Jonathan P. Baird: Ways to be racist

  • Statues in front of one of the slave cabins at the Whitney Plantation in Edgard, La., are shown on July 14. AP

  • Nineteenth century bilboes for a child (front) and an adult, typically found on slave ships, are displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on Jan. 25, 2012. AP

For the Monitor
Sunday, December 17, 2017

Racism is difficult to talk about. The label gets tossed and too often ends genuine conversation. Just mention of the word “racist” can cause partisans to retreat to their entrenched positions.

Considering the centrality of race in American life, we need to gain a better understanding of how racism originated and has evolved. For all the use of the word as a label, racism is usually seen as simply encompassing bad ideas.

That view is erroneous and superficial. Racism in America has changed dramatically since the 18th century. If we look at racism historically, we can gain insights into how we have arrived at our present race predicament.

Racism in America did not mysteriously materialize out of the vast reservoirs of human ignorance and hate. It arose from the need to justify slavery. The beneficiaries of slavery and later Jim Crow segregation developed and promoted racist ideas to justify their enslavement of fellow human beings. Defending racism served their material self-interest and it gave them a way to deflect attention from their criminal behavior.

In his book Stamped From the Beginning, Professor Ibram X. Kendi presents a comprehensive overview of how racist ideas have changed over time. The arguments used to justify racism in early America are quite different than what we hear now.

In the 17th and 18th century, racists relied on theological and climate justification. Kendi cites early preachers who drew from the Bible, particularly Genesis, which claims that black people were the children of Ham, the son of Noah, who were turned black by Noah’s curse on their depraved behavior.

Climate theorists as far back as the 14th century believed that black people were a product of hot climate and that they could literally turn white if they moved into cooler climate. The belief was that placed in the proper cold climate, blacks would adopt European culture, whiten their skin color and grow straight hair.

In early America, there were nature versus nurture debates about black people. Many blamed black people for allegedly criminal behavior and disagreed about whether they were inherently inferior or the race could be improved. Blackness was seen as a physiological abnormality, and scholars and scientists debated whether blacks were a different species or lesser animals.

Preachers like Cotton Mather urged Africans to become obedient slaves whose “souls will be washed white in the blood of the lamb.” But he said that disobedient slaves would forever welter “under intolerable blows and wounds from the Devil, their overseer.”

Blackness was associated with the Devil and whiteness became the standard of beauty. During the Salem witch trials, religious leaders preached endlessly about black devils. Accused witches were made to confess that black devils made them sign his book.

There was some disagreement among slaveholders about whether slaves could be Christians. Some slaveholders worried about seeing their slaves in heaven.

From 1776 to 1865 and the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, slavery was business as usual in much of the country. Slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence.

Early American history shows that racist ideas were reinforced by racist laws. While Black Codes are mostly associated with the period after the Civil War, they date back to Colonial America. Blacks were not allowed to vote, gather in groups for worship, or learn to read and write.

Justifications for racist ideas changed in the 19th century. Racist scholars measured anatomy and the size of human skulls and they evolved the pseudo-science of phrenology. The founder of anthropology in the United States, Dr. Samuel Morton, a phrenologist, found Caucasian skulls to be larger than those of other races. Morton contended that larger skulls equated with larger intellect.

Pseudo-science played a larger role in 19th century racism. One prominent Southern surgeon, Dr. Josiah Nott, owner of nine slaves, advanced a polygenesist theory that claimed humanity and different races originated from different lineages. Charles Darwin later took issue with Nott, who had attacked evolutionary theory.

Racist ideas in the late 19th century evolved further with the development of eugenics. Eugenicists tried to prove that personality and mental traits were inherited and superior racial groups inherited superior traits.

Eugenicists were focused on promoting the idea of the purity of the white race. Kendi mentions a book published in 1916, The Passing of the Great Race, by a New York lawyer, Madison Grant. Grant had constructed a racial-ethnic ladder with Nordics (his term for Anglo-Saxons) at the top and Jews, Italians, the Irish, Russians and all non-whites on the lower rungs.

Grant theorized that world history was about the rise and fall of civilizations based on the amount of Nordic blood in each nation. Grant’s book later influenced Adolf Hitler. Hitler thanked Grant, calling his book “my Bible.”

These early eugenics theorists like Madison Grant were forerunners of newer justifiers of inequality like Richard Hernnstein and Charles Murray, who in 1994 authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Hernnstein and Murray argued that there was a cognitive difference between blacks and whites although they acknowledged some role for environment.

Hernnstein and Murray essentially saw social inequality as a result of biology. Such thinking promoted the view that disparities around race were inherent.

More recently, the ideology of colorblindness has held sway. The assumption has been that the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible without regard to race. The problem is this ideology ignores 250 years of African American history.

Kendi shows there has been a historical struggle around how blame has been assigned for the discrimination against non-white people. Blaming the victim of discrimination has been a long-term historical pattern. As Kendi writes: “When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for the oppression.”

From the perspective of 2017, the historical succession of racist ideas demonstrates their stupidity and absurdity. It is hard to fathom that so many have believed such obviously wrong ideas. Yet we live in an era when white supremacy is trying to make yet another comeback.

It is past time that we reject all concepts that regard one racial group as inferior or superior to another.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)