Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part three–the last seventy years.

The aftermath of the Second World War found the United States in a new position in the world. Unquestionably, the nation was a superpower, no longer able to isolate itself from events happening on other continents. A second superpower, the Soviet Union, presented a different perspective on world politics and economics. The United States and its allies preferred democracy and capitalism; the Soviet Union and its allies held to totalitarianism and socialism, with the illusionary promise of communism down the road. Following a post-war recession, the economy of the United States flourished. New technology provided faster travel, faster communication, more information, more comforts and more luxuries, and new opportunities to explore the universe. New theories about education were tried in the schools. The ancient ideas of Socrates and Confucius—that people are good at heart and need merely to be taught how things work in the world—were applied to children in the classroom. By the end of the 1960s, authority was being widely questioned, countercultures were forming, and many Americans were eager for change.

Conspiracy theories also grew more common, and the Civil Rights movement was not immune to these theories. Some Americans—including J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI—saw the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement as elements of a Communist anti-American conspiracy. Conversely, I’ve met people who consider the Civil Rights movement as part of a white conspiracy to destroy black communities just as they were beginning to achieve some measure of success after decades of struggle and growth.

The goals of the Civil Rights movement were and are appropriate: to provide equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of culture or ethnic origin or of other inherent differences between individuals. The slave trade created inequity in the United States, and laws passed during the century after the end of slavery perpetuated that inequity. Confiscating and redistributing wealth was never going to make people equal; offering equal opportunity through education, assistance to the poor, and laws against discrimination were always the better path. Quotas in school enrollment and in hiring practices were controversial but were in some cases helpful to reduce cultural inequity. Desegregating schools to the point that students were bused from their homes and neighborhoods to distant school buildings was more controversial and less effective. Wealthier white families invested in private schools or moved to the suburbs. Many government programs instituted to combat poverty had negative effects—pulling apart families by granting more help to single mothers than to married parents, promoting students to higher grades while ignoring their failures to learn material usually required for promotion, and allowing some individuals and families to become dependent upon government funding rather than earned income. Some people took advantage of the system and its negative effects, while many others succeeded in spite of the system and its negative effects. Rhetoric of racism and deliberate discrimination was made socially unacceptable, and positive role models for blacks and other minorities were promoted in athletics, entertainment, and other fields.

Many activities of the Civil Rights movement were appropriate and beneficial: peaceful marches and protests, public speeches, sit-ins, and participation in political life all changed American society for the better. At times, though, the Civil Rights movement was used as an excuse for violence and destruction. From race riots in Birmingham, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles in the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, violent behavior has marred calls for justice and equality. The victims of that violence were often black business owners succeeding within the framework of capitalism rather than white capitalists deliberately continuing an unfair system. Indeed, at times it appeared that demonstrators were more interested in destroying the success of their fellow minority members than they were in building strong communities for themselves and for future generations in American cities.

It is not surprising that citizens protesting racial inequity and injustice would favor a new economic system to replace capitalism in the United States. But capitalism was never the cause of inequity and injustice. Socialism cannot keep its promises of better lives for all people or for most people. Socialism, as much as capitalism, would put power in the hands of decision-makers who might be honest and fair or who might be dishonest, prejudiced, and inclined to discriminate against minorities. Replacing capitalist investors with government bureaucrats cannot end injustice. Allowing the government to control prices, salaries, and decisions about production cannot make life fair for all people. Socialism consumes wealth, but capitalism creates wealth. Instead of redistributing wealth, socialism would distribute poverty; capitalism, on the other hand, offers a greater likelihood of increasing wealth for all citizens.

Historically, socialism has been tested and has failed. Over the years, people have fled socialist countries in search of freedom and opportunity. For the United States, winner of the Cold War, to strive thirty years later to adopt the failed policies of its defeated opponents would be laughable were the risks of such a change not so profound. For this reason, informed citizens need to continue defending and explaining capitalism, doing our best to keep what is working in America while continuing to improve whatever faults and mistakes we perceive in America. J.

Socialism, capitalism, and racism: part one–the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Slavery has existed in the world since the earliest historical records were written. Some slaves were prisoners of war; others became slaves as punishments for crime or as a result of debts they could not repay. In most ancient civilizations, slaves had rights that were protected by law. Some slaves did agricultural work or household chores, but others held highly respectable positions—private tutors for children of the rich, managers of property, and financial advisors. Joseph, son of Jacob, was a slave in Egypt who managed his master’s property. The Roman philosopher Epictetus was also a slave.

