December 31, 2016
“What can you expect from white people?”
This past Thanksgiving my daughter prepared a delicious turkey dinner with all the trimmings to which I was invited, and which was attended by my college-student grandson. After dinner we were joined for desert by a couple of his high-school pals, now also college students.
In retrospect I realized that the three students were all sophomores, and how that might have foretold the tone of the discussion. Two other factors may have played a part. One, though I am the more conservative member of the family, I was a guest at the table, and therefore constrained against being overly confrontational. And, two, I abstain from alcohol, though a little wine was served, and alcohol may have contributed to others talking more freely. (I really didn’t notice whether anyone else had a drink and only wondered about it later.) The balance, I thought, made for a longer, less contentious discussion, which therefore provoked more thought than outrage.
Being old and deaf I miss a lot of the high-speed verbal exchanges conducted by young folks, but as far as I had gathered the conversation had included concerns over the political changes wrought by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, recently concluded, and there was dissatisfaction over what is currently portrayed as the “white privilege” that has purportedly gotten us to where we are now.
I was only half-listening when my grandson’s chum asked scornfully, “Well, what do you expect from white people?”
That woke me up!
“Whoa”, I exclaimed, “I am a white person!” And sat down in the conversational circle to ask questions and pay close attention to the answers.
The young man explained the thesis he appears to have acquired in college, that, as I understood it, it was the nature of white society in Western Europe, their disdain for other races the their characterization of non-white people as inferior or even sub-human that drove the rise of slavery in America and elsewhere. The implication was that it was this “original sin” and the centuries of “white privilege” it spawned that is now responsible for the racial backlash following the unseating of the first Black American President.
It is as if by blaming the white race as a whole for the phenomenon of slavery he seeks to atone for being white himself.
In order to counter the idea that there is something genetically defective in the moral fabric of the white race specifically, ironically, as racist a concept as there ever was, I pointed out that the African slave trade was made possible by the taking of slaves in raids between African tribes, and the brokering of those slaves by west and north African arab muslim traders, whose religion renders unbelievers “fair game” for trafficking. And that during the time when a total of 388,000 African slaves were sent to North America, the Barbary Pirates in North Africa took hostage some 600,000 to 1.5 million European and American merchant seamen, selling the un-ransomed into slavery in the Middle East. The new American Government paid a million a year, about a quarter of its income, in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states, until finally Jefferson sent the five ships of its new navy, along with their Marines, to Tripoli to sink the pirates, blockade and subsequently attack the city, and end the piracy and enslavement.
Not to expiate the British and Portuguese, and lesser participants like Holland, Denmark and Sweden, from their guilt in driving the slave trade that transported 12 million Africans to the Caribbean and South America, but the full participation of black African tribes and brown North African nations in the trade suggests that the ethical defect that permitted them to engage in the trafficking of humans was not defined by white racial genetics.
If not race, what is it that allows one culture or group to enslave the members of another?
The answer to that question requires that one consider what it is that drives, constrains and shapes the behavior of a culture. What is it that defines what it is right and what it is wrong to do within a family, tribe, herd, community, city or nation state, or union?
Personally I am of the school that thinks that basic senses of fairness and wrongness are inherent in the architecture of the human brain, and even that of lower mammals according to some studies: that they are biological in origin. And that simple ethical principles are arrived at in some form or other by consensus among even the most primitive and least organized human groups.
Moreover, historically, when people with a slightly greater need to control others seek to persuade them of which behaviors should be adopted and which avoided, they have employed the argument that their beliefs came from a deity and were therefore much more powerful than any mere human belief.
It seems to me that, crossing racial boundaries, it is religion that supports the view that some people are less than fully human and may be treated accordingly.
This is certainly the case in the more obviously prophetic religions, though one can easily find examples in polytheism and animism. One might conclude that it is probably in the nature of man and woman to falsely claim the “authority” of a god or gods to bring the more reluctant members of the group into agreement with a less than persuasive belief.
In reading the founding documents of the prophetic religions it becomes apparent that they are prescriptions for behavior in every-day community life. This had escaped me until I attended the Bar Mitzvah of the son of a Jewish colleague, and the reading chosen for him to translate from the Torah that day, dealt entirely with the question of how many witnesses were required in the trial of a person accused of a capital crime.
