Friday, December 09, 2011

How cultural ethnocentrism and conservative values can lead to biological racism: the Limpieza de Sangre of Spain and the New World

Limpieza de Sangre, or Purity of Blood law, enacted after the Reconquista, institionalized discriminated against Spainiards who had non-Christian ancestors. It was introduced not as a racial measure, because the concept of race didn't exist, but in order to ensure Christian cultural purity.

The problem that the new Christian rulers of Spain faced after forcing all Muslims and Jews to either convert or leave, was how to figure out whether a convert was a "real" Christian and not secretly practicing their original religion. After some strife, they decided the best indicator was non-Christian ancestors. They figured that culture and religion necessarily follows ancestry in that parents pass traditions down to their kids. If one had many non-Christian ancestors, the probability was thought to be higher they'd have some of those traditions.

People with non-Christian ancestors were discriminated against in a hierarchical system that gave different levels of privilege based on the percentages of non-Christian ancestry, with the highest honors being reserved for people with pure Christian ancestry, verifiably established. Participation in public office was limited to these people, as were some things such as entering the Priesthood.

In this way, descent and ancestry became a litmus test to full citizenship. Even though a person could be a bad Christian with purely Christian ancestors, and a good Christian could come from a Converso background, they looked at biology as a quick and dirty way of making a preliminary judgment.

Such a stand resembles that taken by the less fanatical Nazis, such as the Strasser brothers, who while extremely anti-Semitic sometimes stated that a person with an eighth part of Jewish ancestry would be okay provided that they had absolutely no contact with Judaism, with Jewish culture as a whole, and were purely culturally German (and hopefully Christian).

Furthermore, a similar rationales for cultural discrimination was given in the French conservative tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louis de Bonald made the argument that people who were the children of divorce couldn't be trusted because they could have been raised in a corrupt environment. This would be, of course, unlike the case of folks whose parents were married but personally corrupt, I suppose.

A similar ambiguity can be seen in American society, where on the one hand people who are 'obviously' purely Anglo-white (although looks alone do not mean they are) are implicitly trusted by the more ethnocentric white folks, while people who are more ethnically ambiguous are treated with suspicion by them, and folks who are definitely not white are distrusted. Ethnicity and race blend into each other as signifying 'not like us'. But what does 'not like us' really mean? At heart, I would say it means culturally not like us and different in behavior. After all, there are many success stories repeated by conservatives, about racial minorities who completely adopt the dominant Anglo-white cultural and behavioral system and are accepted by the establishment. Even so, I would guess that in some eyes they're still tainted by their background.

Discrimination based on physical characteristics and background can certainly follow from conservative values used as a proxy for ethnocentrism.

*on edit: the concept of Limpieza de Sangre strongly influenced the racial notion of "Casta" in the New World

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