For starters, what is a black person, in the estimation of white Europeans?
Up to the 15th Century, the black man was a curiosity. Almost no one had ever actually seen a black man. I doubt if white Europeans thought much about Africa or blacks.
In the 16th, 17th, and most of the 18th Centuries, white Europeans knew that Africa was full of black people, but they didn’t really care about it, or them. There was the casual belief that blacks were not real human beings. Slavery and exploitation were the natural order of things.
In the 19th Century, many white people were beginning to wonder about black people. Some were even beginning to suspect that blacks were human after all. Or maybe “almost human;” or “on the road to becoming human;” or “some kind of junior human.”
By the 19th Century, white scientists were beginning to tackle the race idea. There was a growing acceptance of blacks as one of the races of mankind. Blacks were different, but what was the difference? With typical racial narcissism, the scientists applied racist filters to their enquires.
Francis Galton was an English scientist. He was the founder of the “science” of eugenics, and a cousin of Charles Darwin. Writing on the “comparative worth of different races,” Galton posited that the standard deviation from average intelligence within a particular race could be expressed in grades labeled A, B, C, etc., down to G, with A being the smartest of the group.
His stated goal was to compare the races of man, one to the other. Where does the “A” of one race fall in the grades of another race? He suggested that, “if Class A in one race be equal to the ability of Class C in another, then the ability of B in the former shall be supposed equal to Class D in the latter . . .”
While allowing that the “negro race” in America had been affected by “social disabilities,” his calculations led him to believe that the total of all Classes of blacks above G, that is, A, B, C, D, E, and F of blacks, corresponded with Class F of white Europeans. No blacks above “F.” That’s harsh.
I’m sure that Mr. Galton was very confident about this research, because, after all, it was scientific.
Even 19th Century philosophers got involved in these enquires. No less a light than G.W.F. Hegel got into the act. There’s a chapter in his Philosophy of History (1830-31) called “The African Character.” I’m pretty sure that Hegel had never actually spoken to an African, or any black person, when he wrote this. His ideas seem to be based on secondary sources that he no doubt considered to be reliable. Like Herodotus (484?-425? BCE), who characterized the religion of the “Negro” as mere sorcery.
Hegel himself decided that “the character of the Negroes” was distinguished by “want of self-control.” Here I am quite sure that Hegel would have admitted under cross-examination that he firmly believed that all of the non-German peoples of the world suffered from want of self-control, more or less. In Hegel’s opinion, African blacks also suffered from “fanaticism,” and a general failure to recognize the importance of God and the law.
Hegel characterized the social state of black Africans as “sensuous barbarism,” even including a partial nod of approval to slavery. He does mention that slavery is “an injustice,” and that freedom is the goal, but he suggests that in the case of Africans “slavery is itself a phase of advance from (a) merely isolated sensual existence.” As in, just a helpful interlude during which the white man can help those backward Africans to mature to the point where they are ready for freedom.
With the kind of sweeping generalization seen frequently in philosophy, Hegel declared that “Africa . . . is no historical part of the world.”
All of this is, of course, ridiculous in light of the actual state of African societies throughout the period. Europeans chose not to acknowledge the reality of Africa as they found it. The rule of law in African societies, the highly developed trade regulations and customs, the relative degree of social justice and the general ethics. This reality did not square with their desire to exploit what they found in Africa for their own selfish purposes.
The 20th Century saw a rapid development of the white world’s understanding of its black brethren. I will not rehash here the many fits and starts of that development, because life is short. But by the end of the 20th Century it was possible for many white Americans to say, and to believe, that America had entered a “post-racial” phase in which the discrimination against, and the oppression of, black Americans had become things of the past.
Blacks themselves would have disagreed. I disagreed myself, and I was not the only white person to do so. But there arose a need in many white Americans to claim that they, and indeed American culture, had become race-neutral, or “color blind.” This was more of a political statement than a social observation. Kind of like a parent saying, “I love my children equally.”
