Racism. I'm better; she's worse. Those people do those kinds of things.
We all know it's wrong to make these judgments, but they come faster than thought.
Why? Where did those feelings come from? Why are they so powerful? Why have millions been enslaved, murdered, denied their rights because of the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes?
Acclaimed young-adult historian Marc Aronson tackles these and other questions in this astounding book, which traces the history of racial prejudice in Western culture back to ancient Sumer and beyond. He shows us Greeks dividing the world into civilized and barbarian, medieval men writing about the traits of monstrous men, until, finally, Enlightenment scientists scrap all those mythologies and come up with a new one: charts spelling out the traits of human races.
Aronson's journey of discovery yields many surprising discoveries. For instance, throughout most of human history, slavery had nothing to do with race. In fact, the idea of race itself did not exist in the West before the 1600s. But once the idea was established and backed up by "scientific" theory, its influence grew with devastating consequences, from the appalling lynchings in the American South to the catastrophe known as the Holocaust in Europe.
With one hundred images, this is a dynamic, thought-provoking work-history as quest, written as only Marc Aronson could do it.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
RaceA History Beyond Black and White
By Marc Aronson
Ginee Seo BooksCopyright © 2007 Marc Aronson
All right reserved.
On a broiling hot day in June I was standing on line with one of my sons at the community pool, waiting to buy an ice cream and a drink. We were all sweating and impatient. But the line did not move. Why? Crowded around the order window was a knot of young black males, all about eleven to thirteen years old. We, the rest of the mainly white parents and younger kids, were in a line. They, an ever-changing huddle of boys, were coming and going, arguing and laughing, dashing in and out to get money or change an order, but never moving on. I was mad -- it was like being on the school lunch line and having kids cut in, over and over again. Suddenly the order taker accused one of the kids of taking a bill out of the tip jar.
Did he? Yes, I was sure he stole the money. Teenage boys in a pack do steal; I did. But my conviction that he was guilty did not come because he was about the same age as I was when I grabbed a drink from a grocery store and strolled out. I felt angry at him right away. Hard as it is to admit, I believed he was guilty because he was black.
Prejudice. I am prejudiced. As in a nightmare, a boy I have never met suddenly looms as a monster. Everyone knows that it is wrong to be ruled by thatkind of feeling. But that is useless in that flash of an instant when we see another person and form an opinion about him or her. It happens to all of us,all the time.
I wrote this book to help understand why I, why we, Americans of every background, experience race as such a powerful force, even as we dutifully state that it is just a difference of skin color and has no significance. Because I am a historian, not a biologist, this book is not about cells and DNA, but about the deep roots of racism, and the astonishingly short history of the idea of race.
People have always noticed differences in skin color, hair, eye color, language, and religion. But the idea that human beings are members of three, or five, or fifteen biologically distinct races is extremely new. In fact, it was invented in the 1700s, precisely the same time period when Americans struggled their way toward independence. Not until the late thirteenth to sixteenth centuries did the English word "race" (and its equivalent in some other European languages) begin to take on its modern meaning. Before that it implied speed -- as in a "horse race" -- or lineage -- as in a "race of kings."
What exactly is race? In this book I borrow a clear definition given to me by Margot Minardi, a thoughtful and generous scholar who is studying the development of ideas about race in the 1700s. "Race" is a way of explaining human difference and organizing people into categories. It rests on four assumptions -- what I call "pillars":
1) Physical differences matter. The color of our skin, the curl of our hair, the size of our nose or lips -- these are important. How we look is not just a personal matter; it identifies us as part of a larger group.
2) These differences in our bodies cannot change. They are given to us at birth and remain fixed.
3) That is because they are inherited. Our personal features are actually the characteristics of our group, which are passed down from one generation to the next.
4) Each group has a distinct level of brain power and moral refinement, thus they are naturally and unchangeably ranked. Groups can be rated from more primitive to more advanced, more animal to more thoughtful, more savage to more civilized.
