Origins of the myth of race
The Militant February 21, 1992
The following is the text of a talk given at a December 28-29 regional socialist educational conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. The gathering, which drew participants from cities in Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska, also discussed topics ranging from the political situation in the United States to the origins of women's oppression and why working people should defend immigrants' rights.
BY DOUG JENNESS
ln Dubuque, Iowa during the last six months there have been 14 incidents of cross burnings with 20 crosses burned. Right-wing racist forces on a national scale have decided to put a spotlight on integration plans in Dubuque and have called for a march January 18 in support of what they call ''white rights."
For the last several weeks newspapers in Dubuque have given regular, matter-of-fact coverage to this proposed action. A headline from a recent issue of Dubuque's Telegraph Herald reads: "White Rights Group Plans January March."
No quote marks are placed around "white rights." This tends to legitimize the notion that there is such a thing as "white rights" that this white supremacist organization is championing. The National Association for the Advancement of White People, another racist outfit, has announced its support for the January 18 march. Some civil rights supporters are calling for protests against the actions by the ultra-rightists.
Here in the Twin Cities we have a small formation called the White Student Union. Its members are attempting to start an organization at the University of Minnesota. The group has attempted to draw in reactionary fascist skin-heads from East St. Paul to conduct thug attacks on antiracist fighters. This has generated protests by students and others, not only at the University of Minnesota, but at other campuses in the area as well.
I'd like to describe what this organization sees as its purpose. A flier distributed by the group says:
"What's the purpose of the White Student Union? To protest affirmative action and quotas and to promote white culture. What is white culture? Each race is naturally predisposed to its own set of values. White values are reflected in such time-tested cultural expressions as classical music, canonized literature, a representative form of government, a free market economic system, Western medicine, romantic love, and the nuclear family. Whites tend to value a specific kind of analytical thinking based on logic rather than intuition, knowledge, or dogmatic adherence to preset rationales."
Continuing, the White Student Union states, "Western white thinking consists of analytical observation, detailed intellectual exploration, effectively explicit social discourse, and inner gratification arising from increased understanding about life. Whites structure their lives as if time is objectively real and ultimately linear, setting high goals and aspiring to accomplish them through tenacious hard work in a free market system where they can set their own goals, whites value their personal ambitions deeply, and thus find great satisfaction in striving towards excellence with every resource they can tap ... " The leaflet goes on in that strain.
"lsn't everybody equal? Equal according to what values? Would you judge a raccoon as if it were a canary? Everyone is different. If people were all the same it would never matter whether one talked to one person rather than another. It is preferable to be free to aspire to achieve one's full cultural potential] in a community which reflects one's own natural cultural values."
Then the flier, referring to quotas and affirmative action, asks, "What characteristics does the White Student Union hope to find and foster in its members? Primarily the White Student Union welcomes people who are pro-white. We protest racism against whites, and adhere to white values in our lives. We work with a strong will, consciously avoiding such defeatist attitudes as cynicism and despair.
"We are heterosexual, and happy about it. We strive to promote white culture, to observe honestly what directions it is taking, and to preserve the ideals we value most within it'' ln an earlier article, White Student Union leader Tom David describes who he considers to be part of the "white race,'' making it explicit that Jews are not part of it. He didn't explain what 'race they are part of.
Is there a white race?'
These two recent examples from Dubuque and the Twin Cities reflect an increasing ideological offensive by rightwing and fascist-type organizations that utilize reactionary demagogy. They pose important questions that working people and youth must answer: Is there such a thing as a "white race" with distinct "white rights?" Is there a white culture? Does affirmative action for Blacks and other oppressed nationalities harm workers with white skins? Is there a Black race with rights? Are there races at all? If so how are they determined, by what criteria? How many are there?
To pose these questions is to implicitly ask if there are parts of the human population that can be identified as belonging to distinct and inferior races.
Is the question of whether or not the White Student Union should be officially recognized as a campus organization the same as whether or not a Black student union should be recognized?
What about antihate laws? Is the hatred of oppressed Blacks against their oppression the same as the hatred expressed by Tom David, David Duke, Patrick Buchanan, and so on?
