A paradox of the Civil Rights movement is that the driving force behind that great victory––the codification in law, acknowledged by a majority of the nation, that color could not and should not compromise black American’s political equality and unalienable rights––was quickly degraded by the continuation of the pseudo-concept of “race,” an artifact of racist scientism.
Ever since, our racialist discourse has continued to legitimize and prioritize the idea of “color” as the most essential dimension of our identities. As a result of this racial essentialism, racism has found a new life in the “woke” ideology of “systemic racism” and “white fragility,” which are predicated on the assumption that all so-called “white” people are indelibly stained with racist animus, even if they don’t know it. This claim is the real “Jim Crow 2.0” Joe Biden talked about in 2022, not the common-sense election reforms he was attacking.
So it is today that the central preposterous and destructive fallacy of racism––that every member of the “inferior” race is in all respects indelibly inferior to every member of the “superior” race––lives on.
This maximalist absolutism was necessary in the old South to protect the justification of slavery as a natural institution reflecting the alleged disparities between black and white. But bans on allowing slaves to learn to read, for example, were a tacit admission that totalizing inferiority was incoherent, since if all people of African descent were inferior, how could they learn to read or be further educated? And without that “natural” inferiority, on what grounds could slavery be justified?
Next, despite several decades of activist historians claiming to find racism based on appearance as far back as ancient Greece, “race” and “racism” as we know them were a product of the Enlightenment and the scientism it fostered. This is not to say that bigotry and prejudice didn’t exist, and often lead to violence and injustice. But such bigotry was in the main not based on how people looked or the color of their skin.
Indeed, the “father of history,” Herodotus, in his 5th century B.C. work Histories, wrote of Ethiopia that “its men are the tallest, the most handsome, and the longest lived,” and said of swarthy Egypt that “it has more wonders in it than any other country in the world and provides more works that defy description than any other place.”
Rather than physical appearance, Greek bigotry reflected a dislike for how other ethnicities lived, their mores, customs, language, laws and, for the Greeks, whether they were free citizens or unfree subjects. The Athenians’ contempt for the Persians, for example, was based on their subjecting themselves to a Great King, in whose presence they had to prostrate themselves and kiss the ground. Even if a Persian was rich, to the Greeks he was still a slave who groveled before a tyrannical master.
Moreover, any ethnicity can learn to live in and adopt any culture in the world, just as every human being is born with the capacity to learn any language. A remarkable statement by the 4th century B.C. orator Isocrates illustrates this adaptivity of human nature based on our natural similarities and needs. Isocrates further claimed that Greek culture and identity was not a matter of common blood but common culture: “The name ‘Hellenes’ [Greeks] suggests no longer a race but an intelligence,” not nature but a way of thinking and the culture that expresses it. “Greek” refers “to those who share our culture rather than to those who share a common blood.”
In contrast, the African slave trade reinforced the notion that physical appearance defined a people’s identity more than culture and customs. This process can be seen in how the word “race” changed over time. The OED’s earliest recorded meaning in the 16th century is a “group of persons . . . connected by a common ancestor,” later expanded to include a “nation, tribe, or people thought to come from a common stock,” synonyms for “race” that persisted well into the early 20th century.
But in the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, the word came to mean “one of the great divisions of mankind having certain physical peculiarities in common,” the phrase “physical peculiarities” rife with potential evils such as slavery based on race.
This change also facilitated the evolution of the word “race” into a pretext for bigotry against a whole people without exception, after Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution spread throughout the West. European and American slavocrats once justified slavery by relying on sketchy biblical exegeses that made Cain, who murdered his brother, or Noah’s son Ham, who mocked his father’s nakedness, the founder of the African peoples.
By the later 19th century, Darwin’s theory of natural selection and fitness for survival was misapplied to a complex human identity comprising minds and free will. Thus “social Darwinism” or “scientific racism” began to shape public policy, supposed facts of biology rather than irrational bigotry, which now was provided with a patina of scientific authority, a “settled science,” as we might say, rejected only by the ignorant or evil.
With Darwin’s authority, then, scholars, social critics, and other cognitive elites began to understand “race” in terms of the “scientific” fact of racial superiority and inferiority, or in Darwinian terms, fitness for survival or its lack. The more destructive borrowing from evolutionary theory was “extermination,” the “natural” fate of less fit species destined for extinction. Darwin himself made this connection in The Descent of Man: “At some future period . . . the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the huge influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Southern Italy, and the Middle East stoked both the old slavocracy’s fear of “miscegenation,” and the concern for “racial hygiene.” The northern European “Nordic” ethnicities comprised the superior “white race,” whose purity must be protected.
In the U.S. Americans deemed “unfit” were prevented from reproduction by forced sterilization. Immigration of the “unfit” was drastically reduced by rigged immigration laws in 1921 and 1924. These were the peoples whom MIT president Francis Amasa Walker had said in 1896 were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” possessing “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.”
More ominously, in 1890 Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and inventor of the word eugenics, warned, “if these [inferior races, including the white lower classes] continued to procreate children, inferior in moral, intellectual and physical qualities, it is easy to believe the time may come when such persons would be considered as enemies to the State, and to have forfeited all claims to kindness.”
Both Walker and Galton were taking “Darwinian racism” to its logical culmination: extermination. Nazi Germany took that last step, the “final solution” to the problem of racial purity threatened by the unfit whom “natural selection” had destined for extinction. Nor were these ideas academic anomalies. The titles of bestselling books––Stanford president David Starr Jordan, The Blood of a Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit (1902); Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy (1920), and Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (1916)––testify to the widespread popularity of this “settled science.”
We need to be reminded of this sorry history, for these were the malignant ideas that undergird legal segregation and inequality, and that Martin Luther King labored and died to expose were inimical to Christianity and the founding principle laid out in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Today’s “woke ideologies” have discarded that noble vision by reprising the ideas of “scientific racism” that reduce unique individuals with unalienable rights, to a homogenous mass determined by the accident of physical appearance, one claimed to be morally inferior by virtue of skin color. As a result, we have seen those rights like free speech attacked and compromised; the power of the surveillance and police state turned against citizens deemed “domestic terrorists” for exercising their right to dissent; merit disregarded in order to further the interests of one political faction; and the demonization of 232 million citizens based solely on their “white privilege” and racial guilt.
If the “woke” antiracists are sincere, they will stop talking and acting like the racists the Civil Rights movement fought against, and respect again “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”