Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.

When people move

In the course of human events, migration has resembled an unstoppable force, and bigotry has seemed like an unmovable object. Left alone, either could prevail as the primary cause of events. Combined, the two have challenged each other repeatedly, contributing to the ebb and flow of history.

People move. Even after the Neolithic Revolution established settlements where people built homes and cities, tended flocks and herds, raised crops, and set down roots, groups of people have still sought better homes for themselves and their families. People are constantly looking for better farmland and superior water resources, safer and more defendable homes, nicer weather, kinder neighbors, and opportunities to start over after escaping previous problems. When discussing this fact in the classroom, I often asked the students how many of them had parents still living in the same house where they lived when those students were born. The number who said yes was generally small—at times, I was the only one in the room whose parents had not moved.

So, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in southern Asia gradually became home to increasing numbers of Indo-Europeans migrating from the north. The blending of Harappan with Indo-European cultures created the Vedic culture of India. Contemporary scholars are unsure which elements of Vedic civilization came from the Harappan strain and which came from the Indo-European strain. Since no one today can read Harappan writing, this question remains unanswered. But the blend of the two cultures definitely produced something new.

The Chinese culture built a wall to keep northern Asians out of their land. The Great Wall of China also prohibited Chinese people from leaving the country without permission, and it provided a great stimulus project that employed many Chinese workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Wall was not built at one time, or even in one century. Different segments were built at different times and were connected later; segments were repaired and improved over the centuries, so that the wall that tourists visit today is not the same wall that the Chinese people built long ago. But the Wall remains as a reminder of the extent to which governments will go to prevent unwanted immigration.

Many centuries later, the Romans also struggled to limit migration into their empire from the north. They also built walls. They positioned legions of soldiers on the borders. They even made agreements with some immigrant groups that they would be granted Roman citizenship if they would remain on the border and prevent other groups from entering the empire. Still, so many northern Europeans wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship and of life in the Mediterranean climate that the Romans were unable to prevent their entry. Goths and Vandals and Franks and Burgundians and Saxons and many other groups migrated into the Empire. They adopted some of its institutions (including Christianity) and adapted others, blending them with their own cultures. The results of this migration are called medieval and modern Europe.

Then came the Vikings. They came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Denmark and northern Germany and France. They entered the Mediterranean Sea and became involved with the Christian and Muslim civilizations living there. They sailed up the Dnieper River and established Kiev, the first capital of Russia. (Although Russia is a Slavic nation, its name comes from the label given to the Vikings of Kiev, whose hair and complexion were red.) The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland and even found their way to Canada. Hagar the Horrible and the Minnesota football team are far too weak to justly credit the major influence the Vikings had on western civilization.

After 1500, Europeans and Africans poured across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas. Most Europeans made the trip voluntarily; most Africans were brought as slaves.  Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans were brought to the western hemisphere. After the slave trade was abolished, Europeans continued migrating to the New World, and many east Asians also crossed the Pacific Ocean for life in the Americas.

Yet the story of migration would not be complete without the opposing force of bigotry. Most cultures view the world as divided into “us” and “them.” The books of Genesis and Exodus correctly report the hostility the Egyptians felt toward outsiders, particularly the Semitic people of western Asia. Greeks distinguished between people who spoke Greek and those who spoke other languages—all those other languages sounded like “bar, bar, bar,” to the Greeks, so they called those outsiders “barbarians.” Jews distinguish themselves from Gentiles. The Chinese culture has traditionally seen itself as the only civilization, the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Migration is hindered by laws, walls, armed forces, and other deterrents because most groups of people consider themselves better than others. After all, if they didn’t consider themselves better, wouldn’t they seek to improve? Differences of appearance, language, food traditions, religious beliefs, social and political organization, and other cultural differences distinguish one group of people from another. Sometimes a group of people migrates successfully and makes its home in a new place, blending its culture with what they find in that new place. Sometimes (as with the Europeans coming to the Americas) the migrants are so dominant that they gain little from those groups they replace. Rarely does a government succeed in preventing migration into the land it controls. The higher the standard of living in a country, the more likely outsiders will want to move into that country and live there.

