Friday, July 24, 2009

The First American Profile

My good friend Tom Head has posted a history of racial profiling in the United States in the wake of the unwarranted arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Unfortunately, my good friend misses the point. Profiling is not the same as enslaving or discriminating against a group; it is assigning moral traits to certain shared physical characteristics.

A history of profiling might thus start not with emperor Charles V of Spain and Germany, whose mandates never held sway in the United States, as Tom's historical sketch suggests, but perhaps with the curse of Ham. The biblical story (Gen. 9:20-27) goes that Ham had "seen the nakedness" (which scholars read as a euphemism for sodomy) of his father, Noah, causing the latter to exclaim: "Cursed be Canaan [Ham's son]; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren."

How the descendants of Ham came to be identified with Africans is a twisted marriage of, on the one hand, prejudice convenient to English elites who in the 17th century saw profits in the slave trade, and on the other, murky Protestant readings of a text that in itself has no racial or ethnic content, tacit or explicit.

Note the two elements and their order.

First, there arose the economic need for slaves in the English colonies, as improved economic conditions in Britain diminished the supply of white indentured servants and a shift to the African slave trade as a source of labor.

Only in a second instance, after commercial and legal changes had institutionalized the trade, did the profile arise. The slaver would have told himself that "These Africans do not wear European clothes nor speak a European language, therefore they are savage, lesser beings fit only to serve whites."

The colonials whose society began to depend on the slavers' human cargo then needed to assuage their consciences in the face of the "peculiar institution." Wielding their Bibles, they seized on the Africans' dark skin, reasoning that it was a sign that their souls were "blackened" with Ham's sin and they were condemned to be the lowest caste of servants.

Thus was born the first American ethnic profile.
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