Racism is as old as humanity. But the word, and the concept, are quite recent.
1933: Nazis, Jim Crow
1933 was a pivotal year for several reasons. In Germany, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, and quickly followed that by passing the Enabling Act, which made him dictator, and allowed him to persecute Jews, Poles, Roma, homosexuals, and many others. Meanwhile in the United States, the Great Depression was hitting the lowest points in productivity, per capita GNP, prices, and wages. This created a shortage of jobs, and whites – particularly in the South – began snatching away the poorer-paying jobs that had allowed African Americans to earn a meager living. At the same time, Jim Crow Laws were in full swing, and southern states were erecting monuments and plaques glorifying the Confederacy as a paragon of white supremacy. There was no concept of racial equality. The only positive for black minorities in the Depression was that the membership of the KKK dropped dramatically. There were several reasons for this, but one was that people were scrambling so hard for basic sustenance, they didn’t have as much free time to stick their noses into other people’s business.
That, and they probably couldn’t afford to be cutting up good bed linens.
1933 was also the year that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was published. That is important when compared to the preceding, because the most comprehensive dictionary ever published, in any language, did not offer a definition for the word ‘racist’.
1971: COINTELPRO, Nixon’s Tapes, ‘racialism’
Decades later, in 1971, the FBI was caught in the COINTELPRO scandal, exposing the Bureau’s illegal efforts to undermine peaceful dissenting movements, including Civil Rights organizers. In the same year, Nixon had taping devices secretly installed in the Oval Office which would ultimately lead to his resignation, and which also recorded his anti-Semitic paranoia. Racial equality had not progressed much.
And in 1971 the OED published a Supplement, which included the now out-moded word ‘racialist’.
Racism from Prehistory
Only the word was new; racism has existed since humanity’s earliest stirrings. Humanity has always seen ‘the other’ as an enemy, or at least as an inferior. The ancient Greeks referred to those from outside of Hellas as ‘barbarians’, because to the Greeks at least, other languages sounded like baby-talk: bar-bar-bar-bar.
Racism obviously existed in 1933, it was simply not considered a problem, and so it had no name. Consider that Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Joe Kennedy all openly supported Adolf Hitler. Ford even gave der Führer 35,000 Reichsmarks for his 50th birthday, about a quarter of a million dollars in today’s economy. And almost no one other than the African Americans themselves complained about the mistreatment of blacks. On that count, the hypocrisy was shocking. For instance, among the many pre-Civil War abolitionists who agitated for freeing the slaves, very few favored racial equality;1)In addition, while the abolitionists were screaming about slavery, they studiously ignored the Irish children dying on the Boston streets. certainly no whites were willing to tolerate miscegenation. Those attitudes did not budge over the 70 years after Appomattox.
So racism has existed throughout the first 10,000 years of civilization, and even longer. It only became regarded as a problem in the last six decades.
Rapid Progress in Human Rights
And what an amazing few decades they were. When I was a child, there was no racial equality. There were still segregated dining facilities, bathrooms and water fountains, not to mentions schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. I can remember an African American maid who worked for us occasionally, whom my father could not get to sit and eat at the dining table, neither with us, nor alone. And of course, the ‘N’ word was not spoken among polite people, but in the South it was used freely everywhere else.
But in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. Three years later, South Pacific opened on Broadway, and addressed racism head-on by considering relations between whites and Polynesians. The tensions over African Americans were never mentioned in the musical, but the point was not lost on theatre goers.
50 years after that South Pacific opening, and 40 years after the Reverend King was gunned down in Memphis, Barrack Hussein Obama was elected to the highest office in the land. Regardless of one’s opinion of Obama, it was 50 years of dizzying change and progress in racial equality.
As for anti-Semitism, Jews have been chronically vulnerable, and perennial persecuted throughout history. But their ascendancy in every aspect of US society – government, industry, media, academia, and the arts – has also been dramatic, and much of it has happened since, and in response to, the horrors of Nazi persecution. And fortunately, American Jews have not experienced the level of terror or segregation to which African Americans have been subjected.
For the African Americans and Jews who struggled through the past few decades of prejudice, of course, it was slow, ugly work, with many setbacks. And it isn’t over. But when compared to other historical changes, the progress toward ethnic/racial equality was startlingly rapid.
Racism in Charlottesville
Apparently it was too rapid for the racists, as well. What happened in Charlottesville, and what is happening with voter rights, with criminal justice abuses, and with the reduction of educational opportunities, are all major problems, and threats to minorities. While a majority of our citizens are committed to ethnic and racial equality, we have just been reminded that there is still a sizeable minority who oppose normalization of minority rights, whether African American, Jewish, Latino, Asian, NHO,2)Non-Heterosexual Orientation. We keep adding letters: LGB, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTI, LGBTIQ, and now LGBT+. All the typing makes my fingers tired. I’m not enthusiastic about defining a minority by what it is not, but if we reflect on it, that is the central concept here: minority labels are ways of saying ‘not us’. I’m open to discussion on this point, feel free to comment/critique/malign below. or others. Some of those racists will grow, learn, and change. I have known people who were racist in their youth, but who rejected and regretted it later.
But we need to accept that many may never change.
America is unusual, perhaps unique among large nations, in that we have no nearby enemy nations. Canada and Mexico are our only border-mates, and we have gotten along with them peaceably for 170 years.
There are, nevertheless, enemies within. Among our many strengths are our liberty, our tolerance, and our diversity. But these are also vulnerabilities; there will always be bad actors, those who will claim the liberty to enslave others, who will monopolize openness in order to gag dissenters, and who will insist that tolerance protects them, but excludes anyone they despise. They will pervert our privileges in order to deny those same privileges to others.
The attitudes that erupted in Charlottesville have been with us since before the dawn of humanity. If we are to continue the work toward racial equality, and if we are to protect ourselves and change those attitudes, then greeting violence with violence, and force with force, will not take us where we need to go.
Poster of BIRTH OF A NATION courtesy Wikimedia.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||In addition, while the abolitionists were screaming about slavery, they studiously ignored the Irish children dying on the Boston streets.|
|2.||↑||Non-Heterosexual Orientation. We keep adding letters: LGB, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTI, LGBTIQ, and now LGBT+. All the typing makes my fingers tired. I’m not enthusiastic about defining a minority by what it is not, but if we reflect on it, that is the central concept here: minority labels are ways of saying ‘not us’. I’m open to discussion on this point, feel free to comment/critique/malign below.|