Monday, September 29, 2014

Race in North America - Chapter 3

Chapter 3 makes the case that the modern conception of race as a static way of being finds its roots in the cultural isolation of the English during the Medieval period, the rise of market Capitalism, and the philosophies that descended from these two forces.  England was culturally isolated relative to continental Europe, which maintained extensive trade networks with the eastern and north African cultures, and thus, maintained a much more heterogeneous population in terms of ethnic background and biophysical characteristics among its people.  The Protestant Reformation and the abandonment of the "Divine Right of Kings" began pushing out the old feudal society in which people were more closely associated with the lands they worked and their kinship networks.  This was replaced by the view that labor and land were things that could be bought and sold as commodities which placed a high emphasis on private ownership as social currency.  Protestant thinking was (is) highly individualistic compared to Catholic, and this is reflected in the economic philosophy of the time.  Individual freedom is about self maximization and the unrestricted amassing of personal wealth.  The result of this is that individuals view themselves as islands rather than as parts of a whole, meanwhile labor (and thus, the individual) is devalued or inflated by the market based on market needs.  People become their labor and land, and are judged as being free or not on that basis.

This ideology is what laid the groundwork for English tension with the Irish, and functions as the baseline for the development of modern American racism.  For the Irish during this time, freedom was a concept intimately tied to mobility and one's herd.  Irish pastoralists viewed the English idea of "scratching the Earth" for a living as being essentially bonded and therefore unfree.  The English saw the Irish as being violent and savage with no real centralized authority or stability.  The Irish were social "non-entities" since their way of life did not square with English concepts of freedom and personhood.  Likewise, their so-called "brutish" existence could be interpreted under Protestant doctrine as lacking the favor of God.  They were described as heathens and immoral, dangers to themselves and others, incapable of self control. None of which were qualities of civilized men.  Dehumanizing them in this way allowed for their enslavement under the assumption that they would be "better off."  English masters borrowed the plantation system from the Spanish which was designed to keep slaves dependent.  The application of the term "savage" to all Irish imparts a semi-static nature to their being.  Dehumanizing them through the application of a specific nature opens the door for strict biological hierarchy in keeping with the dominant natural philosophy of the time (and previous 1500 or so years), primarily "Great Chain of Being."

"Civilizing the Savage" became the ostensible goal for future imperialism.  This shows that the concept of race was not yet seen as biologically hereditary as there was at least a sense that the civilizing process could succeed.  This was not to last, though as was described in Spain, Jews and Muslims could transcend their ethnic "deficiencies" through conversion to Christianity.  By the time of colonization in the new world, the concept of the "savage" was firmly entrenched in English thinking and could be applied to any group which lacked the basic properties of freedom as the English defined it (personhood through property and divine favor).  As the Empire spread, it became easier to justify oppressive policies in the name of national superiority and the unifying factor of Protestantism.  This was the beginning of institutionalized racism in the two most important arenas of English and, by extension, American life: National and religious identity.


  1. Something else occurred to me concerning religious thought and justification for the enslavement of other groups that spans the Catholic and Protestant divide. This is the idea of Platonic Subjugation. This says that in order to fully realize one's human potential, one must fully submit to Christ. Absolute freedom in an Enlightenment sense is counterproductive because you are limited by a denial of this servitude. This concept would fit neatly inside the surrounding concepts of self-actualization and divine favor in market capitalism, as well as with the Great Chain of Being concept regarding "lesser" peoples. In order for them to maximize their humanness they must first become human by submitting to the "civilized" English and accepting "authentic" Christianity. Then they can move up the chain to be fully realized individuals. Again, its this notion of them being "better off."

    1. The difference in religious doctrine definitely caught my attention too. Like you've indicated, John, there was a clear divide between Catholic and Protestant doctrine in countries like Spain/Portugal and England. It says on page 45 that The Roman Catholic Church was concerned with the salvation of souls, and this was greatly reflected in the doctrine that is produced by groups like the Jesuits who ran plantations known as haciendas in New Spain (Mexico), and ingenios (sugar producing factories/plantations) in places like Cuba, which housed chaplains and other clerical members. I've touched on this a bit before in class, but the structure that was used by the Spanish was very paternalistic [for a visual of this relationship, google “Allegory of Spanish Conquest in Mexico”] and the Catholic Spanish crown encouraged the religious education of the Africans who were brought to the new world as slaves. This ideology and structure was clearly absent in the Protestant doctrine utilized in the English plantations of what is now the United States.
      In both instances, both those abiding by Catholic and Protestant doctrine succeeded in and contributed to the creation of a hierarchal system that has affected our social structure and worldview in the United States to this day, but the approaches and stated objectives of these two religious groups varied slightly - the Catholics using education as a guise for capitalizing on slave labor, and the Protestants relying on their new found sense of independence and divine rights to the commoditization of land in the New World and the use of slave labor that would help make it profitable, which had become rooted in their religious identity.

  2. One of the concepts that struck me most about this chapter was the discussion of the Spanish view of Jews and Moors during the era of the Inquisition. Smedley discusses the presence of the idea of a "purity of descent," and the fact that the Spanish were trying to seek out hidden Jews within familial bloodlines in order to essentially establish one's social status based on ethnicity. There was even a certificate of purity that non-Jews could acquire for a fee that would even more firmly establish their genealogical purity. This concept reminds me of the idea of the "one drop theory" that we previously discussed in class. It seems that this theory was also being applied (though through ethnicity rather than race) to the Jews and Moors of this era. This more than likely had an influence on the ideologies that subsequently developed in the New World and would ultimately lead to the idea of quantifying race in the Americas.

  3. In this chapter the concept of race is tied to a cast system. If a person was not a land owning citizen then they had to work for their food. But also in being associated with the land in a nomadic way in which the Irish did causes the English to have lesser ideals then one a who did own land. In the sense of the cast system in India to be part of the lower cast is to stay there without a chance to gain a higher rank. During the time of inquisition this took the turn for having relations to Jewish decent. Like the one drop rule in the US. The Irish and native Americans, and then later African slaves were not seen as people because they had no personal ownership over land. Which cast them as lesser beings. In which when the idea of race began to evolve the English found ways to prove this through the age of enlightenment. Opening doors to how we think of race today.


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