Where It All Began

A friend recently recommended Robert P. Jones’ most recent book, “The Hidden Roots of White Supremacy: and the Path to a Shared American Future,” and as I’ve gotten through it, I’ve become aware of just how misleading my history classes were and why White Christian Nationalists are so determined to eliminate accurate history (which they inaccurately call CRT) from the nation’s classrooms.

Jones is an ordained pastor and the director of the Public Religion Research Institute. (He also wrote “The End of White Christian America,” exploring the political and social responses by White Christians to their dwindling majority.) In this book, he has probed the Christian roots of White supremacy, which–he persuasively argues–goes back much further than American slavery and is responsible for the horrific treatment of both Native Americans and Blacks.

Jones locates the institutional source of White supremacy in a document I’d never previously heard of: The Doctrine of Discovery, issued as a Papal Bull in 1493–the year after Columbus’ “discovery” of America.

As one academic source describes it:

The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.

That document, which essentially gave European Christians carte blanche to invade and dispossess any non-Christian populations that might be inconveniently in possession of desirable territory, reflected a belief in European (White) Christian supremacy that is still potent.

Jones provides example after example of the U.S. government cheating Native Americans, breaching treaties, and decimating tribes. I thought back to my history classes. Not once in high school or college did that instruction include a description of the ways in which early Americans mistreated Native Americans. Not once was there even a mention of the Trail of Tears, arguably the most famous of these reprehensible events. I only learned about the Trail of Tears as an adult visiting a Cherokee museum.

The book moves between the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of slavery and Jim Crow–and the way we are still grappling with the remnants and persistence of both– and he provides important background and context for the murder of Emmet Till, the Tulsa massacre and other shameful episodes in our national life. In places, it has been very hard to read; I’ve had to take breaks from time to time as I considered, among other things, what sort of people would actually torture and kill a young teenager over the perceived “assault” of a wolf whistle, and what sorts of government officials intentionally refuse to honor treaties and routinely betray solemn promises.

Thanks to this book, I have a deeper appreciation for the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” because for a considerable part of our nation’s history, in many parts of the country, those lives didn’t matter to significant percentages of the White majority. (And let’s be honest; those lives still don’t matter to more Americans than I care to think about…)

It is coincidental that I am reading about this history during Black History month, but that coincidence emphasizes–at least, to me– the importance of teaching accurate, inclusive history. It has also given me a fuller understanding of the resistance; those who continue to harbor racial animus and view inclusion as a threat are frantic at the prospect of students abandoning a whitewashed (pun intended) version of the American nation as the “City on the Hill,” a virtuous product of White Christianity.

If the Germans can confront the Holocaust, Americans can confront our genocidal treatment of Native Americans and our vicious suppression of Black Americans. In fact, as Jones argues, we absolutely must. The only way to ensure that the past is truly past is to encounter and admit to it, warts and all.

Acknowledging the past and moving to remediate it is, in the end, our only “Path to a Shared American Future.”

27 Comments

  1. Perhaps while on your New Zealand trip you were apprised of the British version of treaty swindling between the Māori and the English! British colonialism went east and west across continents!

  2. The Israelis are using the same template used by American colonists against the Palestinians.

    The West and its partners in crime have not learned a goddamned thing.

  3. The last paragraph and your concluding sentence in your essay today are spot on. Well done professor!
    I was raised in Oklahoma, and was aware of the Trail of Tears as a horrible tragedy since I was a young boy, but not of the extent of the treatment of the Cherokee and other of the “5 Great Tribes” that were forcibly relocated on what was seen as worthless land. “Worthless”, that is, until it was not.
    Another event that was never talked about in Oklahoma history when I was growing up was the Tulsa Massacre, or the Dewey Massacre, or the event in Pawhuska that is now called the “Killers of the Flower Moon” , even though all that happened only a few miles from my home.
    It is important for us to take in all history, acknowledge our sins, and make atonement so we can move on. Until then, our cruelty will remain a festering wound that smells bad and gets worse the longer it is ignored.

  4. The Papal Bull sounds like it should be the founding document for unregulated capitalism too. It should be right/down there with Milton Friedman’s supply-side economic theories. Even in 1493, it was always about the money/wealth. Exploit. Use up the resources. Discard the leftovers. End of story.

    One wonders how the “church” reconciled these edicts with the New Testament. I doubt it ever occurred to the operators of the church. It was always about money and power.

  5. It goes back to Ham, the son of Noah, who brought it on himself for gazing at his father’s drunken nakedness. Proving that it’s okay to actually get drunk and strip naked, but looking at the fool who does it brings a curse.
    Oh, that doesn’t seem to make sense??? No, but we gotta remember, Reaganomics, MAGA, Dred Scott, and Papal Bulls really don’t either.
    So maybe a new Enlightenment (one which will finish the job!) is our only hope?

