Are Europeans fundamentally racist?

Switzerland has a unique form of democracy which allows for referendums to be held on any issue so long as the proponents gather a minimum of 100,000 certified signatures supporting the referendum.  The Ecopop group of environmentalists have recently gathered 120,700 certified signatures supporting their referendum demand: a cap on population growth via immigration.

Ecopop’s argument is that Switzerland’s population is getting too large – it has increased by 15% since 1990- and that the bulk of that population increase has been due to immigration.  They argue that their views are not anti foreigner, but rather they are against the destruction of Switzerland’s countryside due to the increased urban sprawl caused by a larger population.

This concept of a country  being “full” is not a new one and Ecopop’s call echoes that of the flamboyantly gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2001 and 2002 who claimed that “Nederland is vol” (Netherlands is full) and called for an end to the Netherlands’ liberal immigration policies that had seen the population explode in the post World War 2 period, making it one of most densely populated country in the world.

While both Ecopop and Fortuyn’s calls to restrict immigration explicitly claimed that they were not racist it is almost impossible to have an anti immigration policy and not fall into the racism trap.  At root, this is a question of “other” – who is in and who is out.

In this article History Future Now looks at the concept of European racism through the lens of religion, race/ethnicity, power and economics.  The conclusion may be surprising.


Does religion provide the blueprints for racism?

Prior to the 1400s it was almost impossible for Europeans to be racist as they hardly ever encountered other races.  Religion, however, had established a sense of “other” from the 300s AD.

Prior to that, mankind worshiped many gods and they were universal.  Many of the gods developed out of the observable world: gods of water, fire, earthquakes, thunder, floods, sun and moon. The early classical world of the Mediterranean turned these animist spirits into anthropomorphic gods with human like personalities, captured so dramatically in Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey.  Many of the gods from one part of the classical world were almost identical to those in other parts, but with different names and customs.  One of the geniuses of the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire was their ability to synthesise local gods and to give them double barrelled names – with a reference to the Roman version and local version of the god.  This allowed new Roman subjects to worship their old gods and the new Romanised version of their old gods at the same time.

Judaism was an anomaly.  The Jewish god had morphed from a household god into what they believed to be the only god.  This was particularly controversial when Jewish lands were incorporated into the Roman Empire in 6AD.  On the one side you had a group – the Romans – who believed in lots of gods and were flirting with emperor worship and on the other side you had a group who believed in only one god – the Jews – and who, by extension, denied the existence of all other gods, including the emperor.

The Jews were ahead of their times.  In the same way that the Romans recognised that their old gods had different names in other parts of the Roman Empire, they started to experiment with the idea that perhaps their different gods were, in fact, one god with different attributes.  Perhaps spurred on by the new Jewish Christian sect, Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun), became one of the dominant new Gods within the Roman Empire, especially during the reign of Aurelian in 270-275AD.  Emperor Constantine, who famously converted to Christianity on his deathbed, was a great fan of Sol Invictus and Christ was frequently depicted with many of the characteristics of Sol Invictus.

The Roman Republic’s inclusive polytheism would eventually be replaced by the Roman Empire’s exclusive monotheism.  But even this monotheism was not monolithic as divisions rapidly emerged in the early Christian Church about the true nature of Christ and his relationship with God and the Holy Spirit.  Regular church goers will be familiar with reciting the Nicene Creed, which laid out official doctrine as to this relationship, first in 325AD and then amended in 381AD.

Early Christianity was plagued by infighting between various parts of the religious spectrum.  While the religious arguments were probably genuine in many cases, what really was happening was a fight over the authority over the Church. With the loss of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD the centre of imperial Christianity firmly moved to the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople.  Christianity in the West became heavily influenced by the German dominated tribes who carved up the Western Empire into the dukedoms and kingdoms that would eventually become Spain, France and northern Italy.

The Church in Rome developed supra national authority thanks to the crowning of the Frankish King Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in 800AD.  However, by that stage neither the Church in Rome nor the Church in Constantinople recognised the authority of the other. Relations were so terrible that during the Fourth Crusade, in 1202-1204, Crusaders attacked and sacked Constantinople on their way to Jerusalem. Constantinople never recovered and was already on its knees when the Turks conquered it 250 years later.

Meanwhile, the third monotheistic religion exploded out of the Arabian peninsula in the 630s and 640s.  Like Christianity, Islam is a derivative of Judaism.  As a result, it shares the same fundamental problem -if there is only one God and you claim to have the most accurate interpretation of God’s word and will, everybody who disagrees with your interpretation must be wrong.  If those that disagree with you are relatively weak politically and economically, it is probably sufficient to let them worship their incorrect ways without too much harassment: they are not a threat.  However, if they are politically, economically and militarily strong, they are a threat.

