This Week: Roots of Modern Racism


Had anyone made the ridiculous prediction when this newsletter began (almost by accident) in September of 1998 that I would go on to publish 600 editions over the following 18 years, I would have laughed so hard I would probably have cracked a rib.  Yet, somehow, here we are.  How can this be possible?  Well, it’s thanks to all of you who make annual Pledges to support the Notes!  You’ve made it possible to broaden and deepen the content and reach of this humble newsletter.

Nygaard Notes has come out 1, 2, 3, or 4 times a month through all sorts of adversity: health crises, financial hard times, emotional storms, and the eternal time crunches of a working-class writer (that is, I often have to go to earn money when I SHOULD be writing).  If I didn’t have the support—moral support, intellectual support, and financial support—of ALL of you this unusual newsletter would have gone the way of the dinosaur long ago.  But, to quote the Monty Python troupe: “We’re not dead yet!”

Nygaard Notes is unique, don’t you think?  Thank you so much for helping me put out the first 600 issues.  Here’s to the next 600!

In solidarity,


“Quote” of the Week: “From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other.

The writer George Saunders published a fascinating article in the July 18 New Yorker magazine entitled (in the paper version) American Chronicles: Trump Days, Up Close With the Candidate and His Crowds.  In it, he touched on the “Us vs Them” dynamic that is a big part of this issue of the Notes.  He wrote:

“From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other.  One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed.  The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal.

“The first mind has always held violence nearby, to use as needed, and that violence has infused everything we do—our entertainments, our sex, our schools, our ads, our jokes, our view of the earth itself, somehow even our food. It sends our young people abroad in heavy armor, fills public spaces with gunshots, drives people quietly insane in their homes.”

Individualism in the European Tradition

In the last issue of Nygaard Notes I talked about the various historical movements in the West during the period of the 1400s to the birth of the United States: The Age of Discovery/Age of Conquest from the 1400s to the 1600s; The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the 1600s and 1700s, and; the rise of capitalism, which bridged the two Ages as it proceeded from the 15th to the 18th centuries.  Now I need to bring in a few other historical phenomena: One is the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517 and continued for nearly 200 years.  Then there’s the Renaissance, of which there were various versions, the most commonly-cited of which occurred during the 14th to the 17th Centuries.  Finally, what has been called the Scientific Revolution occupied much of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

All of these historical periods concern developments in Europe and European-dominated parts of the world.  It’s a very Eurocentric list, and that’s the point of this series: To illuminate how these European cultural, philosophical, and ideological traditions have influenced world history over centuries.  (In a later essay I’ll discuss how the ideology is maintained in modern times.)

All of these historical eras—The Age of Discovery/Conquest, The Enlightenment/Age of Reason, the Formation of Capitalism, The Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution—either developed, or were dependent upon, a strong emphasis on the Individual.  Although U.S. schoolchildren are taught the inspirational side of this emphasis, the other side—call it oppressive individualism, or individualism-run-amok—is less well understood, if it’s considered at all.  Let’s very briefly consider it now.

A word about the Protestant Reformation, from the 2009 book “The Christian Theological Tradition,” page 305:  “The Reformation emphasized that persons are saved by their individual faith in Jesus Christ, more than by being members of the church.  Before this time, medieval Catholics typically trusted in God’s salvation because of their participation in the sacraments and their membership in the Church.  Reformation Lutherans were confident of salvation because of their individual faith in Jesus as savior.  Where medieval piety emphasized corporate and communal salvation, Reformation piety emphasized individual salvation.” [Emphasis by Nygaard]

A word about the Renaissance: Some historians have seen the Italian Renaissance as the “birth of individualism” in Europe.  Most famously, the Swiss historian Jakob Burckhardt, in his 1860 book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, claimed that, in the period before the Renaissance (that is, the interminable Middle Ages), “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spirited individual, and recognized himself as such.” [Emphasis by Nygaard]

Although this idea has been disputed in recent scholarship, I think it’s true that the Renaissance, if not the birth of individualism, was a period of transition in Europe away from group identity and toward an elevation of the individual.

A word about the Scientific Revolution: By the time Sir Isaac Newton came along, Europeans were well along the road of elevating western science to unchallengeable heights.  Indeed, the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the Scientific Revolution, is also known as the Age of Reason.  And this particular type of “reason” was considered by learned Europeans to be the apex of man’s ability to understand how the universe works.

According to professor Robert Hatch, scholar of the Scientific Revolution at the University of Florida, “By Newton’s day most of learned Europe believed … that claims to knowledge (so the story goes) should be based on the authority of our individual experience, that is, on argument and sensory evidence. The motto of the Royal Society of London was: Nullius in Verba, roughly, Accept nothing on the basis of words (or someone else’s authority).”

