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A racist doctrine ensures racist behavior

No one dares say anything negative about Jewish people, even if the comment is true or partly true. When Steven Spielberg directed a movie on the reaction to the murders of Israeli athletes in Munich more than 30 years ago, commentators like neo-conservative ideologue Charles Krauthammer complained that Spielberg had sided with the Palestinians, which is a no-no.

Spielberg was criticized even though his movie is not remotely racist. Others have had their careers destroyed, and recently a historian who denied the reality of the Holocaust (a bigoted position, no doubt) actually went to jail. And no one dares say anything negative about black people, lest they face (often legitimate) charges of racism. And check out Larry Summers, the obnoxious president of Harvard who ended up resigning following, among other ill-fated remarks, expressions of female biological limitations regarding certain academic disciplines.

OK, so you have to be careful when talking about women, blacks and people of Jewish heritage. There is, for those bigots who need a cause and would like to vent some racist venom, one group upon which it is perpetually open season: indigenous peoples, aka Indians! You can, apparently, make racist remarks about them at will and there will be little or no outcry. This tendency is so ingrained in the culture that people don’t even recognize racist remarks when they are directed at Indians! They’re a freebie!

There are at least two reasons for this. The first is a stain on the American culture. Racist remarks about American Indians are part of the American consensus about Indians, a consensus which is at the center of the fabric of American culture but which today is inadequately challenged.

The first has to do with the mythology, the founding myth, of America. Long ago, American historians generally reached a consensus by which they promoted as fact stories that were both inaccurate and mythological in purpose. The myth goes all the way back to the debates in the Spanish colonies between Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolome de las Casas.

Sepulveda is the “father of modern racism” who claimed that the Spanish were entitled to benefit from colonization of the Indians because of the supposed virtues of the Spanish and the sins and other deficiencies of the Indians. The first was that the Spanish offered to the Indians the benefits of Spanish “civilization,” a term which those who used it assumed that those who heard it would understand to designate an entitlement. The Spanish adorned themselves with the mantle of “civilization.” (Forget about the origins of the word and its connection to cities: “civilization” is now completely associated with something approaching utopia, an entitlement of Christian society.)

In land-claim cases in American case law, the lawyers and judges often find the origins of America’s claim to Indian land in the “doctrine of discovery” and trace it from there. The doctrine was a claim that God had given all the lands of the Earth to Christendom (later, when the state system was adopted, the Christian nations); that whenever these Christian peoples encountered other peoples on previously unknown (to them) lands, they had “discovered” them and therefore had a right to “pre-emption,” the first right to divest the indigenous of their land because it wasn’t really their land – they were just occupying it until the Christians arrived.

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It’s a fantastic claim: Since the beginning of time, past the Ice Ages and centuries before the Bible appeared, the Christians “owned” North America and the Indians possessed a mere “right of occupancy” which they could exercise until the Christians “discovered” them and found a way to divest them of it.

Sepulveda’s racism was deeply ingrained with the rhetoric of civilization, his evidence of Spanish superiority predicated on the Indians’ lack of Spanish culture. The message: You are not us (white Christians) and therefore you have no real rights. You were born inferior to us; your cultures are inferior to ours; God gave us rights to all that is yours. Racism is about culture.

“Civilized” people claim qualities of personality that are nowhere evident in the Spanish leadership of the conquest. They claimed to be gentle, cultivated, devoted to the arts. In Christian civilization, the civilized represent the best assumed qualities of Jesus, including compassion, generosity, justice and righteousness. Even as Sepulveda was ascribing these qualities to the Spanish conquerors of his day, the Inquisition was torturing and murdering innocent people, taking their property and using the powers of government to achieve robbery, fraud and a great litany of criminal behavior.

Civilization’s children were, upon examination, given to behaviors that were barbarous. All that talk about superior civilizations, God’s will and “discovery” is just so much racist drivel.

Fast-forward to 18th-century North America. The early English colonists embraced the Spanish model of superiority due to “civilization.” To this was added the idea of the empty land (terra nullius), including the idea that Indians were nomads, that they were barbarous, that they lacked attributes which were imaged to be positive traits of the English. (As a matter of fact, the historic English lacked exactly those qualities: honesty, a nobility of purpose and so forth. About the only thing they could claim is that they mostly stayed in one place most of the year. But so did many Indians; and anyway, there’s nothing wrong with being nomadic.)

Racism in the Sepulveda model involved a false and hypocritical claim to virtues of Christendom on the one hand, and an absence of virtues among all others as a group. We know today that the claims to virtue by the English are unsupported in the historic and contemporary records. In the same way that the contemporary record does not support that people with strong Christian beliefs have more stable marriages (“red” states have higher divorce rates than “blue” states), it is also true that Christians do not have a history of less violence than other populations. Christian populations are not virtuous because they are Christian. Like other peoples, they have to work at it to achieve virtue.

Indian peoples continue to suffer under the pall of racist ideas that are centuries old. Just last year, the Supreme Court re-affirmed its belief in the racist “doctrine of discovery” in a land-claim case. In a recent book, Robert Williams Jr. detailed the use of such language and sources by the court’s former chief justice, William Rehnquist. The book, “Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America,” is interesting reading. If Rehnquist had made those kinds of statements about other peoples, there would have been a hue and cry. But because it was directed at Indians, the racism beat goes on unchallenged.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is a noted author and historian. He is an associate professor of American studies and director of Indigenous studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo.