15 May 2004

Two Abrahams and 19th-century racism

In the new issue of Comment, Vincent Bacote writes of the "Gifts of 'Father Abraham'." Here he recounts his own distress at discovering in Abraham Kuyper, for whose vision he was otherwise enthusiastic, expressed viewpoints that can only be described as racist. Fortunately Bacote is able to affirm Kuyper's overall understanding of the relationship between faith and life despite the latter's belief that "Aryans" are superior to their fellow human beings with skin of darker pigment.

Indeed in his day Kuyper was by no means alone in his belief in racial inequality. The following was spoken by another Abraham, surnamed Lincoln, in the first debate with his rival for public Office, Stephen A. Douglas, in 1858:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.

There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man. I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects---certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.

One can, of course, choose to focus on the offending elements in Lincoln's speech, as they undoubtedly reflect the future US president's genuine convictions. At the same time, it seems clear in which direction Lincoln was attempting to move his audience, namely, towards a recognition of the rights of black Americans and of the injustice of involuntary servitude.

We can undoubtedly find countless examples among our ancestors of unenlightened attitudes towards the races, the role of women, and so forth. Yet rather than causing us to believe in our own superiority to them (might this be a kind of chronological rather than epidermal racism?), it should instead engender in us humility for two reasons. First, we should be humble in acknowledging what we owe to those who came before us, however atavistic some of their opinions may appear generations later. But second, being aware of the blind spots in our forebears should make us aware that we ourselves may be unable to see clearly on issues where we unthinkingly reflect the prejudices of the larger society.

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