This past week we have seen a Governor of Virginia, by all accounts a man of high repute and great respect among those who know him, almost destroyed because back in 1984 — 35 years ago — when he was a medical student,. his yearbook page featured a picture of two people, one in “blackface,” the other wearing a KKK costume. Mr. Northam happens to be a Democrat, and the yearbook photo was published, so it seems, on a Republican blog page — an attempt to ruin him, so we are told, because he favors legalizing third term abortions in certain cases.
The Governor’s response to this ambush pleased few. That’s another issue not for this column to discuss. The question I ask is, why was a 35-year old student photo — even one as unnerving as this — able to have any effect at all on Mr. Northam’s current standing, much less generate a firestorm against him ? Is the answer purely political, that leaders of his party saw his predicament as an opportunity to demonstrate that in pursuit of the moral righteous it will destroy one of its own (and in the process eliminate a potential rival for future Presidential nominations) ? Maybe. But why was their response so successful ? Why did not one Democratic leader stand up and say, “Governor Northam deserves better than to have his reputation cratered by a photo from 35 years ago” ? Again : one wants to say, “no Democrat did that because after the vicious level of character destruction Democrats wreaked upon Republican nominee Judge Kavanaugh, it would look like partisan favoritism if Democratic leaders now move to defend one of their own.” A reasonable explanation : yet how did we get to this ?
My purpose is not to argue the politics of Northam and his detractors. Plenty of other writers are doing that. Rather, I propose to examine the custom we call “racism.” What is it ? By “race” we mean people of different skin color and, in some cases, other differing physical characteristics; yet this meaning fails, because many peoples who have dark skin are more distantly related to one than either is to people of lighter skin. If geneticists are right, almost no two peoples are more distantly related than the very dark-skinned Bushmen of southern Africa and Aborigines of Australia. It seems that almost everyone alive, of whatever skin color, is more closely related to African peoples than Aborigines, who, it appears, have been separated from all other human strains for at least 50,000 years. If there were a “Black race,” it would either exclude the Aborigines or would be only them.
There is, then, no such thing as “race.” Yet there is skin color prejudice. Why so ? How did it begin ?
The various peoples of the world — all descended from one African female, whom we name “Lucy,” who lived about 200,000 years ago in the upper Nile Valley — separated geographically from one another beginning at least 80,000 years ago. They did so in small groupings — which were the only groups of humans then living; our population 80,000 years ago probably didn’t surpass 50,000 people total — in search of food. Edible animals had to be hunted; non-poisonous plants had to be found. Early food searchers had no plans ahead. When an area’s food sources were used up, they moved on. As the group multiplied, it had to break up, because a given area contained only so much food. The others had to move. By about 10,000 years ago, if not sooner, various human groupings had, through gene mutation, acquired different physical traits, those which we now see in their roughly approximate homelands : Asians in China and eastern Siberia, lighter skinned peoples — of varying eye color, hair type, and facial prominence — in Europe and western Siberia, dark skinned peoples in Africa south of the Mediterranean coast (the Sahara dried up only 6000 years ago. Until then, dark skinned Africans hunted all the way up to the coastal area.) Did these various groupings ever encounter one another ? If so, only rarely. Even among the basic group types there was little inter-tribal contact. Korean, Japanese, Mongol, Mandarin, and Cantonese — all east Asian — are entirely separate languages with no visible common ancestor. In the Middle East, peoples who likely looked very similar — and were probably very closely related — spoke at least five completely unrelated languages (Sumerian, Hamitic, Hurrian, Semitic, Elamite, Caucasian). Language, it is clear, took shape very recently, among peoples completely separated from one another and constantly on the move, away from each other because there wasn’t enough food to allow for much juncture.
One doubts that anything like what we call “racism’ existed among any of these nomad tribes. There simply wasn’t the opportunity. The advent of farming, and soon thereafter, of cities, finally brought people of different food tribes together : there was inventory now (of food stuffs) and there was trade. People different from oneself were encountered: speaking different languages, wearing different fashions, having different physical characteristics. We know from early writings in the Middle East that recorders saw peoples less as individuals than as tribes. One reads of the Hittites, the Canaanites, the Elamites, Akkadians, Urartians, Copts, Chebraius (Hebrews), and such like. Kings were named, but as officials, not as individuals. Despite the branding, in no writing does one find any of these tribes demonized. Their presence is noted, their features, their comings and goings, their wars and their peace treaties. There was fear of some. But of what we today call prejudice, it isn’t found at the official level in which all the writing then was done.
Yet skin color prejudice arose. Why ?
Of all the differences among peoples of the first age of trade, and of subsequent history all the way to Medieval times, one finds rivalries, and feuds, and slave hunts. But the slaves of the ancient and Medieval worlds were not slaves because of what they looked like. Greeks of the Mycenaean age slave-hunted whoever they could conquer. This was the custom all the way through Roman times. In the early Middle Ages, peoples of eastern Europe were slave-hunted. The word “slave’ derives from “Slav,” the language grouping spoke from Czechoslovakia and Poland to Ukraine and Russia. As late as 1450 slavery had no connection with skin color.
Did skin color prejudice already exist ? Some claim that it came to be during Roman times. If so, why ? I shall now attempt an answer.
Of all the differences between peoples, skin color is the most visible. Eye color is seen but requires some concentration. Hair color affects only a small part of the body, and much of that is clothed. Skin color, however, is easy to see, and the less clothing, the more of it is seen.
I have used the verb “see” three times in the above paragraph, the other senses not at all. I don’t think this is accidental. Sight is by far our dominant sense. Hearing is significant, but you have to listen. Smell certainly has its moments, but it is not easy to know whence a smell emanates. Touch has an entire vocabulary of manners attached to its application, but to touch is voluntary. Seeing is not. It cannot be avoided. and if what we see sometimes deceives, that’s a sophisticated epistomelogical concept that humans did not note until classical Greek times — and then only among a few merchants and sailors whose work required not taking things at “face value.” (More on sense perception later.)