Prophetic writings were the antecedents of secular laws, and laws are prescriptions for behavior.
Consider also the duality described by the inclusive idea of community. The very neurotransmitters responsible for bonding of infant and mother, and one member of a community to the others, inevitably also excludes those who are not members of the community. Any distinguishable mental state or physical feature can become the means to sort out “us” from “not us”, including sex, skin tone, language, costume or belief versus disbelief in a given ideology.
For four reasons it is not surprising to me that religions should constitute the very foundation and moral justification for the enslavement of one human by another:
1. People who start and maintain religions always have the grandiose idea that it is their job to control the thoughts and behavior of others.
2. Religions take it upon themselves to define for its members precisely what is ethical and moral and what is not, including hierarchies of mastery and servitude. [Typically in order to ascend to the thrones of Europe, anointment with “holy oil” by the high priest was, and still is, the required final step. It is the step by which the monarch becomes a “god”.]
3. While religions can serve to define a community, inevitably they thereby also define, and always in a lower category, those outside that community, who are not among their believers. There cannot be a category called “us”, without there also being a matching category called, “not us”.
4. Religions usually incorporate many of the mores prevailing at the time when they coalesce and crystalize, even when that zeitgeist includes the practice of enslavement.
Given that there has never been a time when the zeitgeist did not include provocations and warring, religions almost inevitably include justifications for the punishment and killing of both individuals and of large groups of people.
All three of the major prophetic religions prescribe the conditions under which slavery is permitted.
John Locke, one of the social philosophers upon whose ideas the founders of the American Republic relied, was a major investor in the Royal African Company, established by the British monarchy in 1672 and heavily engaged in the slave trade until trading in slaves was abolished in England in 1807. Yet in the chapter on slavery in his Second Treatise on Government he says that the only possible state of slavery is the extension of the state of war between a lawful conqueror and a captive, when the captive has been forced into obedience.
From Locke’s two treatises it seems clear to me that even for him this susceptibility to slavery depended upon an agreed state of war between individuals or larger groups, because the consequence of slavery is justified by “war”: the real and declared threat and intent to kill or enslave the one who was the eventual conqueror. The modern-day example that springs to mind is Guantanamo. Once you have captured a group of men who have vowed to try until their dying breath to kill you, what do you do with them?
It is difficult for me to see how this definition could include the trafficking and sale of humans to third parties. And it is inconceivable that 12 million African captives were all taken in pursuit of such clearly self-defensive ends. I think those intending to justify the slave trade as a source of labor for the first sugar plantations in Barbados will have had to look elsewhere than John Locke for validation.
Whereas when Jefferson and Adams went to London to inquire of the ambassador of Tripoli the grounds for the Barbary Pirates making war on those who had never harmed them, they reported he had replied “it was written in their Koran that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”
To this day, Islamic doctrine treats unbelievers the same way, and holds women in a state of virtual slavery to men. Nor, despite claims to the contrary, is there a single word in the Koran that offers peace to ‘unbelievers’ or tolerance of any who hold a religious belief other than Islam.
White Europeans certainly participated heavily in the slave trade of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, but they neither originated nor dominated it.
For centuries, the Catholic Church claimed belief in its doctrines was the only possible path to heaven and, again, and considered that unbelievers were “heathens” who could be treated as less than human until they converted to its beliefs. Famously, the protestant sects of New England did the same thing to the Polynesians that Catholics did to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America.
My argument is that it is not something endemic to the white race or its Western European origin that gives rise to slavery. It is something in the human brain, often resonating with a religious doctrine, that supports slavery, expressing the desire to control and exploit others to one’s advantage. Some strange amplification and enhancement of the difference between “us” and “those who do not believe as we do”, allows “believers” to exclude some groups of people from the circle of those protected by our biologically-based sense of fairness.
Blaming slavery upon white Western Civilization represents a false narrative that serves only the agenda of those who seek revenge and retribution against a particular race, the living members of which were not even alive at the time of the original insult. And the ancestors of the majority of whom had nothing to do with slavery.
It is particularly ironic that the recent generations of American white people, the ones currently being “guilted” over slavery, were the ones who presided over its abolition in America, in a war that cost more lives than in any other American war.