In my first article, Behind the Veil: White Racism, White Privilege and America’s Long Road Ahead (Part 1), I presented a plan of discourse to illustrate the leading scholarship on how and why racism came to be the sine qua non of American life. Here in Part 2 I will present the first works of scholarship I believe reveal valuable insights on how racism came into its present form and why it remains imbedded in our culture. Moreover, why it continues to burden African Americans and other minorities and remains an enigma to Whites.
Due to word limits my inquiry will not be as comprehensive as I would prefer nor will every book merit equal consideration, but I do hope to give the reader the best in critical thinking on the subject so that they may have greater insight to think more critically and personally about these issues. How many of us really understand the degree to which racism plays a role in shaping personal outcomes for yourself, for others inside or outside of your racial group? Perhaps we simply believe that all of our personal gains are a result of our or others “hard work.” Our value system pushes us to think of racism always in the negative and this takes us away from asking other more critical questions. From my perspective, a singularly overlooked question would be: have you or anyone you know been a direct beneficiary of racism? How often do you hear this question? How often do you think about it? How many would be willing to accept the notion that many of the real benefits that we Americans hold dear have been made available simply by denying others access to these same benefits? In the United States we value, as a uniquely American mythology–individual opportunity and free will. But how many of us would be willing to accept that underneath the rhetoric of an American meritocracy benefits such as jobs, housing, education, and health security may be attributed more to keeping members of other groups from achieving the same goals than through any personal merit of your own. Sure you may have attended a really well equipped high school, done well in college prep courses, gone to college, worked hard and are working to give you and your family a decent life. But with every positive admission’s letter or new employment opportunity there may be, more often than not, racism associated with those same benefits.
To grasp the complexity of racism in the United States is to begin to understand how institutions and ideologies were interconnected through overseas European expansion beginning in the 15th century and later taken over by Americans as they forged ahead with African slavery as a principle labor supply in the 18th century. Our initial inquiry will be to deconstruct the nascent rise of racism and how it evolved into its present form. For this we will turn to St. Clair Drake’s Black Folk, Here and There (BFH&T). BFH&T is a tour de force, a work of such enduring insight that it is hard to fathom why this work remains one of the most under-appreciated and ignored works of scholarship. Perhaps this oversight can be attributed to BFH&T’s scathing indictment developers and inheritors of western civilization that seek justification of continued control through oppressive systems of racial domination. BFH&T directly challenges the idea of American and western European mythologies of meritocracy, and exposes the roots of racism that continuously seeks to retard the economic, social, cultural and spiritual life of non-whites. Indeed these are challenging and bold assumptions offered in BFH&T. These assumptions, fully understood in their spatial and temporal amplitude would reveal the unprecedented growth and sustainment of a particular type of racist ideology that defies both history and reason.
In 1977, Drake began BFH&T (initially titled “Coping and Co-optation”) and upon completion it was selected for publication by the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies of the University of California at Los Angeles. As a graduate student I was introduced to Drake’s work by Robert Hill, then a professor in the history and African American studies departments at UCLA and the foremost expert on Marcus Garvey. Professor Hill’s mentorship was invaluable to my understanding of Drake & Garvey and the Black Experience throughout the Americas. Drakes initial idea was to carry out “an analysis of the values and symbols that have emerged within Black communities in the Diaspora and to relate them to the ‘coping’ processes at various periods in history and in diverse places where ecological and economic contexts present quite the different options.” At the outset Drakes’ concern was to show how blacks managed to create the variety of cultures in direct response to having been torn from Africa and subjected to the brutal conditions of slavery. For example, “Negro Spirituals” and “Reggae” are twin cultural coping mechanisms that came out of the savagery of American & Caribbean plantation slavery. BFH&T evolved into a synthesis of secondary literature to highlight the origins, growth and spread of racism throughout the world and its varietal effects on black people globally.
