The Origins of White Identity and Racism

Racism is sickening, not only because it’s evil, but because if you think about, it’s also enormously stupid. Why does the color of someone’s skin denote inferiority? How does a society decide that because someone has a different skin color they ought to be bound in chains, sent across an ocean, bought at an auction, and then forced to farm cotton on a plantation until they die? It’s preposterous enough as to be comical if it wasn’t so horrific. How does someone reach that conclusion?

Yes, how did people reach that conclusion? The racism that has plagued our society for so long, where does that come from?

Some argue racism is a perversion of an evolutionary precaution. Mankind is supposedly predisposed to fear outside groups, as outside groups could mean disease, competition for scarce resources, and potential violent conflict. In the eons of hunter-gathering, this was a real worry, and groups who regarded outsiders with suspicion were better suited to survive. According to this theory, racism is the offspring of this, only on a much larger and crude scale.

I don’t necessarily see the fallacy in this line of thinking, at least in getting to a fundamental mechanism. However, racism has appeared in varying degrees in different societies, with some being remarkably diverse and others very ethnocentric. With this in mind, I’d argue that racism arises from sociological factors, not psychological ones. This is my problem with evolutionary psychology more broadly, at least as I understand it. It is great at determining root mechanisms, but when people groups build off those mechanisms to form cultures, the psychological explanation becomes too simplistic.

As with all discussions on race, I’ll begin with a couple qualifiers. I do not want to make racism seem any less evil than the scourge it is. I just want to understand where it came from. I also do not believe racism to be a phenomenon unique to white people. There have been ethnic conflicts between people groups, continuing to the present day, not involving white people.

Also, I’m running the risk of conflating Western civilization with whiteness. I emphatically reject the idea that Western ideals are the sole possession of white people, nor I believe that Western Ideals are inherently bigoted or ethnocentric. I am seeking to understand first, how “Western Civilization” became a distinctly Western European phenomenon, and how the form of civilization practiced by white people in Western Europe became something different from other cultures and racial groups. I then want to understand how this identity became something negative and how non-white people became seen as not only different but inferior.

The first question takes us back to ancient Rome, Europe’s first great empire. Rome stretched from London in the northwest to Jerusalem in the southeast, dominating all of the Western Europe, the Near East, and North Africa. What’s interesting about Rome, at least for our purposes, is it cosmopolitanism. A Roman in France had more in common with a Roman in Egypt than they did with people living to their east in barbarian Germany. They were governed by the same law, protected by the same army, paid taxes to the same government, and paid homage to the same Emperor. Ethnic resentment existed, but social standing was determined mostly by social class and citizenship status. Race was largely irrelevant. And since Emperor was more of a military title than a dynastic one, there were Roman emperors from Syria, Africa, Arabia, and every part of Europe. Of course, Rome sometime took dramatic action against certain people groups, the Jews being a great example. But these actions appear more circumstantial than what we would describe as racist.

Mediterranean cosmopolitanism began to change with the breakdown of the Western Roman Empire. What was once the Roman empire was parcelled up between various barbarian tribes – the Visigoths in Spain, the Vandals in North Africa, what would become the Franks in France, the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, and the Ostrogoths in Italy (later the Lombards). What is not understood is that the barbarians were less interested in simply destroying Rome than becoming Roman and modeling its power, wealth, and culture. Only it was an imperfect adoption, and this marriage of barbarian civilization with Roman culture after the fall of Rome gave birth to Western Europe.

This new Europe was distinct from its contemporaries, and key events over the centuries would only heighten this distinction. The Eastern Roman Empire continued in Constantinople, reaching its zenith in the 6th century. But Byzantine civilization was not the same as what existed in the West. It was more hellenistic, wealthier, authority was more centralized, the state had a clear dominion over the church, Greek replaced Latin, and eventually, the Eastern and Western churches split after centuries of theological divergences. You combine this difference with Slavic people moving into the North Balkans, and suddenly Eastern Europe looks quite different than what lay to the West.

