The History of An Idea, A Prejudice,
A Central Strand in
Western Civilization, and in My Own Life 

Marc Aronson

Introduction: Race
On a broiling hot day in June, I was standing on line with one of my sons at the community pool, waiting to buy an ice cream and a drink. We were all sweating, impatient, annoyed. But the line did not move. Why? Crowded around the order-window was a knot of young black males, all about 11-13 years old. We, the rest of the mainly white parents and younger kids, were in a line. They, an ever-changing huddle of boys, were coming and going, arguing and laughing, dashing in and out to get money or change an order, but never moving on. I was mad – it was like being on the school lunch line and having kids cut in, over and over again. Suddenly the order-taker accused one of the kids of taking a bill out of the tip jar.
Did he? I felt certain that he had. Teenage boys in a pack do steal, I did. But my conviction that he was guilty did not come because he was about the same age as I was when I grabbed a drink from a grocery store and strolled out. I was sure because he was black. Feeling that sword of judgment slice across my mind, I froze.
Prejudice. I am prejudiced. As in a nightmare, a boy I have never met suddenly looms as a monster. We all know that it is wrong to be ruled by that kind of feeling. But that is useless in that flash of an instant when we see another person and form an attitude about him or her. It happens to all of us, all of the time.
            I wrote this book to help understand why I, why we, Americans of all colors, experience race as such a powerful force, even as we claim not to believe in it. Because I am a historian, not a biologist, it is not about cells and DNA, but about the deep roots of racism, and the astonishingly short history of the idea of race.
People have always noticed differences in skin color, hair, eye color, language, and religion. But the idea that human beings are members of 3, or 5, or 15 biologically distinct races is extremely new. In fact, it was invented in 1775, the year before the Declaration of Independence. Not until the late 1200-1500’s did the word “race” (and its equivalent in some other European languages) begin to take on its modern meaning. Before that it implied speed – as in a “horse race” – or lineage – as in a “race of kings.” Today we know race so well, we don’t even have to think about it. 
            “We all know” that people are the same, under the skin. Yet “we all know” that the best athletes are black. “We all know” that, in America, when we speak of race, we really mean just two: black, and white. And yet, Japanese-Americans were put into internment camps for being neither black nor white. Jews were forced to remain in Europe, to be gassed and fed into ovens, because of their “race.” Race is everywhere and race is nowhere. Race is an uncomfortable reality, and yet the most brilliant scientists, doctors, and professors cannot agree on whether there are any races at all.
            Perhaps a decade ago, the whole question of race seemed settled. Beginning in the 1970s, scientists announced that close study of genetics proved that racial terms were meaningless. If you used the best scientific tools there was more variation within, say, the group called “white” than between those labeled “white” and “black.” By the 1990s, national magazines ran cover stories on how intermarriage and immigration were blurring the racial boundaries in American society. Hispanics, which the census says “may be of any race,” replaced blacks as the largest minority in the country. We could all breathe a sigh of relief: race was a dead old idea, racism should follow soon.
More recently, though, ever more sensitive genetic studies have found shared patterns in populations of peoples who intermarried for generations. Shared patterns of what? Disease? Intelligence? Body shape? How far is that from the old idea of race? And to many black Americans, saying that racism is fading or that race is no longer important is either silly or blind. Anyone can see, whether in images of blacks driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the troubling statistics of the persistent “achievement gap” in our schools, that the deep racial divisions in America remain real, and present. 
I wrote this book to make sense of race and racism now by tracing out their long history. This is a book about deep, disturbing, and personal feelings. And yet it is also about people and events hundreds, even thousands of years ago. As you’ll see, I think the two are connected. Race is our modern way of categorizing people and handling emotions that go back to the very beginning of human evolution. That is  one reason why race is so hard for us to deal with: in one way race seems as current as science, in another it taps our oldest fears. But as I looked at the past, I also kept seeing the present, and so current events, and even my own personal feelings, sometimes enter the story. There is nothing safe about race, whether you study events in ancient Greece, or your own emotions today.
