all species, divided humanity into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus. But while the term race existed before the 18th century, mostly to describe domesticated animals, it was introduced into the sciences by the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon in 1749. Buffon saw clearly demarcated distinctions between the human races that were caused by varying climates. Buffon's climatological theory of difference was infused with notions of European superiority. To Buffon, the natural state of humanity was derived from the European, a people he believed "produced the most handsome and beautiful men" and represented the "genuine color of mankind."

The Swedish botanist and naturalist Carolus Linnaeus also made lasting contributions to the race concept at this time. Linnaeus's "natural system," which became the basis for the classification of all species, divided humanity into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus.

If racial science is science employed for the purpose of degrading a people both intellectually and physically, then beginning in the 19th century, American scientists played an increasingly active role in its development. Scientists like Samuel Morton, Josiah Nott, and George Gliddon offered a variety of explanations for the nature of white racial superiority meant to address the nature of physical and intellectual differences between races, the "natural" positions of racial groups in American society, and the capacity for citizenship of non-whites.

At the core of this work, known as the American School of Anthropology, was the theory of polygeny, the belief that a hierarchy of human races had separate creations. Samuel Morton's experiments oFgoldsn cranial capacity and intelligence sought to demonstrate this theory. Morton collected hundreds of skulls from around the globe, measured their volume, and concluded that the Caucasian and Mongolian races had the highest cranial capacity and thus the highest levels of intelligence, while Africans had the lowest cranial capacity and thus the lowest levels of intelligence.

More than a century after Morton's death, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, using Morton's same experimental material and methods, could not replicate the earlier findings. Gould concluded that Morton's subjective ideas about race difference influenced his methods and conclusions, leading to the omission of contradictory data and to the conscious or unconscious stuffing or under-filling of certain skulls to match his pre-ordained conclusions.6 Indeed, the case of Samuel Morton illustrates how social conceptions of human difference shape the science of race.

3. Frank M. Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983) p.107.
4. Ivan Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996) pp.14, 17-60.
5. George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002) p.17
6. Stephen J. Gould, Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 70.

Henry Goldschmidt, Introduction to Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas,:
[I]n the United States and throughout the Americas, from the fifteenth century through the twenty-first -- religion has been inextricably woven into both racial and national identities, to such an extent that "race," "nation," and "religion" have each defined the others. These seemingly distinct discourses of difference have at times borrowed and at times contested each other's rhetorical authority, reinforcing and undercutting each other's social hierarchies, mixing and mingling in unresolved dialectics irreducible to any one term. If we fail to appreciate the relationships among these categories of collective identity, we will be unable to grasp the contours of our own histories -- that of the United States, and those of the Americas more broadly.
[ p. 5]
Daniel B. Lee, A Great Racial Commission: Religion and the Construction of White America:
For the development of an enduring racial self-description, the late nineteenth century was a particularly innovative period for White people in America. The decade after the Civil War significantly changed the racial and religious landscape of the country. For the first time, Native Americans, emancipated Blacks, and new immigrants from all over the world challenged the cultural hegemony of Anglo-Saxon Christians with their undeniable presence. In the midst of an increasingly diverse population, many White Americans turned to religion as a source of racial and national unity . . . .

My analysis ... begins with the theoretical assumption that there is no natural way to be White, act White, or communicate as a White person. There is no a priori metaphysical bond or primordial solidarity between Whites or between the people of any other racial or religious group. White society first emerges when people communicate about sharing "Whiteness." Communities of people construct themselves and their others as they communicate. A society, such as Whites exchanging race talk, for itself and its environment in an entirely self-referential, autological manner.
[Lee's paper appears in Race, Religion, and Identity Formation in the Americas. Edited by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister. Cambridge: Oxford University Press. pp. 85-110]