This whole book is devoted to tracing out how, in the Western world, these four ideas grew, developed, were linked together and came to be regarded as true. We have forgotten that we did not always have these beliefs, and that our ideas have changed over time. In fact, today "race" has become such a standard way of viewing people, we don't even have to think about it.
We "know" that people are the same, under the skin. Yet we "know" that the best athletes are black. We "know" that, in America, the real, deep, terrible racial division is between black and white. And yet Japanese Americans were put into internment camps during World War II for being neither black nor white. Jews were forced to remain in Europe, to be gassed and fed into ovens, because of their "race." Race is an uncomfortable reality, and yet the most brilliant scientists, doctors, and professors cannot agree on whether there are any races
Perhaps a decade ago the whole question of race seemed settled. Beginning in the 1970s scientists announced that close studies of genetics proved that racial terms were meaningless. If you used the best scientific tools, there was more variation within, say, the group called "white" than between those labeled "white" and "black." By the 1990s national magazines ran cover stories on how intermarriage and immigration were blurring the racial boundaries in American society. Hispanics, which the Census Bureau says "may be of any race," replaced blacks as the largest minority in the country. We could all breathe a sigh of relief: Race was a dead old idea. And if we no longer believed in race, what possible justification could there be for racism?
More recently, though, ever more sensitive genetic studies have found shared patterns in populations of peoples who married within their groups for generations. Shared patterns of what? Some peoples have been shown to be susceptible to the same diseases. Some may have demonstrated similar levels of intelligence. Some may tend to share common physical features. How far is that from the old idea of race? And to many black Americans, saying that racism is fading or that race is no longer important is either silly or blind. Anyone can see, whether in images of blacks driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the troubling statistics of the persistent "achievement gap" in our schools, that the deep racial divisions in America remain real, and present. Even as I write these words, racial thinking looms behind the latest headlines, whether they are debates over legal and illegal immigration or analyses of wars that seem to pit Muslims against Christians and Jews.
I believe race is our modern way of handling emotions that go back to the very beginning of human evolution. That is one reason why race is so hard for us to deal with. In one way, race seems as current as science; in another it taps our oldest fears. Yet if I were sitting with a group of college professors and said that out loud, I'd soon be in the midst of a raging argument. Here's why:
I see the past somewhat in the way it plays out in Civilization, the computer game: a sequence from more "primitive" societies to more complex and modern ones. I also share a view that you might most often hear in songs or poems: the idea that the human mind is a battlefield in which our better natures constantly struggle with our darker, more destructive impulses. Both of those views were once common, and are now questioned by fine scholars. Many anthropologists, for example, reject the whole idea of "primitive" groups, and view the most destructive effects of prejudice and hatred of strangers as the products of modern societies. They believe that if we change our society, we can change ourselves. I am more inclined to believe that if we recognize the destructive urges in ourselves, we have a chance to improve the world around us. This book, then, follows the track that made sense to me. I am tracing out a story, one possible pathway through thousands of years of history. Where I am going against strong counterviews, I will let you know in the main text, or the notes. There is no safe way to write about race.
I say "race," but I mean racism or racial prejudice. Even though the idea of race is a recent invention, fear and hatred of those who strike us as different is extremely ancient. That bears repetition: "Racial prejudice" and "hatred of difference" are not the same. For the great majority of human history we have taken slaves, slaughtered enemies, looked down on those who are different, without believing our victims were of different "races." Instead, we despised others as savages or barbarians; as weaklings or strangers; as pagans, Muslims, or Jews, Protestants or Catholics. I think that our deep feelings about race are the latest version of a mind-set that begins in infants and probably took shape at the very beginning of human evolution.
But why? Why should fear and hatred of others have such a deep hold on all of us that we have reinvented it in new forms, over and over and over again throughout history? When I began researching the history of race and racism, I soon realized that I could not jump right into the story in the 1700s. I needed to know something about the older, deeper drive in all of us -- the urge to hate those who are different.
