Dust in the Air…
“Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible – even if you’re choking on it – until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere… As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Racism is not an illusion but a self-delusion, adopted to justify economic exploitation. It was an innovation in that regard. The Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, Egyptians and many others before engaged in keeping slaves for economic purposes, but these slaves were not generally regarded as inferior.
Racism in recent times can be traced to anti-Irish sentiment in 12th century England. The Celts were considered a “race” insufficiently Christian, given to the superstition of paganism, justifying the Anglo-Norman invasion of their nation sanctioned by the Pope. In subsequent centuries when England turned Protestant, these attitudes became closely aligned with anti-Catholicism.
Three centuries later, finding indigenous labor wanting, the Portuguese and Spanish adopted the practice of slavery from the Arabs and various African tribes, in order to expand their colonies in the Americas, adding the “sanctity of blood” reference the English had alluded to. Despite what previous Catholic authorities had to say on the subject (including St. Thomas Aquinas who termed the practice an unmitigated evil, and Pope Eugene IV who threatened Spanish merchants with excommunication in the 1430s unless they immediately freed their captives), the slavers received the blessing of Pope Nicholas V in 1452 when he issued the papal bull Dum Diversas. On his authority as God’s representative on Earth in Catholic theology, the Pope granted Portugal and Spain “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be ... And to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”. Thus the intent of Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon On The Mount and The Good Samaritan were perverted into their opposite for political reasons, as occurs over time in most if not all religions.
Bartolome de las Casas, writing in the early sixteenth century, encapsulated his observations of the relationship these Spaniards formed with those they encountered:
“The Island of Hispaniola, once so populous (having a population that I estimated to be more than three million), has now a population of barely two hundred persons.”
“The pattern established at the outset has remained to this day, and the Spaniards still do nothing save tear the natives to shreds, murder them and inflict upon them untold misery, suffering and distress, tormenting, harrying and persecuting them mercilessly.”
“The reader may ask himself if this is not cruelty and injustice of a kind so terrible that it beggars the imagination, and whether theses poor people would not fare far better if they were entrusted to the devils in Hell than they do at the hands of the devils of the New World who masquerade as Christians.”
“The reason the Christians have murdered on such a vast scale and killed anyone and everyone in their way is purely and simply greed.”
While the populations of Europe and Asia roughly doubled during the two centuries from 1600 to 1800, that of Africa actually decreased by 6%, from 114 to 107 million, reflecting the untold millions who died in the interior in tribal wars generated by the demand for slaves. The able-bodied survivors were ushered to the coasts for transport to the Americas, where during the transatlantic crossing an additional 15 to 30% perished. In the eighteenth century this transport accounted for some 6 million survivors, meaning perhaps two million (or more) died in the crossing, in the eighteenth century alone. The trade began in the middle of the fifteenth century, and stretched through the mid-nineteenth.
While the import of slaves was banned in the U.S. in 1808, slavery itself ended by law with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, its import ostensibly secured once again in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recent events make clear once more people of color in America have yet to achieve equal justice before the law or at the hands of police. Those who point to the election of Barack Obama to claim there’s no racism in America today must also be in denial about the affect Hitler’s holocaust and previous pogroms had on the founding of the state of Israel.
In 1619 the practice of slavery first found its way to North America, to assist the settlers’ westward expansion into indigenous territory. “White” as a category came into existence as a means to control poor indentured servants, essentially slaves, from finding common cause with their darker-skinned brethren. Shortly after the Somersett Case in England established slavery was illegal under English common law, American colonists achieved their independence, securing the right to continue owning slaves and continue the ethnic cleansing of the continent of North America. Surviving native inhabitants were relegated to less desirable tracts of land, their culture undermined and movements monitored, in much the same manner as what occurs to Palestinians today.
Viewed through an unfiltered lens most actions undertaken by the U.S. government around the globe (including the region we refer to as the Middle East) can be traced to an effort to maintain the economic inequities resulting from racism, which necessitates the maintenance of over 800 foreign military bases in over 70 countries, and consumes slightly more than half our budget. If this comes as a shock to some portion of the American public engaged in a bit of mythological willful denial, it is far less of a surprise to those affected by our nation’s policies. That is why people the world-over have made common cause by adding their own demonstrations in support of those in this country for black lives and racial equality.
While Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement made at the height of the Vietnam War, maintaining our country as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world may technically still be true, there is certainly a fair amount of competition for the top spot. Brazil, China, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines come to mind.
