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.
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.”