The Emperor's New Clothes: Chapter 1 - Everything you were taught about race is a lie
[I am writing a book and plan to post chapters as I go, here is Chapter 1. I already posted the introduction which you can find here. I will update this link to the future chapters when they are done.]
Our modern culture is filled with "the emperor's has no clothes" assumptions. Assumptions that, when viewed by an outside seem crazy, wrong, and strange. One of the things that comes to my mind when I reflect on these sorts of assumptions - and one that is at the heart of many other similar assumptions, is Western Civilization's self understanding of the history of race, racism, and slavery.
The average high school history teacher tells her students that Western Civilization's history on race is a sad one. The colonial powers enslaved "black and brown" people to enrich themselves. Europeans came to the Americas and displaced and killed most of the Indians. They then went to Africa, kidnapped black people, brought them back to America and enslaved, raped, and beat them. It was a holocaust of sorts with millions of black people being worked to death in the fields. And when the constitution was written, the founding fathers (a bunch of racist slave owners) declared that black people were 3/5 of a person. Throughout the whole thing, the church was complicit. Providing biblical verses to support the practice. The colonial powers then went around the world and did similar things. The British destroyed India, brought heroin to China, and dumped prisoners off to oppress the aboriginal peoples of Australia. The Dutch oppressed South Africa. The French oppressed Northern Africa. And even when slavery was finally ended and the colonial powers granted independence to their overseas holdings, Western Civilization continued to oppress, mistreat, and unjustly profit from "black and brown" people.
People - conservatives and liberals, whites and non-whites, males and females - all agree on this basic outline of our history. We are all very sorry for this terrible history. Much of what is done in Hollywood, major publishing houses, and the academic halls of universities is done to correct these many sins of our forefathers.
But what if this whole story is a myth? What if the emperor has no clothes?
Let's start with some context. It is easy to make anyone look bad if you compare them to your own ideas of perfection. But when you look at Western Civilization in relation to every other civilization in the history of the world, our record on race and slavery starts to look the opposite of bad. It starts to look remarkably good.
In the history of the world, every major empire had slavery as a major part of their economy. The Chinese did. The Egyptians did. The Romans did. The great Muslim nations did. The great African nations did. Every single one. Sometimes people claim that somehow the slavery of the Old South was in some way worse than these other forms of slavery. This is simply a myth. Almost all forms of slavery in every region were at least as bad if not worse. And because slaves tended to be achieved as the spoils of war, there was usually a racial/ethnic bias to slavery. There also tended to be harsh treatment, beatings and killings. And there almost always was widespread sexual abuse.
For just one example, let's look at the slavery of Ancient Rome. The Romans enslaved prisoners of war en masse. It was one of the primary reasons for going to war. Bringing back slaves from their campaigns in Northern Europe would make generals such as Julius Caesar wealthy beyond compare. Julius Caesar's campaign against the Gauls and Germanic tribesmen gave him an army of slaves and made him one of the richest men in Rome. And these slaves had zero rights. One of the primary uses for slaves was sexual. Roman citizens were somewhat limited in what they could do sexually with fellow citizens (no adultery, pedophilia, etc) but these strict rules only applied to Roman citizens. A Roman citizen could certainly do anything he wanted with his slaves. This was taken as a matter of course. It was considered quite normal to use female slaves for sex but it was also considered normal to use male slaves for sex as well (so long as you were dominant in the relationship). But what was particularly horrifying was that pedophilia was also considered socially acceptable and anything was permissible with slaves of any age. Slaves were raped, abused, and had zero rights whatsoever. If a slave attempted to escape, steal from, or gods-forbid kill their master, all the slaves in the house would be put to death. Slaves practically had no rights whatsoever.
And this model was not unique to Rome. Similar practices in slavery were common in China, in Africa and in every other major empire. The world universally accepted slavery as a matter of life and there was no debate, discussion, or moral hand-wringing about it.