This may seem like “common sense” to those of us raised and educated in the European tradition, but this individualized method of understanding the universe is not the only path to knowledge.  A famous aphorism attributed to Sir Isaac Newton himself hints at the limitations of science-based knowledge: “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”

For centuries (and continuing) European philosophy and theory spoke of society as a collection of rational individuals joining together in a Social Contract to create governments that derived their legitimacy from the “consent of the governed.”  Meanwhile, for much of that time, Europeans engaged in practices of conquest, dispossession, and enslavement of nations and peoples around the world.  The terrible moral dilemma posed by this contradiction was, and still is, resolved by the use of elaborate mental gymnastics that have been put in place that serve to justify the brutal practices of the Europeans (and their U.S. progeny).

I’ve been talking about the ideals and theories of the European philosophical traditions.  Now, in the spirit of Nullius in Verba, we’ll take a look at some of the madness of people that even the brilliant Isaac Newton could not calculate.

We’re Good People.  The System Makes Sense.

In the last article I quoted Sir Isaac Newton saying, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  I do think that science is ill-equipped to calculate the madness of people.  But social science can calculate—or at least illuminate—some of the human behavior that may look like madness, but in fact has a terrible logic to it.  So bear with me as we delve just a little bit into the worlds of psychology, sociology, and history.

Social science has long noted the existence of something called “cognitive dissonance.”  It was perhaps most famously described by the psychologist Leon Festinger in his 1957 book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.  Musical dissonance is a lack of harmony between sounds.  Cognitive dissonance occurs when one holds thoughts, beliefs or attitudes that contradict each other, or when one’s actions don’t “fit” with what one believes or thinks.  Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has two parts.  He says, on page 3 of his book, “The basic hypotheses I wish to state are as follows: 1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. 2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance.” [Emphasis added by Nygaard.]

Here are a few other relevant terms from psychology that will come in handy in this discussion.  One is Ego Justification Theory, which simply suggests that people have a “tendency to develop and maintain a favourable self-image and to feel valid, justified, and legitimate as an individual.”  There’s also the group variation, known as Group Justification Theory, which says that humans have a “desire to develop and maintain favourable images of one’s own group.”

Nothing surprising so far, I don’t think.  We all like to think that our lives have some positive value, and that we and “people like us” are good people.

But about 20 years ago, some scholars, led by Mahzarin Banaji and John Jost, took these theories a step further and began to talk about System Justification Theory.  SJT holds that “people are motivated (often unconsciously) to justify and defend the status quo, such as prevailing social arrangements and political and economic institutions.”  The theory holds that all of us—be we “winners” or “losers” in the current social system—will go to some lengths to convince ourselves that things happen the way they do for good reason; that things are as they should be.  Such attempts to justify the existing system are explained by the desire on the part of most people for order and control.  In a nutshell, the theory says that all of us want to think that the world is more fair than it may actually be.  The sense of control that comes from such thinking stems from the idea that, if it’s true that one gets what one deserves, then it must also be true that one can become more deserving by working harder, or learning more, or changing one’s life in some way.  (I discussed a related theory, the Just World Theory, in these pages, back in NN #515 )

SJT says that all of us engage in system justification, since we all want the world to make sense.  But in an unequal system, the motivation to justify the current system is, logically, strongest in what scholars refer to as “high-status or advantaged groups.”  I call them “winners.”  Winners like to think that they deserve to win, that they have earned everything they have, and so forth.  And this leads us back to the Age of Conquest.

Earlier in this issue of the Notes I spoke about the terrible moral dilemma posed by the contradiction between Enlightenment ideals and the terrible crimes committed by the Europeans as the capitalist world economy was being constructed.  This created a great deal of cognitive dissonance, which led to the construction of all sorts of devices aimed at justifying some very-difficult-to-justify things.  The three theories I mentioned above—Ego Justification, Group Justification, and System Justification—suggest that the Europeans doing the plundering, murdering, and enslaving around the world, as well as the people in whose name it was being done, were bound to figure out ways to justify some pretty horrible things.  In an era when Europeans were celebrating the inherent worth of every individual, and when Renaissance artists were creating works of great beauty that gave strong evidence of European virtue and creativity, the cognitive dissonance must have been nearly intolerable.  (It still is; see this week’s “Quote” of the Week.)

The intellectual and moral strategies employed to address the dissonance are poorly understood—especially by the descendants of the Europeans who employed, and still employ,  them.  One of the tools forged in the crucible of conquest and the capitalism from which it arose is the scourge that we now call racism.  Is racism a form of the “madness of people” of which Newton spoke?  No, it’s not madness.  It grew out of all of the historical developments I’ve been talking about.  (That’s why I’m talking about them y’see.)