These questions can't be pooh-poohed, dismissed, or just answered superficially. Clear, scientific answers are needed to counter the demagogy of the ultra-right and fascist elements - not to convince the cadre elements of fascist organizations but because these ideas have confused thousands of workers, farmers, students, and others. The question of race, of nation, of country have been the stock and trade of fascist demagogy for decades. Right-wing demagogues also charge defenders of a woman's right to choose abortion with tearing apart the family. What answer should class-conscious workers give to that? Should the family be torn apart? Should it be allowed to disintegrate? To answer this you have to go deeper than defending abortion rights as just a matter of democratic rights.
Another theme rightists hammer away at is that of "country." We're citizens of this country, of the "American nation," we're told. Our government, they say, has a responsibility to defend the rights of our citizens to jobs ahead of those rights for immigrant workers from other countries. How do we answer that?
These themes that fascists and right-wingers raise require deeper explanations - scientific explanations. They pose questions that can't just be set aside. It is not enough to simply say "we're for immigrant rights, Black rights, abortion rights," and so on in order to effectively aid others to see the dangers in and be able to effectively counter the rightist and fascist arguments.
ln this presentation I'll take up the question of race. This afternoon there will be a class on immigrant rights and tomorrow the questions of the origin of women's oppression and the family will be discussed
Origins of the concept of race
Because racial prejudice is so deeply embedded in our society, it usually comes as a surprise to many people to learn that the concept of races is a social construct, and a recent one in human history. It did not emerge until the early days of capitalism, when the institution of chattel slavery was introduced.
The myth of a Black race that is inferior was developed to rationalize the institution of enslavement of Blacks from Africa.
The merchant capitalists of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries needed massive quantities of labor power in the New World - more than they could get from just utilizing white indentured servants or from the indigenous populations of the Americas - of whom millions were wiped out in just a few years from diseases brought from Europe.
ln Capital, Karl Marx explained what steps the early capitalists took to gather the necessary capital together to get their system off the ground, a process called primitive accumulation. ln Europe they drove peasants off the land and into factories in the newly emerging cities. This was done at a forced pace and with a great deal of human misery. Another central aspect of the primitive accumulation of capital was the introduction of the slave labor system: utilizing a form of labor from an earlier epoch of human society - that reached its most developed form in ancient Greece and Rome. They introduced it into the capitalist system where the slaves produced commodities for a capitalist market.
First the Indians and then Blacks were enslaved. They justified this slave system on the basis that Blacks and Indians weren't Christians, that they were infidels. One of the big tasks of the Christian world was to convert non-Christian peoples to Christianity, thereby integrating them into and making them part of the western Christian world.
This ideological rationalization didn't stand the test of time because as Indians and Blacks became Christians, it could no longer justify keeping them in bondage.
In its place a more insidious and long-lasting edifice was built: the concept of race. Blacks were identified as a biologically inferior race - one naturally suited to slave labor. A whole different set of behavioral patterns were assigned to Blacks, such as temperament or ability to withstand hard work and heat, that suited them to slave labor.
Black skin branded
The emerging capitalist class needed a rationalization that made Blacks not only temporarily inferior but one with which they would remain inferior generation after generation. The concept of race supplied that. Skin color was the physical characteristic singled out to brand an entire part of the human race. Like ranchers would put a brand on cattle.
It made it hard for Blacks to escape the slaveholder. Everyone in society knew that if you had black skin you were a slave, or could be enslaved. White indentured servants could escape and go off into the woods somewhere in the spacious unsettled lands of the Americas. For Blacks it was nearly impossible.
A brand was placed on this sector of society by the British, the French, the Belgian, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Portuguese, and later the U.S. merchant and planting capitalists.
All the capitalist politicians, the preachers, and the academicians rallied their efforts behind this justification. After Charles Darwin presented the theory of natural selection for the evolution of species in 1859 - a gigantic conquest in scientific thinking - a raft of so-called scientists were brought in to give the notion of racial inferiority a ''scientific" veneer. This spurious effort attempted to prove that it was through natural selection and evolution that Blacks were closer to the apes in the evolutionary chain.