  6. It was the same Christian supremacy thinking that caused the centuries long persecution of Jews and led to the Holocaust. Was there ever a time when so called Christians actually followed the teachings of Jesus? They have always fallen back on the Old Testament to justify their worst behaviors and desires.

    Even today, some Christians who preach love still think anyone who does not align with them is going to hell. This, in their minds, gives them, not only the right, but the mission to convert all others and claim they are doing it out of love for souls. Never mind the anguish they cause to minds and bodies.

    It is fundamentalist religion of all stripes that is the enemy of freedom and equality under the law.

  7. Americans have justified their poor behavior for a very long time and have always had religion cover their tracks. The colonizers always bring religious zealots with them — missionaries to convert “heathens” into Christians. Thou shall not kill was for the conquered hoping to prevent an uprising after their conquerors stole their land.

    Bibi rejected the cease-fire and called the Saudis plan “delusional.” He is a colonizer who is committing genocide, just like the Americans and British. The right-wingers across the globe are anti-immigrant. Will the Western colonizers support Israel’s genocide?

    I agree that atonement of sins is necessary, and that is what I advocated for after the George Floyd murder when BLM was forming demands. Locally, they settled for superficial gestures. BLM missed a great opportunity.

  8. I learned about the Trail of Tears when I was 6, during a family vacation to Michigan. We stopped at Pokagan State Park where we saw plaques dedicated to the Potowatami and the Trail. Both my mother and father were able to tell us about it. It must have been taught at some time.

    Stop selective history teaching! Let students study whatever they find interesting as part of the regular curriculum.

  9. “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
    They can’t handle the truth…it bites!
    Excellent posting, Sheila!

  10. Religion has long been regarded as the guide to morality for our species – also immorality in the form of spreading to the world (true believers having dominion over everything and body) despite resistance. Perhaps they were back when they were founded, but that day is in the distant past now.

    Why don’t we be real and treat others as we would have them treat us instead?

    That way, we can find happiness on earth and whatever happens after we die.

  11. The history text books at my public school described Native Americans as savages and members/leaders of the US military as heroes. Most of the content was about the military leaders. Test questions asked the battle names and the year/years they took place. William Henry Harrison was listed as one of Indiana’s heroes in battles against Native Americans.

    Ten or fifteen years ago I visited Battleground and Prophetstown in western Indiana and learned the actual truth about one of Harrison’s battles. He and his army rode horseback several days on their trip to Battleground to meet with Tecumseh, who at the time was a respected leader. However, at that time Tecumseh was as far away as Canada on a quest to convince enough other tribes to join him and create a force large enough to stop the white settlers from stealing any more of their land. Unfortunately Tecumseh’s brother, known as the Prophet, was left in charge at home and chose to attack Harrison’s army. Harrison’s army then murdered everyone in the tribal village, including women and children. He burned down everything.

    That story was never mentioned at all in any of the school textbooks so I learned at the Battleground memorial that the real savages were the American army members. The authors of public school history text books completely whitewashed our country’s real history.

    While I also had never heard of the Doctrine of Discovery, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it came from a pope. Organized religion is full of lies and is responsible for wars all over the world.

  12. FYI… A number of mainline Christian denominations have already reflected on and officially repudiated the so-called doctrine of discovery, including my own faith tradition. The next question, though, is what to do about it. How can we say we oppose the concept of stealing land that’s not ours and committing genocide on the people whose land it once was, while continuing to live on it and prosper from it?

    This is not just a question for religious groups. It’s a political question too. And I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to suggest.

  13. I wouldn’t leave out the influence of big landowners in America playing their part in affecting the political sphere. When you no longer support big oil (as a limited resource), cattle ranchers (not vegans) , and lumber mills (concerns over deforestation) it seems like all of that could be a potential threat to their way of life. So a populace more concerned with climate change and what is actually going on with a land’s resources is not to their benefit. From what I can tell Native Americans are conscious of this and already involved in Water Rights for their communities. Historically too I would say that poor black neighborhoods and Native Americans probably live closer to industrial pollution than white people who say NIMBY.

  14. “Why don’t we be real and treat others as we would have them treat us instead?” – copied from Pete’s post. This is the Golden Rule.

    If everyone followed the golden rule, then how could some people gain power and control over others? This holds especially true when it comes to leaders of/in organized religions that like to tell their people how to behave while the leaders are some of the most corrupt people on earth.

  15. Nancy, Americans have been taught by entertainment media for profit that every person needs privacy to be free in their homes, transportation, clubs, demeanor, lives in general. Keep the public out!

    That requires controlling others, not accepting them as like you.