Let us now have a look at the birth of modern racism.

The Birth of Modern Racism, Part One: Subpersons

The Enlightenment idea of individual rights was based on the idea of rational individuals deciding to emerge from a brutal “state of nature” in favor of the better life that could be lived under a just government.  The Enlightenment path to virtue was understood to be reason, which in turn was understood to be universal.  As the Methodist writer Morgan Guyton puts it, “The ideal of Enlightenment thinking was a rational system of thought that could be divorced from all cultural specificity and simply built on the reason universal to all humanity.”

Before the Enlightenment shook things up, the way to recognize virtue was to ask God.  The Enlightenment way was to think—as a reasoning individual—about virtue and how to pursue it.  To Europeans, the ideal person looked very much like a European.  Indeed, it was classic “us” and “them.”  “We” were the Europeans who feared God, or at least were rational enough to have emerged from the “State of Nature.”  And as for the colonial “them”—Africans, Asians, indigenous people anywhere—well, God help them, as they were understood to be morally inferior, and didn’t know how to live in the ways that rational people lived.  By the moral and intellectual criteria that seemed self-evident to most Europeans, these “others” were less than human, and thus were alienated from the “inalienable rights” guaranteed to those who qualified as “real” people.

And it is right there that were planted the seeds of modern racism.

The publisher’s blurb for a 2006 book by Immanuel Wallerstein called European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power, puts it this way:

“Ever since the Enlightenment, Western intervention around the world has been justified by appeals to notions of civilization, development, and progress. The assumption has been that such ideas are universal, encrusted in natural law. But, as Immanuel Wallerstein argues … these concepts are, in fact, not global.  Rather, their genesis is firmly rooted in European thought and their primary function has been to provide justification for powerful states to impose their will against the weak under the smoke screen of what is supposed to be both beneficial to humankind and historically inevitable.”  (System Justification on a grand scale!)

Europeans had big fights about who got the loot that was being stolen from the weaker countries that were being colonized by the various empires.  And yet… England didn’t colonize and systematically plunder France.  Nor did Spain colonize Germany.  Nor did… well, you get the idea.  It has to do with power and race.

In his book The Racial Contract, philosopher Charles W. Mills suggests that we think of two distinct periods of European imperialism: “colonization of the Americas, 1492 to the 1830s, and the occupation of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, 1730s to the period after World War II.  In the first period, it was, to begin with, the nature and moral status of the Native Americans that primarily had to be determined, and then that of the imported African slaves whose labor was required to build this ‘New World.’ In the second period, culminating in formal European colonial rule over most of the world by the early 20th century, it was the character of colonial peoples that became crucial.  But in all cases ‘race’ is the common conceptual denominator that  gradually came to signify the respective global status is of superiority and inferiority, privilege and subordination.  There is an opposition of us against them with multiple overlapping dimensions: Europeans versus non Europeans (geography), civilized versus wild/savage/barbarians (culture), Christians versus heathens (religion).  But they all eventually coalesced into the basic opposition of white versus nonwhite.” [Emphasis in original.]

As the European colonization of what is now called The Americas accelerated in the 1600s, Enlightenment philosophers went to work to justify the genocide.  Here’s philosopher Celeste Friend summarizing how John Locke—inspiration to the Founding Fathers of the U.S.—figured it:

“According to Locke,” says Friend, “private property is created when a person mixes his labor with the raw materials of nature.  So, for example, when one tills a piece of land in nature, and makes it into a piece of farmland, which produces food, then one has a claim to own that piece of land and the food produced upon it.  This led Locke to conclude that America didn’t really belong to the natives who lived there, because they were, on his view, failing to utilize the basic material of nature. In other words, they didn’t farm it, so they had no legitimate claim to it, and others could therefore justifiably appropriate it.”

Leaving aside for the moment any judgement about the validity of Locke’s argument, the fact that Locke reserves for himself the right to decide what is a “legitimate claim” to remote lands is classic colonial thinking, or what I call The Imperial Mindset.  (For a discussion of The Imperial Mindset in the 21st Century, see Nygaard Notes #442.)  And who came up with the idea that land “belongs” to anyone?

Many people think that the basic dynamic of European colonization of the Americas was the dispossession of the Native inhabitants and the enslavement of Africans.  But before the Africans, the English in New England enslaved untold numbers of Indigenous people.  In fact, according to historian Margaret Ellen Newell, in her book Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery, “the enslavement of the Indigenous Peoples of New England was integral to the very fabric of colonial life even as early as the 1620s.”  And “the first slave law in the English Atlantic world” was passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1641.  Which posed a dilemma for the colonists: What, exactly, WERE the Indians?  As journalist Tanya Lee puts it, in an article discussing Newell’s book, “If the Indians were subjects of the king or of the colonial governments, they were bound by English law, which meant they could be punished by servitude, but not slavery.  If, however, they were ‘foreigners,’ they could be taken as captives and forced into slavery, but that stance implicitly recognized the sovereignty of Indian nations, a problematic concept.”