Enormous battles have been waged by working people in the United States over the past 150 years, struggles that put an end to chattel slavery and brought down the system of legalized segregation that arose in its place. But the myth of race, constructed to justify an inhuman social system, still gets an echo today, as can be seen from the literature of The White Student Union and others.
The myth of race, and the superiority of one race over another, has not only been used to justify slavery in the United States. It is the cornerstone of the apartheid system in South Africa, where the wealthy capitalist ruling class constructed a state of the "white race.'' Nelson Mandela accurately characterized this system as a "crime against humanity." After decades of brutal suppression of the struggle to bring down the hated system, the Pretoria regime has also been pushed into an historic retreat. In its place a new nation is being forged, one made up of all Blacks and whites who want to live in a democratic republic. As the African National Congress explains, they are fighting for a "democratic, nonracial, nonsexist South Africa.''
But some of you may be asking: wasn't there prejudice based on race or a concept of race in earlier periods of human history, especially where slavery existed? In ancient Greece, slavery was the main mode of production. The Greeks sent their armies to capture slaves far and wide. The people who weren't Greek were considered barbarians. But barbarians weren't a race. They came in many colors, cultures, backgrounds, and varying geographical areas. In the later stage of the Greek empire, under the reign of Alexander the Great, the Greeks aimed to make the peoples they conquered part of Greek culture. At the same time they sought to merge major features of other cultures with theirs and urged the intermarriage of people of different cultures and backgrounds.
In Rome, another society in which slavery was the main mode of production, slavery was not based on the color of a person's skin either. There was no real conception of race at that time. Slaves in Rome came from the British Isles, Ethiopia, Persia, Greece, and elsewhere. They ranged from being artisans and poets to mine workers and field workers.
Those from Britain were of more dubious value because they were more culturally backward. Cicero explained, for example that they didn't know much about art or music and weren't really good as slaves.
It's worth reading Julius Caesar's account of his first invasion of Britain and his description of what he saw as the cultural level of the Britons. He says they were a strange people - they were terrifying - but they were odd. The men shaved all their hair off, except that on their head which was kept long. They went into battle virtually naked, with blue tattoos on their bodies. Caesar describes it as a terrifying sight.
Medieval society was similarly not divided on the basis of race. It was divided between Christians and infidels, Christians and Jews, and Christians and Muslims.
Radical Reconstruction in the U.S.
Coming back to the United States and the struggle against slavery, it is worthwhile to point out that even many abolitionists assumed that Blacks were inferior. They reasoned, though, that even an inferior people should not be enslaved and treated like livestock. The abolition of slavery was a result of the Second American Revolution, which was without question the most important revolution of the 19th century anywhere in the world. But it didn't bring an end to anti-Black racism and prejudice.
There was a possibility that a major fight along this course could have been waged. After the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, and under Radical Reconstruction, revolutionary popular governments were established in many of the former slave states. The most advanced ones were based on an alliance of poor whites and former Black slaves. Many Blacks participated in these governments and held leading elected offices as senators, congressmen, and state representatives - positions that even today they do not hold in some states.
During Radical Reconstruction, the potential power of working people began to be felt. Blacks won self-confidence, broke down erroneous conceptions of what Blacks were capable of doing, and smashed racist barriers. Strides forward in areas such as public education were made.
But Radical Reconstruction was smashed by the industrial capitalists. Blacks were never granted their central demand of 40 acres and a mule. At the same time tens of thousands of white settlers were getting tracts of land through the Homestead Act adopted in 1862. This denial of land to Blacks and the smashing of Reconstruction governments were major setbacks for the struggle against the oppression of Blacks and for the fight of all working people against exploitation.
The capitalist class halted and then reversed Radical Reconstruction through a bloody reign of terror. They feared the rise in the labor movement and the massive protests of working farmers in the South and in the Midwest that were beginning to take place in the 1870s.