Even before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, Africans were bought by Muslim traders and were sold in Arabia, India, and China. Even today descendants of African slaves live in China. But the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade was caused by sugar addiction. Crusaders first encountered cane sugar in western Asia. (Sugar cane is native to the Indonesian islands, but it had been sold and consumed in India, Persia, and Arabia for centuries.) Europeans had some natural sweeteners—honey and fruits—but the pure sweetness of cane sugar captivated European tastes. More than cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, the spice called “sugar” was in great demand as Europeans sought Asian spices from the silk roads. Italian investors tried to cultivate sugar cane on Mediterranean islands, but the climate was wrong and the crops failed.

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers and traders began to look for short cuts in the silk roads, ways to obtain valued items such as gold and spices while bypassing some of the middle steps. (Taxes from governments and profits from merchants heighted the costs of Asian goods in Europe, so naturally western Europeans wanted to create and pursue any shortcuts they could find.) Traveling down the coast of Africa, the Portuguese found African civilizations eager to trade, and among the commodities offered by these Africans were slaves—prisoners captured from nearby tribes during disputes over land and wealth. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered islands off the coast of Africa that were uninhabited and were ideal for cultivating sugar cane. The Portuguese traded for African slaves and used them to grow and harvest sugar cane. When other explorers happened upon the Caribbean islands, they again found land ideal for sugar cane, and slaves purchased in Africa were transported across the ocean to labor in fields from Spanish Florida south to Portuguese Brazil. Slaves were soon introduced into British colonies north of Florida as well.

The plantations and haciendas established by Spain and Portugal in the New World were not capitalist ventures. They belonged to an economic philosophy now called mercantilism. In mercantilism, thinkers assume that the wealth in the world is limited and stagnant—one individual or nation can become richer only as another becomes poorer. Wealth from the New World—precious metals, crops (including sugar, cotton, coffee, rubber, and tobacco), animal furs, and fish—was transported to the Old World to enrich governments in Europe. Capitalists from Great Britain and the Netherlands did engage in the slave trade. Their ships traveled in a triangle: they traded with the Africans, selling European commodities and buying slaves; they sold slaves in the western hemisphere and bought New World wealth; they sold materials from the New World in European ports and gained European commodities. With each sale, they made a profit, much of which was distributed among investors.

But emerging capitalism in Great Britain and the Netherlands was accompanied by an abolition movement, an insistence that all people—even Africans and native Americans—possess human rights and should not be treated as property. The Industrial Revolution, created and funded by capitalism, replaced human labor with machinery, reducing the need to enslave human workers. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, followed by the United States the next year. All slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Compromises in the American government allowed slavery to persist in some states until the Civil War. Worldwide, slavery was not declared illegal in all countries until the 1960s.

Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans were introduced into the western hemisphere than Europeans. Sixteen million Africans (most of them sold by other Africans) were purchased in Africa and put in ships to be taken to the western hemisphere. Twelve million survived the trip and were sold as slaves. The death of four million Africans on those trading ships is one of the shameful facts about the slave trade—human beings were treated as an expendable commodity like any other crop. Treatment of slaves in the New World was a mixed package: some were treated with kindness and respect, but many were abused, tortured, and worked to death. Twenty-first century historians and moralists find it easy to condemn slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dealing with the aftermath of those three hundred years is a different kettle of fish. J.

Eponine and Irony

This summer I read, cover to cover, Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. I also watched the movie musical made from Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. Both these great works from the nineteenth century contributed to my understanding of the underlying forces that are propelling our world and its communities in the mystical year 2020.

Tolstoy repeatedly and emphatically insisted that heroes and geniuses do not exist. We create them out of historic figures (or mythical figures) trying to understand history. Real history, according to Tolstoy, consists of movements among masses of people. Napoleon in his wars two hundred years ago was merely a chip bouncing on the waves of history. He had no more to do with the real history of his times than any other man or woman alive at the same time. Revolutionaries and street protestors, like those portrayed in Les Miserables, are equally impotent to shape the times in which they live. Hugo deliberately chose one of the most pointless and ineffective uprisings in French history—the June Rebellion of 1832—for his novel. Both Tolstoy and Hugo created fictional characters with meaningful lives and troubles to inhabit their novels. Both writers incorporated historical events as virtually meaningless background sights and sounds for their stories.