Historians are like engineers -- we like figuring out the connections, the links, that bridge from one era to another. But in order to understand race and racism, I knew I would have to go beyond any known history. Only by following this journey back into the minds of babies and the languages of a people who live by hunting and gathering, and then out through the stages of Western civilization, could I finally understand why, when race was invented, it answered so many needs and seemed to make so much sense. So this voyage through thousands of years of history begins in New York City, today.
Where Do Prejudices Come From?
One of the world's best authorities on how prejudice forms in our minds is a bright, thoughtful woman who lives in New York City. Dr. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a psychologist who treats patients in the East Village, a section of lower Manhattan where Europeans wearing Prada share a sidewalk with the homeless. In the East Village you can never predict who will sashay by, or the age, color, or gender of his or her companion. Whatever biases people have inside, they are eager to display their tattoos, piercings, and hairstyles as well as their open-mindedness. This is a good setting for Dr. Young-Bruehl. She has straight, short, graying hair, dresses modestly in comfortable clothes, and has the reassuring aspect of a person who has seen and heard everything. No story from these streets would surprise her. But she has the sharp mind and weighty judgment of a scholar who has read thousands of studies and hundreds of books on prejudice.
Dr. Young-Bruehl believes that it makes no sense to speak of prejudice in general -- as if it were a form of bad weather. She sees each kind of prejudice as its own story. Racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of women, are each distinct forms of mental disease. Of course, a racist may also dislike Jews or be cruel to women. But if, like Dr. Young-Bruehl, you really listen to each form of prejudice, you find that they don't sound the same.
Very often people who dislike Jews want to eliminate them entirely -- as Adolf Hitler tried so hard to do. Jews are described as germs, as infections to be destroyed before they sicken everyone else. Those who feel superior to Africans generally have a different goal. They want blacks to stay alive, but as slaves or mistresses, in an inferior role. Blacks are spoken of as animalistic, as subhumans to be controlled and used. And even the most crazed male knows women are necessary: Without mothers we wouldn't have children. So those most threatened by women insist that females be silent, invisible, and exactly echo the views of men. Eliminate Jews, dominate blacks, silence women -- three versions of prejudice.
These hate-filled views do not begin when we are adults. Passions this strong are shaped in childhood, or even infancy. Dr. Young-Bruehl recounts the story of one white American born in the segregated South in the 1920s. As an adult he was having problems in his personal life, and so for a time he talked about himself with a psychologist. A revealing story emerged.
The boy grew up in a home with a cold, distant mother and a frightening father whom he hated. The one sweet presence in his life was the black woman who cared for him. But it was too terrifying to the boy to be so alone in his family, and
so drawn to his nanny. Instead, in his dreams and fantasies he shifted things around. He imagined that black men, such as his nanny's husband, were everything that he hated in his father. He pictured those men attacking him or his mother. In his mind the world was divided into dangerous, criminal black men and vulnerable white people. The boy's real problem was with his parents, but that was too dangerous for him to admit. So he invented an enemy he could fight: the black male criminal.
This is a true story, about a man who went on to devote his life to severely punishing blacks and preventing racial integration. He kept seeing the black men from his nightmares all around him. He could feel them nearby, about to rape his mother or to assault him. He felt the threat like heat shimmering off of a sidewalk. Throughout his life he remained on guard, to keep them at bay.
A frightened son turned his cold mother and severe father into hateful images of black men. That was his personal drama. Yet the fantasy of the dangerous black male is extremely powerful. I shared it at the pool. And, as we will see in chapter , a boy whose childhood has some similarity to the segregationist I just described wrote a play that spread negative images of black men throughout America. If racial prejudice is born in the family circle, it is nurtured in the surrounding society. To look for the roots of racial prejudice in human societies, I made use of anthropology.
Where Do Prejudices come From?