And then a black man was elected president of the United States! And thereupon, all of the poisons that dwelled in the earth, to paraphrase Claudius, suddenly hatched out. (BBC’s “I, Claudius.”)
President Barack Hussein Obama had a very brief honeymoon in office. Measured in minutes, it was. The hatching out happened very quickly, before you could even say, “see? We’re post racial now!”
He’s not even black! He’s half-black! (This one kills me. Look at the man, he’s black. If you are black for the purposes of discrimination, you’re black.)
He’s African! He’s not a real American! (No he’s not; and yes he is.)
He wasn’t born here! (Yes, he was.)
He’s a radical! (Zero evidence of that after seven years in office. In fact, he might be the most dead-center centrist politician that I can think of.)
He’s a socialist! (Ditto.)
“Take back our country!” Now we’re getting somewhere. This is the “white America” myth.
I already thought that it was terrible when Republicans hated Bill Clinton on the theory that, “here’s this French-fry stealing Bubba who is smarter than us and who beats us bloody at election time.” I like it even less now that “half-rican nigger” has been substituted for “French-fry stealing Bubba.” (“You gonna eat those fries?”)
Mr. Obama has done a fine and honorable job as our president. That’s a test! A litmus test! What color was your test strip? If you agree, you are a reasonable person who is able to tolerate a black president. If you don’t agree, you are suffering from a pathological prejudice against blacks.
What? Can I even say that? Well yes, actually, I can. Mr. Obama has not provided even a hint of a reason not to like the job that he’s been doing as president. “. . . a fine and honorable job as president” does not mean that you must agree perfectly with every single thing that he has done. You might not like the ACA, but you will use it to save money on health care if that works for you. You might not like gay marriage, but the president had nothing at all to do with that. You might not like the Iran deal, but you’d like it well enough if it prevented your child from dying in a war with Iran. Myself, I certainly don’t agree with Mr. Obama on all counts. I don’t like all of the intrusive surveillance at all, and I don’t like the drone war, but Obama’s only the president! He’s not the Emperor, he’s not the Feurer. He’s doing a fine and honorable job, and reasonable people can disagree on policy details.
Oh, reader, search your conscience. If you don’t like President Obama, are there genuine reasons? Or is your dislike more based in what you hear on the radio and what you read on the Internet? Or is it more of a bad feeling in your stomach, based on almost nothing?
It is beyond argument that that the President is a good man, a good, family-oriented man, who has behaved impeccably in office and before. He has been measured and thoughtful in his responses to situations around the world, while being appropriately decisive when it was called for. He has considered both the general good and the selfish needs of business when acting domestically. He has moved the ball forward on important social issues, most notably health care security. And, remarkably, he has retained this equilibrium through seven years of constant, hysterical character assassination from a wide range of political opponents.
In his personal life, he is, in fact, the most clean-cut, low-key, and scandal free president in my lifetime, with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. (For the record, Jimmy Carter was a good president too.) Mr. Obama is manifestly a decent, honorable, hard-working and highly intelligent man. So yes, anyone who can find only fault with this president, and engage in ad-hominum attacks, and long for his eclipse, or his downfall, or his impeachment, that person is doing so on grounds of racial prejudice.
So what’s a poor black man to do? President Obama is black, and he is one of us. One of our best. We are us; we, all of us, are Americans. The fallout of this anti-black-president mania has had terrible effects on the entire black community in America, but that must be a subject for another day.
The failure to accept that America’s great diversity is a good thing will hurt us all socially, economically, politically, and historically. I fear, though, that it is our fate to reject diversity while living in its midst. Many of us prefer to embrace the white America myth, embracing white Christianity to the exclusion of what many people now perceive as the “other.” If they don’t count non-white or non-Christian people as real Americans, where are they? What color is the sky on their planet?
I fear that the real “post-racial” age is still a long ways off. I won’t live to see it, but at least I lived to see a black president! And a great one at that! Maybe that will help a little.
(The African Character, by G.W.F. Hegel, and The Comparative Worth of Different Races, by Francis Galton, are included in the Norton Critical Edition of Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.)