It is impossible to countenance such cruelty as described by Bartolome de las Casas, which transpires to a lesser extent in many regions throughout the world still, lest one first accept the delusion of difference. Those without means or who see their ambitions circumscribed are susceptible by dint of circumstance to indoctrination by those whose avarice can never be satiated. Once established, the delusion asserts its apparent reality with the force of peer domination, dehumanizing the target “other” through assignment of derogatory terms to deny their full humanity: “slope”, “chink”, “gook”, “nip”, “chee-chee”, “dink”, “sand nigger”, “raghead”, “towelhead”, “spic”, “wetback”, “beaner”, “greaser”, “barang”, “cracker”, “gammon”, “gwello”, “haole”, ”okie”, “peckerwood”, “whitey”, “hick”, “hillbilly”, “honky”, “trailer trash”, “white trash”, “infidel”, “dago”, “goombah”, “guido”, “guinea”, “wog”, “wop”, “chug”, “redskin”, “squaw”, “hun”, “kraut”, “mick”, “paddy”, “kike”, “shylock”, “yid”, “pollock”, “kaffer”, “coon”, “oreo”, “nigger”— the list can be endless, new monikers conceived as necessary.
The current moment finds its strength in people of many stripes finding common cause in erasing erroneously assigned priority to slight apparent differences.
Resistance to injustice gives rise to identity politics as a means to address the affects of the delusion. Here lies the risk, however, of reinforcing the delusion while seeking to redress its effects. The problem is not that the inequalities and injustices created by the delusion are not real, but they cannot be erased completely without exposing the unreality at the base of their existence. In other words, any such distinctions are a potent form of toxic self-delusion. Cultural differences between groups of people, families and tribes exist, but these pale in comparison with life itself, the far deeper identity we share with all other creatures. In placing undue attention on group identification we disrespect that which unites us at our peril.
The current moment finds its strength in people of many stripes finding common cause in erasing erroneously assigned priority to slight apparent differences. From time immemorial to the present moment, tribal squabbles are manipulated to suborn individual autonomy into groups and nation states, obscuring humanity’s greatest racist delusion: belief in the separateness and supremacy of the human race over nature itself. The idea of dominion, conferred by religions to underwrite racist colonialist expansion for millennia, is revealed by current conditions as totally false, terribly erroneous, out of date; something that in fact separates us from our true identity, rather than something that brings us closer. Ignoring science, nature yet has ways of reminding us it is not signatory to this fallacious covenant assigning humanity ‘dominion’: Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, firestorms, pandemics, and temperatures beyond what humans can tolerate. Avoid these and there is no escaping what Buddha identified: old age, sickness, and death.
With humility it is possible to recognize that with the whole of the natural world colonized by human habitation, conflicts over resource distribution based on tribal identification are increasingly exposing the fact that our belief system, based essentially on individual greed, is a bankrupt one for establishing harmony in the whole.
As this generation watches their future dissolve before their eyes due to automation, cybernation, and the avoidance of any affective meaningful response to climate change, they understandably reject the fractured foundation on which this edifice of inequality is built. Pulling down symbols that serve to buttress this ongoing oppression is significant, but only the depth of our response matching the extent of change required will measure ultimate success. Harmonious realignment with each other and the natural world requires activism beyond that whose intent is merely to claim equal justice in the distribution of a self-destructive pie. This is insufficient to our needs; systemic change is required. For that, continuous education and sustained struggle is necessary.
This is possible. The mass of people reclaiming their power by putting their bodies in the streets aren’t willing to accept what past generations dictated was just. Always there has been struggle against oppression. Moments like this have existed before, in the thirties and forties of the twentieth century, and again in the sixties and seventies. These movements, while accomplishing a great deal, were unable to coalesce with sufficient strength to resist their gains being beaten back by anti-democratic fascist forces of moneyed interests that arose in reaction, such as those set in motion by the Powell memo in 1971; the effects of which we increasingly suffer.
An economic system based on winners and losers must be forever discredited, discarded as unreflective of our circumstance. The delusion of difference— that some are more deserving than others based on race, nationality, creed, gender or some other ever-changing criteria; and, that we inherently occupy some special place in the hierarchy of life such that our collective actions could never accrue to our self-destruction— must be exposed as dysfunctional for our mutual survival, or we’ll fail, not just as individuals seeking justice, but as a species out of balance.
Under the weight of current challenges the system is failing the vast majority, making systemic change possible. It will take sustained effort to enact restructuring sufficient to the task. For that we must remain united in shining the light, raising our country to the challenge of conscious evolution. Only then will we know how to celebrate our differences.
Charles Fredricks is an author of fiction, political commentary and documentary filmmaker, co-director/producer with Josef Avesar of Surviving Peace about a path to a possible future of Israel/Palestine.