Steven King has an interesting question.
King, R-Iowa, was part of an MSNBC panel discussion on Monday afternoon, hosted by Chris Hayes, along with Charles Pierce, a writer for Esquire; and reporter April Ryan. Discussion turned to the predominantly white makeup of the Republican Party, and King objected. The problem? He's tired of this whole “old white people business.”
“I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you are talking about?” King asked. “Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
“Than white people?” Hayes asked.
“Than Western civilization itself that’s rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America, and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world,” King said. “That’s all of Western civilization.”
Hayes cut off the discussion immediately, undoubtedly hoping to stop an ugly discussion before it grew even uglier. (He since has conceded that he might have made the wrong decision.) But let's give King some credit. He has tried to initiate an important discussion on race in our country. What noteworthy contributions have non-whites made to the United States, to the West and to human civilization in general? It's only fair to ask.
For starters – and this is an easy one – black labor powered the engine of the North American economy for about two centuries. Black slavery began in 1619 when colonials brought African slaves to Virginia to work the plantation fields, but it was really in the 1660s that slavery grew and hardened into a hereditary institution in which blacks would work, and whites would reap the benefits of that labor.
For the next two centuries, blacks would receive only the barest compensation for labor that consumed their every waking hour for six days a week, while their stolen wages fattened the wealth of the white families that owned the labor camps where they toiled. (In our genteel way, we call these “plantations.”) It's safe to say that without stolen labor artificially suppressing the price of cotton, the American economy never would have been as powerful as it was by the time of the Civil War.
But I'm sure that King is tired of hearing about slavery, so let's not dwell on that. We'll also overlook the cultural contributions of black performers such as Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, Diana Ross and Louis Armstrong; the very existence of jazz music and spirituals that have been mainstays in church or around campfires for generations, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”; and cultural icons like Bugs Bunny, largely derived from Gullah stories of Brer Rabbit.
We also should discount the contribution of the black and Chinese laborers who built the railways out West. I'm sure King wouldn't count that as significant, since anybody could have built railroads or paved roads. The real movers and shakers were the tycoons who owned the businesses and who received millions of dollars from the efforts of these laborers. God's eyes are on the workers, but it's the wealthy who matter to us.
Should we focus on people like Daniel Hale Williams, the first person to successfully complete open heart surgery? Williams was black, but perhaps he won't count for King, because Williams only pioneered a new lifesaving procedure in medicine and didn't actually discover a new field of medicine. Other such inventions and innovations include blood banks, the refrigerator, the electric trolley, the dust pan, the comb, the mop, the brush, the clothes dryer, the lawn mower, traffic signals, the pen and the pencil sharpener.
Still, these are mere inventions, King might object. That Kenmore refrigerator is important, and you miss it when it stops working in the heat of the summer, but that's not as foundational to civilization as the very notion of democracy.
Alas, it is not. So let's look at the foundations, and see where they lie.
Agriculture began around 9,000 BCE far from Europe, in the fertile crescent, where farmers started to raise wheat and barley; and around 8,000 BCE in South America, with the first potato farmers. Cultivating crops may mark the start of human civilization, since agriculture allows formerly nomadic people to settle down and begin to see one spot of land as home.
As agriculture improves, the land begins to support more people in smaller areas. Cities are about as foundational to civilization as we can get, and the first known cities were nowhere in Western Europe, Eastern Europe or the United States. The oldest cities arose in ancient Sumer, around 7500 BCE. Writing first appeared around 3200 BCE, in Sumeria and in Egypt. China developed its first writing around 1200 BCE.
There was approximately nothing going on in Europe at this time. Greece was in decline and had entered a period called the Greek Dark Ages, and everything else we've learned of the rest of Europe we've had to deduce from graves.
Back to those ancient cities. Living in close proximity to one another often gives rise to other innovations. With space at a premium, there is a need to stack people atop one another more efficiently. So architecture also may be said to have originated in Sumer, along with government and means of records-keeping.
That also means that economies (and economics) began in Sumer, although money wouldn't come along for several centuries. Lydia, a city-state located in present-day Turkey, generally is credited with minting the first coins in the seventh century BCE, but it was the Tang Dynasty of China that gets credit for inventing paper currency in 740 BCE.
King also claims credit on behalf of Christianity, for its contributions to Western civilization. It's worth remembering that Christianity isn't actually a European or Western religion. It began in the East, and embraces many Eastern ideals such as the union of body and spirit, and judging a man on his actions rather than on his words. The gospel was preached in Africa before it reached Europe, and the biggest churches today are in Asia, not the United States. How anyone could link this to white people is beyond me.
So, there you have it, Mr. King. I'm no historian, but while I'll agree that European and American societies have gifted the world with tremendous literature, music, art, philosophy, science and God knows what else, I'm not sure there is any basis to your claim that we've done more than any other race, color or ethnicity. Discount the black contribution to America, and you erase America. Discount Africa and Asia, and you've just erased human history.
Tired of this whole “old white people business?” Then come on out and join the rest of the human race, Mr. King. There's a whole lot going on out here, and you don't want to miss out.
Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.