Readers, here is a big divide. What I sketch out on the next few pages runs directly against the views of many anthropologists who carefully study the kinds of groups I describe. These scholars insist that peoples living in small groups, who hunt for food, are not filled with fear and hatred but instead take pains to make connections to others. For example, many make sure to marry outsiders, or have well-established ways of trading to get the food they need. I have a great deal to learn about modern anthropology. And yet even the quickest search shows that, for example, there is great debate on what "marrying outsiders" means. Many groups have a custom of a man capturing a woman he likes from another group. Is that similar to kidnapping or rape? Or is it a kind of ritual all have agreed to in advance? Anthropologists are not in agreement. I invite readers interested in learning more about so-called "primitive" peoples to take these debates as an invitation -- precisely because experts are in conflict, your fresh insights may be all the more valuable.
According to one group of thinkers, called evolutionary psychologists, this is how fearing and hating others began, in the earliest days of human evolution:
Picture a clan of human beings a hundred thousand years ago somewhere in Africa. As they move along each day searching for water, for food, their senses must always be on the alert. The leaves rustle: Is it wind, an animal, or an enemy? In order to survive, each person must make an instant, accurate judgment: friend or foe. There is no time to think; a second's hesitation may cost you your life. What we now call prejudice was once a strategy for survival. We can see this even today, deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, home of the Munduruku.
The words of the Munduruku speak to us from those ancient times when terror chased us through the trees and any wrong turn was death. A native group that lives along the Tapajós River in Brazil, the Munduruku have adjusted to contact with Europeans. But their language recalls their earlier life, when men took the heads of their enemies as prizes, for it splits the world into two parts. They have one word for themselves, the Munduruku, the human beings. Everyone else is pariwat. Pariwat means "strangers," but also "enemy," "those who are unlike us." Pariwat are not human and, in fact, are most similar to the animals the Munduruku hunt for food.
This is prejudice in perfect form: We are human and you are not. Glittering eyes watching you pass through the jungle do not see you as a fellow human being but as game. This is the language of the earliest tribes, our most remote ancestors.
For an individual, hating others often begins with childhood fears. But for human beings in general, it may have taken root at the very beginning of our social evolution. We experience fear and hatred of strangers so strongly because, at one time, it was the line between life and death.
But human beings did not remain in the forest forever. Once we began to tame the Earth and to live in cities, we left written records. And so to understand the new shape of prejudices in the earliest days of human civilization, I turned to history and literature.
Where Do Prejudices Come From?
Imagine the moment when the entire population of the world could be divided into two groups: the fortunate few who lived in cities, and all of the rest, scrambling to survive in the surrounding hills, wastes, and wildernesses. Andrew Sinclair wrote a book on the history of the idea of the "savage." He believes that one of the most ancient of stories describes the moment when a great city was at its height, and the new form of prejudice it inspired. Sinclair thinks the Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the clash of savage and civilized.
If a traveler 4,700 years ago had been able to visit the entire Earth, from pole to pole, he would have found just one great city: Uruk in Sumer. It is not just that other cities were smaller. Only a few other cities existed at all. Cities were as new as today's most high-tech devices -- some people had heard of them, but few had actually seen them. Except for the lucky citizens of Uruk. The reputation of Uruk lives to this day: The modern nation of Iraq is named after this ancient city that was once the center of civilization.
It is easy to understand why Uruk became the greatest city in the world. Once the people of Uruk figured out how to build irrigation ditches from the Euphrates River, they turned the nearby land into lush fields of grain. This land was so fertile that the harvests of the ancient Sumerians rivaled those of modern farmers. Year after year of fabulous crops allowed people to stop worrying about how to find food. Uruk flourished -- by 2700 b.c. as many as 45,000 people lived in the city.
A city in which well-fed people could gather together produced an explosion of marvelous inventions. Craftsmen made objects that merchants traded far and wide. Potters learned to shape one vessel after another on a wheel in a kind of ancient factory. Then someone had the brilliant idea to take the wheel off, set it on the ground, and use it to help move things. Scribes even learned to capture the words that disappear from our lips. First they made slits in wet clay to count animals and record trades for merchants. Then they invented written language. If any place in the world could claim to be the home of the arts of civilization, it was Uruk.
The citizens of Uruk knew that other people were not pariwat. A large city of farmers and potters, priests and traders, could not divide the world with the same frightening clarity as the head-hunting Munduruku of the rain forest. The scribes of Uruk recorded something new: prejudice with a reason. That is what we can see, reading carefully in Gilgamesh.
