How did discrimination against black people in the United States become so bad? In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that two competing desires, economic self-interest and a desire to see themselves as pious, just, and objective drove white slave owners to develop myths and excuses for the enslavement of black people. The myths created were powerful. Harari writes, “theologians argued that Africans descended from Ham, son of Noah, saddled by his father with a curse that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites and their moral sense less developed. Doctors alleged that blacks live in filth and spread diseases – in other words, they are a source of pollution.”
These myths dominated the mindset of both white and black people with regards to race. They played on fear, used faulty evidence to justify white slave owners’ inherent self-interest, and allowed white slave owners to see themselves as benevolent, not as oppressive. Harari argues that these myths were so effective and persuasive that even when slavery officially ended, the influence of these myths lived on. While it was a huge change of events and culture to make slavery illegal, the power of myths found a way to live on.
“Notably,” Harari writes of British anti-slavery actions and subsequent American actions, “this was the first and only time in history that a large number of slaveholding societies voluntarily abolished slavery. But, even though the slaves were freed, racist myths that justified slavery persisted. Separation of the races was maintained by racist legislation and social custom. The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of cause and effect, a vicious circle.”
We celebrate the achievements of those who overturned and outlawed slavery in the Untied States, but we often fail to recognize how powerful the myths surrounding black inferiority were, and in many ways have continued to be to this day. It is a mistake to say that when slavery ended, that when blatantly racist legislation was repealed, that when a black man was elected president, the power of the myths which bolstered slavery and in some ways established our country dissipated. When myth creates the circumstances for a vicious circle, passively hoping that racism and inequality established by such myths will fade away is inadequate. The power of a myth must be replaced, Harari would argue, by another more powerful myth. Myths do not go away and cease to be influential on their own.