The major event was the explosion of Islam onto the world stage in the 7th century. The Muslim armies swept over North Africa and into Spain, and the threat of Muslim invasion of Europe lasted for almost a thousand years. Suddenly North Africa, which was once very much a part of the Western world, was ruled by an alien people, who spoke an alien language and believed in an alien God.

I could continue, but my point has been made thoroughly enough. What was considered “Western”, once a large and diverse area under Rome’s dominion, had shrunk. With the Muslims in North Africa and the Near East, the Greeks in Eastern Europe, the “Western” identity was now confined to Western Europe, at least in the eyes of the Western Europeans. Their civilization was distinct. The white man now practiced a unique way of life than his African or Asian counterparts. They had an identity.

The subsequent question is how this identity became discriminatory, how this distinct Western identity came to see it as their “responsibility” to subjugate the world and “civilize” the people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

There is some debate other whether a positive identity is inherently discriminatory. Looking at the data, I come to the answer no. To use a sports analogy, my love of the Boston Red Sox or Tennessee Volunteers doesn’t make me hate Houston Astros or George Bulldogs fans. There might not be reasoning behind my devotion beyond tradition and circumstance, but it is a commonality between me and other fans. However, any group runs the risk of becoming exclusionary and “oppressive” towards outsiders. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a Yankees fan in Boston after they lost to the Red Sox in the ALDS last October.

That’s a superficial analogy, but the same logic should apply to all identity groups, including racial groups. (I’m also not arguing we should root for our race to “win.” I’m using it as an example of an identity that isn’t inherently exclusionary.) Some identity groups might be irrational, even dangerous, but they are not inherently bad. I’m sure I’ll write something on this at some point in the near future, as this piece has gone long enough already. If you have problems with that statement, please be kind enough to save them until then.

So if you accept my argument about how this distinctly white identity formed, and that an identity is not inherently exclusionary, it remains to be seen how this white identity became racist, which we’ll define as the belief in the inferior of people of other races. Racism is more than distrust or maintaining distinct cultures. It is a belief in the inferiority of another race and the oppression of them because of it.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that Western philosophical tenets outpaced the progress of the civilization, and racism was the bridge to connect the philosophical ideals to the unenlightened state of the civilization at the time.

Let me explain. Over the ages, Western philosophy had reached a conclusion that all men were created equal and subsequently had natural rights, including the rights of liberty and self-determination. Colonization and slavery obviously run directly contrary to this. The enlightened mind would say that this prohibits slavery and colonization, but with the power technological progress had bestowed upon him, the white man was not yet willing to accept this premise. The allure of the power to exploit prevented them from living according to their own creed, even if they didn’t want to forsake their philosophical convictions either.

Racism allowed for this cognitive dissonance. Because if equality led to nature rights that would prohibit exploitation, you could get around this by believing that those you were exploiting were simply not equal. Dehumanization becomes the rationalization for exploitation.

This idea is consistent with my findings from last week, when we examined the relationship between the Founding Fathers and slavery. Men like Thomas Jefferson were so intent on finding scientific proof for racial inferiority because that was how they could bridge their sincere belief in liberty with race-based slavery. That’s why the rhetoric of those defending slavery became more overtly racist over time, as it was what allowed for the coexistence of these two competing ideas. The deplorable poem The White Man’s Burden might be the best example of this, justifying imperialism under the pretext of “civilizing” lesser peoples.

Racism obviously still exists. But my point is that it is a justification that has outlasted what it was originally justifying. Racism is a vestigial organ from the days of slavery, colonization, and exploitation. That’s part of why racism is so horrifying. Not only does it need to go because it’s vile and wrong (though that is justification enough), but the evil purpose it originally served has thankfully been left in the trash can of history.

 

I’m sorry that was incredibly long, but I try to be extra thorough when talking about anything related to race so avoid stepping on any mines. And again, I want to be clear, nothing is this piece ought to be construed to advocate or equivocate racism.

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