Sometime near the year 2700 b.c. a king named Gilgamesh built walls to encircle Uruk, his magnificent city. On their clay tablets the wise men of Uruk recorded the deeds of their king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, as it is called, is one of the very oldest stories ever written down, and yet you can see its traces in the most recent fantasy quest.
The story tells us that Gilgamesh was a difficult, even terrifying, ruler. No one was safe from him. The people of Uruk pleaded with the gods to find a way to tame him, to challenge him. Their prayers were answered, for one of the gods created the perfect rival for Gilgamesh. This was Enkidu. Enkidu was a kind of wild man. His body was covered with hair that was never cut, so that it was as long as a woman's. He wore no clothes, and lived in the wilderness. He:
Ate grass with gazelles, and when he was thirsty
He drank clear water from the waterholes,
Kneeling beside the antelope and deer.
The perfect enemy of the arrogant ruler of the world's largest city is the savage man of the woods who eats and drinks like a four-legged creature. Enkidu destroys animal traps and frees animals -- he is closer to them than to human beings.
The two men are exact opposites: Gilgamesh of grand Uruk, where people dress in elegant clothes and every day there is a festival; Enkidu of the wild, who does not even know how to eat bread. Though they are well matched physically, Gilgamesh outwits Enkidu by introducing him to a sensual woman who seduces and then weakens him. Enkidu is "the strongest man in the world, with muscles like rock." But Gilgamesh knows his weakness, and Enkidu falls for the trap.
It is not hard to read this tale as showing that those who filled the streets of the bustling city believed they were "better" than those who still lived like animals in the wild. Unlike the Munduruku the citizens of Uruk were not acting on instinct. Instead, they were making what must have seemed a rational judgment: We are smart, while those who live outside of the walls are dumb, slow, destined to serve us. How could the people of Uruk have felt any other way? If you invented things as magnificent as writing, bread, pottery, and the wheel, why wouldn't you assume you were superior to people who ran around naked and lapped up water next to the antelope? This is prejudice with a reason, prejudice confirmed by observation. It hints at the concept of ranking, which would be so important in the idea of race.
And yet there is something strange and interesting in this ancient epic. After their first battle Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh's closest friend, his best companion. Gilgamesh easily defeats Enkidu, but he also needs him. The proud king needs his savage brother. A master always needs a slave to confirm that he is a master, just as a bully feels strong only because he has weaker kids to intimidate. This strange bond, in which those who feel superior are actually completely dependent on having inferiors beneath them, runs through all of human history.
A baby screams, terrified that the dark men in his dreams will attack him. In the rain forest, warriors see only their group as human. The people of Uruk glory in their superiority to savages and show their wisdom in recognizing that they also need their defeated neighbors. From birth to the formation of jungle tribes to the glory days of the first great cities, human beings have carried sharp swords in their minds, splitting the world into me and you, us and them, advanced and primitive. As we grow more civilized, we also find new ways to be ever more cruel and harsh.
The next section of this book follows this dual pattern through eras in which the most basic, most central, ideas of Western civilization were invented. That is a daunting task. In writing this section, I continually felt like a guest visiting a magnificent museum. But the road from Uruk to "race" passes this way, and it is time now to follow it.
Slaves, Hebrews, God
When Gita, a girl, turned thirteen, her father took her to the only store in their tiny Himalayan village -- and sold her. He received a few hundred rupees for his daughter -- enough perhaps to feed the family for a year. In exchange, Gita would travel to the distant city to work as a maid. After she had worked off what was paid for her, she was told, she would be free to return. But after the six-day journey from her home, Gita realized that her father had unwittingly traded his daughter to a trafficker -- a prostitute too sick to continue working; Gita would be her replacement. Gita's life had been traded for hers.
Gita was locked in a brothel in Calcutta; beaten, starved, and drugged when she refused to have sex with customers. She was not allowed to use a condom or to communicate with the other girls there. And the brothel owner charged her so much for food, her bed, for her clothes -- even for the abortion she had to have to continue working -- that Gita could never repay her debt.
