American and European Racism: An Overview of Two Cousins
In the Western world, when most people think of racism, it is usually seen as any form of prejudice against groups of people, particularly people of color. It’s become an issue for us, with an abusive legal system and bad cops in he states, and immigrants and far-right nationalist parties across the Atlantic. It is easier for most of us to think of it that way because it’s simpler and less to think about. However the reality is rarely that simple.
While it’s true that prejudice has existed for as long as human beings have existed, the reasons are as varied as the human experience. And currently there are two forms of racism that exist in the western world that people generally bunch into one: Racism in Europe and racism in America. While this seems like semantics, the differences are very important because the solution to each-assuming there is one, will be different
Old World Prejudice
Most of how we define ourselves came from communities: from families to nations. This is important because there was very little else to truly distinguish themselves from each other racially or physically.
For the most part, all they had was where they came from and how their individual societies developed. With each culture evolved different sets of priorities. First amongst those priorities was usually communal survival. After that, came interacting with other communities around them, where the context varied from hostile invasion and expansion, to trade and co-existence. The reasons for these variations were initially to gather resources to maintain the societies’ survival. Once that was established it could then morph into glory for community pride or their leaders’ ego.
This was how inhabitants of Eurasia interacted with each other for most of their existence: tribally. From Greeks and Macedonians, to Romans and Goths, multiple groups interacted and fought with one another for thousands of years. The one thing that came even close to unifying them as a single, cohesive culture was the introduction of Christianity. This was in fact one of the reasons behind the First Crusade to the Holy Land in 1066 BCE.
Yet even this did not wholly succeed. Powerful cultures had already established themselves geographically and their traditions in place. Religion, and the Holy Roman Empire, simply created a common ground for all of them to interact on. And even then wars continued all the way up until the late Twentieth Century.
These long periods of conflict/interaction help define European sub-cultures and traditions. Where were you from? Who was your king? What language did you speak? And what version of Christianity did you follow?
Thus they learned to distinguish themselves by these parameters of communication. Racial distinctions however only came from the few conflicts they had with the Persians, Huns, Mongols, Arabs and Turks in their early centuries, and then colonial expansion much later after that. By and large, interactions between different races was limited by natural barriers like the Mediterranean, southern European mountain ranges, deserts, and the vast lands of the Eurasian steppes. These limited the amount of interacting between different races had with each other, even if some of them were aware the other existed. A serf living in Southern France may have heard of a Moor or Arab, but wasn’t likely to have seen one.
Between European cultures, prejudice arose because of these intercontinental, cultural differences and conflicts. Physical racial traits were slight best. Modern racism in Europe does include more racial profiling, but primarily stems from a perception of protecting their culture and values. Becoming like America in way as it were. How the other looked just made it easier to identify what threatened it. So in its most simplistic sense, European prejudice stems from identity issues rather than a belief on racial superiority or inferiority.
New World Prejudice
American prejudice while it bears similarities to its peer, is also a whole, different beast: literally. Prejudice in America developed by switching the two elements involved in the evolution of European bigotry: lack of commonality of geography, religion and appearance, and more interaction with peoples physically different and on their own land, with totally different cultures and priorities.
When the first Europeans arrived, they were explorers and conquerors. They immediately noticed the differences not just appearance, but technological development as well. They recognized it as where Europe once was at and promptly deemed the native cultures/races inferior. Any advances they did have that were equal to or superior to them were over-ridden, not least because of the greed for gold which was abundant in South America.
When the pilgrims arrived later on, they came as refugees, escaping a culture that they deemed to be corrupt yet still familiar. They still brought over their civilizations and attitudes, and the alien lands and people seemed like the borders of hell, as imagined in their old folk tales. So America’s racism started out because of radical differences with no similarities for common ground. As other countries began sending their settlers over trying to create American empires, classic European prejudice entered into the fray, but the foundation had already been established.
As the centuries wore on, these two versions of segregation flourished and often times mingled together: conquest of land, genocide, slavery, and religious/cultural differences all played their part. But the racial differences were always the more powerful, the more blatant and damning. Fore Europe had the benefit of geographic boundaries to maintain cultural separation. America however from the moment Caucasians arrived did not have that option. Differences were not marked off but were ever present in the new world and this only increased with time and expansion.
Moreover, the universal reality was that all forms of prejudice were an acceptable practice by all human communities throughout most of our history. Tolerance? Love? Diversity? Those are all new, social constructs and their youth is the major reason why we still have difficulty getting along, no matter what the celebrities and politicians say.
It’s a fight against tens of thousands of years of upbringing.
Moving Towards Enlightenment
In today’s keyboard and media warfare world, people have a much easier time dispensing blanket labels to large, deeply rooted issues. It’s too much work to look into the differences and details at work within racism and its creation. Even this blog is still a simplistic overview to the issue of racism and hate because to go into detail would mean writing many volumes of books.
However, that so many people across the world are against hate is a huge change in the evolution of the human race. It shines light in a new direction that perhaps we can overcome our base instincts whether it’s in Europe or America. But if racism and prejudice have any hope of being cured, then acknowledging where they came from, as well as the world that created them has to be looked at.
The people who don’t want to do the work are right: it is work! It’s thousands of years of human history after all that has ripple effects to today. Some work can’t be ignored and if we really believe that the cause of ending hate is just, then we will put in the work and deal with the differences between American and European prejudice while working towards the same goal point of peaceful understanding.