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Slavery, Racism and Donald Sterling

Even if you’re not a sports fan you’ve likely heard about a recent incident involving Donald Sterling, owner of the professional basketball team, the Los Angeles Clippers. The furor isn’t about the sacredness and importance of marriage (Sterling is married but has a girlfriend); instead, this is about audio of Sterling making racist comments to his girlfriend, which were recorded and released by TMZ.com (full audio and transcription of the comments can be found here). I don’t want to use this article to pile on to the criticism, but would rather explore these remarks in the context of our times and the broader historical context of racism.

The problem of racism is unique. Why? Because there is no such thing as “race.” This surprises nearly everyone I’ve come across, but the truth is, biologically speaking, race does not exist. When people speak of “race” they are conflating differences of phenotype (literally: differences that are skin-deep) with almost a new category of organism classification (Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species…. Race?). What people don’t seem to understand, and I single out the Left specifically, is preserving practices such as Affirmative Action or indiscriminately hurling racist at everyone who disagrees with them is what actually fosters “racial antagonism.” In other words, if people want to end racism, then people need to understand race is a myth and cease advocating practices and rhetoric that encourage such ideology.

Racism is connected with slavery, but not in the sense commonly thought. Historically, a person was enslaved for one of two reasons: either they were a prisoner of war, or they or their family were in debt and incapable of paying it off. That said, the ancient world was built upon slavery. Before the advent of Christianity, the classic worldview of Greco-Roman life understood “freedom” as a privilege, not a right. Even the pillars of classical thought, such as Plato and Aristotle, were slave apologists. In Politics, for example, Aristotle wrote:

But is there any one thus intended by nature to be a slave, and for whom such a condition is expedient and right, or rather is not all slavery a violation of nature?

There is no difficulty in answering this question, on grounds both of reason and of fact. For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.

Aristotle argued men would be incapable of pursuing wisdom and virtue without slaves performing the tedious drudgery of work (again, until Christianity one would be hard-pressed to find a society that viewed work as something noble). Plato before him expressed similar sentiments. The respective estates for both included slaves: five for Plato, fourteen for Aristotle.

With the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire, slavery initially declined. Roman armies had ceased conquering new peoples for an extended period of time before collapse, and among the slaves that remained fertility rates dropped dramatically. With the ascendance of the various Germanic tribes in the absence of Roman domination, slavery once again became the norm. Yet, by the eleventh century, slavery was unknown in the Western world.[1] What happened? In short, Christianity happened.

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually the Catholic Church offered a new way of looking at the world, encouraging a view of humanity that recognized its intrinsic worth and dignity. First, the Church purchased slaves for the sole purpose of emancipating them. Next, parish priests began calling for slave owners to offer freedom. Finally, the Church provided the sacraments to slaves and was able to enforce a ban on the enslavement of Jews and Christians, which within the context of medieval Europe, was akin to universal abolition. By the seventh century we see evidence of intermarriage between free individuals and slaves, something previously unthinkable were it not for the Church’s growing insistence all slaves were equal to them, being made in the image and likeness of God just as they were. As the eleventh century dawned few, if any, could be found advocating slavery.

The institution reemerged, however, in the West during European colonization of the New World when indigenous peoples either died off[2] or proved ineffective sources of labor for European agriculture. So-called “Christians,” faced with the moral conundrum of all being equal in the sight of God, had to invent a justification for buying African captives and transporting them to the New World[3]. That justification was racism – that these individuals were somehow less than human and therefore less than equal before God, on par with common animals. Ergo, racism didn’t cause slavery; slavery caused racism. This new concept of chattel was different than that of antiquity because now for the first time people were viewed through the lens of race: i.e., all Africans are inferior, as opposed to individuals being inferior because they lost in battle or allowed themselves to fall into debt. 

It’s important to note the Church did all within its power to reaffirm the inherent dignity and worth of all peoples (specifically those indigenous to the New World and Africa), eliminate the slave institution yet again, and condemn those who participated in such practice through the threat of excommunication via papal encyclicals.[4] Realistically there was little more the Church could do.[5]

What does all this mean today? The Donald Sterlings of the world are rightly viewed contemptibly, although the Left needs to reassess its approach to racism. Rather than perpetuate a mentality of Us and Them it needs to instead reorient toward the Christian worldview and seek to educate the populace that distinctions of “race” are arbitrary and have no basis in biology. To aid this process, it helps to know where racism originates and the real history associated with it.

Read more of Satin's blogposts at satinsheets12906.blogspot.com.

[1] Contrary to many claims by academics, serfdom, which became the new economic model for labor in Europe, was notslavery. Unlike slaves, serfs had a number of rights. Most notably, serfs controlled the pace of their work and were only required to work a specified number of days, thus performing more as hired labor than slaves.

[2] While tragic, this is not genocide, which requires a premeditated, systemic implementation to eradicate an entire demographic of people. The native loss of life from European disease was simply the unfortunate result of exposure to an unknown set of germs and bacteria, something that occurs anytime two groups come together. People often forget that the Europeans were equally exposed to alien diseases too.

[3] Africans had developed resistance to European diseases and were also more amenable to European agricultural practices, making them an ideal labor force.

[4] See, for instance, Sicut Dudum.

[5] In countries like Spain, and their colonies, it was illegal to read these documents. The Jesuits famously disobeyed these laws and read them to colonial inhabitants and many were martyred.

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