The Roots of Race

The Word of the Month is RADISH.

I’ve long told my students that one really interesting thing about the Roman Empire is that nobody seemed to care much about what we call “race,” that is, a large group of people, not bound by ethnicity, who share a few physical characteristics held to be definitive and significant.

Let me illustrate. St. Augustine was born in north Africa, near Carthage, the “New City” founded by the seafaring Phoenicians—the “Purplers,” so-called by the Romans not for their complexion but for their most lucrative trade. They made purple dye, compounded from a certain shellfish. Augustine’s mother, Monica, had a Purple name; his father, Patricius, had a Roman name, but that proves nothing. Anybody might have a Roman or a Greek name. Among the apostles, Philip and Andrew had Greek names. Saul, a Roman citizen, also went by the Roman moniker Paulus—Shorty, as it were.

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No one bothered to say what Augustine looked like. Did he have dark skin, as the Ethiopians did? Was he fair skinned, such as the Berbers are? Italians, we think, have dark skin and dark hair, but common names like Rufus—“Red,” and Flavius—“Blondie” suggest a wide range of possibilities. Nero’s family name was Ahenobarbus: Copperbeard. 

The Romans certainly noticed, and remarked upon it, that the Germans were often taller and fairer than they were, while the Germans laughed upon first seeing the troops of Julius Caesar because they were short. Those Romans, and everybody else in the Mediterranean world, thought that sub-Saharan Africans had dark skin because they were burnt by the sun over the course of centuries. They did not attribute any great importance to it.

What about the ancient Israelites? The Hebrew word goyim, for the nations that do not have the law of Moses, is not a racial category. Their fellow Semites the Egyptians are goyim. Their fellow Semites the Canaanites are goyim. 

Uriah was not a Semite: the Hittites spoke an Indo-European language, as do we speakers of English. But he was not really of the goyim: he worshiped the God of Israel. The Greek translation of goyim is ethnoi, as in our word ethnic, which for us denotes something that is sort of physical and sort of cultural, and sometimes less than cultural. The Germanic translation of the word gives us German Heiden, English heathen, the latter now archaic and strictly pejorative; but the title of the great chorale and hymn “Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland“Savior of the Nations, Come”—reminds us that Christ has come to save all men, not just Jews, or Greeks and Romans.

Then why do we make so much of the notion? Is it an accident of history? Had the hotter climates in the New World been more amenable to European settlers, there would likely have been no importation of African slaves, just as there was no such in the cold climates of the north. 

The American Civil War, fought in large part over slavery and the economic rift between the North and the South that the system engendered, happened at a bad time for the ideology. The science of taxonomy had reduced to fascinating order all the various plants and animals of the world, and that same habit of classification was inevitably applied to man himself. 

Meanwhile, the ideology of progress, explicit in every evolutionary theory and implicit in every confrontation between the technologically superior Europeans and the natives in the New World, suggested that it was right and just for the superior, as a race, to govern the inferior, until such time as the inferior could catch up and govern themselves—if such a time should ever be reached.

What should have been the clash of culture and culture—the rule in human existence—was cast in scientific terms, and to science who says nay? “Science is real,” says the fool waving his sign. Strangely enough, the less scientific Spanish, who in certain respects treated the natives worse than the English did, in other respects treated them far better. They did not hold them at arm’s length or look upon them as irremediably inferior. A fair appraisal of the Paraguayan Reductions and of the California missions shows as much: Catholic priests taught the natives the most sophisticated skills for every trade under the sun, leading soon to reading and writing and scholarship, often to the annoyance of laymen who did not relish the competition. Intermarriage was common among the Spanish and the natives, as it was between the French and the natives in Canada.

And how long does it take before it makes little difference where your people came from? I am “Italian” because my grandparents came from Italy, but what about me is Italian is hard to describe. I taught myself the language, I have read much of the literature, I have studied the art and the music, I have visited the land, I have many cousins there whom I have met—but I am American, not Italian, as five minutes in Italy will suffice to show. 

If that is so for me, how then is an African-American genuinely African, when he does not speak or read the language of his ancestors? And what does the descendant of a slave from Senegal have in common, ethnically, with the descendant of a slave from the Congo? Anything? What does either one have to do with an immigrant just arriving from Nigeria? It is like heaping together a shepherd from Iceland with a wine maker from Greece and a fisherman from Portugal because their noses are sort of similar. Yet the Icelander, the Greek, and the Lusitanian have more in common than do the Senegalese and the Congolese; they share the same language family, and ever since the evangelization of Iceland, they have shared the same religious faith.

Our word race came into the European languages in the Renaissance, loosely to suggest people belonging to a tribe or family, or, in English, people having the same occupation. The Florentines belonged to una razza and the Sienese to another. The Colonna in Rome belonged to una razza and the Orsini in Rome to another. We do not know the origin of the word.

In English, the word’s meaning tangled up with that of an older race, meaning root, from the French, and ultimately from Latin radix, radicis, root. To deracinate thus means to pull something up by the roots. My roots, I might say, are in Italy, but I don’t know whether that is true. My speech, my habits, my hobbies, the food I eat, the games I play, the national holidays I celebrate, my memories of woods and hills and streams, even the way I walk down a street—these are all American, and if these are not radical in me, I can’t imagine what would be so. It is the same with every native American—for I was born here—no matter where his ancestors came from.

The word root came late into Old English from the north; our older word is preserved in its cousin wort, as in bloodwort, the dock plant with the deep crimson veins. Both are cousins with Latin radix, which has been borrowed for many an English scientific and mathematical term. Chaucer’s Pardoner says that he preaches one text only: Radix malorum est cupiditas, that is, cupidity is the root of all evil, but he interprets it in one sense, the love of money is the root of all evil, because he wants his audience to give theirs to him.

All kinds of cupidity bloom forth in evil: desires for sex, money, fame, status, power, vengeance; whatever takes the place of God as central in the human heart. And people use all kinds of factitious categories to get what they desire. Those include race, however defined. “My family is better than your family,” said one son of a miner in my hometown to another, “because you’re a bunch of hillers,” living on the steepest of many hills in town, “and we’re not.”

Which suggests to me a way to rob the sin, or the imputation of sin, of the dread seriousness it feeds upon. For radix is also the root of the English word for that tart little vegetable that gives a bite to a good sandwich: the radish. “I am better than you because I have better radishes,” says no one who wants to be taken seriously. Imagine a radish tester or a nose reckoner at the gates of Heaven!

We all have the same radish in Adam, and that is nothing to be proud of. Our faith is not about comparing radishes, or even about seeking our roots, for better or for worse, but about being grafted anew into the living tree, which is Christ. Learn it already.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]


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