[With this innocuous beginning, I hope to have lost, by now, the more casual readers, along with those computer-generated searches that are designed to keep real thought and real truth from existing on the Internet. Indeed, some of those preceding sentences may well be copied and pasted into college papers handed in to professors for years to come. But my real Reader, if there is such a person, is advised to print a hard copy of this pair of posts. What I write and post today may well be edited or entirely removed in the coming days, and I might not be available to clarify or restore what I have written.]

Tolstoy and Hugo provide examples of a philosophy or world-view that has risen to dominate much of twenty-first century life. Behind this movement is a They or Them who really exist, although they are not formally organized as a single organization. One could call them the Illuminati, so long as one understands that they have no constitution or bylaws, no board of directors or officers, no membership list, no budget, no dues, no regular meetings, and no periodic newsletters. If they ever use a label like “Illuminati” among themselves, it is done with an ironic wink and grin. This Illuminati, like Tolstoy and Hugo, denies the value of individual accomplishment, of heroes and geniuses, of persons who mold and shape human history. When individual names (such as da Vinci, Rothschild, or Rockefeller) are attached to the Illuminati, the real Illuminati only chuckle in response. They lurk in the shadows, wanting no public recognition for their deeds. Yet, since this group includes the rich and the powerful, their influence extends into the lives of most people living in the world today.

They cross paths on the boards of large corporations. They see each other at gatherings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group. Their thinking is echoed by government officials around the world. Yet the Illuminati does not own or control any of these groups. They have uses for corporations, for governments, and especially for gatherings of people who discuss major issues and listen to one another to learn more about these issues. But the true Illuminati could not be extinguished by gathering and controlling people involved in the world at these levels.

The members of the Illuminati are rich and powerful. They all want to remain rich and powerful. In many ways, they compete with one another for wealth and power. They are not equipped to cooperate among themselves to run the world politically, economically, or in any other fashion. But they also do not believe that politics and economics run the world. They usually do not care who lives in the White House. Elections are, for the Illuminati, mere drama to entertain and distract the masses. In fact, most newsworthy events and most historic happenings are distraction and entertainment, neither caused nor controlled by the Illuminati, but used to achieve their deepest goals.

The Illuminati cannot control the weather. When storms happen, though, they find ways to use the aftermath for their own purposes. The Illuminati have no control over Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s creation). They cannot start, spread, or eliminate diseases. When diseases happen, though, the Illuminati exercise their ability to focus attention on these diseases and their consequences or to distract people from these diseases and their consequences.

Their primary weapon is fear. Their primary tools are education and communication. What passes for news reporting in the current world is, in fact, an arm of the entertainment industry and not a service of communication for the world’s population. While they do not declare wars, fight wars, or bring an end to wars, the members of the Illuminati use past and present wars to shape public perception. Fear is their primary weapon: they are behind much of the fear that people have felt over the Cold War, nuclear weapons, environmental concerns, terrorism, climate change, street demonstrations, and COVID-19.

Because they deal in fear, the Illuminati do not want to solve problems of racial injustice, discrimination, or other factors that separate one group from another. Instead, they use their power over education and communication to highlight differences, stoke anger, and continue injustice. Government programs and privately-funded efforts that genuinely reduce injustice and promote cooperation are undermined; similar programs that continue injustice, damage cooperation, and generate further anger and fear are encouraged.

Like Tolstoy and Hugo, members of the current Illuminati are interested in broad movements among large groups of people. History and progress, to the Illuminati, are found in these movements. At the forefront of the powers that inhibit these movements are the traditional family and the traditional Christian congregation. The Illuminati encourages every opportunity that arises to undermine these two opponents. Removing children from their families to educate them in public schools was an Illuminati goal. Dominating the conversation in colleges and universities to turn students against their families and other traditional supporters of family was an Illuminati goal. Redefining the family to promote alternate lifestyles, even a rejection of biological gender, has been an Illuminati goal. Separating the joy of sex from the stability of marriage and family has long been an Illuminati goal.

Because it uses the entertainment industry to attack traditional families and traditional Christianity, the Illuminati has long endorsed anti-family behavior within that industry. As a result, children and young adults have succumbed to predators hidden within the industry for years. Public embarrassment of child stars emerging into adulthood has been the norm, not the exception. Charges against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein are only the tip of the iceberg—surrender of a couple of egregious examples for the purpose of maintaining the nefarious structure to which those men belong. The victims of this structure are not people singled out for programing by a massive conspiracy; their tragedies are the inevitable result of a view of life that places personal pleasure and profit ahead of appropriate human relationships—and that plans to train the rest of the world to do the same.

