WASHINGTON, December 11, 2014 – In recent days, in the wake of a number of questionable interactions between the police and black men, there have been demonstrations, sometimes violent, proclaiming that “racism” is embedded in the American society.
Addressing these protests, President Obama said that racism is “deeply rooted” in our country.
In an interview with BET early in December, Mr. Obama declared: “This is something that is deeply rooted in our history. When you’re dealing with something as deeply rooted as racism or bias…you’ve got to have vigilance …”
Those who proclaim that America is a “racist” society do not tell us which other countries, either contemporary or historical, they are comparing it to. If they did look around the world, or through history, they would find that our society, although flawed as is every human endeavor, is unique not for drawing lines between people but for embracing something quite different.
American nationality is not based on common race, religion of ethnic background, but on a commitment to live in a free and open society and fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship.
Americans come in all colors, religions and backgrounds. Japanese, Swedes, Nigerians and most other nations do not.
Those who proclaim the “racist society” thesis often go back to the question of slavery, as if this inhumane practice was an American invention. From the beginning of recorded history until the 19th century, slavery was the way of the world. Rather than some American uniqueness in practicing slavery, the fact is that in 1787, when the Constitution was being written, slavery was legal everyplace in the world. What stands out is that in the American colonies there was strenuous objection to slavery and that the most prominent framers of the Constitution wanted to eliminate it at the very start of the nation.
Slavery is as old as recorded history. Most people in the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time. It existed among nomadic pastoralists in Asia, hunting societies of North American Indians, and sea people such as the Norsemen. The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. The Sumerian symbol for slaves in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
The poems of Homer supply evidence that slavery was an integral part of ancient Greek society, possibly as early as 1200 B.C. Plato opposed enslavement of Greeks by Greeks, regarding bondservants as essentially inferior beings. His pupil Aristotle considered slaves as mere tools, lucky to have the guidance of their masters.
At the time of Pericles, Athens had 43,000 citizens, who alone were entitled to vote and discharge political functions, 28,500 metics, or resident aliens, and 115,000 slaves. A century and a half later, Demetrius of Phalerum took a census of the city and counted only 21,000 citizens, 10,000 metics and 400,000 slaves.
The Bible ratifies slavery, although it called for humane treatment of slaves. In England, 10 per cent of the persons enumerated in the Domesday Book (A.D. 1086) were slaves, and these could be put to death with impunity. Portugal imported large numbers of African slaves to work her estates in the southern provinces and to do menial labor in the cities from 1444 on. By the middle of the 16th century, Lisbon had more black than white residents.
In 1515, the Portugese king ordered that they be denied Christian burial and thrown into a “common ditch” called “Poco dos Negroes.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the framers saw slavery as an accepted and acceptable institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade.
What stands out historically is that so many of the leading men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists.
John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Gouverneur Morris were in the forefront of the opposition to slavery and the slave trade. One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal:
“This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempt of Virginia to put a stop to it…Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves…Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
While many criticized the framers for not eliminating the slave trade immediately, others understood that they had set in motion an opposition to slavery that would bear fruit in the future. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut stated, “Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.”
Professor Samuel Huntington points to the truly historic meaning of the Constitutional Convention and its product:
“This is a new event in the history of mankind. Heretofore most governments have been formed by tyrants, and imposed on mankind by force. Never before did a people, in time of peace and tranquility, meet together by their representatives and, with calm deliberation, frame for themselves a system of government.”
It took a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the civil rights movement, and legislation ending racial discrimination to move our society toward the goal of color-blindness, to judging each citizen, as Martin Luther King urged, on the content of his or her character, not the color of their skin.
Today, black Americans face no glass celings. We have a black president and attorney general and have had two black Secretaries of State. Things are not perfect, and they never will be. But we should sometimes pause and remember how far we have come.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, comedian Chris Rock, who is black, discussed his daughters: “I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you. I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy…My kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black Secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general.
My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people…The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced.”
Ellis Close, who is black, wrote a book, “The Rage of a Privileged Class” in 1993 in which he argued that many successful black Americans “were seething about what they saw as the nation’s broken promise of equal opportunity.”
More recently, Close, a Newsweek columnist, wrote:
“Now, Barack Obama sits in the highest office in the land and a series of high-powered African-Americans have soared to the uppermost realms of their professions. The idea of a glass ceiling is almost laughable. Serious thinkers are searching for a new vocabulary to explain an America where skin color is an unreliable marker of status…”
The history of the world, sadly, shows us people at war with one another over questions of race, religion and ethnicity:
- Today, radical Islamists are killing people because they are of another religion.
- In Israel there are efforts to define the state as legally “Jewish,” thereby making its 20 per cent non-Jewish population less than full citizens.
- Russia has invaded and absorbed Crimea to absorb its ethnic Russian population. Anti-immigrant parties are gaining strength in Sweden, Denmark, England, Germany and other European countries.
- When Britain left India, millions of Muslims were forced to leave Hindu-majority India and form Pakistan, at the cost of an untold number of lives.
- We have seen millions of Armenians slaughtered by Turks.
- We have witnessed genocide carried out by Nazi Germany, by Rwanda, by the Khmer Rouge.
We could fill pages with a record of such horrors.
Those who glibly call America a “racist” society are not comparing it to anyplace in the real world, either historically or at the present time. They are comparing it to perfection and here, of course, we fail, as would any collection of human beings.
But our collection of human beings includes men and women of every race and nation. There are problems and difficulties but the real story is our great success in molding a nation from people who have journeyed to our shores from every place on earth.
As Herman Melville said many years ago:
“If you shed a drop of American blood, you shed the blood of the whole world.”
This, not “racism,’ which, after all, is prevalent in one form or another, everywhere, is America’s genuine achievement. Occasional eruptions of intolerance should not obscure this greater reality.