In the university, racism is thought to emanate from ignorance, hatred and fear, all of which share an irrational foundation. In other words, the conventional wisdom is that racism originates in cultural and intellectual backwaters where isolated groups grow up fearing and ultimately hating those who are different. This is why education is generally considered to be the cure. Yet history reveals another cause.
As Dinesh D'Souza argues in The End of Racism, racial prejudice unexpectedly originated among an intellectual elite during the Enlightenment. Previous to this, he concludes, there was little concern for racial differences. Slavery, it turns out, existed in nearly every nation, but it was not based on race. Rather, early slavery most often resulted from unpaid debts, kidnapping, or defeat at the hands of a foreign army and thus is not equivalent to racism as it exists today. In fact, in American life before the Civil War, there were Indians who had slaves as well as a number of free blacks who owned others as slaves.
The Enlightenment intellectual, Immanuel Kant, philosophizing in the 18th century, wrote, "The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish." In 1742, David Hume, the English intellectual, concluded, "I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites." Others expressed similar sentiments. Why? Certainly, these men could not be accused of irrationality or ignorance, fear and hatred. They were the leading intellectuals of their day.
The earliest observers of differences between the races theorized that the cause was environmental. Blacks inhabited areas nearer the equator and thus developed darker skin. Whites lived in regions further from the middle of the earth with opposite results. Some scientists predicted that the skin of blacks would lighten if they migrated to cold countries.
Gradually, however, as the technologically advanced European adventurers explored new lands, they noted a civilizational difference between their country and native inhabitants. Over time these differences were attributed, by Enlightenment scholars and biologists, to racial inferiority. One, Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, in his scholarly treatise, The Inequality of Human Races published in 1853 just six years before Darwin's Origin of the Species, asks, "So the brain of a Huron Indian contains in an undeveloped form an intellect which is absolutely the same as that of the Englishman or the Frenchman! Why then, in the course of the ages, has he not invented printing or steam power?" As D'Souza astutely concludes, "Whatever its later career, racism began as part of a rational project." Thus, it was the modern prejudice for science which made it possible to reject the Biblical valuation of the equality of the races and for racism to gain a foothold in public opinion.
The point in determining a beginning for racism is to work and hope for writing its final chapter. That it began as a rational, scientific and intellectual project is interesting primarily because today's scholars divert blame elsewhere, and they regularly lay claim to having its solution which is increasingly in doubt. But more on this latter point next time.
Until next time,