The Color of Compromise

A parishioner asked me an interesting question: “Where did racism come from? Where did people get the idea that skin color or race would determine who was more important, more valuable, and so forth?” So I have been reading American history about American slavery and racism.

This book is an excellent read because it does at least three things very well.

  1. It describes the history very well, creating the framework to understand what happened and when. American slavery and racism have changed over the years.
  2. It sets the human context of what people were thinking and feeling: the kinds of explanations of why people did what they did, how they explained it to themselves and others.
  3. What role did the church play in forming people’s attitudes and consciences? Did it support slavery or oppose it? How did the church–people of faith–reconcile that all people are made in the image and likeness of God having a God-given right to life with human dignity with brothers and sisters owning each other and treating some people as they did?

It sets a tone–not of simply making people feel guilty or bad–but with the goal of seeing the truth as it is, so that true reconciliation can take place. It reminds me of the Catholic approach that forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing can take place only by beginning with an honest and forthright admission of guilt and making amends.

First, it lays out the history of how slavery developed in this country. When the first slaves arrived in Jamestown, VA in 1619, they were treated as indentured servants. They maintained the right to marry, to have a family, to own property, etc. Their children were not born into slavery. Their service would end with time. Some like Anthony Johnson would gain freedom for themselves and their family and become quite wealthy.

There was a period when skin color did not determine one’s position or value in society. There were white indentured servants. The economy in the South developed to the production of tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane. The invention of the cotton gin meant that they could produce much larger amounts of cotton. All this required larger amounts of cheap human labor at a time when labor became scarcer from England after the London plague and the London fire.

Second, people looked to various things–including inventing things–to justify slavery: “Africans would be evangelized (despite the fact that the first slaves in 1619 were probably Catholic). Africans were incapable of taking care of themselves and would just die on their own.” The idea of racial inferiority was born, it and justified racism well beyond slavery. Even “science” was used to explain inferiority. The hierarchical and “paternalistic” form of society was just “what God wanted.”

Third, the church had a role in this. Denominations even split so that they could allow, support, and justify slavery. The churches became complicit in slavery and racism. Today all they need to do is remain silent on the topic of racism to allow it to continue.

This is a great book–well worth reading. I was personally particularly pleased to learned that the author is a Notre Dame grad.

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