Friday, August 24, 2007

Friday Dead Racist Blogging: Topsy-Turvy Edition

In a great deal of the literature that I've read, the authors create a "scale" of the races, ranking them--usually according to perceived mental abilities. Often the scale would be: blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and whites. Sometimes they would have Malays in there somewhere, and sometimes they would have "Hottentots" below the regular blacks. But the idea was generally that blacks were the worst and whites were the best. Native Americans were held a little bit higher--there was the idea of the "noble savage" and the myth of Pocahontas, many of the oldest families in America had Native American blood in their veins (and were quite proud of it), and even the civilizations in Central and South America made people believe they were "better" than blacks. There was also a degree of bias in the people doing the judging, I'm sure--they would claim that Indians were so proud that they would die before being enslaved, unlike those slovenly obeisant Negroes. This, while giving Native Americans a bit of a higher position in the scale of races, also blamed the slaves for their positions (they surrendered to the idea too readily), but also gave the whites an excuse for exterminating Native Americans and not enslaving them.

Asians--specifically Chinese and Japanese, usually--were held just below whites in terms of ability. Both countries had ancient civilizations of their own, and especially with the Russo-Japanese Wars, it was clear that they were the equals of some of the Western powers. Japan especially was looked on with favor by certain writers, such as James Denson Sayers and Theodore Roosevelt. Whereas other Asians were decaying, Japan was growing, imitating the West and absorbing their culture. Often, though, Asians were discussed as though their glory days were behind them, and that though they were smart enough to use white technology, they could not invent it, or built upon it, or innovate it.

That was the usual scheme of things in works I've read. Then recently I found this:
[Prominent phrenologist George] Combe was particularly scathing toward the American Indians. In Africa, he argued, some of the inhabitants had at least advanced beyond "the savage condition," to create ". . . cities, rude manufactures, agriculture, commerce, government and laws; and in these respects they greatly excel several of the tribes of native Americans, who have continued wandering savages from the beginning to the end of their existence." Though there were some exceptions among the Indians, ". . . speaking of the race, we do not exaggerate in saying, that they remain to the present hour enveloped in all their primitive savageness, and that they are profited extremely little by the introduction amongst them of arts, sciences and philosophy." If Indian "savageness" stemmed from a conformation of the brain, attempts at civilization had little hope.

In a more popular work, Combe argued that a comparison of the heads of a Negro and a North African Indian demonstrated that the Indian intellect was weaker, but his pride and firmness were larger. Thus Negroes ". . . were able to appreciate the superior moral and intellectual powers of the European race, and are content in some measure to live under their guidance. The Indian, on the contrary, has refused to profit, to any great extent, by the arts or literature of the Europeans and has always preferred death to servitude." The great popularity of the phrenologists in the midnineteenth century ensured a wide dissemination of these racial theories.

--Reginald Horsman, "Scientific Racism and the American Indian in the Mid-Nineteenth Century." 27 American Quarterly 2, pp. 157-58.

So apparently some people at least thought that Indians were lower than blacks.

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