Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” One might add, of course, that the idea of a race that is “inherently superior” would imply that another race, or races, is in fact inferior. Herein starts the problem, but neither is it the ending point, or even a cursory explanation of the reasons for racism. This explains that there is a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another.  So, what are the origins of racism?

There is a popular belief that racism is as old as the human race itself, and that from time immemorial distinctions have been made among people based on their racial characteristics. While this may be true, racism as we understand it in the modern era may have find its origin in the economic arena. While racism may be as “old as the hills” as the old expression goes, modern racism may have more readily identifiable historical origins which have framed sociologically identifiable present.

If we look back upon pre-revolutionary America (during the early and mid-1600’s), we will find that black indentured servants often bought their freedom and in some cases became relatively prosperous landowners. They were seen has having the same rights as whites, having achieved their freedom, and were given the same treatment across the board. However, as black slavery became more common in North America, and social castes began to harden within the growing North American British colonies, black freedmen were often disenfranchised and in some cases actually had their hard-won property confiscated from them. The question is, why?

In colonial America, as a budding new national identity began to sprout amongst colonists, new found economic prosperity led to a sense that anyone could make a living off of the land and, since there was much land for the clearing and planting in the interior of the colonies, it attracted many young people from the British Isles who could not own land in their nation of origin. Since the primary source of wealth in the colonies was land, and a certain prestige also was associated with landowning among people of European origins stemming from class distinctions in the old world, there was that as a factor. However, the lands also had to be profitable and that meant that a labor source was necessary. Black slaves fit the bill in terms of a labor source that was readily available. But how, in a colonial America that was already embracing a spirit of independence based on ideas about the value of the individual and the equality of man, embrace without a sense of injustice such an onerous institution as human slavery? By ascribing inferior status to blacks as a whole, the system of slavery was justified and even a slave culture and mindset developed to meet the role of the black slave as not just a social and economic inferior, but a genetic inferior. The idea that emerged was that, by virtue of their race, people of African origin were held to be inferior to persons of European origin. The cognitive dissonance that stemmed from people who embraced the ideas of freedom and equality owning other human beings was (at least on the surface) removed and slavery could be justified. Thus, through the desire for economic gain, slavery could be justified.

We see a similar pattern emergent among European during the Age of Imperialism. Extraordinary and elaborate belief systems were created to justify the essential ownership of other people’s lands and the essential enslavement—or at least the exploitation—of those people. In the British colonial experience in India and Africa, for example, Africans and Indians were considered to be “uncivilized” and “not Christian” and therefore needed the guidance and superintendent ship of European whites. Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” sums up in a few short lines the idea that European colonialism was not only justified, but necessary, for the advancement of “inferior peoples”:

 “Take up the White Man’s burden—

Send forth the best ye breed

Go send your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need

To wait in heavy harness

On fluttered folk and wild—

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.”

–From “White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling

Here we see Kipling capture the justification of the exploitation of other people’s based on the idea that subject folk were little more than “devils” and “children” in need of a civilizing influence. And of course this influence must necessarily come from “civilized” European whites.

So, how do these historical origins explain racism today? With the end of actual slavery in the United States after the Civil War, and the end of Imperialism due to Europe’s incapacity to sustain it after two devastating world wars, we see that old patterns of behavior and belief—especially when it aggrandizes one group over another—does not die easily. In the American south immediately after the Civil War’s end, the social system adjusted to new Federal legal restraints by institutionalizing racism legally at the state level maintaining the inferior status of black Americans there through apparently legal means. Even after “Jim Crow” laws were struck down at the national level, the institutionalized need to hold black Americans down socio-economically was maintained as a holdover from pre-Civil War ideas about race. Unfortunately, many of the same attitudes were maintained all over the United States, not just in the American South.

The problems associated with racism, this onerous holdover from an archaic past, are that it hurts everyone—and still does to this day. As Professor Kenneth Clark of Howard University, social psychologist, pointed in his testimony in Briggs v. Elliott school children were psychologically damaged—made to feel inferior and as second class citizens—by the practice of segregation by race in public schools, he was asked by counsel for the plaintiffs if the practice of segregation had any negative impact on white school children. Clark said that it definitely did—that it created moral confusion: the same adults who taught them love of their fellow man and the equality of all people also taught them to segregate and discriminate. The cognitive dissonance created meant that whites, for a lifetime, had to live with a nagging feeling of revulsion not only those who were among the segregated group, but also with an irreconcilable moral dilemma deep in their collective psyche.

So, it is very possible that the economic desires of people during the colonial/imperial period of world history had saddled all of us with a specter of racism that could be eradicated if all people would simply let go of a devastating past. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be that simple. Or is it?


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