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Black lives Matter: On Racism and Political Correctness



I. On the History of Racism

After the murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020, demonstrations against anti-black racism spread like wildfire across the US. The entire scene of the policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes was broadcast across the media. Floyd's last words, “I Can't Breathe,” served as a metaphor for the protesters to express a buried cumulative feeling of suffocation and as a slogan to lead the marches around the United States and some Western European countries.

Racism has a long history that has intersected with colonialism and slavery in the past. From the outset, it has interacted with the older tendency to attribute genetic characteristics to the class differences between aristocratic families and the general public in colonial countries. The nineteenth century saw a trend of using pseudo-scientific methods to explain the relationship between the physical structure of human groups and the personal characteristics of their members, intellectual abilities, morals and culture.

The American doctor Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), who specialized in the “scientific” practice of measuring skull size, is considered the founder of the “American School” of ethnography focused on race (descriptive ethnography). He collected human skulls from different regions of the world and categorized them according to the size of the brain. Morton theorized that the white “race” (or Caucasian as he called it) was superior to others in terms of intellectual capacity based on the cranial cavities in the brain, while black Africans were inferior, and Indians and other groups were somewhere in the middle. He decided, based on his analysis of the pharaonic mummy skull, that the Pharaohs belonged to this “white race,” unable to conceive that the people who created such magnificent architecture could be black Africans. His work was preceded by the development of this purported science by European scientists and doctors, and these pseudo-scientists were boosted by Darwinism, and later from social Darwinism. It can be said in this context that the emergence of ethnography as a discipline was a direct effect of that pseudo-scientific trend to justify racism and control the other. Ethnography only broke free of this trend after undergoing a critical scientific revolution following its enrichment from history and social sciences.

Although racism is a modern term and stems from the notion of race, it is not the only source of cultural and social racism. Negative attitudes or opinions about entire human groups existed in colonial culture, not only before the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, but even before the European discovery of America. Communities in ancient civilizations held a fear of the other ranging from apprehension and suspicion to demonization. When apprehension of the other is accompanied by organizational and technical military superiority to the point of one group’s subjugation of another, the tendency to justify the subjugation process with claims of superiority in contrast to the inferiority of the other arise. Likewise comes the tendency to link this superiority and inferiority to visible differences in the external appearance, or to cultural or religious differences. Slavery itself, especially that associated with wartime defeat, is much older than the modern racism associated with ideas of racial inferiority. There were black and white slaves, and slavery was often a result of defeat. In the past, people and tribes with much more developed civilizations were enslaved by those who defeated them in the war.

Pseudo-scientific justification provided the foundations for racist ideologies in the era of secularism and rationalism in the form of a theoretically adaptable ideology or belief, and this ideology played a dangerous role in modern history. There is no doubt that it affected political and military leaders and settlers in the age of exploration and conquest. However, the attitudes of large sectors of society about the “otherness of the other” (curiosity, willingness to communicate, and coexisting with the other in contrast to apprehension or demonization), whether stemming from skin colour, language, religion or simply strangeness, did not arise as a result of these pseudo-scientific theories. Many people held these attitudes towards the physically, religiously, ethnically, or even tribally different before these theories gained popularity and they maintained them after they fell out of fashion.

The upper classes in the colonizing countries readily accepted the idea of their own superiority over the colonized peoples. The belief in their superiority over the general population in their own country was already widespread in those circles that considered the general population hereditarily incapacitated and ignorant, so that reproduction by marriage among themselves enshrined these traits. The European aristocracy was certain that a different blood was secreted from its veins, and that their aristocratic lineage provided a natural justification for their power and wealth. On the other hand, the common people recruited to fight in the colonies accepted the idea that the colonized were inferior to them because of the same hierarchy, and because the dehumanization of the colonized endowed them with the privilege of superiority and put them in the same position as their own aristocracy. This happened before the rise of nationalism and the idea of all classes belonging to the same nation, and the emphasis on the difference between nations rather than between nobles and commoners.

There are multiple examples of human ability to absorb preconceived notions of the other by making ignorant assumptions. All of them are derived from generalizations that are already based on the assumption that there is an “essence” or “quality” intrinsic to a particular human group, whether this group is composed of black people, or followers of a different religion, or a different ethnicity/nation and so on. These tendencies can generally be grouped under “Essentialism”, which links the endless qualities of individuals in a group back to a presumed essence that unites them, as if their characteristics are derived from it.

John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most important European Enlightenment philosophers and fathers of liberalism, justified slavery by claiming that the enslaved did not know how to appropriately use and cultivate their land and had failed to produce private property, in the same way they had lost in a “just war”. The solution to enslave instead of killing them seemed to him a fair trade-off.[1] Long before that, it was believed in ancient Greece that some people were slaves and some masters by nature, as noted by Aristotle in his book Politics. Slavery existed all around the world, in ancient civilizations, as well as in the Middle Ages, including in Arab and Muslim countries. Another aspect of slavery in the Arab and Muslim context was that many slaves were brought in during the Abbasid era for the purpose of military service and managed to reach high ranks and gain political power. Slaves were also integrated into the highest ranks of the army and administration in the Ottoman Sultanate following the formation of the Janissaries and the Sultan's guards from white slaves made up of children from the Balkans and other countries. What distinguishes modern slavery in America is its relationship to settler colonialism, and its ties to racist ideology and the idea of the inferior race.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, racism secularized the negative religious position towards the other based on differences in religious belief by transforming it into to a position explained by inherent qualities that cannot be changed with beliefs. The motivation for this was to justify the sceptical stance towards Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity following the expulsion of their communities from the Iberian Peninsula after the Reconquista war, a position that held for several generations out of fear that their descendants would reach high positions in the state or church. It had to therefore be assumed that there are fixed genetic elements in them that do not change by changing the creed. In Spain and Portugal, blood purity certificates were known before the emergence of the racist pseudo-scientific theories that went so far as to require certificates to prove whiteness in America after generations of its occupation.[2]