Until Christianity came along. Nancy Pearcy, quoting a historian's analysis of the spread of Christianity notes that, "The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery." In other words, we can track the spread of Christianity based on whether sexual slavery was legal or not!
Further, Christians also spoke out against the mistreatment of slaves. Soon, as slaves converted, Christians spoke against the enslavement of fellow Christians. Within a few centuries of Christianity coming to power in the West, slavery, once ubiquitous, had faded from the European scene. An institution that had practically defined every civilization in history was banished to the edges of Christendom. Western Civilization did what no other civilization in history had done. By the end of the 6th century slavery was almost completely gone from Europe.
Slavery did not rear its ugly head in any substantial way again until the discovery of the New World.
When Columbus and other Europeans discovered the New World, there was suddenly a renewed interest in slavery. The reasons for this are unclear but one reason might be that farmers, unlike those in Europe, had huge arable properties but very limited labor. These land owners were willing to examine options that were previously not needed.
Further, it is worth noting that those in North America were further away from the eyes of the church or authorities that might restrict or oppose the trade. While we often think of the early settlers of Americas as devout Puritans, in reality a large majority of those that came to the US did so for financial not religious reasons. Church membership in the early days of the US was very low. Historians Roger Fink and Rodney Stark argue that in the early days of the settlement of North America, the percentage of people adhering to a religion was below 20%. They argue that it was not until the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries that Christianity started to be widely adhered to and practiced.
So, perhaps it is not a surprise that when, in this age of exploration, a solution presented by traders visiting the coasts of Africa appeared, it was greeted with receptivity. Farmers realized that there was a thriving slave trade in Africa and countless hands that could, for a price, help tend those large farms. Slaves could not be bought in Europe so Africa became the source of most of America's slaves.
Despite the common misconception (wrongly portrayed in the miniseries Roots) Europeans did not go raiding through African villages kidnapping and killing. Instead they simply went to the market and bought slaves from an already well-established slave trade. North Americans were just a new customer in the already established coastal slave markets. The fact that the slave trade was already in place, of course, does not excuse what those North American farmers did. Reintroducing the slave trade to Western Civilization after it had faded centuries earlier was shameful and terrible.Slave traders were almost without exception monsters. The trade was bloody, abusive and murderous. But the existing slave trade in Africa shows that the Western slavers were not doing something uniquely evil in the world but simply mimicking an evil already ubiquitously practiced throughout the world including in Africa.
But, thankfully, Christians almost immediately started speaking out against the slave trade. The Catholic Church made several statements against slavery. Pope Paul III in 1537 declared that enslaving American Indians was not allowed. In the 17th century, as the African slave trade was ramping up, Pope Innocent XI declared the African slave trade immoral. But it was the evangelicals in England that had the greatest impact in the world on slavery. Starting in the early 18th century, evangelicals led by William Wilberforce and John Wesley (among others) led one of the most remarkable campaigns in human history. One that would have effects far beyond England and far beyond the Christian world. At the time, the United Kingdom was the largest and most powerful empire on the planet and English colonies employed countless slaves. But Wilberforce and company appealed to the Christian morals of loving your neighbor, caring for the stranger and doing unto others as we would have done to ourselves to convince the government of England to ban the slave trade and then eventually slavery outright from every province and colony in English control. This remarkable campaign would be singular in itself but what is shocking is what happened next. England, at great national cost, spent much of the 19th century actively working to end slavery throughout the world. They pressured trading partners. They used their military to hunt down slave ships. They fought and fought both literally and politically to end slavery in every nation they came in contact with. Christian countries. Non Christian countries. Over the next 120 years almost every nation on earth would give up their slaves. This was the fruit that came from the seed that Wilberforce planted.
And the United States is not an exception to this story. British sentiments against slavery affected their great lost colony in North America very much. Slavery was deeply ingrained in the highly agricultural economy of the American south but despite this fact, many southern farmers opposed slavery.