            I say “race” but I mean racism or racial prejudice. Even though the idea of race is a recent invention, fear and hatred of those who strike us as different is extremely ancient. No matter how closely they are linked for us today, “racial prejudice” and “hatred of difference” are not the same. For the great majority of human history, we have taken slaves, slaughtered enemies, stigmatized those who are different, without believing our victims were of different “races.” Instead we despised others as savages or barbarians; as weaklings or strangers; as pagans, Muslims, or Jews, Protestants or Catholics. Our torturous confusion over race is the latest version of a mindset that begins in infants, and probably took shape at the very beginning of human evolution.
            But why? Why should hatred of others have such a deep hold on all of us that we have re-invented it in new forms, over and over and over again throughout history? When I began researching the history of race and racism I soon realized that I could not jump right into the story in 1775. I needed to know something about the older deeper drive in all us – the urge to hate those who are different.
In the prologue I describe turning to psychology to learn how racial prejudice grows within us, from infancy on. Then I make use of anthropology to get a sense of why primitive societies were so ruled by fear and hatred of others. Finally, I use my own training as a historian to map out the beliefs of the ancestors of our society. Only by following this journey back into the mind of babies and the language of jungle tribes, and then out through the stages of Western Civilization, could I finally understand why, when race was invented, it answered so many needs, and seemed to make so much sense. But if you, readers, want to read just about race and not how it came to be invented, turn to section   on page      and pick up the story there.                    

Prologue: Where Do Prejudices Come From? 
The Mind
The world’s best authority on how prejudice forms in our minds is a bright, thoughtful woman who lives in New York City. Dr. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a psychologist who treats patients in the East Village, a section of lower Manhattan where Europeans wearing Prada share a sidewalk with the homeless. In the East Village you can never predict who will sashay by, or the age, color, or gender of his or her companion. Whatever biases people have inside, they are eager to display their tattoos, piercings, hair-styles and their open-mindedness. This is a good setting for Dr. Young-Bruehl. She has straight, short, graying hair, dresses modestly in comfortable clothes, and has the assuring aspect of a person who has seen and heard a great deal. No story from these streets would surprise her. But she has the sharp mind and weighty judgment of a scholar who has read hundreds of books on prejudice.
            Dr. Young-Bruehl believes that it makes no sense to speak of prejudice in general – as if it were a form of bad weather. Each kind of prejudice is its own story. Racism, anti-Semitism, hatred of women are each distinct forms of mental disease. Sure a racist may also dislike Jews or be cruel to women. But if, like Dr. Young-Bruehl, you really listen to each form of prejudice, you find that they don’t sound the same.
Very often people who dislike Jews want to eliminate them entirely – as Adolf Hitler tried so hard to do. Jews are described as germs, as infections to be destroyed before they sicken everyone else. Those who feel superior to Africans generally have a different goal. They want blacks to stay alive, but as slaves or mistresses, in an inferior role. Blacks are spoken of as animalistic, as sub-humans to be controlled and used. And even the most crazed male knows women are necessary: no mothers, no babies. So those most threatened by women insist that females be silent, invisible, and exactly echo the views of men. Eliminate Jews; dominate blacks; silence women – three versions of prejudice. 
These hateful views do not begin when we are adults. Passions this strong are shaped in childhood, or even infancy. Here is a true story Dr. Young-Bruehl found that shows how racism took hold in one man’s mind. 
             Picture a white child growing up in the South in the 1920s. His mother is cold; his father is frightening. His black nanny is kind. He loves her, and she is tender to him. The boy begins to have disturbing dreams. He pictures black men attacking him or his mother. In his mind the world is divided into dangerous, criminal, black men who must be severely punished and vulnerable whites. The black men in his mind combine the worst traits of his harsh father with the boy’s deepest resentments of his distant mother. They are truly terrifying. The boy’s real problem is with his parents, but that is too dangerous for him to admit. So he invents an enemy he can fight: the black male criminal.
