A full face reconstruction model made from the skull of a 10,000 year old man, known as 'Cheddar Man.' (Getty/Justin Tallis)

Cheddar Man is "black"! Another racial panic for white supremacists

Those in the trans-Atlantic right who want to imagine a pure, "white" European past absorb a dreadful blow


Chauncey DeVega
February 12, 2018 10:00AM (UTC)

The election of Donald Trump was not an isolated phenomenon. This historical moment in the United States is but one tentacle of a much larger global right-wing movement. In total, the rising tide of right-wing reactionary politics is a backlash against changing racial and ethnic demographics, immigration, "future shock," wealth inequality and a general lack of faith in existing liberal democratic norms and institutions.

Moreover, this rage against today's liberal democratic political order provides a space for white supremacists and other racial reactionaries to gain traction. To that end, the global right is working to force into the larger public discourse debates over national identity centered around mythic notions of "blood and soil" and other types of regressive, "old-fashioned" racism -- ideas and values that were thought to have been mostly vanquished in American public life and contemporary Western European politics.

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New research by scientists in the United Kingdom further complicates this connection between "race" and "nation."

Kerry Lotzof explains, at the official website of London's Natural History Museum:

Ancient DNA from Cheddar Man, a Mesolithic skeleton discovered in 1903 at Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, has helped Museum scientists paint a portrait of one of the oldest modern humans in Britain.

Cheddar Man lived around 10,000 years ago and is the oldest almost complete skeleton of our species, Homo sapiens, ever found in Britain.  New research into ancient DNA extracted from the skeleton has helped scientists to build a portrait of Cheddar Man and his life in Mesolithic Britain. The biggest surprise, perhaps, is that some of the earliest modern human inhabitants of Britain may not have looked the way you might expect. . . . Cheddar Man has the genetic markers of skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa. This discovery is consistent with a number of other Mesolithic human remains discovered throughout Europe.

One museum scientist quoted in the article described Cheddar Man as "indicative of the population of Europe at the time." He continued, "They had dark skin and most of them had pale colored eyes, either blue or green, and dark brown hair. Cheddar Man subverts people's expectations of what kinds of genetic traits go together."

Of course, white supremacists and those sympathetic to their beliefs are enraged by these findings. On racist websites, the fact that Cheddar Man was "black" is taken as an affront to their dreams of a "pure" European past of total whiteness. As medievalist Dorothy Kim explained in an earlier conversation with me here at Salon, this obsession with finding a historical moment before "race," when "white" Europeans had a culture separate and apart from "nonwhites," is a common obsession among today's "alt-right" movement. As Kim put it:

White supremacists and other "alt-right" types imagine medieval Europe as the last cultural space of pure white history that they can basically hook themselves into and argue that there were no people of color present. They’re very interested in how Western Europe becomes this kind of idealized white beginning and origin myth. It’s not a surprise, for instance, that in Charlottesville the white supremacists were carrying torches and circling around Jefferson's statue.

He wanted Virginia to be Anglo-Saxon England. We know from medievalists and scholars that, for instance, after their defeat, the former Confederate states became very interested in thinking of themselves as the defeated Anglo-Saxons after the Norman foreigners basically took over. We also know the Ku Klux Klan is obsessed with white knights. This has had a long history in American culture and history. White supremacists have really grabbed onto the Middle Ages because they do feel like it’s their small heritage. This is why they get so angry and frustrated when academics and others point out that people of color were present in the medieval past.

The angry reactions by white supremacists and others about Britain's "black" origins echo similar sentiments -- albeit displayed in a slightly more politically correct fashion -- about race, memory, nation and history as expressed by many more mainstream white conservatives.

Debates in the United States over Confederate monuments are a struggle over national identity and how the horrors of white-on-black chattel slavery -- and the consequences of that evil social institution -- remain unresolved in the 21st century.

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Given that today's Republican Party functions as the country's largest white identity organization, it is no coincidence that neo-Confederates and other apologists for white supremacy have found a natural home in the GOP. President Donald Trump and the Republican Party's efforts to rewrite immigration laws to favor whites and punish nonwhites is part of a concerted and coordinated effort to ensure that the United States remains a majority white country.

Republicans are much more likely than Democrats and other self-identified liberals or progressives to report being unhappy about America's changing racial and ethnic demographics. Republicans, especially Trump supporters, identify stopping "illegal immigration" as one of the most important challenges facing the United States.

Social scientists and other researchers have consistently found that white Americans believe that being "American" and "white" are synonymous. This is a day-to-day example of the white identity politics that has fueled the Republican Party's agenda.

When a white supremacist mob roamed the streets of Charlottesville, many of them wore European medieval regalia and shouted slogans such as "Jews will not replace us" and "white lives matter." Last November, tens of thousands of people marched in Warsaw, chanting slogans such as "pure blood” and "white Poland." And in July of 2017, Donald Trump gave a speech in Poland where he said:

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Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. [Applause.] If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.

Here, Trump embraced a retreat from a more cosmopolitan and global future because "the West" (a not-so-subtle code for "white" and "Christian") is supposedly in an existential clash of civilizations with some outside enemy (nonwhite, Muslim or both). This nativist, xenophobic and racist sentiment animates the global right-wing reactionary movement manifested in the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump.

Debates about the past are in many ways struggles about politics and power in the present. Overt white supremacists are angry about Britain's "black" origins because such a fact triggers their desperate need for "racial purity" and the profound insecurities that drive it. White America is upset about a perceived sense of racial obsolescence because of immigration from nonwhite countries and how this may translate into a loss of inter-group power and dominance.

Those collective sentiments derive from the same place: fearful whiteness and a desperate desire to maintain and protect white privilege at any cost.

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Once again we can quote the famous adage from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past."


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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