Interesting, opponents of slavery included many slave owners. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson among them. You may wonder how a slave owner could honestly be against the slave trade. If they were, why would they not just immediately free them? The answer was that many, such as Jefferson, inherited their properties and with their inheritance came mortgages that included the slaves as property. To free them would be illegal. Further, many thought that just freeing slaves would be inhumane. Congressman John Randolph explained his reasoning on this point by saying that he had "200 mouths looking to him for food." He stated that it would be, "easy to rid himself of them," but considered this not a moral option. Finally, many slave owners had seen the violence that had happened in Haiti when there was a slave revolt. The streets flowed with blood and many wondered if freeing the slaves en masse might not cause disruption, violence, and death. This fear was proved wrong when slaves were finally freed after the Civil War but there was no way of knowing this before doing it.
Now, you can view these reasons with skepticism but it is always easier to say that people should do bold potentially dangerous and illegal things than to do them yourself. But the evidence that there was at least some genuine distaste for the slave trade came in the actions that were taken. Not the least of which, in 1807, the Atlantic slave trade was banned. No new slaves could be brought to America ending the horrors of slave ships. But perhaps the greatest way in which the founders hurt the slave trade is in the much maligned 3/5 clause of the constitution.
The 3/5 clause is commonly cited as an example of how the Founding Fathers diminished the humanity of slaves. But the real reason for this clause was to diminish the power of slave states. It was the slave states that wanted slaves to be counted as full citizens and it was the largely free north that wanted them not to be counted at all. The reason for the debate was this, if slaves were counted then the south would get more congressmen and more votes in the electoral college. More people more power. By preventing the counting of slaves as full persons on the constitution (coupled with the Northwest Ordinance that limited the expansion of slave states), the founders set the groundwork for the limitation of slavery in the future. Without these efforts, the south would have been able to protect slavery much better, the north would have been marginalized, and Abraham Lincoln would have never been elected president. One of the very things that people call "racist" about America's founding was perhaps the single greatest factor in protecting minorities and ending slavery.
And then there was the Civil War. While England gave up slaves freely, America had our most bloody war to do it. Some deny slavery was the cause behind the Civil War but this is simply not true. It was the largest and most obvious issue at hand. Many argue that slavery would have ended without the Civil War but regardless, it is hardly a racist nation that goes to war to free minorities from slavery.
What about the American church's role? As I have already mentioned, it was Christian concerns about slavery that sparked the unprecedented global push to end slavery. Many Christians in the US helped to end slavery. It is true that, sadly, some Christians defended the practice but I don't think that should distract us from the remarkable fact that the debate happened at all. Christians were debating slavery when the rest of the world was taking it for granted. And while there was debate, the anti-slavery arguments ultimately won the day and Christianity universally rejected slavery. Without Christianity, there never would have been a debate about the slaves.
So the idea that Western Civilization has a sad history of slavery is completely backward! Instead, the ending of the slave trade is an amazing breakthrough that the Christian West brought to the rest of the world. The emperor has no clothes.
But what about the indigenous peoples of the Americas? What about the American Indian? My high school teacher would regularly tell of the genocide that Europeans committed when they colonized the Americas. Through war, massacres, and the (intentional?) spreading of small pox, the Europeans almost completely wiped out a whole race of people and stole their land.
Or did they... this is another myth your high school teacher taught you.
It is certainly true that American Indians died in mass numbers after the appearance of the Europeans on their shores. Estimates vary on how big the population was before Columbus arrived but it is thought that the population dropped by more than half at least. But the cause of this horrible death was not genocide. It was disease. Smallpox specifically. And this was not intentionally spread. There are no known successful attempts to spread smallpox and the disease swept through the Americas much faster than the Europeans did.
Jared Diamond in his groundbreaking "Guns, Germs and Steel," recounts stories of conquistadors showing up at cities ready for battle only to find them empty and abandoned. The fact that the small band of Europeans was able to rout the great empires of the Americas should show that there was something else going on.The Europeans had been living with smallpox for centuries. Plagues and diseases had decimated Europe and as a result the survivors were heartier and healthier and more likely to survive diseases when they came. Diamond argues this was probably due to the close proximity they lived with animals.Whatever the reason, Europeans showed up to a surprisingly empty New World. Far from stealing the land, they were able to settle in areas that were sparsely populated or empty.