            This is a true story, about a man who went on to devote his life to severely punishing blacks and preventing racial integration. He kept seeing the black men from his nightmares all around him. He could feel them nearby, about to rape his mother or to assault him. He felt the threat like heat shimmering off of a sidewalk. Throughout his life he remained on guard, to keep them at bay.  
            A frightened son turned his cold mother and severe father into hateful images of black men. One reason he did so was because so many of his friends and neighbors held similar views. If racial prejudice is born in the family circle, it is nurtured in the surrounding society. To look for the roots of racial prejudice in human societies, I made use of anthropology.      
Where Do Prejudices Come From?
The Tribe
Fearing and hating others who are different dates back to the earliest times when humans first formed into packs, clans, and tribes that had to kill first, kill fast to survive.
Picture a clan of human beings a hundred thousand years ago somewhere in Africa. As they move along each day searching for water, for food, their senses must always be on the alert. The leaves rustle: is it wind, an animal, or an enemy? In order to survive, each person must make an instant, accurate judgment: friend or foe. There is no time to think; a second’s hesitation may cost you your life. What we now call prejudice was once a strategy for survival. We can see that even today, deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, home of the Munduruku.
The words of the Munduruku speak to us from those ancient times when terror chased us through the trees, and any wrong turn was death. A native group that lives along the Tapajos River in Brazil, the Munduruku have adjusted to contact with Europeans. But their language recalls their earlier life when men took the heads of their enemies as prizes, for it splits the world into two parts. They have one word for themselves, the Munduruku, the human beings. Everyone else is “pariwat.” Pariwat means “strangers,” but also “enemy,” “those who are unlike us.” Pariwat are not human and in fact are most similar to the animals the Mundurucu hunt for food.
This is prejudice in perfect form: we are human and you are not. Glittering eyes watching you pass through the jungle do not see you as a fellow human being, but as game. This is the language of the earliest tribes, our most remote ancestors.
For an individual, hating others often begins with childhood fears. But for human beings in general, it may have taken root at the very beginning of our evolution. We experience fear and hatred of strangers so strongly because, at one time, it was the line between life and death.
But human beings did not remain in the forest forever. Once we began to tame the earth and to live in cities, we left written records. And so to understand the new shape of prejudices in the earliest days of human civilization, I turned to history and literature.
Where Do Prejudices Come From?
City Walls
Imagine the moment when the entire population of the world could be divided into two groups: the fortunate few who lived in cities, and all of the rest, scrambling to survive in the surrounding hills, wastes, and wildernesses. According to some scholars, one of the most ancient of stories describes exactly this moment, and the new form of prejudice it inspired. The Epic of Gilgamesh recounts the clash of savage and civilized.
             If a traveler 4800 years ago had been able to visit the entire earth, from pole to pole, he would have found just one great city: Uruk of Sumer. It is not just that other cities were smaller. Only a few other cities existed at all. Cities were as new as today’s most high tech devices – some people had heard of them, but few had actually seen them. Except for the lucky citizens of Uruk. The reputation of Uruk lives to this day: the modern nation of Iraq is named after this ancient city that was once the center of civilization.
It is easy to understand why Uruk became the greatest city in the world. Once the people of Uruk figured out how to build irrigation ditches from the Euphrates River, they turned the nearby land into lush fields of grain. This land was so fertile that the harvests of the ancient Sumerians rivaled those of modern farmers. Year after year of fabulous crops allowed people to stop worrying about how to find food and Uruk flourished. By 2700 BC as many as 45,000 people lived in the city.
A city in which well-fed people could gather together produced an explosion of marvelous inventions. Craftsmen made objects that merchants traded far across deserts, seas, and mountain ranges. Potters learned to shape one pot after another on a wheel in a kind of ancient factory. Then someone had the brilliant idea to take the wheel off, set it on the ground, and use it to help move things. Scribes even learned to capture the words that disappear from our lips. First they made slits in wet clay to count animals and record trades for merchants. Then they invented written language. If any place in the world could claim to be the home of the arts of civilization, it was Uruk.