The dangers of migration and bigotry, when they face one another, can be reduced with a few simple concepts. One is genuine curiosity and interest, from both groups, about the traditions and practices of the other group. Another is willingness of the older group to teach its ways to the newer group. Legal acceptance of some immigrants and rejection of others can be based upon willingness of the migrants to conform to the values of the native culture. A fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence is that both groups view the members of the other group as people. People deserve respect. Migrants and other outsiders are included among the neighbors that God’s people are commanded to love. But those strangers also have an obligation to respect their new neighbors, to obey the existing laws of their new homes, and to contribute to the success of the place they now call home. When stubbornness turns to fear and hatred, then the history of migration and of bigotry becomes ugly, often tragic. J.

Racism without race (part four)

Governments create and enforce laws that limit and prohibit discrimination based upon culture, gender, age, and other factors. Bigotry and prejudice are not so easily controlled by law. Laws are passed against communication which calls for violence against groups of people on the basis of their culture or other status. As free speech does not permit anyone to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (although shouting “Movie!” at a bonfire is not as harmful and therefore not illegal), so free speech does not permit anyone to advocate hurt or harm to other individuals or groups of people. On the other hand, communication that expresses disapproval of certain cultures or other minority groups without calling for violence can and should be permitted as free speech. Bigotry is more easily recognized as harmful thinking when it is openly expressed in the marketplace of ideals than when it is driven “underground.” As past expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be shown to be illogical and silly under contemporary standards, so present and future expressions of bigotry and prejudice can be revealed for their failings in the same manner. Censoring present expressions and editing former statements that left their mark in history does not advance the process of justice and fairness. Open and honest conversations on such topics, conducted without malice or anger (as difficult as that goal might be to achieve), accomplish far more than restricting freedom of speech, altering the historic record, and demanding that every past and present communication meet certain arbitrary standards of justice and fairness.

Voluntarily and involuntarily, millions of people have migrated over the centuries, carrying their cultures with them. Sometimes people maintained their own cultures secretly while pretending in public to blend into the majority culture. Sometimes majority and minority cultures shaped one another, often in subtle ways. Migration will continue to happen, as people seek better lives for themselves and their families. They seek safety from enemies, better jobs, more access to food and to clean water, freedoms offered by certain governments, and many other good things that are lacking in their homeland. Governments exist to protect their citizens; opening the borders to all immigrants is not a responsible option for any government. But monitoring and regulating immigration, establishing and enforcing laws regarding immigration, is a responsibility of every government. Such laws are less the result of bigotry and prejudice than they are the result of the government’s duty to protect and defend its citizens.

Seeking equality does not mean making everyone the same. Culturalism can continue to convey pride in each person’s heritage. We can celebrate the differences that make each culture unique—differences in language, in food, in clothing, in music, and in many of the other elements of life and civilization. Saying “my way is good” does not have to be the same as saying, “My way is better than your way.” Saying “my way is good” can lead to saying, “Your way is also good.”

The bigger problem includes descendants of migrants who have not achieved equality—economically, politically, and socially—with the majority culture. Education of the entire population about diverse cultures is of some benefit, but education alone will not create equality. In the United States, we can use cultural holidays—including Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Juneteenth—not as paid holidays nor as reasons to drink beer, but as times to learn about other cultures. Summer street fairs, cultural gatherings in parks and museums, broadcast specials about various cultures on television and the Internet—all of these contribute to a solution against bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, but they cannot solve these problems on their own.

Our goal is to lift all ships, not to sink some ships for the benefit of others. Statistically and historically, white privilege has existed and does exist in the United States. Attempts to counter white privilege over the last sixty years include laws against discrimination, desegregation of schools, busing of students to distant schools, and “affirmative action”—legally setting quotas of minority representation in student bodies, work places, and other arenas of public participation. All of these practices have been controversial. They seem to work in some situations, but they seem to worsen bigotry and prejudice in others. Better answers include guaranteeing high quality public education in every school and every neighborhood, enforcing laws against discrimination without setting quotas for hiring, and providing opportunities for the poor (regardless of cultural background) to have equal opportunity for advancement through job training and community-strengthening programs.

 The problems of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In some ways, hiding these problems under the label “racism” only makes them stronger and harder to fight. To affirm that all people are “created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” allows us to study our society, to identify inequalities, and to address them effectively. “Black Lives Matter” can be more than a slogan: it can be genuine work to make life in America fair for all Americans without disintegrating into class warfare, into the determination that, “to give this person more, that person must receive less.” By strict definitions, racism does not exist. Yet by greater awareness of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—all of which do exist—Americans can continue working toward the goal of equality for all people, a goal upon which our country was established from its very beginning. J.