When wars did happen, it was often the American Indians that were the aggressors. In the excellent book, "The War that Made America," author Fred Anderson argues that, lacking women thanks to the damage of smallpox, Indians would raid frontier cabins, kidnap the women and children and take them back to their tribes.
Now, your high school teacher might say that the land belonged to the American Indians and Europeans had no right to take it even if it was sparsely populated. But a few things need to be considered here. First, lumping together all American Indians as though they were monolith is sort of racist and historically inaccurate. Many tribes lived in North America and large areas of the land changed possession between tribal nations on a regular basis. For example, the Comanches, a tribe that lived in the region surrounding Northern Texas and Oklahoma during the 19th century took that land (brutally) from the Utes and the Apaches. In every war that the Europeans had with indiginous peoples, it is highly unlikely that any particular tribe was the original owner of that particular piece of land.
And finally, it is worth remembering that almost every nation throughout the world and throughout history took their land from someone who was there first. This is true for almost every American Indian tribe. True for every European nation. True for every African nation. Like it or not, wars of conquest are how the story of human existence has unfolded. Singling out Western Civilization as any worse than any other group in history in this department should not be done. And it is further important to note that the English did wars of conquest on people of all races. Ask the French. Ask the Dutch. Ask the Irish.So, the displacement of the American Indians was not the result of racism.
There was no genocide of the American Indians by the Europeans. The giant shifts in land ownership and populations were the result of a combination of the tragic spread of a disease and smaller wars of conquest. None of this was done perfectly. Many bad things were done along the way. But this hardly sets Western Civilization's history as uniquely bad.
Okay, you might respond, but what about the obvious history of racism? We all watched the videos of Martin Luther King Jr.'s inspiring 'I have a Dream' speech. We all have seen the photos of 'whites only' pools and drinking fountains. We have all see the horrible photos of lynchings. We cannot deny that Western Civilization has a dark history on racism can we? Can we?
Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. It is obviously not my argument that Western society always did everything right. Compared to perfection, we have been extremely flawed. Our history on race is no exception to this. Many people did many bad and cruel things. Unjust treatment. Unjust imprisonment. Unjust laws. Unjust hangings. Plenty of terrible stuff.
But it is my argument that Western Civilization stops looking so bad - and starts to look pretty good - when it is compared to other civilizations in history. History is full of racism. Go back and read the writings of the Romans as they speculate on the ethnic inferiority of the the Northern Europeans. Go back and watch how the Mongols treated non-Mongols. Go read how the Chinese viewed the Japanese. Go read how the Japanese viewed the Chinese. Racial and ethnic animosity, stereotypes, and mistreatment are not unique problems of the American south.... they are the normal state of things throughout the world. Even to this day, racism in many countries is quite normal. I write this book in the wake of the global Coronavirus pandemic and it has been interesting to watch how globally ethnicity and race has been used to scapegoat blame for the spread. Chinese are preventing people of African decent from entering stores. Nigerians are burning down shops owned by Chinese. And nations throughout the world are looking with more than a little suspicion on anyone that has the appearance of someone from a known hot spot.
Racism is not new. Stereotyping people based on ethnicity is not new. Beating. Banishing. Killing. None of this is new. Every society in all of history has this record of using race and ethnicity as an easy way to judge, exclude, and scapegoat the people around them. You see it on every continent and in every nation that had more than one ethnicity in all of history.
And like slavery, it is amazing how little people thought about this. It was considered a matter of course. Never, as you read Aristotle speculate on the natural slavery of some of the barbarian peoples do you pick up a hint of an idea that he viewed what he was saying as shameful. No. It was considered a simple fact to almost all people in all of history that their own race was in some way superior to the races around them.