To be continued… 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.

Who are you calling racist?

I recently came across a four-page document meant for use in the classroom. Entitled “A Contemporary Glossary: Definitions of Racism,” it was published in 1983 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. Most of its source material dates to the early 1970s. One professional educator (now retired) looked at my copy of this document and declared it badly outdated. However, I suspect many people my age were taught these definitions and still believe them. Moreover, I also suspect that they have passed along these definitions to younger generations of students who also believe them.

The document opens with a dictionary definition of prejudice: “Unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason.” It follows with a certain person’s definition of racism: “Racism is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination. Racism involves having the power to carry out systematic discriminatory practices through the major institutions of our society.”

I do not object to an effort to define prejudice as an opinion or feeling and racism as practices based on prejudiced opinions or feelings. I fear, though, that a focus on power and on major institutions of our society presents a distorted view of racism. Indeed, the rest of the document makes its premise clear. “In the United States at present, only whites can be racists, since whites dominate and control the institutions that create and enforce American cultural norms and values… blacks and other Third World peoples do not have access to the power to enforce any prejudices they may have, so they cannot, by definition, be racist.” It also says, “Racism and white racism mean the same thing….” And, “All white individuals in our society are racists. Even if whites are totally free from all conscious racial prejudices, they remain racists, for they receive benefits distributed by a white racist society through its institutions.”

I see no benefit and great risk in the statements that only white people can be racist and that all whites are racist, even if they have no racial prejudices. But I do understand why certain individuals, certain statements, and certain actions have been labeled “racist” even when I could find no racial prejudice in what the target of the label said or did. If every white person in the United States is assumed to be racist—even defined as racist—then it is easy to put a racist spin on anything a white person says or does.

I acknowledge that racism still exists in the United States. Some managers, sifting through a stack of resumes that are virtually identical, are more likely to arrange an interview with Jennifer than with LaKisha. In some workplaces, white English-speaking people are more likely to be promoted to higher-paying positions than black people or Spanish-speaking people. Black individuals are more likely than white individuals to be denied a loan for buying a car or a house, and if they get the loan they are likely to pay more than white individuals with the same income. These things happen. They are morally wrong. They are also illegal. When persistent patterns of racism in a workplace or other institution can be revealed, those guilty of making racist decisions are penalized.

But in schools and workplaces, black people and people of other minorities have risen to positions of power. They can hire, promote, or fire employees. If they should favor members of their own minority over whites, would that not be racist? And is anyone willing to go out on a limb and say that such things never happen in America?

Maybe it is true that the handout I found is outdated and no longer relevant. My questions are: when did things change, and what changed them? Was there a time that every white person in America was racist and no black person in America could be racist? When was that time, and what brought it to an end? Was it ended by court decisions and legislation? Was it ended by the Civil Rights movement? Was it ended by education, such as the document I found, which taught students about racism and so brought it to an end? Or, since racism can still be found, is it still true that every white person is racist and no black person can be racist?

I teach college students. I have had white students that did well and white students that did poorly; I have had black students that did well and black students that did poorly. Since I teach history, race and racism are mentioned in the classroom. I make the point that, biologically, all humans belong to the same race. Modern racism, as it developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was a result of evolutionary theories, assumptions that people are different because of the traits they inherited from their ancestors. Racists assume that strength, intelligence, endurance, and other qualities differ from race to race. But DNA tests do not bear out those assumptions. A white student and a black student in the same classroom might have more DNA in common with each other than either of them shares with a brother or sister of the same two parents. That’s simple science.

A student once asked me why we still talk about racism if there are not different races. It was a sincere question and a good one. I think the label remains useful to discuss prejudices based on the perception of different races, even though different races do not exist. And if someone—black, white, or any other appearance and culture—has the power to treat other people differently based on those prejudices, I say that misuse of that power is racist.

All people are sinful. Prejudice is one aspect of human sinfulness, stronger in some sinners and weaker in others. Humanity has developed many different cultures, and I believe that all of them are worth celebrating. Irish, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Arab, African, Hispanic—they are all good. Each member of a culture should have pride in his or her cultural identity—pride, but not a sense of superiority. In fact, as we celebrate our various cultures, we should also take note of the celebration of other cultures and learn about our neighbors from their celebrations. By itself, that attitude will not eliminate prejudice and the possibility of racism, but openness to cultural diversity is better than automatic labeling with the word “racist.” Or so I believe. J.