BFH&T really began to take form when Drake’s initial research agenda led him directly to a capacious and alarming amount of work produced in the 1970’s that attributed the America’s racial problems, not to slavery, economics, power, culture or society in general but directly to black skin color. Quite naturally, this alarmed Drake. This large and growing amount of research was attributing America’s race problem to the fact the blacks are dark skinned or simply stated–black in color. First, this post-civil rights literature shifted anti-racist arguments for the origins of racism from anthropological and sociological organization back to 19th century psychological explanations. This was a regressive thinking and supported previous historical literature that pointed to innate mental inferiority of blacks. Two of the most important of these works was Kenneth Gergen’s Significance of Skin Color in Human Relations (1965) and Carl Degler’s (Pulitzer Prize winner) Neither Black nor White: Slavery and Race Relations in Brazil and the United States (1971). Both Gergen and Degler asserted that interracial relations reflected the western symbolism of Black skin color to always being contrasted negatively to white skin color for all people and at all times in human history. This would include Blacks derogating blackness as well! To restate: the Gergen-Degler hypothesis argued that there is a “universal” (i.e. psychological) dislike of “darkness” or “Blackness” and “also that invidious distinctions are made everywhere between light and dark people.” According to Gergen, people have always and will continue to prefer those that have the same facial and color distinctions (somatic-norm image) as themselves and all groups will prefer those with white or whiter skin color.
According to Gergen, psychologically (Freudian) all groups, including blacks, have within their folk cultures associated negative connotations with blackness and positive connotations with whiteness (i.e. Angel Food & Devils Food cakes, shining White Knight, monsters and darkness, the Black Bart, etc.). Drake’s work in volume one of BFH&T was to examine the validity of the Gergen-Degler skin color hypothesis. In doing so he uncovered what he called the foundations of White Racism. BFH&T traced the first forms of racism that began to appear in the western world during the time of European exploration and expansion (1418-1957). A form of racism known as White Racism–is shown by Drake to be the single greatest factor that limited and continues to limit the life chances of Blacks and other people of color in the modern world.
If Gergen and Degler were correct in their assumption that white is always preferred over black (modern Manichaeism) one would expect to see the continued durability of racism and no end to the Donald Sterling’s of the world. What would a world look like for African Americans if we accepted the Gergen hypothesis? What kind of psychological trauma could we expect from those that are born in Gergen’s world? Born into a world that has, according to Gergen, historically always associated negative connotations to one’s skin color. These and other questions became the challenge laid before Drake in 1977.
Drake’s research approach included systematically examining the lives of Blacks (temporally and spatially) that lived in various geographic regions and at various times throughout human history. Drake asserts that throughout the ancient world some forms of color prejudice appeared to have existed several hundred years before European expansion. However, this color prejudice was not accompanied by any systematic doctrine of racial inferiority or superiority (i.e. racism) as it would later under the rubric of White Racism. Drake noted that at various times and places Blacks were held in high regard and often achieved positions of prestige and authority within their particular societies (European or other). Remember, this would not be possible in Gergen’s world where all people dislike Black color. Proponents of Black skin derogation and innate inferiority would have a hard time explaining the numbers of Blacks that were held in high esteem by Whites in Europe and in other significant geographical locations and at various times. For example, how do we account for: Simon of Cyrene, the large number of Black Egyptian Pharaohs & Gods (i.e., Osiris, Isis,), Black Christian saints such as St. Maurice, St. Catherine, & St. Clement; Black European royalty: i.e., Charles the V, Otto King of Saxony, Emperor Manuel I, John VIII Palaiologos of Byzantium, Giovanni Moro (Johannes dictus Morus, Governor of Sicily); General Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (Thomas Alexander Dumas father of Alexander Dumas and peer to Napoleon), Ulrich von Hutten and the vast amount of inter-racial marriages-including Queen of England Philippa of Hainaut (1314-1369) married to King Edward III and Queen of Great Britain and Ireland Sophia Charlotte of Meclenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818) married to Britain’s King George III? And lastly, but most troublesome, are the sheer plethora of various Black Madonna introduced to Catholic Europe from the 12th through the 15th centuries and still continuously worshipped Catholic countries today. To get a greater sense of how blacks have been written out of European history see the marvelous work on blacks in Western art: http://www.imageoftheblack.com/volumes.html.
The absence of historical memory of Black life in European society and culture is a direct result of White Racism acting voraciously to wipe out any vestiges of Black European veneration. Drake’s work remains an important anti-racist tome in that it refutes the ideology that racism is keyed deep into human psychology or unconsciousness, as Degler, Gergen and other 1970s anthropometric writers would have had us believe. What is important is Drake’s inability to find White Racism’s existence in any other epoch reflects a historical sea change in White attitudes toward Black people. According to Drake, White Racism is a reflection of the systems, institutions and ideologies that make up western society, i.e. Europe and the United States developed in order to create the conditions necessary for African slavery and Native American genocide. Empirical evidence suggests that White Racism was unknown in the ancient world and through much of the Middle Ages. So how and when did this occur? Part three forthcoming.