The “discovery of America” and the shock of learning of the existence of peoples in this world not mentioned in the Book of Genesis, or the Old Testament in general, led to the adoption of the idea of the existence of sub-human beings that resemble but do not qualify as humans, who can thus be treated like other wild game. Some colonists found their goal in the “theory” of the Calvinist Protestant philosopher, Isaac la Peyrère (1676-1596), on pre-Adamites, according to which the Torah only narrated the story of the Jews and did not tell the story of the humans who lived before Adam and Eve; that is, those who lived in a natural state of bestiality.

In South and Central America, a conflict between the Dominican monks and the racist occupiers who denied the humanity of the indigenous people gained infamy. In 1550, a public debate spread between the Catholic monk Bartolomé de Las Casas (1566-1484), who affirmed the humanity of the indigenous people, and hence the necessity of preaching Christianity (and not respecting their beliefs, for example) like other human beings, and Juan Sepulveda (1489-1573), who edited Aristotle’s book Politics, based his position on the old Aristotelian view that there are human beings who are naturally slaves because they are only able to use their bodies.[3]

Two centuries later, a scientist who was considered a European expert and reference on American affairs in the eighteenth century (without even visiting America), Dutch Protestant philosopher Cornelius de Pauw (1799-1739) returned to this position. He criticized the Catholic Church's attempt to preach to the Native Americans as human beings and considered them neither evil nor good because they are not human beings to begin with.[4] He argued that they were ethnically inferior to the inhabitants of Europe because of the accumulated influence of climate and geography.[5] Here enslavement was dressed in a “scientific” costume with what appeared to be a departure from good and evil, supposedly using scientific measurements and avoiding value judgments.

Those who have perpetrated some of the most horrific crimes the world has seen believed that what they were doing could not be classified as good or evil, either because they believed that their work was simply a job and the implementation of orders, and that they do not make decisions concerning the morality of the work or because the actions seemed logical and beyond the realm of morality, or because the victims of their orders were, in their eyes, sub-human, no moral standards or values of good and evil were required of them.

Europeans lived in the colonial climate for centuries without it affecting them physically or mentally and a debate arose that called these theories into question. At the time one of the most famous scholars of the age, a professor of medicine and botany at Uppsala University, Carl Linnaeus (1778-1707), developed a theory on the relationship between skin colour, facial features, hair type and eye colour and the ability to organize society. He divided races according to emotional and intellectual disposition, classifying them as “sanguine”, “phlegmatic” or “choleric”, and classified certain kinds of ape as close to humans before Darwin ever did.

After these pseudo-scientific “theories” harnessed the tools of natural sciences, the philosophy of history came to classify peoples according to how much progress they had or had not made with Hegel coming to argue that there are peoples without history. The spirit of history in his opinion was impeded in Africa and for the Native Americans and Inuits by the extremely hot and cold regions, leaving these groups restrained by the fetters of nature, unable to participate in the march of human progress in history.[6] The historicism of the philosophy of history leaked into the other social sciences in the nineteenth century, replacing the “spirit of history” with that of the spirit of people, nation, class, elite or race before being liberated by the epistemological revolution from that belief that appeared scientific because it is consistent within a coherent philosophical system.

Scientists who tried to categorize personality, including intelligence, inclination towards violence, and proximity to bestiality or humanity, according to skull size or nose and jawbone width and other measurements, believed that they were making discoveries according to a strict scientific method. In reality, they derived psychological, cultural, and moral qualities from what they considered to be a fixed substance. Some may still believe such myths, thinking that they are scientific, but the wider scientific community has completely denounced their credibility. These “theories” became embarrassing for those who believed them, especially after their catastrophic exploitation by the Nazi racial ideology when the racist theories of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) were taken up by Nazi theorists from the sort of Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946) in his 1930 book The Myth of the Twentieth Century.

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[1] John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Government,” in: John Locke, Two Treatise of Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration, Ian Shapiro (ed.) (New Haven, CT/ London: Yale University Press), pp. 110-116. 

[2] Richard Popkin, “The Philosophical Basis of Racism,” in: Richard Popkin, The High Road to Pyrrhonism, Richard A. Watson & James E. Force (eds.) (IndianaPolis, IN: Hackett, 1993), pp. 79-80. 

[3] Angel Losada, “The Controversy between Sepuvelda and Las Casas in the Junta of Valldolid,” in: Bartolimé de las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and his Work, Juan Friede & Benjamin Keen (eds.) (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971), pp. 279-309.

[4] Henry Steele Commager & Elmo Giordanetti, Was America a Mistake? An Eighteenth-Century Controversy (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), p. 90.

[5] The “rational” judgments about the relationship between physical characteristics and their effect on the mind, soul and natural climate are not new; they can be found in the work of Montesquieu and other Enlightenment thinkers, just as Muslim travelers have linked the characteristics of people with their natural environment.

[6] I have previously touched upon the above topic under the secularization of racism, and references to this information are available in: Azmi Bishara, Ad-Din wa’l-‘Ilmaniyya fi Siyaq Tarikhi [Religion and Secularism in a Historical Context], pt. 2, vol. 1: al-‘Ilmaniyya wa’l-‘Almana: as-Sayrura al-Fikriyya [Secularism and Secularisation: The Intellectual Process]. (Doha/Beirut: ACRPS, 2015). pp. 478-489.