When I met Gita in 2003, she was living in a shelter with other girls who had been rescued from the brothels of India or who have been thrown out on the streets when they become ill. She is one of an estimated eight hundred thousand girls and women who are sold into sexual slavery every year. Millions more, boys and girls, are sold into domestic servitude each year, millions of others are consigned to sweatshops and factories around the world. None of these children ever see a penny from their labors. They are modern-day slaves.
-- Patricia McCormick, author of Sold
Slavery exists today, and slavery is as old as human civilization.
The very first step in uncovering the history of race and racism is the hardest. For it involves overturning what you think you know. Today in America using the word "slave" means African slavery, with white owners and black workers. For that reason we assume slavery is necessarily built on racism. In turn we often say that racism played such a powerful role in history because of slavery. But both of those ideas are completely misleading.
long before Columbus sailed or the idea of "race" was invented, Africans enslaved Africans, Asians enslaved Asians, and Europeans enslaved other Europeans. As late as the end of the eighteenth century, the time of the American Revolution, two thirds of all of the people on this planet performed some form of forced labor. Slavery flourished for thousands of years without any theory of race.
But is all slavery the same? Here we enter another of those big debates. Take the matter of slavery in Africa before the Europeans arrived. In parts of West Africa, slaves grew up with the families of their owners. Indeed, the children of slaves were often freed. Some scholars believe that only when the slave ships came calling did this mild, temporary form of slavery transform into the brutal system of bondage described in American history books. While these distinctions are important, I am making a simpler point here: You don't need an idea of race in order to enslave people. Indeed, enslaving people you defeat in battle has been a common practice on every continent throughout most of human history.
Slavery did come to be linked with race, but that was a very recent development. That insight is the key to this whole book, for it allows you to look at slavery and race by themselves, and then trace out their connections. Doing that is like "getting" the crucial clue in a mystery, or figuring out how to create a glowing new liquid in your test tube. Suddenly, you can see the world in new ways. In fact, when scholars have looked closely at the history of slavery, they have come to the most unexpected conclusion: Slavery has been the source of some of the most humane, liberating ideas in all of human history.
A slave is a person robbed of his humanity, turned intoan object. That is tragic for him. But if you think about it, it is also a nightmare for his master. The slave master lives in a world of zombies, of humanlike beings who are no longer human. He is filled with fear. Even the pleasure he enjoys inhis freedom to abuse his property is a hellish, sadistic satisfaction. In a slave-filled world, how certain can a master be that he will not lose a battle and be enslaved himself?
In Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was made into the film Blade Runner), human beings invent perfect androids to labor for them but get scared when the "replicants" begin to filter into society. To keep humanity "pure," they set out to kill the artificial creatures who have become too human. Who then is the soulless monster, the human or the android? This is precisely the slaveholder's problem. If his property is human, it is not property. So he must convince himself that the living beings he owns -- who cry, bleed, sing, and laugh, just like himself -- are not like him at all. But if he succeeds in not caring for them, how human is he?
According to Orlando Patterson, one of the most insightful modern scholars, this is such a deep and powerful dilemma that it inspired slave masters, whether in ancient Athens or in the days of the American Founding Fathers, to become the great defenders of freedom. Owning slaves forced them to recognize how precious a thing is freedom.
Sadly, when we live calm, quiet lives, we rarely feel the need to question our beliefs. Only the most horrible experiences challenge us to think in new ways. Slavery is one of those tragedies that inspired brilliant ideas, in two different ways.
Every day, a slavery owner sees workers who look human yet are treated as animals or machines. For a thoughtful person, like Thomas Jefferson, this is such a violation that it makes him look deeply at his own life. Seeing the misery of a person who has lost his freedom, Jefferson understands how trapped
he is himself. He realizes he must do everything he can to guard his freedom; he must create a government of the free with no kings or nobles above him. He assumes that slavery itself will never go away -- it exists everywhere and always has. But seeing slavery gives him the absolute conviction that he must be free himself. In effect he says, "I can never let that happen to me, so I must create a government that ensures my own freedom."