So... why do we now view racism as such a bad thing?
Like so many elements of Western Civilization, this idea goes back to the morals found in Christian reflections.
In the first century world of the New Testament, racial and ethnic dislike was as prevalent as it was anywhere. The Romans thought they were better than the Jews, the Jews thought they were better than the Romans. The Greeks thought they were better than everyone. And everyone thought they were better than the Samaritans. And in this context a man named Saul of Tarsus (know to us today as St. Paul the Apostle), wrote the following,
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)
This was revolutionary stuff. And it was not a single line pulled out of context. Paul lived his life moving from city to city associated with every ethnicity. A big part of his ministry was demanding that they all eat together (a sign of unity). And Paul was, in many ways, echoing what Jesus himself demanded. Jesus famously went through Samaria in his travels (Jews of that day usually went around to avoid association with them) and even stopped to care for and befriend a Samaritan woman. (John 4) Throughout his ministry on earth Jesus associated with Jew, Gentile, and Samaritan and made it clear that his mission was not just to the Jews (as most people thought the messiah would be) but to the entire world.
At its core, Christianity was a religion that was for everyone. Identity ceased to be about your ethnicity or nationality and became about your submission (or lack thereof) to Jesus. A Jewish Christian was brothers with a Greek Christian in a way that he was not with unbelieving members of his own ethnicity. A central part of the faith was welcoming strangers and treating the lowly as though they were Christ himself.
Through the centuries, the church viewed outreach to every nation as a central part of their commission (as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28) and so this idea of a certain level of equality remained. While our modern day abhorrence to almost any stereotyping was never fully realized within old Christendom, there was an acceptance of foreign peoples as equals before God that was truly unique in human history.
But this general goodwill was largely theoretical not often tested in practice. Unlike Paul who traveled throughout the Mediterranean and met with many ethnicity on a regular basis, most humans (including Christians) did not travel much in their lifetimes. Most would travel no more than a few miles in their entire life. And there were also many influences outside of the bible. The non-Christian thinker Aristotle was very popular among the learned and Aristotle, as we have seen, did not share this egalitarian ethic. Further, Christianization only went so far. Even at the height of Christendom in the middle ages, scholars think that only a small percentage of people were willing and able to make to church on a weekly basis (see Stark, The Triumph of Faith). Stark writes, "Given their attitudes and their lack of church attendance, it is hardly surprising that most medieval Europeans were completely ignorant of the most basic Christian teachings."
Given that racial animosity appears to be deeply ingrained in human nature, it is not surprising that Western Civilization was far from perfect in its treatment of the few ethnic minorities that they did interact with. Throughout the span of the post Roman era, the Christian West has a mixed record on its treatment of ethnic minorities within its borders. For large periods of times, Jews and "Moors" were treated civilly but when times of trouble, plague, war, or famine came and there would often be the same sort of violence and hatred that you would expect in every other part of the world at the time. But interestingly, in these shameful moments, it was the church that came to the defense of the Jews. For example, during the second crusade, Christians traveled from their homelands to forieng lands, heavily armed and found themselves encountering Jewish communities and threatening them. But the great monk, Bernard of Clairvaux, spoke on their behalf, "The Jews must not be persecuted, slaughtered, nor even driven out. Inquire of the pages of Holy Writ. I know what is written in the Psalms as prophecy about the Jews. "God hath commanded me," says the Church, "Slay them not, lest my people forget." Over and over popes and saints demanded restraint and protection of the Jews and other minorities inside Christian borders. Where violence erupted, it rarely came from those knowledgeable and trained in the bible.
Then came two innovations within Christendom that brought a more widespred change in the thinking of the average European on race. The printing press and the Protestant Reformation. The printing press made it possible for an average person to afford a bible. And the Protestant Reformation included a demand that your average person own one and read it. For the first time in history, you had farmers, bakers, and fisherman reading the words of St. Paul the Apostle, "In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek..."