Racism without race (part three)

All three problems—bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination—occur apart from cultural differences. Age, gender, and economic status also provide opportunities for bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. But when those problems are associated with differences in appearance, language, or other cultural aspects, they tend to be lumped together as racism. Laws can be created and enforced that counter practices of discrimination—and this has been done in many countries, especially during the last sixty years. Bigotry and prejudice are much harder to outlaw. Public education and other means of communication can overcome some tendencies toward bigotry and prejudice; but these problems are connected to human nature at its worst, and human laws are not always able to overturn sinful human nature.

Bigotry stems from pride, from the attitude that, “I am right, and I am good. If you are different from me, you must not be as right, and you must not be as good.” Such bigotry already existed in the ancient world. Egyptians viewed their African and west Asian neighbors with scorn, acting as if, “If you aren’t Egyptian, you are unworthy of respect.” Greeks considered the use of the Greek language as a measure of civilization: people who spoke other languages rather than Greek sounded to Greeks as if they were saying nothing more than, “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar,” and so they were called “barbarians.” Ancient Chinese culture similarly viewed China as the center of the earth and everyone else as living on the barbarian frontier.

If each culture had its own geographic region in which to live under its own government, bigotry and prejudice and discrimination would be smaller problems. For the most part, only travelers would be vulnerable to these problems, and they would be free to return to their own homes. Historic reality indicates that people are always moving. The Bantu people began north of the equator in Africa; generations of migration made them the predominant culture of central and southern Africa. Indo-Europeans began in what now is Ukraine; some traveled south to India, and others traveled west to Europe, generating a plethora of cultures in these places. Xiongnu (Huns) and Turks began in east Asia; to escape the growing power of the Chinese Empire, they traveled west and south, bringing their cultures into south Asia, west Asia, and Europe. Many generations ago, Asians crossed from Siberia into Alaska and, over time, created five hundred distinct nations in the western hemisphere. More recently, Europeans and Africans and Asians have migrated into the western hemisphere. (Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to dwell in the western hemisphere. The European migration was largely voluntary, but the African migration was largely involuntary, caused by the slave trade.) Germanic tribes and Asian tribes crossed borders into the Roman Empire, not wanting to destroy the Roman Empire but wanting to enjoy its benefits. Later, the Norse (or Vikings) settled in the British Isles, northwestern France (Normandy), Sicily, Iceland, Greenland, and even a corner of Canada. Other Norse established a trading post in Europe which became the city Kiev; Moslem traders who met the Norse in Kiev called them the red men or “Rus,” beginning recognition of the civilization called Russia.)

People, and groups of people, move from one place to another. Diverse cultures encounter one another because of this migration. Sometimes they blend, forming a third culture. Sometimes one culture dominates and the other survives as a minority. Occasionally, the majority culture stifles and exterminates the minority culture. When domination of one culture over another or extermination of a culture takes place, the reason usually is bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination on the part of the prevailing culture.

If all people were good at heart, each loving their neighbors as they love themselves, cultural conflicts such as bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination would not occur. Culturalism would be beneficial, as each person learns and celebrates his or her own culture; at the same time, each person would be curious enough to learn about his or her neighbors’ cultures. Because human nature includes an evil trait of selfishness and self-centeredness, bigotry often takes the lead on both sides when two cultures encounter one another. Pluralism—when two or more cultures coexist in the same place without strife, without one dominating and the other being stifled—is historically rare. Yet pluralism—coexistence with mutual tolerance and respect, with interest and curiosity regarding one another’s culture—is an ideal. This ideal is worth struggling to achieve in a world in which rapid communication and transportation have made encounters of cultures more common and more likely. J.

Racism without race (part two)

The same textbook that insists that all humans belong to the same race and then uses the term “racism” also presents a complete definition of “nationalism.” Nationalism is a political philosophy of fairly recent origin. It contains the belief that people of the same nation should have their own government. “Nation” is further defined as common language, common religion, common customs, common history and heritage, and (usually) a large enough population in a common area to make self-government practical. During the nineteenth century, nationalism caused several governments on the Italian peninsula to combine, creating the modern nation Italy; nationalism caused dozens of German-speaking people under different governments to combine, creating the modern nation Germany. In the same century, nationalism tore apart the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire, creating such nations as Egypt, Greece, Hungary, and Serbia. During the twentieth century, nationalism led to the independence of most European colonies that had been established in Africa and Asia. The most controversial struggle of nationalism in recent times is that of Zionism, granting a separate government to Jewish people. While the Jews share a common religion, history, heritage, and customs, they were scattered throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. Still, by the middle of the twentieth century, a modern nation called Israel had been established in western Asia to which Jews migrated from all over the world.