Thomas Jefferson looked out of his window at people he owned and wrote the most eloquent declaration of liberty and equality. That is one important way in which slavery inspired slave owners to become advocates of freedom. But the really
astonishing contribution slavery made to Western civilization may have come through the thoughts and beliefs of slaves. If the Bible is to be believed, out of the terrible condition of slavery came one of the most liberating, most crucial ideas in all of Western history: monotheism. One god rules over all of creation and lays out a path of moral behavior everyone must follow. This is the belief that the Bible says the Hebrews forged in slavery and brought to the world.
The idea of one god is now so familiar, it is hard to capture how startling it once was. In the 00s b.c. pharaoh Akhenaton tried to replace the many Egyptian gods with just one. But as soon as he died, Egyptians returned to their older beliefs and did their best to erase him from their histories. His story illustrates how resistant people were to giving up the gods they knew and loved. Whether his ideas influenced the Hebrews is impossible to say.
The new idea of one god meant that you could no longer pray to the god of the spring for good crops, to the god of love for a mate, to your family god to protect a mother in childbirth. For the first time in human history, God was not an ally to be bought off with sacrifices and rituals. There was just one god for all people, and one set of moral rules for all humanity.
This is one of the two most basic ideas in Western civilization, and the Bible tells us that it was directly linked to slavery.
The origin of the Hebrews as a distinct people dates back to the age of the great cities of Sumer. The Bible says that Abraham was the leader of a clan of wandering herdsmen who preferred not to settle down and join city life. He smashed the idols of the many gods others worshipped and devoted himself to the one god of his tribe. Still, there were other clans and tribes that worshipped their own special gods. According to the Bible, the great step forward in Jewish thought came approximately one thousand years after Abraham. Around the year 1220 b.c. the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.
Generations of scholars have pored over Egyptian hieroglyphs and sifted through archaeological remains to learn more about the Hebrews in this period. They have found nothing. We simply do not know anything about the Hebrews when they were in Egypt, or even if they were there at all. The story of Moses and pharaoh is much like that of Gilgamesh -- or for that matter, the lives of Jesus or Muhammad: a tale, set in a real historical period, that holds great truths about human life but is not necessarily history. But even if it is a fable, it is a very powerful one that still shapes how people think and act today.
We do know that in 1200 b.c. Uruk and the other great cities of Sumer were no longer at the forefront of Western civilization. Stretching along the fertile lands of the Nile, the kingdoms of Egypt now held that honor. The book of Exodus tells us that the enslaved Jews struggled simply to retain their dignity and pride. And it was worse than that. Concerned that there were too many Jews in his kingdom, an Egyptian pharaoh decided to wipe them out. They were his property, so he had every right to do as he liked. He tried to kill off all newborn Jewish males. And when that failed, he set the Jews to hard labor. Like black prisoners on chain gangs in the American South, Jews were put to work in order to break their spirit and to drive them to early deaths.
Jews were the opposite of human beings: They were slaves marked for death, or they were women destined to bear Egyptian sons. Just at this moment one of the Jewish babies who had been selected to die reappeared: Moses.
Moses talked directly to God and returned with a great message: Jews were not beasts of burden; they were the Chosen People of the one and only God. Inspired by this fearless prophet, the slaves defied their masters, rose up, and followed Moses out of Egypt. He led them forward across a sea of reeds, into the forbidding desert, on toward "a land flowing with milk and honey."
The master Moses served was not merely a god who protected his own tribe. He was the sole creator of the whole universe, the ruler of all. And when the Hebrews were finally free of the Egyptians, Moses climbed Mount Sinai, where God gave him ten laws, or commandments, for his people to obey.
Slaves whose sons are being slaughtered are saved by a god who expresses his will in moral laws. Perhaps only slaves could make the bold leap of realizing that one god ruled over everyone, both them and their masters. A whip gives an overseer physical power over his cowering slave. But only so long as God permits it. A slave who deals justly with his fellow man taps into a power infinitely greater than the whip.