Problematic, indeed!  The solution was to define Indians as neither foreigners nor subjects, but as inferior beings, as non-human, or what Charles Mills calls “subpersons.”  One of the reasons that USAmericans don’t talk much about Indian slavery is that “Indian slavery was erased from the annals of history as African slavery became more common and Indian slaves and servants were classified as black or mulatto.”  And this was all part of reducing the world to a simple “us” and “them.”  “Us” was the universalized white European, and everyone else was conceptually compressed into a mass of subhuman bestiality that had no identity beyond the negation: Nonwhite.

The Birth of Modern Racism, Part Two: White is Right

What do I mean when I speak of the “universalized white European”?  Philosophers in The Enlightenment, which was also known as the Age of Reason, spent a lot of time imagining the ideal human, as they were seeking “a universal value system that could transcend religion and national identity.”  “What makes us human?” they asked.  Then they thought and wrote about it.

But the reason I have been emphasizing in this series the overlapping historical eras—The Age of Discovery/Conquest, The Enlightenment/Age of Reason, Capitalism, The Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution—is that the thinking of these Enlightenment philosophers didn’t occur in a vacuum.  That’s why I brought up System Justification Theory: As the newly-imperial nations of Europe used their technology to conquer the world, the “job” of Enlightenment philosophers—not a formal job, but a part of the System Justification that every society demands—was to normalize the system that was evolving.  And the way to do that was to imagine the world as a collection of self-interested, rational individuals, all of whom—if given the opportunity—would choose to enter into a Social Contract like the Europeans had done.  In such a world, all efforts by Europeans to remake the world in their image would be, and were, justified.

The late McGill University scholar Joe Kincheloe, in a 1999 paper, said this (forgive the academic language):

“[A] dominant impulse of whiteness took shape around the European Enlightenment’s notion of rationality with its privileged construction of a transcendental white, male, rational subject who operated at the recesses of power while concurrently giving every indication that he escaped the confines of time and space. In this context whiteness was naturalized as a universal entity that operated as more than a mere ethnic positionality emerging from a particular time, the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a particular space, Western Europe. Reason in this historical configuration is whitened and human nature itself is grounded upon this reasoning capacity. Lost in the defining process is the socially constructed nature of reason itself, not to mention its emergence as a signifier of whiteness. Thus, in its rationalistic womb whiteness begins to establish itself as a norm that represents an authoritative, delimited, and hierarchical mode of thought. In the emerging colonial contexts in which Whites would increasingly find themselves in the decades and centuries following the Enlightenment, the encounter with non-Whiteness would be framed in rationalistic terms—whiteness representing orderliness, rationality, and self-control and non-whiteness as chaos, irrationality, violence, and the breakdown of self-regulation. Rationality emerged as the conceptual base around which civilization and savagery could be delineated.”

In other words, the project was to remake the world in the image of the “ideal,” which was imagined (by Europeans) to be white, male, rational, individualistic, and generally European.  Since the people that Europeans were encountering as they conquered their way to empire were not at all like the “ideal” man, then it became the duty of Europeans to civilize or eliminate them.  This became known as the White Man’s Burden in Europe, and later on, in North America, as Manifest Destiny.  Let the virtuous rule.  As “we” know they should.

In a review of Sven Lindqvist’s 1997 book Exterminate All the Brutes: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide, the Cambridge Forecast Group comments that European colonialism “was guided by a doctrine that placed Europe at the top of the evolutionary ladder and regarded non-Europeans as a separate species bound for extinction…”

Author Mahboob Khawaja, in a 2012 essay Western Imperialism and the Unspoken Tyranny of Colonization, maintains that “European colonization of the racially inferior herds was a planned scheme of things not an accidental history—an obsessive political belief that Europeans were superior in their intellect, ethnicity, race, color and human configuration than the other people of the globe.”

While many criteria were used to differentiate Europeans (Us) from non-Europeans (Them), many of the characteristics were modifiable: “Savages” could become civilized.  “Heathens” could be converted.  And entire nations could become “European” as they conformed to the demands of colonialism.  Some idea, some concept, was needed in order to justify the exclusion of the colonized masses—who, after all, were people—from participation in the Social Contract.  And that idea was to define only some people as real people.  And the basic criterion in this exclusionary game was race.

In the next issue of Nygaard Notes I’ll talk about the Racial Contract, and how the ideas sown in the Enlightenment continue to bear some very bitter fruit here in the 21st Century.