During the Enlightenment the concept of the “universality of human nature” prevailed among philosophers from Rene Descartes (precursor to the era) to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who claimed that they did not consider any factor such as skin color, religion, ethnicity, body size, or any trait other than intellectual capacity and artistic creativity. Enlightenment thinkers believed that human progress cannot take place with stereotypes, prejudice, and intolerance and only when human beings rest on reason and empirical criteria can they be closer to the truth and be able to make a contribution to the edification of humanity.
In theory, this was based largely on an empiricist philosophy–racism is learned behavior and not an integral part of human nature that has always existed and will always exist. The Enlightenment was indeed a great step forward for Europeans that were at the time engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonizing, frequently with very violent wars against non-whites with the sole purpose of exploiting their labor and resources, while a select few intellectuals argued the boundless horizon of reason and the limitations of the irrational.
Racism in European society (and in the North American colonies) became prevalent because there was a motive of power and profit. Therefore, racism was deeply ingrained in the minds of white Europeans, including prominent philosophers like Hume among others who believed that non-whites differed (were inferior) from whites who were presumed “civilized” for it was widely believed northwest Europe was God’s chosen center of the universe.
Euro-centrism that included racism remained a characteristic of European culture, shared by American colonists who were born into a society of prejudice, intolerance, and stereotypes that served domestic and foreign policy goals, military schemes, economic interests, and of course social interests. Racism was as natural as colonialism. Whites grew up believing in their biological–physical and mental–and their moral (linked to Christianity) superiority that fed into innate human proclivities of fear, anxieties, insecurities about identity, potentialities, and abilities, and guilt, all projected on the other of a different race lower down the evolutionary chain; the other that is the ubiquitous enemy looking back from inside the mirror with a menacing look.
Racism also goes hand in hand with militarism. We see a substantial rise of racism in all facets of Western societies during the era of colonialism that resulted in the 19th and 20th-century wars of imperialism, wars that intensified racism among whites. Similarly, we see that the rise of Japan as an economic power in the late 19th century and its subsequent rise as a regional military power, after it defeated Russia in 1905, resulted in the rise of racism against the Chinese and Koreans, later to include other Asian nationalities.
Besides irrational proclivities in human beings, as Enlightenment thinkers correctly identified as the source of prejudice and intolerance, power, especially military power afford human beings a sense of superiority that in popular culture it translates into prejudice, stereotypes and intolerance. Modern society is still operating under the ideals of the Enlightenment, the last intellectual revolution of the Western World, and it does so because there is societal consensus that harmony and progress cannot take place in the absence of tolerance in an increasingly multicultural world.
Racism is not ethical politics, it is not good business, it is not good for any institution that endeavors to project an image of responsibility and constructiveness in society. The question, however, is the degree to which racism does have a place in politics and business, and the degree to which human beings, when they are all alone or with others who think like them, do not candidly reveal the irrational racist self because it “feels good” to feel a sense of superiority–man playing God.
Therefore, while constitutions and laws provide for punishment of racism and encourage tolerance, in the real world–whether in the streets of Chicago among poor teenagers of different ethnic and racial groups or in New York’s, London’s or Tokyo’s corporate board rooms or in the battlefield in Iraq or Gaza–the enemy is still objectified and reduced to a racially inferior being, for that is the essence of power many human beings worship more than they value any virtue in theory.
Far more dangerous and destructive than any direct or overt racially motivated act or speech is the subtle form of racism as we have witnessed since Obama became president by people who are too ignorant to recognize that he is as quintessentially “establishment” as any other president and represents the white Anglo-Saxon value system as much as he does finance capitalism.
Nevertheless, the Tea Party and especially Glenn Beck have launched repeated attacks on America’s first black president and his Jewish supporters like billionaire George Soros. The irony of such racially motivated attacks is the sheer ignorance and stupidity of those delivering the divisive rhetoric, as Salon magazine exposed in an article about Beck, Palin and Soros.
“Given Soros’s alleged role plotting to destroy the United States, Beck and his Fox viewership might be surprised to learn that one of Sarah Palin’s top aides has been on Soros’s payroll for years.That would be Republican lobbyist Randy Scheunemann, Palin’s foreign policy adviser and a member of her small inner circle. He runs a Washington, DC consulting firm called Orion Strategies. Scheunemann and a partner have since 2003 been paid over $150,000 by one of Soros’s organizations for lobbying work, according to federal disclosure forms reviewed by Salon. The lobbying, which has continued to the present, centers on legislation involving sanctions and democracy promotion in Burma.”
(I wrote this post in November 2010)