The Races of Man

W.J. Astore

In the 19th century, many people believed in polygenism, and others used the concept of “the races of man,” where by “race” they often meant species.  At home, I have a framed copy of the races of man taken from an encyclopedia published in the 1890s.  Here’s a photo of it:

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Of course, there’s always an assumed hierarchy to the races of man concept.  White Europeans are at the top, since it’s they who defined and ordered the hierarchy.  Surprise!

In my photo, White Europeans take pride of place in the center, with some swarthy Italians at the top right (I’m half-Italian).  Meanwhile, Polynesian (pink flowers in hair) and Indian (from South America) women are shown with bare breasts.  “Primitives” are primitive precisely because they’re “immodest” in dress, a convention that allowed publishers to show nudity in illustrations and photos without being accused of pornography.  You might call this the “National Geographic” dispensation for nudity.

My college students were often amazed when I told them that science shows that all of us — all humans — came out of Africa.  Far too many people today still think of race as both definitive and as a rung on a ladder, and naturally they always place their own “race” on the top rung.

Even more disturbing is the resurgence of racialized (and often racist) thinking in the United States.  The idea of the races of man and the “scientific” ordering of the same was debunked a century ago, yet it’s back with a vengeance in much of the U.S.

Naturally, those who promote racialized thinking always put their own perceived race at the top.  In that sense, nothing whatsoever has changed since the 19th century and the “races of man” concept.

A Little Honesty on the Confederate Flag

Want to fly a flag?  How about this one?
Want to fly a flag? How about this one?

W.J. Astore

Many people associate the Confederate flag (the “stars and bars”) with the South and the U.S. Civil War (Whoops — I mean “The War of Northern Aggression”).  For some people, it’s been a more or less vague expression of Southern heritage, or a symbol of rebellion, a sort of redneck “good ol’ boy” badge of pride.  Like any symbol, it is capable of holding multiple meanings.  To use academic fancy talk, its semiotics is negotiated and interrogated contextually within contingent cultural settings in which radical interpretive flexibility is possible.

Did you follow that last sentence?  If you didn’t, pat yourself on the back, because it’s all BS.  The “stars and bars” may have been a Confederate battle flag 150 years ago, but after the Civil War it morphed into a symbol of White supremacy, becoming a symbol of race hatred and violent resistance to integration during the Civil Rights movement.

A little honesty: The Confederate flag is hardly restricted to the South, and therefore it’s not primarily about Southern heritage. In rural Central Pennsylvania, where I recently taught for nine years, the Confederate flag was astonishingly common.  It was on license plates; it flew every day at a local gas station; I saw neighbors flying it openly on their flag poles.  Why, you might ask?

My wife was very good friends with a Black woman in a local town; the (White) neighbor immediately behind her openly flew a Confederate flag from his flag pole. Remember, this was Pennsylvania, Union country, not the heart of the Confederacy. There was no mistaking this man’s message — his unhappiness that a Black family lived near him, and his decision to make them uncomfortable, to make them squirm, by flying “his” flag.

Think I’m reaching here?  My wife’s friend has a son who went to the prom.  He complimented a (White) classmate on her prom dress, saying it looked “hot” on her.  He got a visit from an off-duty State Trooper who explained to him that Black boys don’t talk to White girls like that.  Not around here, son.  No, this wasn’t 1963.  It was 2013.  A half-century after the Civil Rights movement.

It’s good to see that the Confederate flag is finally being taken down from State Capitol buildings; that merchandise featuring it is being pulled from store shelves; that politicians are finally speaking out against it, even Republican candidates for president, who equivocated in such a cowardly manner until even they could no longer resist the pull of public outrage stemming from the latest racial hate crime in Charleston.

The question is: What the hell took them (and us) so long?