#22 – Was Racism in America Inevitable?

We in the West have long looked up to our philosophers to set the standard for logic and truth. Has our trust been misplaced? If American history began with the Spanish in the Age of Exploration, so did the birth of racism. Lewis Hanke supports our contention in his book Aristotle and the American Indians. “As professor Hanke makes clear, true race prejudice hardly existed in the fifteenth century. Mankind then was divided into two antagonistic groups, to be sure, but the division was between Christians and infidels rather than between men whose skins had different pigmentation. It was only when Europeans entered not only the Americas but Africa and Asia as well that the issue of race became dominant.”  (1)  Those Spanish explorers who argued that Spain could ethically enslave the conquered indigenous peoples of the Americas turned to Aristotle for justification.

“In 1550 Charles V took the remarkable step of ordering all further conquests suspended until a special assembly of theologians and counselors could debate the matter.”  (1)  The Dominican friar Bartolome de Las Casas argued that the native peoples had natural rights which should be respected and Renaissance scholar Juan Gines de Sepulveda contended that they were “such crude and brutish people that their subjugation was lawful.”  (1)  Sepulveda also cited Aristotle’s theory “that a part of mankind is set aside by nature to be slaves in the service of a master race.”  (1)

It is a small leap from rationalizing the destruction and enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the justification, using Aristotle’s theory, of African-American slavery. Aristotle’s inability to distinguish reality from illusion reveals the fundamental inadequacy of the human intellect to lead the people of the Global Village out of the darkness of fear and hatred.

The illusion of the other must be transcended. The Mexican Jose Vasconcelos, when asked how to solve the Indian problem might just as well be addressing the problem of racial, ethnic, religious and prejudice relating to sexual preference today. Should we rely on education to solve the problem of inequality in the community?  “No—we are simply going to treat them like human beings, with Christian principles.”  (1)  We cannot rely on our philosophers to teach us the simple principle of compassion—for that we must look within.

Insight # 22:  To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, it is to solve some of the problems of life, not theoretically, but practically.   —Henry David Thoreau

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  1. Catton, Bruce. “Reading, Writing, and History.” American Heritage. August 1959, page 79.

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