Which brings us to the next Christian split, between Protestants and Catholics. Early Protestants were Catholics who simply disagreed with the Church in Rome.  Martin Luther initially thought that he was strengthening his Catholic Church by highlighting its deficiencies.  Only with the deficiencies fixed could Catholicism regain its rightful place at the centre of the spiritual world. Pushed to the extremes by an unrepentant Church worried about loss of indulgence revenues, Martin Luther then triggered a second movement, of independence from traditional church control by introducing first a New and then an Old Testament version of the Bible, in German, in the 1520s.

Catholic Church power had never been fully independent and had a symbiotic relationship with the families and rulers of the lands that surrounded Rome.  By the 1520s the Habsburg control of the Church in Rome triggered defections by northern German states and the defection of England by Henry VIII, when the Pope refused Henry a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon, the aunt of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V.  This was ironic as Henry had been given the title “Defender of the Faith” by the previous pope for his vigorous attacks on Protestants.

In the meantime, the Jews who had started the whole shift to monotheism had been scattered all over North Africa, Europe and the Middle East.  Their fate in Muslim lands was mostly tolerable.  Islam clearly acknowledges the parallel stories of Islam and Judaism. In Christian lands their existence was a permanent reminder that they did not believe that Christ was the son of God.  If Jews were right then Christianity was wrong.  If Christianity was right, then how could Jews really be trusted when they denied the self evident truth?  They faced centuries of hostility.

Islam would also fracture, between Sunni and Shi’ite.  Their split also revolved around the central question of who had the right version of their religion.

But ultimately the religious question of who was right or wrong can be condensed down into a question of power.  If you have power you can control people. If you can control people you can control tax revenues and expenditures.  Polytheism does not have this problem as everybody is right.  The fight for power is fought on a different basis.


The opening up of the world and racial superiority

While religious splits in Europe really stem from the 300s AD onwards, race problems are relatively recent.  In part it is because most of the world was cut off from each other until the late 1400s, with the occasional bout of interaction along the Eurasian landmass prior to that.  In addition, most of the first successful large empires, such as the Roman, Persian and Mongol Empires, were explicitly multi ethnic, rather than being dominated by one racial or ethnic group.

  • The Americas were cut off from the rest of mankind for several thousand years prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492 in the Caribbean.  They were cut off from each other as well due to the north south axis of the two continents.  The Incas had little, or nothing, to do with the Aztecs. Ethnically, they were all from the same group that had crossed the Bering land bridge thousands of years before.
  • Africa was mainly cut off from the rest of Eurasia due to the vast expanse of desert from the Atlantic, across northern Africa and into the Arabian Peninsula.  Europeans knew about blacks but the desert kept their numbers down, mainly interacting with Europe through Egypt.
  • Australasia had been cut off from Eurasia for tens of thousands of years – even longer than the Americas – and so they remained apart until the voyages of Captain Cook from 1768.
  • The two ends of the Eurasian landmasses did know about each other, vaguely.  Spices and silks did head west during the Roman era and silver headed east.  Nomadic tribesmen such as the Huns and the Mongols battered themselves against one or both ends from time to time, bringing destruction, disease and trade.

From the early 1500s, however, many of these worlds began to be thrown together and modern racism was born.


The birth of modern racism

In early 1492, Christian Spain finally defeated the Muslims on the Iberian peninsula after hundreds of years of conflict. Muslims and Jews were given permission to stay and to convert to Christianity, or to go into exile.  Most stayed and converted.  The Catholic monarchs believed that religious harmony was key and religious groups that did not follow the Catholic church were a potential destabilising threat to their power.

Over a year later, in March 1493, Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage across the Atlantic.  He had landed in the Caribbean Islands of Hispaniola and Cuba in late 1492, mistakenly thinking that he had arrived in the East Indies, China or Japan.  This triggered a series of new expeditions, followed by landings in Mexico and the take over of the Aztec and then Inca Empires by the Spanish.

These conquests were critical in establishing a sense of white Christian superiority over the “other”.   Eurasian diseases such as small pox helped to wipe out most of the native population, establishing the Europeans’ sense of physical superiority.  Spanish horses, guns and steel body armour helped to establish the Europeans’ sense of military superiority. Despite high levels of illiteracy in Europe, no writing even existed in the Inca empire, helping to establish the Europeans’ sense of intellectual superiority.  Human sacrifice by the Aztecs helped to establish the Europeans’ sense of moral and religious superiority.

