The Persistence of Racism

In 1992 on vacation we visited The Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels and saw an exhibit of an African, housed in a glass case, dating from the 19th century. This was not a statue or a model, but the preserved body of a human being, exhibited as is if it were a chimpanzee or a lion. Clearly the curators of the museum thought it was OK to show this, even as late as 1992. The details I recall were that the body was a native of one of the Belgian colonies in the 19th century. The attitude of many Europeans then was that Africans were primitive and fundamentally less capable of higher mental functioning than Europeans. All over Europe and the Americas, for hundreds of years, it was not uncommon to see indigenous people from distant lands collected for amusement in various human zoos. A famous case was Ota Benga, a Congolese pygmy who was exhibited in 1906 with chimpanzees on a daily basis at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

Ota Benga, 1906, New York

Another example is the “El Negro” exhibit in Spain.

Postcard from the Darder Museum in Banyoles, Spain, 1983

This was the body of a Tswana warrior who was stolen from his grave in 1831, stuffed, and mounted for exhibition. The body remained on display for over a century. Only in 2000 were the human remains returned to Africa and re-buried with ceremony.

Our aversion to such practices was shared by many people, especially clergymen, in the 19th century. Many condemned some aspects of the discrimination against races that were thought to be inferior. We fought a civil war in the United States (1861-1865) to end enslavement of African-Americans. Official equality for racial minorities is the law in many countries. Nevertheless  the exhibits in Brussels and Spain persisted until quite recently. There is no basis for smug complacency about their disappearance. Human zoos continue to exist. The underlying attitudes persist. Think about Hitler’s racist persecution of Jews and other so-called non-Aryans in the 1930s and 1940s, the recent episodes of genocide in Africa and eastern Europe, or the rhetoric of Donald Trump on Muslims and Mexicans. Obviously there are still people who think that some groups of people are superior to others.

In the next post I will discuss some recent developments in science related to human populations and races.


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