Jim Crow segregation
After a period of several decades of reaction a system of legal segregation was imposed in the 1890s and the early years of the 1900s in the former slave states throughout the South. It took some time between the smashing of Radical Reconstruction in the late 1870s and early 1880s and the codification of what became the Jim Crow system of legal segregation, a system backed by stark and extralegal terror.
Establishing this system went hand in hand with the emergence of imperialism at the turn of the century. The depth and scope of the imposition of the segregation laws was part and parcel of, and drew sustenance and strength from, the development of imperialist domination of other countries by the U.S. ruling families.
It went hand in hand with the need of the ruling class to use racism to justify imperialist oppression and conquest and the horrible atrocities that went along with it. The period was marked by imperialist wars, invasions, and subjugation of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and other lands. The "white race'' was presented as having the burden of helping to civilize the ''inferior peoples." This was extended to all people of color.
Pseudo-scientific arguments were developed to justify this oppression. These tried to show that there is a genetically superior white race. This ideology and so-called science were not only used to justify imperialist aggression, conquest, and oppression, but was also retained inside the imperialist countries. The concept of race that had developed with the origin of slavery was kept in place as an instrument of class exploitation inside the United States. It became deeply enmeshed in capitalist exploitation, primarily as a measure to divide working people. The intended effect was not just to squeeze proportionally more profits from the labor of workers with black skins, but to squeeze more from the working class as a whole.
Do human features determine race?
But the question of the existence of races isn't disproved by simply describing the origin and development of anti-Black prejudice and the institutionalization by capitalists of racial division. We have to step back and take a closer look at the structure of the ideology that has been set up. For instance, someone could argue that there is a biological basis to race. If there is, doesn't that affect behavior patterns and aren't there really some very distinct races with distinct biological foundations and distinct social behavior? It's important to get at the biological arguments because they are the foundations on which the sociological conceptions of race are built.
The attempt to define biological races of human beings has almost always been done to show that some genetic basis exists for differences in human behavior. The reason that a larger percentage of Blacks than whites are poor and live on welfare, the argument goes, is due to character traits that are determined by their biological and genetic make-up.
This view, in some form or fashion, is not uncommon. According to Tom David, people who aren't part of "white culture" aren't capable of understanding classical music. There are different levels of intelligence and capacity for culture. Blacks just aren't biologically quite up to it.
The White Student Union says in its leaflet that people from each race have their own culture and they should stick to that culture. We should keep them separate, David says; it's natural. He states "each is separate" and he doesn't try to say that one is better than the other. But this is all malarkey. We know in this country that "separate but equal'' is the most transparent cover for maintaining the superiority of whites over Blacks and other people of color.
The problem with trying to establish a biological criterion is that biologists and physical anthropologists have a difficult time coming up with any kind of objective criteria for defining races. What set of physical features can be used that would have any kind of genuine social meaning? Should it be eye color, color-blindness, skin color, hair color or texture, average height, average weight, length of the limbs, shape of the nose, brain size, or toe size? Those kinds of measurements have been taken as part of this pseudo-science. And applying them is not just a theoretical matter. For the past several decades the South African government has used such characteristics to define each and every new-born baby by "race," be it white, Indian, Colored, or African.
With one or more of these characteristics they've come up with anywhere from three to scores of different races in the world. lt's hard to get a handle on it when you have so many different races. When I was in school, I think I was taught that there were five races. It was common for a long time for people to say that there were three: Caucasian, Negroid, and the Mongoloid. But of course if you have three main races where does that leave all the other people? What about Puerto Ricans? There are a lot of indigenous peoples in Mexico, a lot of immigrants from Europe, and a large number of people - probably the majority - who are a mixture of European and Indian. What race would Mexicans be? Negroid? Caucasian? Mongoloid? Mongrel? Are pygmies in Africa Negroid? Are Bushman in Africa? Are Aborigines in Australia? What race do the Sami people, who we know as Laplanders in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia come from?