Ever since then, anyone who was in pain, who was abused and mistreated, could look back to that story and see hope in it. Slaves in the American South would sing:
When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go,
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ol' Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
Throughout the history of the West moral leaders have turned back to this same story to speak up for the rights of the oppressed (see page 243 for one famous example from American history). The god who led the Jews out of Egypt was stronger than any tyrant. This was a spectacular advance in human thought, and it was a powerful rejection of the prejudice of one group against another.
According to one of the most famous passages in Judaism, what God demanded of the Jews did not actually require ten commandments. It can be explained in a single sentence: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the
law: All the rest is commentary."
This is the Christian Golden Rule, and is echoed in hadith, or sayings and stories, attributed to Muhammad, as well as in other faiths of all descriptions around the world. Here is the way past fear and hatred: You do not divide the world into us and them. You do not kill strangers. You treat all people as brothers. This was a major step away from the prejudices of the dark forests, the proud walls of Uruk, the grand temples of Egypt.
How then could we, today, still be so afflicted with prejudice,and so bedeviled with the problem of race?
This is how the Golden Rule could turn into the bloody sword: The Hebrews saw themselves as chosen, selected by God to live by his laws. He would punish them if they failed, reward them for being faithful and obedient. The Book of Isaiah spells this out most clearly. God has selected the Jews to be "a light unto nations, to open eyes deprived of light." Yes, other peoples could obey God's laws as well. The blind could be led to see. But Jews were not concerned with them. The Jews were like students selected for an advanced class: It was going to be very hard, they were sure to fail at times, but they had the opportunity to get it right.
What could possibly be wrong with having a group insist that it live up to such high standards? For one thing, it was easy for others to resent the Hebrews, to see them as stubborn and arrogant. This was especially true because theHebrews made little or no effort to win converts. They were concerned about their own relationship to God, not anyone else's. The surrounding majority might well be tempted to crush a small, proud minority that kept its distance andclaimed it was special to God. But there was also a danger within Judaism, which would have its most poisonous effects with the growth of Christianity and Islam. For if there is but one God and one Chosen People, it is easy to adopt an even more dangerous form of the mind-set of the Munduruku. For now the world can be divided into God's people and his enemies.
Hebrews, who had been held as slaves, developed the brilliant new idea of a single god, and with it the ethical idea that all human beings are equal under him. Then they built their faith around the commandment to treat all human
beings with consideration. That shows the power of the human spirit. But the belief in one god also laid open the road to thousands of years of new prejudice, war, and enslavement based on God's will.
We have reached a crossroads, a tragedy that I believe stands at the dead center of human history. Doing the research for this book showed me that whenever human beings have taken a stride forward away from hatred, we have found waysto build new barriers. Opening our doors, opening our hearts seems to inspire a profound terror in us. So much so that each time we ease one prejudice, we rush to reinforce another. As I see it, the tribe thinks only it is human. The great city accepts that others are human, but believes only it is civilized. The Jews invent one god, one law, for all humanity, but define themselves as special to God.
Scholars who disagree with me see almost the opposite picture. They believe human beings are basically good, and are taught to hate only by specific societies and for specific reasons. When you study the terrible ways we human beings have treated one another, you cannot help thinking about big questions: Who are we as human beings? What drives us? How can we ever change? These issues are so important, so deep, I knew I needed to present my own conclusions, even though they are sure to be controversial. Readers, I am not asking you to agree with me, but to think with me. We need to face this history, and use it to learn about ourselves.
Trust in reason, in logic, is the only other strand in the history of Western civilization that was as influential as monotheism. We owe that to the Greeks. The Greeks completely rejectedthe idea of a single god. In fact, you could say that no matter how many gods they had, the Greeks really worshipped mankind. Out of their close observation of human differences the Greeks added another step toward the idea of race.
Excerpted from Race by Marc Aronson Copyright © 2007 by Marc Aronson. Excerpted by permission.
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