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

Frederick-Douglass-998x702

[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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