Well, that's why people started getting long lists of races. Melanesian, Polynesian, Arabs, and the list goes on. The fact is that variation is very great in the human species. Moreover it is not static. What might have been considered races 5000 years ago are different from the way the same person would construct them today. There have been migrations, intermarriage, and colonial settlements for thousands of years. And these have intensified in the last few centuries. So the complexion of the human race is going to keep changing.
In the mid-19th century, even one of the most accomplished scientists, Louis Agassiz, argued that Blacks and whites are separate species. Other scientists argued that different races are sub-species of the human species. But in recent years an increasing number of biologists and physical anthropologists have rejected the notion that there is any meaningful definition of race.
One of the most prominent is the anthropologist Ashley Montagu. In 1964 he edited a book called The Concept of Race, which contained a series of articles by anthropologists and biologists rejecting the concept of race.
The same year he gave a series of lectures published in a book, The Idea of Race. In this volume he noted: "All human beings and all human groups differ from one another in one or more genes. That is a fact: and it is also a fact that when such individuals or groups are classed into arbitrary subdivisions called races, no matter what the criteria for such subdivisions may be, these classifications are arbitrary and correspond to nothing in reality. What is more important, such arbitrary subdivisions cannot be regarded as units of evolution either in space or in time. In the particular case of man, the 'races' that have been arbitrarily recognized are from a few to scores. What is obscured by such arbitrary definitions of 'race' are the facts.
First, that the very idea of 'race' exists only in the mind of the definer, that it is an abstraction; second, that it in fact corresponds to nothing in reality; and third, that it obscures the real meaning of population variability. In short, the biological concept of 'race' is an obfuscating one.''
In the mid-1970s biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article entitled. "Why we should not name human races- a biological view." It is included in his book Ever Since Darwin. In rejecting the concept of race he noted that more sophisticated techniques of measuring variability in a species "show a continuous pattern of variation.''
In his book on Afro-American History, Malcolm X said, "And actually Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid - there's no such thing. These are so-called anthropological terms that were put together by anthropologists who were nothing but agents of the colonial powers, and they were purposely given that status, they were purposely given such scientific positions, in order that they could come up with definitions that would justify the European domination over the Africans and the Asians."
Even Adolf Hitler, who wrote and spoke extensively about the virtues of the "Aryan race" and the inferior nature of other races admitted in 1930: "I know perfectly well that in the scientific sense there is no such thing as race. But a farmer can't get his breeding right without the concept of race. And I as a politician need a conception which enables the order that has hitherto existed on a historical basis to be abolished, and an entirely new and antihistoric order enforced and given an intellectual basis, and for this purpose the conception of race serves me well.''
This underlines the cynical character of much of fascist demagogy.
We might face a totally different situation if it could be scientifically established that persons with particular physical characteristics were mentally or physically more limited than other humans. But this has never been established. All the measurements of brain size, IQ, and so on have not shown this. An excellent book by Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, effectively debunks the notion that there is any relationship between brain size and intelligence, and IQ tests and intelligence, in human beings or that there is some pattern of brain size that proves Blacks are inferior. Racial differentiation only serves the purpose of justifying oppression and superexploitation. It is a fiction, a form of mystification.
What's real and what isn't a mystification is that humanity with a Black skin and all people of color have been branded by capitalism as subject to oppression. This common oppression of Blacks in the United States has led to a common consciousness as a people facing the same struggles. The crushing of Radical Reconstruction and the subsequent struggle by Blacks against their oppression laid the basis for the forging of a nationality.
Nationality is a political characterization. It describes a people who are fighting for political equality up to and including self-determination, a people struggling for full equality in relation to the state and society, and for rights such as equal opportunities for jobs, education, and housing.
The fight for Black rights is progressive and the gains that have been won have aided all working people. There is no oppression of human beings based on white skin color. Most whites are workers or farmers and are exploited, but not because they are white. There is no oppressed white nationality and no fight for "white rights" that can be progressive. A struggle for white rights can only be a fight to preserve oppression of Blacks and other people of color.
That's why there is no parallel between a Black student union and a white student union. One is fighting to extend equality, the other to maintain inequality. One should be given campus recognition the other should not. We reject the idea that the campus is not pan of the world or a part of the class struggle. Campus resources, such as those given to recognized student organizations, should be used to advance working-class interests, not to oppose those interests.