So at a stroke, Europeans had established themselves physically, intellectually, militarily and morally superior to the peoples of the Americas. And they were clearly of a different race.  Had Columbus landed where he had wanted to land – China – none of this would have happened.  The Chinese shared the same diseases and so would not have succumbed to European diseases. The Chinese were militarily the equals, if not superiors, to the Spanish. Literacy levels in China were higher.  China had the moral codes of Confucianism and Buddhism, which were at least the equals of Christianity.

There were two reasons why Columbus had failed to get Portuguese support for his trip west to China and Japan.  First, the Portuguese were very good navigators already and simply did not believe that it was possible to head west and reach China after a few weeks’ sailing.  They calculated that the Earth was far larger and that no ship could hold sufficient supplies to get there and back. They were right, of course. Second, the Portuguese explorer Bartolemeu Dias had successfully sailed to the southern tip of Africa in 1488.  It was a short hop and a skip from there to reaching the Indian Ocean and beyond – which Vasco da Gama would do in 1497.  There was no need for a risky trip west, when going south and then east seemed almost a certain bet.

Portugal had a very good knowledge of the western coast of Africa, first kicked off by Henry the Navigator in the 1420s.  Africa was appealing due to its gold – especially that of the empire of Mali.  There is a wonderful map drawn in 1375 with the king of Mali, Musa Mansa, depicted as a European style monarch holding a sceptre and orb.  There is not a hint of his being depicted as an inferior.

And yet the death of millions of native Americans, a desire for the sugar, cocoa, tobacco and coffee produced in American soils, a knowledge of west Africa and the infighting of its people there brought about the next huge racial shift in world history – African slaves.

Slavery has existed throughout history.  Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was a slave owner. Noah, he of Ark fame, condemned his grandson and all his descendants to slavery.  Muslims in Africa were enormous slave traders, capturing not only black slaves but also European slaves on raiding trips around the Mediterranean and as far north as Iceland.

Along the west African coast the main slavers included the Oyo and Kong Empires, and kingdoms of Benin, Fouta Djallon, Goura Tooro, Koya, Khasso, Kaabu, Ashanti and Dahomey.   Europeans – initially Portuguese traders up until the 1630s when the Dutch challenged the Portuguese for the role of slave traders – rarely entered the interior of these countries and waited for the slaves to be brought to them to be purchased.  Over time Dahomey, Bonny and Benin became so rich on the slave trade that their kings were horrified when slavery was banned as it undermined their entire economies.

But the sale of one racial group to another racial group to do dangerous, back-breaking, work for profit changed the very nature of slavery.  Some 16 million blacks are estimated to have landed in the Americas.  An additional 16 million are estimated to have died in captivity in Africa or whilst being transported across the Atlantic. Racial prejudices were established early on.  The slaves that the Europeans purchased were huddled together and terrified.  By the time they arrived in the Americas, many were thin, sick and stinking, covered in their own feces. They were cowed, illiterate, had strange religions and could not speak the language of their captors.  Forced into working the fields under the hot sun and thoroughly dehumanised they were treated worse than animals. Profits from the exports of their labours were so high that it was cheaper to work slaves to death and buy new ones than it was to lower their productivity.  After the end of the slave trade it was assumed that slavery would simply die out.  Enterprising slave owners, however, soon turned into slave breeders, and any vestige of humanity was further stripped away from them.

European wealth brought more wealth and inventiveness.  This wealth and the enjoyment of tobacco, chocolate, sugar and cotton made it easy to put aside any moral quandary that Europeans had about slavery.  Sailing ships and navigation technology allowed Europeans to spread further afield.  During French and Indian War, between 1754 and 1763, American Indians predominantly sided with the French, who had few colonists, against the British, whose colonies were expanding further into Indian territory.  Once the war ended, Britain agreed that the thirteen American colonies would no longer be allowed to expand westwards, bottling up any expansionist tendencies that the American colonists had.

However, after Napoleon sold France’s Louisiana territories to Jefferson in 1803 nothing stopped the American colonists from heading westwards and so they entered lands that had been remained stable and had recovered from the initial destruction caused by the spread of Eurasian disease after Columbus 300 years earlier.  American Indians were ethnically cleansed throughout the 19th Century and their surviving remnants were put into reservations and were given legalised gambling and alcohol which helped eradicate anything left of their societies.