But another innovation came in this same time period that was less friendly to the ethnic minority.... the Enlightenment. Thinkers like David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire challenged the whole idea of Christianity. They questioned the bible and doubted the morals contained therein. And one of the things they challenged was this idea of equality of all men.
David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Immanuel Kant wrote, “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” Voltaire rejected the biblical creation story. He proposed polygenism and speculated that each race had entirely separate origins. In short, this new way of thinking that advertised itself as the enlightened way that every intellectual should adopt, though that the biblical ethic of ethnic equality was wrong.
And the reach and influence of the Enlightenment was great. Soon, it became normal to speak of people as inferior based on their skin color.This was a significant counter force to the historic Christian ethic. Some "enlightened" Christians tried to synthesize the two ideas (as many had done with Aristotle before the Enlightenment) and used faulty biblical arguments to suggest that maybe certain races were cursed by God. But these efforts tended to be rejected both by Enlightenment thinkers and by devout Christians.
As slavery rose and then was questioned by church leaders, the Enlightenment ideas of inherent racial superiority, mixed with the ingrained human tendency to see one's own race as superior, provided a very convenient justification for the ongoing slave trade. Aristotle's idea that some people are born natural slaves was resurrected and soon it became common to think of black people as inferior to whites and natural slaves. Many slave owners with Christian tendencies attempted to put a Christian wash on this but rarely were their arguments convincing to any large number of people. As I wrote above much of the West became convinced slavery was wrong and ended it.
But the race theories that were raised by the Enlightenment and supported by slave owners were not stopped when slavery ended. The significant cultural differences between slaves and most people of European decent exacerbated these views. In the wake of the civil war, racism grew and flourished in the United States. Jim Crow laws were enacted and blacks were kept separate from whites. For the next century, these laws, in various forms, remained in place.
These laws were terrible and unjust. But the racial theories of the Enlightenment lost their hold with time. Christianity reasserted its influence through a series of "Great Awakenings" in the 19th and early 20th century. But, for a while, Jim Crow laws remained. Thomas Sowell of Stanford (incidentally a black man), in his "Black Rednecks and White Liberals," argues that the laws were kept primarily the result of cultural differences not race. Sowell provides a convincing argument suggesting that where black people adopted the social and cultural norms of the white community surrounding them, Jim Crow laws were lessened or removed.
Whether this is true or not, what is true is that the church increasingly expressed reservations about the laws. And the church was instrumental in the ending of these laws.
The leaders of the Civil Rights movement were all leaders in the church. When Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his letter from a Birmingham Jail, he addressed it to white Christian pastors and appealed to Christian values. To the extent that southern Christians did not help the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King argued it was a failure to follow Christianity close enough not the result of the Christianity itself.
One other interesting observation on the fall of Jim Crow laws is to track the church attendance numbers in the USA over her history. Roger Fink and Rodney Stark argue that these numbers crept up throughout the 19th century and reached a peak in the middle of the 20th century. Some of the highest numbers for church attendance in the history of our nation came at the very moment that the Civil Rights movement was having the greatest impact and Jim Crow laws were being repealed. I don't think this correlation is coincidental. So far from being a force for racism, the church was the very means of bringing an end to this racist practice.
As a society, not only did we reject Jim Crow, we took a very deep look at the whole idea of racial stereotyping (that was deeply ingrained in human nature and highly promoted by the Enlightenment) and said, 'we need to stop that altogether.' This was a shocking and new thing... and it was a thing that was proposed, for the first time in the history of the world, by Western Civilization. First as Christianity grew and finally with the fall of Jim Crow and the enacting of civil rights laws.
Western Civilization, much as it did with slavery, took something common in every nation for all of history, called it immoral, and demanded the world change. Western Civilization is the reason we view slavery as unthinkable and racism as intolerable.
Western Civilization has a dark history on race and slavery? No. Everything you were taught about race is a lie. The emperor has no clothes.
[Read Chapter 2 - Everything You Were Taught About Gender is Wrong]