Sunday, December 9, 2012

Race: Born with the USA

Check The Oxford English Dictionary to learn when people began seeing each other in racial terms, and the answer may surprise you: the oldest recorded example is from 1774. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in his History of the Earth and Animated Nature, “The second great variety in the human species seems to be that of the Tartar race.”

Goldsmith knew his readers would not be familiar with that new meaning of race. He went on to say, "To this race of men we must also refer the Chinese and the Japanese, however different they seem in their manners and ceremonies. It is the form of the body that we are now principally considering." (My italics.)

The word “race” comes from the Italian razza. In English before the 18th Century, “race” simply meant a group of related things—the race of women, the German race, the race of heroes, the race of tart wines, etc. Until then, skin color, hair color, and facial features only suggested tribal allegiance.

What truly mattered was language. The Greek word for outsider is barbarian, a person whose speech sounds like “bar bar” to speakers of Greek. In the story of the Tower of Babel, God divides humanity by creating different languages, not skin colors. In Galatians, Paul never mentions skin color when he explains how the traditional divisions of humanity—tribe, class, and gender—are irrelevant: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one.”

For centuries, slavery had nothing to do with race. In the 1600s, 80,000 to 130,000 Irish slaves were sent to America and the West Indies. The African slave trade began as a simple exercise in capitalism: Africans sold slaves to Europeans who transported them to North and South America. Regardless of the place of origin, slaves of all hues worked and lived together under equally barbaric conditions.

"Race" and racial prejudice required the sanction of science. The 18th Century was the Age of Enlightenment. The idea was growing that all people were equal. But if everyone was equal, who could be sold, and where would cheap labor come from?

Historian Eric Williams noted, "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery." Europeans rationalized slavery with pseudo-science: inferior "races" clearly did not deserve the same treatment as superior ones.

This doesn’t mean people didn’t notice skin color, but color as a major tribal marker is almost as new as the idea of race. The first “white” people in North America appear in the historical record around 1680. Before then, people tended to describe themselves in terms of their nation: English, Mohican, French, Wampanoag, etc.

After the idea of race was accepted, slavery did not get worse—life for slaves in the race-obsessed plantations and mines of the Americas was much like life in the galleys, mines, and commercial farms of Rome. The tightly packed ships of the Middle Passage may be unique to the African trade, but capitalism, not racism, explains the Middle Passage: it was the most profitable way to ship human cargo. Humans have never needed race to excuse inhuman treatment of anyone identified as "other": see the massacre of nonviolent Cathars for one of uncountable examples.

But after the idea of race was accepted, life for people who were now "white" improved slightly. The colonies passed laws dictating better treatment for white servants than black slaves. The new idea of racial division allowed rich people who considered themselves enlightened to simultaneously treat poor people a bit better and keep slaves.

For racists and racialists, the ideas of tribe and race are hopelessly tangled, which leads to confusion in the case of people like Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama, wealthy African Americans who have always acted in the interests of their social class, but who have been called race traitors by people who see the world through a racial filter.

For racists and anti-racists, the purpose of race is to exaggerate differences: A "black" and a "white" are opposites, even if the skin of the "black" is lighter than that of the "white." The distinction exists to divide us.

The truth about humanity has never changed. There are no scientific tests for race. Blood is blood, and bone is bone. Race is a con game. Don't play.