  16. Here is another of many attempts to mix church and state. From an ethical and historical stance the European settlers who dispossessed and murdered American Indians were and remain the “savages,” not (as their preachers, priests, and corrupt royalties told them) the Indians.

    If we ever get to reparations, Indian as well as black slave successors should be on the list.

  17. “Where it all began” has much older roots than 1493. Recognizing that helps shed light on the more fundamental problem and its historical resolutions.

    15th Century (and later) New World colonialism is a subset of global colonialism which dates back to prehistory. Likely well prior to the waning and extinction of Neanderthals after modern Homo Sapiens began colonizing the Near East, Europe, and West Asia.

    USA seems more fraught with racism than our European cousins currently do.

    Three likely reasons:
    1. Europe’s comparative racial and religious homogeneity – white & Christian (albeit varying sects who only settled into a live & let live accommodation after a lethal 17th Century war and subsequent drift toward secularism).
    2. Recency of colonization. Colonization was FAR more recent in what is now the USA as compared to fairly long-settled populations in Europe. Recent school texts still portrayed European arrival and native-displacing settlement in self-justifyingly benign terms.
    3. Europe’s scourging during and after WWII. Colonialism became unsustainable in light of post-war economic challenges, indefensible in light of colonial agitation and the obvious hypocrisy of colonialism after fighting Axis colonialism, and, in no small measure, unacceptable in light of US pressure.
    [Interesting to note that as Europe’s homogeneity is being threatened by the necessity of birth-dearth labor import and by post-colonial immigration from former colonies to their former colonizers, Europe is seeing an increase in intolerance and pushback against non-European immigrants and the rise of ethnic and religious agitation and right-wing politics.]

    I would suggest the key to diagnosis and resolution comes from noting that colonialism itself is a subset of something elemental: “Particularism” (vs. “Universalism”).

    “Particularism” vs. “Universalism” is the fault line in human identity.

    Particularism is the identification of self- or a group as distinct from others and possessing stronger claims than others by right or privilege of that particular. It’s seeing others as different and a less rightful or deserving or worthy. In its toxic form, it sees others strictly as means (or obstructions) to the particularist’s ends. Others’ own ends are at most their own problem or of lesser or no consequence.

    Particularism is an entirely natural, rationally expected emergent product of human regeneration — the natural narcissism of newborns and children, the nurturing privileging of marriage and family, the essential support and shared sacrifices of kinship and, by extension, tribe.

    Particularism underlies all societal polarities: spouse/non-spouse; family/non-family; kin/non-kin, “our”-religion/”not-our”-religion; classes & castes, ethnicities & races”; wealth & income quintiles; occupational prejudices and status; etc.

    Particularism is a paradox – a source of both great joy and deep sorrow. It can be benign – the safety, comfort, and love in a good marriage and nurturing family. It can be toxic – history’s genocides and brutal subjugations as its most tragic legacy.

    When we look closely at toxic Particularism, we notice its emergence and virulence in zero-sum situations – physical or psychological.

    What does history have to say about the resolution of toxic Particulism? How might our legacies of Colonialism and slavery eventually resolve?

    To endure, Particularism focuses heavily on walls — prioritizing and making virtues of creating and patrolling identity and physical boundaries. Anti-miscegenation laws. Jewish and Muslim dietary requirements and a whole host of proscriptions and prescriptions in the Sunnah and Islamic law and tradition. Jewish maternal-inheritance law. Nazi Arianism. Indian anti-Dalit caste laws. European anti-Romany laws. British anti-Catholic/anti-Irish laws. Constitutionally official languages. Citizenship and its attainment/conferral requirements.

    One historical expedient is expanding beyond “zero-sum”: migrating from disputed land, creating productive vs extractive or tributary economics, redefining the Particular in broader terms to expand or break down its high, tightly-enclosing walls.

    But historically, the ultimate remedy has proven to be “Universalism” – the notion that we’re all one; we’re all the same; the elimination of “otherness”.

    Achieving Universalism can be benign (eg, by voluntary mutual assimilation in which 2 peoples merge to become a hybrid third).

    Achieving Universalism can be pathological (eg, physical genocide or cultural genocide by one-sided, involuntary assimilation in which “we’re all the same” is the simple, brutal fact of no “others”).

    If we seek the most humane, comparatively benign resolution of the legacies of Native genocide and colonialism and of race-based slavery in the USA, history would suggest it will come as a consequence of several generations of widespread intermarriage.
    1. It would blur or eliminate most binary physical distinctions
    2. It would encourage mutual assimilation
    3. It would expand our “zero-sum” mindset by seeing others as like us with their own, equally worthy ends and all of us together seeking bigger solutions rather than zero-sum wins/losses.

