TW: racism, stereotypes of laziness, coerced and forced assimilation
You’ve probably already heard about Mitt Romney’s huge gaffes during his quick international tour in late July. Perhaps you’ve heard about one in particular – concerning the work ethics of Palestinians and Israelis. While at a fundraiser with several wealthy Israelis, Romney stated what’s since been widely circulated:
“Culture makes all the difference […] you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other: Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.”
Obviously this line of thought which connects failed economies to cultural values is some new idiocy, a new previously unthinkable extreme for the Republican Party. This claim was something Romney had to walk back the next day, only to reiterate the same point to the National Review one day later, as if he’s again attempting to pander to the far right without losing the center. It’s a frivolous new idea that the more extreme Republicans have gotten into their heads – like tax cuts reducing the federal deficit. You only have to read Talking Points Memo (TPM) to get the low down on this new argument and how the more radical Republicans even developed it:
“That is reflective of a very deep-seated American can-do attitude, one we identified not so long ago [as] the ‘Protestant work ethic.’ But it has morphed from a shared recognition that hard work and initiative are inherently good, noble character traits into a sense that financial success is a proxy for them — where a high net worth is in and of itself a testament to one’s good character. See, e.g., prosperity gospel. […] And yet when Romney leaves the country [he] applies the same basic conception to larger groups of peoples in nations — Israelis and Palestinians, Americans and Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians”
Clearly the Republicans are at it again. They’ve taken some basic American belief (“having a strong work ethic is good”) and distorted and perverted it. They did the same thing, Al Gore warns us, turning a scientific level of skepticism on global climate change into denial of proven facts. They are doing this, Rachel Maddow warns us, turning traditional “pro-life” concerns into denial of historical exceptions provided to victims of rape or incest. It certainly seems like this is another instance of this.
Only, unfortunately for TPM, this narrative doesn’t really apply here, since the idea of entire ethnic groups having a consistent work ethic is pretty old, at the least having arisen at the same time as the fabled Protestant work ethic.
(Spanning the centuries – 19th century illustrations, 20th century figurines, and 21st century political cartoons have all depicted people of color as innately lazy.)
The rather interesting Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang, in fact, has an entire chapter devoted to now outdated beliefs along these lines, featuring the following choice quotes:
“[The Japanese] give an impression . . . of being lazy and utterly indifferent to the passage of time”
-Sidney Gulick (an American missionary), 1903
“[The Korean people are] 12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch about in dirty white garments of the most inept kind and who live in filthy mudhuts”
-Beatrice Webb (a British socialist), 1912
Obviously the stereotypes of the “lazy” Japanese and Koreans did not stand the test of time, after both Japan and South Korea underwent rapid economic development making such statements seem embarrassingly out of touch. Even if you discount those quotes as examples of the Protestant work ethic previously run amok elsewhere in the world, there’s still the historical practice of enrolling Native Americans in vocational schools. The founder of the original school in fact famously explained that the industrial training was intended to reproduce in a hothouse fashion the allegedly “civilizing” effects of enslavement, writing (here on page 17) –
“Inscrutable are the ways of Providence. Horrible as were the experiences of its introduction, and of slavery itself, there was concealed in them the greatest blessing that ever came to the Negro race—seven millions of blacks from cannibalism in darkest Africa to citizenship in free and enlightened America; not full, not complete citizenship, but possible—probable—citizenship, and on the highway and near to it. There is a great lesson in this. The schools did not make them citizens, the schools did not teach them the language, nor make them industrious and self-supporting. Denied the right of schools, they became English-speaking and industrious through the influences of association.” (emphasis added)
-Richard Pratt, 1892
An essential ingredient, allegedly, to the forced assimilation of Native Americans was that they become “industrious and self-supporting,” just as slavery supposedly made people of African descent more “industrious and self-supporting”. The White Man’s Burden at least in the early United States apparently had a central component of moral instruction on the value of labor for nearly every other ethnic group on the planet.
Thanks to colonialism’s lengthy efforts to instill the correct values in subjected peoples, these sorts of negative evaluations of entire races’ work ethics are now present among the Westernized elites of former colonies. For instance, the idea of a “Hindu rate of growth” originated from an Anglicized Indian economist who has relocated to London. The term was intended to suggest that nations with larger Hindu populations experience slower economic growth because of the fatalism and other character defects allegedly caused by that religion.
So more than a century after Native Americans were forced to become “industrious” by assimilating into Western civilization, assimilated citizens of at least one former British colony see vestiges of local culture as barriers to economic growth. Whatever conclusions you draw on these narratives about entire racial groups being lazy or culturally inferior, it’s certainly neither a new idea nor any longer one unique to Protestant cultures. It’s been an essential part of the mental framework of British and American colonialism for at least a century, and since then has been exported worldwide long before Romney’s international tour.