“Culturalism” is a label I use, though it is not found in the textbook. I created the term to describe people who continue to identify with a common culture, or nation, even though they do not place themselves under a single government in a single geographical area. Many Jews do not live in Israel. Many countries with a single government still do not consist of a single nation. The United States is an example of a pluralistic country with citizens who identify themselves by various cultures: Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and more. Even with their diverse cultures, all these people live as loyal citizens of the United States of America. Many of them vote, and some run for public office. Others serve in careers that benefit, not only themselves and their families and people of their own culture, but all of their neighbors regardless of culture. Frequently, people of a common culture will identify a holiday that unites their culture within a pluralistic society: Chinese New Year, Saint Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Oktoberfest. More often then not, Americans of other cultures will participate in these celebrations—sometimes as an opportunity to learn more about their neighbors and about different cultures, and other times merely as an excuse to drink beer.

Nationalism and culturalism can be good things. In the past, they have created new nations, whether through combination or separation of groups. They help individuals to form an identity within a community of similar individuals. They provide opportunities for people to learn about each other, to celebrate the distinct aspects of their language or religion or history or heritage, and to entertain one another by the diversity of human experience and expressions. They preserve cultural heritages and help them to survive globalism, the linking of cultures which erases borders but which risks turning the entire world into a homogenized McDonald’s/Walmart/Disney franchise.

But nationalism and culturalism become bad things when they are used to develop and reinforce bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination. Bigotry is the assumption that, because two cultures differ, one must be superior and the other inferior. Prejudice is the assumption that, because an individual belongs to a certain culture, that individual most possess all the traits of that culture (including those traits falsely applied to the culture under bigotry). Discrimination is action based upon bigotry and prejudice, denying opportunities to people of certain cultures such as jobs, freedom to live in certain areas, and even protection under the law of the prevailing government. J.

Racism without race (part one of four)

Biologically, all human beings belong to the same race. Although theorists over the years have tried to identify anywhere from three to twelve races, DNA evidence confirms what mixed families have shown all along—we are all one race. The holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree that every human being is descended from Adam and Eve. Nonreligious scientists also agree that every Homo sapiens sapiens living today has a common ancestor whom those scientists have nicknamed “Eve.” Various other theories about ancestry have been proposed, ranging from the thought that a small percentage of people alive today have Neanderthal ancestors (based on interpretation of DNA samples) to the thought that a percentage of people alive today have extraterrestrial ancestors (based on various blood types). Even outlier notions of the origin of contemporary humanity, though, concur that all humans today belong to the same family tree and do not come from different races.

The textbook I use to teach World Civilizations to college students mentions the unity of the human race more than once. Only on one occasion (surprisingly) has a student asked in the classroom why the same textbook refers to conflict between different groups of humans as “racism.” If we are all the same race, how can racism exist? The answer to this rather profound question is found in the history of labels and also in the still-common misperception that several human races coexist.

Humans can be sorted into different groups according to numerous differences: skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features, average height, body build, and more. These physical distinctions are hereditary, so a mother and father with dark skin will generally produce children with dark skin, and so on. At the same time, though, differences between the DNA of two siblings (children of the same mother and father) might outnumber differences between the DNA of one of those children and another child whose physical distinctions, as listed above, are entirely different. Again, the existence of mixed families confirms the biological fact that all humans belong to the same race; inherited variations are not marks of different races, but only of different genetic backgrounds within the same race.

But, if we are all of the same race, how can racism exist? Racism is a combination of bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination, three terms I will soon (tomorrow) define. As a catch-all term, the word “racism” is unfortunate in its persistence, being inaccurate about what it describes. Although bigotry, prejudice, and discrimination can all be identified in ancient history (and can be found in all parts of the world, even in ancient times), the modern concept of racism is closely linked to nationalism and culturalism, both of which I must define first (tomorrow). J.