To fly or not to fly (the Confederate flag)

When people in the United States choose to display the Confederate flag, other people are offended. Those who defend the display of the flag say that they are celebrating the culture of a region; they say that there is nothing inherently racist or otherwise offensive about the flag. Those who are offended respond that the flag represents an attempt by some states to leave the Union so they could preserve the institution of slavery, an institution that (as practiced in the United States) was distinctly racist.

Defenders of the flag say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. They say it was really about the rights of states to make their own rules without interference from the national government. Slavery happened to be the issue wherein interference was perceived, but (they say) southerners were not so much fighting to retain slavery as they were fighting to retain independence promised to them (they say) in the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was opposed personally to slavery. However, he said that the Civil War was not about slavery–it was about keeping the country united. Lincoln said he would be willing to tolerate the continuing reality of slavery if it would hold the country together; and Lincoln said that he was sending soldiers into rebellious states to preserve the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln did not free the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that were members of the Confederacy and thus (from Lincoln’s point of view) in opposition to their national government. Four slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Proclamation did not affect slaves in those states. Slavery was ended in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was proposed in Congress while Lincoln was alive, but was not ratified until after he had died.

If Lincoln said that he was not fighting against slavery, does that mean that the southerners were not fighting to keep slavery? To answer that question, one must research the reasons given by southern leaders when they chose to secede from the Union and to fight, if necessary, for a new nation, the Confederate States. Because I have family and friends living in Arkansas, and because the history of Arkansas’s secession is rather interesting, I will use that state’s secession as a model for this research.

When Lincoln was elected and some southern states chose to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States, Arkansas had been a state for only twenty-five years. Residents were divided over the issue of secession. While slaves were found in every county of the state, most of the slaves in Arkansas were in the southeastern half of the state, which had flat land suitable for large cotton plantations. The northwest half of the state–featuring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains–held many citizens who favored remaining in the United States rather than joining the Confederate States. Accordingly, the state government decided to hold a convention, with delegates chosen by the voters of the state, to decide whether to secede or to remain.

When they gathered in Little Rock in March, 1861, the number of delegates supporting secession and the number of delegates supporting the Union were roughly equal. The convention conducted its regular business, electing officers and the like, while observers tried to guess what the final vote would decide. On March 11, those favoring secession gave their reasons. They listed six objections to remaining in the Union. These were:

  • In the northern states, a new political party had recently formed, and its central and controlling idea was hostility to the institution of “African slavery.” The newly elected President and Vice President were members of this party.
  • The government of the United States was threatening to deny the southern states protection to “slave property” by declaring that any states added to the Union would not allow slavery. (Up to this time, the country had carefully added one slave state and one free state around the same time, keeping the United States Senate balanced between the two positions. Michigan became a state shortly after Arkansas did so.)
  • Northern politicians claimed that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and dock yards owned by the government, even in southern states.
  • The United States government obstructed faithful execution of its own fugitive slave laws (which required the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner, even if he or she had reached a free state).
  • The United States government denied citizens of southern states the right of transit through free states with their slaves and the right to hold those slaves while sojourning temporarily in free states.
  • The United States government “degraded American citizens” by allowing “equality with Negroes at the ballot box.”

Directly or indirectly, all six of these reasons are connected to slavery.

As the convention continued to meet, it remained clear that the delegates were almost equally divided. After several more days, the convention decided to schedule an election for August in which all the voters of Arkansas could choose between secession or remaining in the Union. With this accomplished, the convention adjourned and the delegates returned home.

The next month, the Civil War began, as shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln sent out a message calling for soldiers from each of the states that had not seceded to join the United States Army. The governor of Arkansas refused to provide a single soldier to fight against fellow southerners. Instead, he called the convention back into session. Meeting on May 6, the delegates called for a vote the proposal that had been made on March 11. Perhaps some of them had forgotten the reasons given on March 11; more likely they didn’t care. The vote in favor of the motion to secede was 65 to five. Four of the delegates who voted no then changed their vote, seeking unanimity. Only one of the seventy refused to support leaving the United States and joining the Confederacy.

In this way, and for these reasons, Arkansas entered the Civil War. Next week, I will describe how the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas rather than at Fort Sumter. J.