The citizens of Uruk knew that other people were not pariwat. Every time they traded with strangers whose homes were a long journey away, they were recognizing that there were other human beings in the world. A large city of farmers and potters, priests and traders could not divide the world with the same frightening clarity as the head-hunting Munduruku of the rain forest. The scribes of Uruk recorded something new: prejudice with a reason.
Sometime near the year 2700 BC, a king named Gilgamesh built walls to encircle Uruk, his magnificent city. On their clay tablets, the wise men of Uruk recorded the deeds of their king. The Epic of Gilgamesh, as it is called, is one of the very oldest stories ever written down, and yet you can see its traces in the most recent fantasy quest.  
             The story tells us that Gilgamesh was a difficult, even terrifying, ruler. No one was safe from him. The people of Uruk pleaded with the gods to find a way to tame him, to challenge him. Their prayers were answered, for one god created the perfect rival for Gilgamesh, king of the world’s greatest city. This was
“Enkidu the brave, as powerful and fierce
As the war god Ninurta. Hair covered his body,
Hair grew thick on his head and hung
Down to his waist, like a woman’s hair.
He roamed all over the wilderness,
Naked, far from the cities of men,
Ate grass with gazelles, and when he was thirsty
He drank clear water from the waterholes,
Kneeling beside the antelope and deer.” 
            The perfect enemy of the arrogant ruler of the world’s largest city is the savage man of the woods who eats and drinks like a four-legged creature. Enkidu destroys animal traps, and frees animals – he is closer to them than to human beings.
            The two men are exact opposites: Gilgamesh of grand Uruk where people dress in elegant clothes, and every day there is a festival; Enkidu of the wild, who does not even know how to eat bread. Though they are well matched, Gilgamesh outwits Enkidu by introducing him to a sensual woman who seduces and then weakens him.
            Enkidu is “the strongest man in the world, with muscles like rock.” But Gilgamesh knows his weakness, and Enkidu falls for the trap. It is not hard to read this as showing that that those who filled the streets of the bustling city believed they were “better” than those who still lived like animals in the wild. Unlike the Mundaruku, the citizens of Uruk were not acting on instinct. Instead they were making what must have seemed a completely rational judgment: we are smart, while those who live outside of the walls are dumb, slow, destined to serve their betters. How could the people of Uruk have felt any other way? If you invented things as magnificent as writing, bread, pottery, and the wheel, why wouldn’t you assume you were superior to people who dressed in animal skins and lapped up water next to the antelope? This is prejudice with a reason, prejudice confirmed by observation.
And yet there is something strange and interesting in this ancient epic. After their first battle, Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh’s closest friend, his best companion. The proud king needs his savage brother. A master always needs a slave to confirm that he is a master. Just as a bully only feels strong because he has weaker kids to intimidate. This strange bond in which those who feel superior are actually completely dependent on having inferiors beneath them runs through all of human history. Gilgamesh easily defeats Enkidu, but he also needs him. That is a perfect portrait of people in a civilized city, surrounded by savages.
A baby screams, terrified that the dark men in his dreams will attack him. In the rain forest, warriors gleefully burn the villages of their enemies and carry home their heads. The people of Uruk glory in their superiority to savages, and show their wisdom in recognizing that they also need their defeated neighbors. From birth, to jungle tribes, to the first great cities human beings have carried sharp swords in the minds, splitting the world into me and you, them and us, advanced and primitive. We grow more civilized and, just at the same time, find new ways to be ever more cruel and harsh.
            The next section of this book follows this dual pattern through eras in which the most basic, most central, ideas of Western Civilization were invented. That is a daunting task. I am not a scholar of theology, philosophy, or of the ancient world. In writing this section I continually felt like a guest visiting a magnificent museum. Learned professors have studied the statues and mosaics around me in the greatest detail. The most brilliant thinkers have devoted their lives to studying texts I barely have time to skim. I just know how to walk a simple path from one end to the other. But the road from Sumer to “race” passes this way, and it is time now to follow it.