The origins of racism

It is a shock for the historian, contemplating this overnight transformation of medieval sensibility (in which virtually everything and everyone had a place and stayed there) into the more upwardly mobile, if slimier, sensibility of the characters in a David Mamet drama. Francis of Assisi, meet Bernie Madoff.

If I intend to make my fortune as an exploiter of one kind or another — an exploiter of something beyond myself, since I know that in myself I have nothing, not family or holdings or even knowledge — I must find something or someone appropriate to exploit, that is, something or someone virtually begging to be ripped off. And at this point we hear, almost for the first time in Western history, the sounds of racism. The ancient Greeks had been racist, believing themselves to be hoi aristoi, the best, and all others to be seriously deficient, barbarians of one sort or another. But the Greek attitude never found a foothold in Catholic Europe; and the Christian Middle Ages, intolerant about religion, were full of cultural, rather than racial, chauvinism. Those who persecuted Jews and, more occasionally, Muslims within their midst were not racists, for they found their old antagonists quite acceptable the moment they converted to Christianity. Medieval people may have been anti-Judaic; they were not anti-Semitic. (Anti-Semitism would require the aura of specious scientific proof, something that lay in the future.)

Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, pp. 64-65

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