Now, does affirmative action take away the rights of workers who are white: does it come at their expense? This is an important question because if it did we would have to oppose it. Affirmative action is the recognition that special steps are necessary to win equal opportunities for Blacks.
A vigorous fight for this will benefit all workers-Blacks, whites, and Latinos - because it draws them closer together and it is the road to unity in political struggle. That's why the question of affirmative action is ultimately a class question, not a race question.
Karl Marx, in the first volume of Capital, wrote, "In the United States of America, every independent workers' movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor in a white skin can't emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin."
He was talking about the period just after slavery had been abolished and was hopeful that the branding of labor in a Black skin was going to be ended. But as I have explained, it hasn't and Marx's statement still rings true today. Notice that Marx starts with labor, with the working class. He talks about labor that has been branded, not about race.
Now finally I'd like to conclude with a word on the antihate ordinances. Here in St. Paul, we have an antihate ordinance and it's being tested right now before the U.S. Supreme Court. It was adopted back in 1982. There are similar laws in other cities and some states.
Their alleged aim is to generally outlaw expressions of hate. Some, like the one here, have amendments outlawing certain actions such as cross burning. In general, though, the measures are against hate. Hatred by whom, against whom, is left open.
And that's a problem. Because there are different kinds of hate. I hate the capitalist ruling class. If you really start to think about what they've done to the world in the last century, the people they've slaughtered, you can really work yourself into a hate.
It's important to do that from time to time because it helps give you some revolutionary energy. Malcolm X and others expressed a real hatred of this racist system.
Such expressions by our class are considered "hate" under this law. The law doesn't have any class content. An equal sign is put between the hatred by Blacks of racism and the hatred expressed by white racists when they burn crosses on people's front yards. That's one problem.
The second, related problem is that it outlaws expression and ideas. It not only addresses actions, but speech. You don't need an antihate law to outlaw cross burning. To terrorize .somebody by burning a cross on their yard is against the law right now. You don't need some special anti-hate law to make it illegal. It's against civil rights laws, it's against trespass laws, and it should be outlawed. You shouldn't be able to go burn crosses on somebody's yard to scare the hell out of them and drive them out of the neighborhood.
Any kind of racist intimidation should be against the law. A gang of racist hooligans shouldn't be able to circle a couple of Blacks on the street and start yelling at them.
That's not freedom of speech but threatening behavior, violent behavior. But expressions of "hatred" in newspapers or public meetings are prohibited under the antihate ordinances as well. I could probably be indicted for what I've just said about the ruling class, if the authorities were to choose to do so.
As with all kinds of laws like this that restrict freedom of speech and expression, the authorities may use them to go after some racists or antilabor hooligans. But that's all cover for going after the real targets: militant unionists, Black rights fighters, communists, and other fighters for social justice.
Chris Nisan, a leader of the Young Socialist Alliance here in the Twin Cities, has been doing some work on these laws for a Militant article. One study he found showed that the majority of the people who have been found guilty of violating antihate codes adopted on many college campuses over the last several years have been Blacks. This was usually for opposing Zionism. By opposing the Zionist capitalist government in Israel, you can be charged with being anti-Semitic.
These are things working people should oppose. Moreover, it gets off the crucial foundation of who is responsible for oppression. Is it some individual who is expressing some hateful ideas? Is that the problem we face in the United States? It gets away from the fact that there is a political and economic system that is responsible for racism, brought it into the world, and benefits from it. That is what must be opposed and fought against.
Clarity on all these questions and explaining them as clearly as we can, helps to give us more confidence that racial prejudice is not some innate part of human nature. Instead, it has a clear historical origin and is rooted in a specific social system. It benefits a distinct class, the billionaire ruling families. Looking at this crucial issue historically and scientifically helps us see the solid basis that exists for uniting working people of all backgrounds to overturn capitalist rule and thereby lay the basis for ending the scourge of racism once and for all.