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Racism may be humanity’s shared heritage of shame, a system practiced by countless cultures for countless generations to stigmatize outsiders based on ethnicity. It has been used to justify discrimination, conflict and often violence in settings from the slave trades of medieval Muslim emirates to gang wars in modern Los Angeles. Healing the damage done by this bigotry has become an ongoing challenge for countries on several continents. Replacing it with tolerance or respect looks to be an even longer struggle.

There is some research that suggests racial prejudice may have started as a kind of mental shorthand for helping identify camps of people who could be allies or rivals. This idea is rooted in testing that shows sex, age and race are the three characteristics most commonly used to quickly define people. Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara tested the idea that race was a “coalition” marker by showing people photos of black and white basketball players, along with players’ comments describing a fight between two teams, then asking them to remember which player made each comment. When test subjects couldn’t remember and had to guess, researchers found they would lump similar comments together with players of one race, as long as all the players were dressed the same. But if the players were shown in two colors of jerseys, like different teams, test subjects grouped similar comments together with players wearing the same color jersey, regardless of what race the players were.

Defining Race

Standards for defining race have shifted over time, referring in various settings to shared languages or customs, skin colors or changing sets of man-made artifacts, such as archaeological finds suggesting early links between disparate cultures. One of the later approaches was “scientific racism,” which touted skull measurements and other quantitative tests as evidence of the superiority of favored groups. This was used in Nazi ideology to rationalize ethnic slaughters during the 1940s.

In many cases, racial stereotypes have been used to dehumanize groups who were being victimized, which likely eased some consciences among the abusers. Like 19th century slave owners in America’s South, some medieval Arabs were quick to say the sub-Saharan Africans they had enslaved for centuries were inferior to their civilized masters.

“The Negro does not differ from an animal in anything except the fact that his hands have been lifted from the earth,” the 13th century philosopher Nasir al-Din Tusi wrote. “Many have seen that the ape is more capable of being trained than the Negro, and more intelligent.”

Early History Of Racism

The early Arabic writer Al-Jahiz, himself the grandson of an African slave, had rebuffed Arab prejudices a full four centuries earlier: “When you were pagans, you considered us your equals as regards the women of your race. After your conversion to Islam, however, you thought otherwise.” Al-Jahiz was nonetheless comfortable with the idea of racial inequality. A prolific writer, he was happy to extol the strength, generosity and grace of his ancestors, and one of the many books he wrote was a volume about the superiority of blacks over whites.

Europeans reaching the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries not only questioned the abilities of the indigenous people, they questioned whether these were really humans with souls and natural rights. The question was debated for years by Catholic scholars while some colonial authorities acted to enslave indigenous people. Pope Paul III acknowledged the natives’ humanity and banned their enslavement in Sublimus dei, a 1537 decree that said arguments to the contrary were Satan’s efforts to keep natives from hearing the Gospel of Christianity. Despite Paul’s affirmation, secular authorities required natives to provide labor or other tribute to Spaniards who were supposed to protect them and provide religious instruction.

There had been no order sparing Africans from enslavement. In fact, it was indirectly approved on religious grounds 85 years earlier, when Pope Nicholas V authorized the kings of Spain and Portugal to “invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ … and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.” Being non-Christians, Africans were fair game when Iberian shippers developed trade routes on the African coasts that gradually grew into components of an Atlantic slave trade involving merchants from multiple countries. The Vatican relented some in 1686, saying Africans seized in unjust wars should be freed, but a vigorous trade persisted.

While Europeans had been both targets and practitioners of enslavement for more than 1,000 years, the Atlantic slave trade’s growth marked a special enterprise that was distinctive for its industrial scale and impact on the populations it exploited. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, somewhere between nine and 12 million Africans are estimated to have been carried into the Americas. Maybe two million others – maybe more – are thought to have died being taken to slaving centers or during the grueling cross-ocean transport. Beyond the bigoted stereotypes that many white Americans and Europeans harbored, the scale at which slavery was practiced made it an increasingly inflexible institution in the United States and parts of the Caribbean. Because slaves outnumbered masters in settings such as the farms of the American South, owners lived in fear of uprisings and restricted slaves’ travel, access to information and outside communication. The same mindset led in the 19th century to passage of state-level laws that restricted freeing of slaves and the activities of free blacks, especially immigration.

The mixing of indigenous, African and European people in the Americas inspired social conventions that tracked people’s lineage and assigned higher or lower social standing based on ancestry. In response to its racial diversity, 18th century Mexico recognized at least 16 racial statuses, from mestizo (half European, half native) and mulatto (half-European, half-native) to coyote (45.7 percent European, 10.9 percent native, 43.4 African). In the United States, 19th-century writers referenced mulattos, quadroons (25 percent African, 75 percent European) and octoroons (12.5 percent African, 87.5 percent European) in many communities, and in Australia the same terms were applied to people descended from Europeans and aborigines. Race labels proved to be changeable with time. Where Virginia had regarded a person with one African grandparent as white in the 1820s, a century later having a single drop of African blood defined a person as black by state laws that embraced racial inequality.

Racism Since The 1800s

Assumptions of white racial superiority were intertwined with the development of global empires by European governments and the expansion of the United States during the 18th through 20th centuries. In 1909, near the end of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt urged critics of white imperialism to consider that “on the whole, the movement has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place. … In Egypt, in the Philippines, in Algiers, the native people have thriven under the rule of the foreigner, advancing as under no circumstances could they possibly have advanced if left to themselves.” The gradual collapse of those empires, finally completed around 1960, roughly coincided with the late stages of legalized racism in the United States.

The half-century since then has been marked by both national and international efforts to encourage racial tolerance and respect exemplified in civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in various venues. The anachronistic persistence of apartheid in South Africa inspired international trade restrictions by dozens of nations by the 1980s, raising pressure for a white minority government to allow multiracial elections that finally were held in 1994.

The gap remaining between tolerant aspirations and daily realities is evident on many fronts. In Los Angeles in 2007, federal prosecutors charged dozens of members of a Mexican-American street gang with violence against African-Americans, describing the acts as a racist attempt at “cleansing their neighborhood.” In 2009, China experienced unexpected street violence in western communities where Uighur populations vented resentment over government policies that seemed to unfairly benefit members of the Han, China’s core ethnic group. And in small, un-dramatic ways, people across the United States face daily challenges to navigate the biases, barriers and breakdowns in communication left from centuries of racial competition.

Racism discussed at DareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask

Phillip Milano’s Dare To Ask column and YouDaretoAsk.com website have become a sounding board for people to express questions about daily routines in a time of increased racial diversity. From the challenges of interracial dating to complaints about reverse racism in hiring, Milano’s column create ways to listen in on – and join, when you want – everyday discussions about race and ethnicity in modern life.

Dare To Ask: Do Latinos see blacks as ‘the enemy’?

When a Latina described the criticism she faced for dating black men, Milano sought perspective from Samuel Roll, a Hispanic psychologist who co-authored The Invisible Border: Latinos in America. He said some Hispanics see the challenges minorities face in America’s social hierarchy, and simply don’t want to compound those obstacles by marrying another minority. “Colonialism and slavery leave a residue, and part of it is disdain for people who’ve been abused,” Roll said. “We try to pretty that over, but it’s hard to be black. Immigrants struggling to make it might feel their kids are associating with a lower caste, and the family doesn’t want that.”

Dare To Ask: Discussing distinctively black names

During a Yforum discussion about ethnic black names, Milano consulted research by Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, a white economist, and black Harvard race scholar Roland Fryer about whether children given names like Imani, Ebony and DeShawn faced special roadblocks to social standing. Milano described findings that ethnic names are chosen most often by young, poor and less-educated mothers, then he quoted the researchers:

“If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn. And that’s why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. … DeShawn’s name is an indicator — but not a cause — of his life path.”

While not every Yforum question is gravely serious, even offbeat remarks can lead to illuminating answers.

Dare To Ask: Can whites be ‘smelly’ like a deli?

When a white Canadian woman asked why anyone would suggest white people smell of bologna, Milano traced the comparison to the Wayans brothers’ 1992 movie Mo’ Money, then queried Pulitzer Prize-winning author David K. Shipler, who called it “typical in the panoply of images between racial, ethnic, national and religious groups to include lack of cleanliness and subhuman, animal analogies.” For good measure, he contacted two body-odor researchers, one of whom explained that people just don’t notice the smells of folks they’re used to, but are sensitive to odors from outsiders.

Opined Jerome Z. Litt of Case Western Reserve University: “When it comes to body odor, it’s in the nose of the beholder.”