    Unless and until American Whites and minorities widely and willingly intermarry and substantially assimilate physically and culturally, White Particularism will remain toxic and lethal. There will no true peace or equal citizenship — only partial, ad hoc fixes and only after unignorable abuses by the more empowered, dominant societally-defined race.

    Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (typically Muslim) are in a zero-sum situation: each wishes dominance of the same small patch of land from “river to sea”.

    The 2 cultures have an historically proven way forward to true peace – Universalism by way of widespread, willing intermarry and substantial mutual assimilation into a hybrid new culture.

    The problem is, both cultures are so locked into their current Particularism that the only resolution will be pathological. Universalism will only exist “between the river and the sea” after one has eliminated the other by expulsion or cultural or physical genocide. Biden and others can push for cease-fires. But as long as Israelis and Palestinian Arabs are committed to their Particularism in a zero-sum environment, there will no peace — only temporary pauses between slaughters.

  18. I came across the following within the last couple of months; forget where, exactly, probably a Facebook posting. This is not an exact quote, but it’s close.

    Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    Those who oppose teaching history want to repeat it.

  19. If you’d like a tour of how the US would give peace treaties (and medals!) and then immediately murder a tribe, I recommend the museum that’s under the St. Louis arch.

    Maybe the most depressing museum I’ve been to.

  20. Greg Farrell – I fail to understand why Muslims and Jews must give up their religious beliefs in order to conform to “universal” pig eating. Genghis Khan decreed that Muslims and Jews must eat pork. That was either his fear that maybe avoiding pig was good, or a good excuse to discriminate against minorities by blaming them for “acting uppity” by refusing to eat pig.

    Also, you should understand that Jewish maternal-inheritance laws were a modification based upon the age-old practice of raping Jewish women, from the Romans until today. You are always certain who the mother is. Older Jewish law, like other Iron-Age societies, was largely patriarchal.

    You are correct that the Israelis and Palestinians should recognize their common blood (they are genetic brothers), but you do miss the point that Israel accepted the 1948 UN partition plan; the Palestinians rejected it.

    As for the main topic, my elementary school history book was so racist (in Detroit) that the NAACP eventually got it banned. Somewhere while growing up, I managed to learn real history, and fortunately, it was before I took that ridiculous 5th grade American history class.

  21. “The accelerated desire to relocate Indigenous peoples to the West was a consequence of the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Jackson had a long and complicated history with Indigenous tribes, having grown up in frontier settlements where stories of attacks by them were common.”
    Elections have consequences. Democrat Andrew Jackson turned the tide after his election.
    Elections have consequences. For the Indians the election of a Democrat President was devastating

  22. I learned in history classes and through my education in general a great deal about war, hate and greed. It seems that most of human history has been a story of who killed whom and when. I know of no culture of any length where humans accepted each other as we are and lived in peace, supporting each other. I have studied Utopian cultures, they have all failed.

    I wonder, can we ever develop the ability to work together, and serve and support each other, when so often we strive to have more than our neighbor? When I look upon this incredible world, I feel that we have somehow been given a perfect home, if only we would take care of it together.

    There is also the inevitability that each one of us will grow old, there’s nothing we can do about that. We will each die from disaster, war, hate, accident, or illness. Each one of us will inevitably lose everything we have, everyone we love and cherish, all our possessions, even our identity. They will slip through our fingers like dry sand. Our deeds are the ground upon which we stand, only those will outlive us — so why don’t we strive for the good of all?

    Yes, as humans we have a lot to atone for, persecution of each other, genocide for who knows what reason other than our tendency to put ourselves above everyone else. It doesn’t have to be color of skin, or where someone came from, but it just makes it more convenient when they look different.

    Humans are quite simply incorrigible. We dream of the possibility that we can change, but is it really possible for humans to live together in peace?

  23. My parents apparently got a fairly good education in our small, rural, all white Hoosier school. They always remarked on the poor treatment of American Indians throughout our history up to and including the present.

    A former roommate in Washington, D.C. worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She would come home from work nearly every day depressed over the treatment of ‘the poor Indians’.

    In my adult life, I’ve had two colleagues who were native Americans. They were solidly middle class folks who one would never know were of Indian ancestry. They couldn’t understand why white folks of European descent were so threatened by or hostile to native Americans who wanted to celebrate their tribal ancestry. I couldn’t either.

  24. We had a guest preacher at my church yesterday. He is president of Luther Seminary in Philadelphia. In his talk with us at coffee hour, he told us he is from Oklahoma and a member of the Osage Nation. I asked him if he learned about the story told in Scorses’s film either from his family or in school. He told us that he only learned of it as an adult. It certainly wasn’t taught in school, and it was not discussed in his Native American community. He also mentioned that the Tulsa riots were also never taught or discussed. This kind of burial of historic facts is what the right wingers now controlling the GOP want to bring back.

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