With the collapse of Britain’s first empire in America, Britain looked east and south. Many former American loyalists migrated to the emerging trading posts in India, the far east and Australasia.  India was a powerhouse of a nation, about the size of Western Europe.  When Europeans landed, Indians did not get any new diseases and were militarily of equal-ish status and had a long and proud written and cultural history.  Decades of infighting, however, had left the sub continent politically weak, which Portuguese, Dutch and then British traders exploited.

The fact that a country as rich and as populous as India could be taken over by a few thousand British would have helped to confirm Europeans’ sense of superiority.  With the collapse of China and the imposition of the unequal treaties in the 1840s by European powers on that great nation, white Europeans could sit back and reflect on how a small group of white Christian Europeans had, over a period of 350 years from the discovery of the New World, come to dominate all the other racial and cultural groups on the planet.

The Chinese Unequal Treaties of the 1840s were arguably the high point of Europe’s superiority.  In 1853, four American ships steamed into Edo Bay, Japan, demanding that Japan open itself up for trade.  Japan modernised its institutions and economy at an amazing pace.  In 1904-1905 it was sufficiently modernised to defeat the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War.  It swiftly moved on Korea and then onto northern China, setting the stage for the Pacific theatre of the Second World War.  In the same way that white Europeans could marvel how they had taken over the world, Japan could marvel how it had taken on a major European power and had won.  Conquering Korea and China merely affirmed Japan’s greatness.  Japan’s sense of racial and cultural superiority was firmly established.

From the perspective of the rest of the world, the two European civil wars of World War One and Two were incredibly helpful in reversing European power.  Europe was devastated by the wars, physically and mentally.  Decolonisation of Africa and India was relatively quick.  The Cold War stand off put much of the developing world into a cold freeze, but did allow for places like Korea, China, India and Brazil to develop.  The end of the Cold War enabled these regions to rapidly catch up as Westerners invested trillions of dollars into those economies, establishing infrastructure, new factories and new markets.

So, to wrap up, are Europeans fundamentally racist?

Firstly, racial and ethic divisions are relatively new.  Throughout most of history people would encounter and be in conflict with people who looked like themselves.  Prior to the late 1800s very few Europeans would have been in direct contact with Muslims, with the significant exception of those in south east Europe under the Ottoman Empire, who would have fallen in the oppressed, rather than oppressor category.  The sense of “other” for most of European history from the 300s to the 1500s would mainly have been due to religious and linguistic reasons, which was frequently suppressed due to the fact that imperial families like the Habsburgs ruled over so many different peoples.

Secondly, European racism did emerge, due to a series of fortunate circumstances for Europeans and unfortunate circumstances for everybody else:

  • Columbus was supposed to have landed in China.  Had he done, so the likelihood of Europeans being able to dominate China at that point in time was almost zero.
  • Since he did arrive in the Caribbean, the fact that Eurasian diseases (like small pox)  were worse than American diseases (like syphilis) was really unlucky for the Americans.  Had it been the other way round, Europe and Asia’s population (as Asia would have been just as susceptible as Europe) might have seen its population drop by 90%.
  • Had the Americas not been so destabilised, its political structures might have been stronger, enabling the Aztecs and Incas to resist the few hundred mounted Spaniards who attacked them.  Certainly the local advantage in numbers was massive, whatever guns and steel the Spanish had.
  • Had west African slavery not been so widespread and had trade winds not made the voyage comparatively easy, Europeans would never had been able to buy black slaves to compensate for the loss of native Americans to work the fields.
  • Had the mineral and agricultural wealth of the Americas not been possible then the technological advantages that helped Europeans dominate India and China would also not have been possible.  New money helped pay for more machinery and eventually the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and then the rest of Europe and America.

Finally, Europeans’ horror after the Second World War about what they had done to European Jews radically changed Europe’s casual attitudes to racial superiority and their attitudes to the “other”.  European Jews were almost indistinguishable from their fellow countrymen.  And yet French, Italians, Dutch, Germans, Danes, Poles, Austrians and others all handed their fellow citizens over to be murdered by Nazis.

Europeans have now swung to the opposite end of the racism pendulum and are more open and accepting of “others” than most other non European nations.  Many Europeans today are terrified about racism and being accused of being racist. As a result they feel that they are not allowed to talk about issues that are legitimate subjects of debate, like immigration and the size of a country’s population.  They use code words, and make references to the “environment” and the “country being full”.

So Europeans are racists, even today.  But they are paranoid racists, frightened of their past.  There is no risk that Europeans will slip back into being exploitative racists, shipping blacks from Africa over to New World colonies they no longer possess, or forcing Chinese to buy opium at gun point.

However, being fearful of discussing legitimate issues will lead to resentment and anger.

That is not good.


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