For the rest of us, taking things at face value is an a priori habit. Most of us don’t even realize the control that sight exercises over our cognition, our judgments, our values. Thus skin color prejudice had a major advantage not possessed by other social grievances.
Still, in order to raise skin color from being difference to the virulence of a prejudice required a catalyst. One was provided at the discovery of sub-Saharan Africa by Portuguese navigators and, later, of the “new world” by Columbus and his collaborators and, immediately after, of the riches of the Incas by the conquistadors. Colonization of the “new world” began almost immediately after that, and to help work the land thus conquered, Portuguese and Spanish slavers, en route from the Iberian peninsula to the “new world,” passed directly by the West African coasts where Arab slave-catchers had lots and lots of captives to sell; and bought, they were. As the custom of serfdom had long in Europe been one in which serfs were legally, as a class, bound unless freed of servile obligations, it was easy for Iberian slavers and slave-buyers to classify all dark-skinned slaves as a special class — there being essentially no slaves in West Africa who were not dark-skinned. Thus the powerful influence of sight coupled with the rigidity of feudal law to create a skin color classification from which there was no escape.
I don’t propose to narrate further the history of slavery in America and its historical aftermaths. There’s plenty of writers doing that. Rather, I’m going to explore the epistemology of skin color prejudice, whence I find a partial remedy for the curse of it. Because skin color prejudice has been bequeathed to us by our forbears, and exists commonly in our custom, its habit is reinforced every time we see a person of the pre-judged skin color. (For argument’s sake I am going to discuss prejudice against dark skin. The oprejudice could just as easily go the other way, and sometimes does.) Thus sight and habit combine to elicit a response in us before we even realize it has occurred, much les before actimg to stop it. Nor is sight all. Skin is material. It can be felt. As it takes human shape, it seems alive in and of itself, as skin, skin only. These are potent declarations made to us by our senses and our learned experience of them.
Two responses to the doinance of sense perception have come into oyr culture. The more recent is the scientific analysis that begins, for modern tims, with Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne, who in the earluy 1730s wrote thus :
It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived?
Add the skin of a human being, including its color, to Berkeley’s list, and his asertion was that when we see the objected skin color, e actually see only our own idea OF it, that the color of that skin, indeed, the skin itself, may not exist because what does exist is our imagination ? One needn’t take such a radical idealist position to draw common snense imnstruction from what Berkeley argued. All that needs is his idealism : for skin color prejudice is exactly waht he says, an idea in our minds that overrides and een replaces reality with its own. Is there any doubt that when we disfavor a person because of skin color, we are replacing that person with our idea of her, indeed asserting that our perceptioon of her is the real “her” andnot any posible ‘her’ that exists outside our mind ? Followwers of Berkekley do in fact say that perceoptions are a prejudice. They aren’t wrong.
The second remedy from skin color prejudice is to act with our eyes closed. We pray with our eyes closed. Why do we do that ? Is it not so that we can toss aside the dominance of sight and allow our inner voice to perceuive things that cannot or should not be seen ? Historic Judaism not only forbade graven images of God but also refused him a name. God was to be addressed with as little input from sense perceptions as feasible. Sense was considered a distraction, or worse, a temptation. Only voice was embraced. The voice of God was to be heard and only hard: not felt, not seen, not touched or smelled. It is by voice that we most deeply understand Rabbi Hillel’s great teaching, “whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”
Yet voice is not perfect. We hear what is said uncleanly. Habit and custom and our lived lives create all kinds of static that clutters voice and distorts it. Thus we are, and it is better that we admit to it. If you have read this far in my argument you probably already do look inside yourself, maybe with your eyes closed. It helps. Its hard to maintain a damnable prejudice, that depends upon sense perception, if you have given perception a time-out. Let me assume, then, that you avoid the traps and errors in perception, and that you pray with your eyes closed. One difficult remains : how c an we — how can I — remedy damnable social prejudices in other people ? My response : you can’t, and I can’t. Perception is entirely personal. No one else sees with your eyes, no one’s brain but yours registers your perceptions. Condemn another person for his or her perceptions, and you’ve violated a basic social rule : a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.
In other words, we have as a society to learn to live with perception errors that beget prejudices all around us. We have to allow each person to challenge her own prejudices, herself; no one else can do that for her. It is enough, I think, that we, ourselves, cleanse our souls of these mistakes. For each of us is responsible ultimately for our own decisions, our own opinions, and the effect these have on our fellow man. In the famous Talmud story, Rabbi Hillel taught his precept not by condemning the student who did not know Jewish law but by stating that law in the simplest terms in which “you” and “fellow man” are equated. Hillel doesn’t blame. He doesn’t charge the student with hurting his fellow; he simply says, here’s what you should do if the case arises.
One should never accuse, never judge. Jesus the Jew was right about this. “Who among you is without sin, let him cast the first stone,” he said to a crowd about to stone an accused prostitute to death. Governor Northam wore blackface, it seems, when he was a student 35 years ago. The time for criticizing him for it was then. Not now, half a lifetime after the fact; not when skin color prejudice and its customs continue to play out and trouble us at least in part because we fear that we ourselves may have already made an equivalent error of perception, or have taken for granted consequences of perception whose procedures we fell into, fall into even now, almost without realizing it, or completely.
Our politics deserves better than to be an arena of accusation, of condemnation, of ostracism and shaming, for the sake of sense mistakes almost none of us can help but make every second of every minute of every hour of every day, year, and lifetime.Think with your eyes closed, and you’ll be a better political citizen.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere