The Ever Evolving Definition of “Racism”? Part 2: Frederick Douglass

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[W]hen humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace. (Frederick Douglass, “There Was a Right Side in the Late War,” 1878, p. 629)

As we concluded in our last post, abolitionist David Walker (1796 – 1830) saw “color prejudice”—the closest phrase to our own post 1930’s “racism”—as not simply, or even primarily, hatred or dislike of others based on race or color. Nor did he consider it in any sense natural. Rather, it was a presumption of the inferiority of black Americans, a presumption displayed more by the actions and institutions of white men than by their verbal professions. Further, contrary to the thought of many modern Americans, this belief in the inferiority of black Americans was born of the institution of slavery itself, not the cause of the institution. White oppressors sought to distinguish, debase, demean, and “other” those whom they exploited for monetary gain. “Avarice” was the true source of race prejudice, including the dehumanizing justifications it produced. Last, the response of African Americans to these exploitative circumstances—including even hatred—was not itself considered “prejudice” by Walker, given the relation that existed between oppressor and oppressed.

Moving on to Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895), we see many of the same ideas, though stated even more explicitly. As before, these posts are mostly just quotations from the abolitionists and civil rights advocates under discussion, as the purpose is to demonstrate their own understandings of “color prejudice” and “racism.” The claim is daily made that these definitions have been changed by modern antiracists, specifically by supposed adherents of Critical Race Theory. Over the course of this series, I hope to test this claim.

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What Does 1619 Have To Do With 2019? A Crash Course

Landing of Negroes at Jamestown.

There is widespread belief that racism and racist ideas as we know them today have been a feature of mankind since the fall of Adam. Many uncritically assume that if anything has significantly changed over the last several centuries, it has been from originally bad to increasingly good. But this is far from the truth. Accurate history reveals, rather, that racist ideas—as we know them in America—have largely been developed as justifications for pre-existing racial exploitation. The Atlantic slave trade was well under way before there even was such a thing as the “Black Race” or the “White Race,” both previously being a host of various nationalities, ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and phenotypical features. In fact, before the appearance of the most powerful justifications for exploitation, those of African descent had already become the only people group subject to lifelong servitude, viz., property; they and their children.

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Reject the “Trojan Horse,” Invite the Soldiers

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To be honest, though I should not be surprised by anything Sovereign Nations does, I was astonished to see an organization founded by the likes of Michael O’Fallon invite philosopher Peter Boghossian and mathematician James Lindsay to discuss the “Trojan Horse” of anti-Christian ideology supposedly contained in the Southern Baptist Convention’s infamous “Resolution 9” (see, “The Trojan Horse,” Aug. 9, 2019). The stated reasoning is that these men are liberal atheists with expertise in the field, and therefore have no “horse in the race” and are thereby particularly situated to warn against the evils of Critical Race Theory, even as an “analytical tool.”

Forgive me, but I question not only Boghossian and Lindsay’s supposed “expertise” in the field, but also their supposed disinterested standpoint. Even more important, I believe they are substantially incorrect in their assessment.

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The Ever Evolving Definition of “Racism”? Part 1: David Walker

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Christian enslavers did not believe they were prejudiced, segregationists did not believe they were racists, and our current president has declared that he is “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.” Denying racism of “any form” is an American tradition, in fact, an institution of American life. As people of color increasingly find footing within traditionally white spaces, this institution of denial has evolved with ever greater creativity and robustness.

In our own day, those intent on protecting the institution simply claim that those of the past were indeed prejudiced and racists, but that was…the past. Modern advocates of racial justice, they argue, are simply working from a new definition and understanding of “racism,” a definition which was changed in order to continue “agitation” beyond its necessity. In particular, Critical Race Theory is targeted for having introduced illicit elements into the concept, viz., any elements that go beyond bare personal hatred and/or overt discrimination based on “race.”

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Racial Justice is Not “Liberalism”

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We reject theological liberalism–defined by J. Gresham Machen in Christianity and Liberalism as a “different gospel” from the Scriptural gospel. (43, 44)

Above is the first “Denial” listed in the “Report of the ad Interim Committee on Racial and Ethnic Reconciliation to the Forty-Sixth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America.” Every time I read this line, I think, “yep,” and keep reading. No alarms.

But as time and debate has continued since its publication and adoption, I’m starting to wonder if many within the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition see this inclusion as a contradiction of the rest of the document, especially among the self-described “Machen Warriors.” I fear that Machen’s personal political and sociological views have been illegitimately folded into his definition of “Liberalism” by modern hagiographers.

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