People of our age have adopted the curious habit of considering ourselves more advanced, better informed, more wise, than the people of any generation who came before us.
This is new.
Peoples past always looked backwards toward a "golden age" of prosperity and wisdom whose great men were giants of philosophy, of whom we today are but a pale reflection. Why this change of heart among moderns?
Our technical innovation? Cuisinarts and contact lenses and polystyrene beer cozies are the proof that we have transcended our forebears in sagacity?
It would appear so, as even the opinions of our most prominent ancestors from two or three centuries past are today often held up to ridicule. This is particularly so when it comes to that most delicate of modern questions, ethnic co-habitation. The zeitgeist of our age, here in the West at the start of the 21st century, holds that each neighborhood should be an even blend of many ethnic groups: salt and pepper and cinammon and cumin put into the same shaker, thoroughly mixed, and sprinkled liberally.
Our forebears, even the most illustrious, would find such a thought curious indeed.
(So, incidentally, would our East Asian counterparts today, but then again they turn in a different sphere, chuckling peacably at our folly from afar.)
In the United States, world-famous "melting pot" and ground zero for modern racial politics, it may be of interest to consider the troubled ethnic co-existence of today in light of some of our predecessors' remarks on the subject. Above all in regards to Sub-Saharan Africans, that group who has lived longest alongside northern Europeans on North American soil.
A snapshot of the current situation can be viewed by perusing the works of racial anthropologist Paul Kersey at SBPDL, whose exhaustive coverage and analysis of the topic is without equal, or of the witty Unamusement Park, tireless aggregator of statistics on unpleasant truths whose database should not be missed. Journalist Steve Sailer frequently writes about the issue, as do the social commentators at Alternative Right, La Griffe du Lion, and Audacious Epigone.
As they and many others have demonstrated, relations between Afro- and Euro-Americans are at a rocky place. In this age of equal housing rights, as soon as a neighborhood becomes largely Afro, Euros begin to flee the numerous pathologies confronting them (the famous "white flight"), preferring an expensive moving process to facing daily grafitti, insult, vandalism, noise disturbance, property theft, and street violence. Curiously, as the neighborhood becomes "blacker and blacker", many Afros themselves feel compelled to leave the company of their ethnic brethren and to follow the Euros to their new neighborhoods (the frequent but rarely commented upon "black flight"). Where the cycle begins again. And again. And again.
So as we pack our bags and get ready to move house again, annoyed by the growing insecurity of our newly Afro neighborhood but secure in our liberal convictions that it's surely our fault, somehow, that this demographic acts out in this way, let us dare to cast an incautious eye on the opinions of an earlier age. Opinions which we once laughed off as hopelessly out of touch, misguided, archaic, but which we find harder and harder to ignore as ruthless reality begins to topple even our surest convictions.
Caution: Our forebears used words that may sound impolitic, mean-spirited, even abusive to our ears. What realities did they face in their daily lives capable of bringing them to such extreme conclusions? One can only survey the state of Afro-America in 2011 and ponder:
"All I ask for the negro is that, if you do not like him, let him alone. If God gave him but little, that little let him enjoy." "I yield to all which follows from necessity. What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races."
[Addressing an Afro-American audience:] “You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races. Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them living among us, while ours suffer from your presence. In a word we suffer on each side. If this is admitted, it affords a reason at least why we should be separated.”
"To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications."
"Why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red?"
Scottish philosopher David Hume:
"I am apt to suspect the negroes, and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. [...] Not to mention our colonies, there are NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptom of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession."
Ralph Waldo Emerson:
"It cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family."
“What is the true nature of the evil of the existence of a portion of the African race in our population? It is not that there are some but that there are so many … who can never amalgamate with the great body of our population.” "[Repatriation to Africa would] rid our country of a useless and pernicious, if not dangerous portion of its population.”
New York governor John Dix:
“The mass of crime committed by Africans is greater in proportion to numbers, in the non slaveholding than in the slaveholding States; and as a rule the degree of comfort enjoyed by them is inferior. This is not an argument in favor of slavery; but it is an unanswerable argument in favor of rendering emancipation and colonization [to Africa] coextensive with each other.”
Francis Scott Key:
“I cannot remember more than two instances out of this large number [of his freed slaves], in which it did not appear that the freedom I earnestly sought for them was their ruin. It has been so with a very large proportion of all others I have known emancipated.”
W.E.B. Dubois, in 1899:
"The number of deserted wives [in Philadelphia], however, allowing for false reports, is astoundingly large and presents many intricate problems. A very large part of charity given to Negroes is asked for this reason. The causes of desertion are partly laxity in morals and partly the difficulty of supporting a family. The result of this large number of homes without husbands is to increase the burden of charity and benevolence, and also on account of their poor home life to increase crime. Here is a wide field for social regeneration.
[...] There can be no doubt but what sexual looseness is to-day the prevailing sin of the mass of the Negro population, and that its prevalence can be traced to bad home life in most cases. Children are allowed on the street night and day unattended; loose talk is often indulged in; the sin is seldom if ever denounced in the churches. "
Finally, writer Thomas Nelson Page, in 1904:
"The Negroes, indeed, may be divided into three classes.
The first is a small class, comparatively speaking, who are more or less educated, some being well educated and well conducted; others, with a semblance of education and none too well behaved. The former constitute what may be termed the upper fraction; the latter possess only a counterfeit culture and lack the essential elements of character and even moral perception.
The second class is composed of a respectable, well-behaved, self-respecting element; sensible, though with little or no education, and, except when under the domination of passion, good citizens. This class embraces most of the more intelligent of the older generation who were trained in slavery, and a considerable element of the intelligent middle-aged, conservative workers of the race who were trained by that generation. The two together may be called the backbone of the race.
The third class is composed of those who are wholly ignorant, or in whom, though they have what they call education, this so-called education is unaccompanied by any of the fruits of character which education is supposed to produce. Among these are many who esteem themselves in the first class, and, because of a veneer of education, are not infrequently confounded with them.
The first two classes may easily be reckoned with. They contain the elements which make good citizens and which should enable them to secure all proper recognition and respect. They need no weapon but that which they possess: good citizenship.
Unfortunately, the great body of the race, and a vast percentage of the growing generation, belong to the third class. It is this class which has to be reckoned with. It is like a vast sluggish mass of uncooled lava over a large section of the country, burying some portions and affecting the whole. It is apparently harmless, but beneath its surface smoulder fires which may at any time burst forth unexpectedly and spread desolation all around. It is this mass, increasing from beneath, not from above, which constitutes the Negro question."
According to our individual experience, these diverse and strongly-worded opinions from prominent men of our past may leave us open-mouthed in horror, shaking our heads in disbelief, or grimacing in recognition. Only life, after all, that daily accretion of small observations stacked one upon another over long years, can lead us to decide if our forebears spoke wisdom or folly-- or something in between.