White nationalists who claim superiority over non-whites rallied in Washington, DC on Sunday in far fewer numbers than counter-protesters. Unlike last year's demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, there were no arrests. Both groups' rallying cries can be summed up by a pair of their signal posters: “White Lives Matter” and “Nazis Go Home.” The bias against blacks has a long history in the US, beginning with our slave-owning Founding Fathers, but it's not American-made. Merry old England had a lot to do with it, which can be plainly seen in artwork of the past.

Slave-owner mentality

To hear California State University history professor Terri Snyder tell it for Oxford Research in 1999, the Europeans believed that slavery had an acceptable legal status for “cultural outsiders.” England's prejudice in particular is fully evident in the art produced there in the 18th century. Consider the docility of blacks in a work by one of England's leading artists, William Hogarth. Titled “The Gaols Committee of the House of Commons,” the image shows a black man shouldering something heavy in a crowd of whites at their leisure. The picture of people of color gets worse with Thomas Rowland's “Broad Grins” which looks to equate blacks with wild animals. What you see is a man wrestling with an alligator and resembling the beast with the same wide eyes and sharp teeth -- as if to say that this man isn't human.

The deciders

Hogarth's “Four Times of the Day” shows a black man grabbing a white woman. Such displays by any race were deemed crude, but cruder still if the races were mixed. Looking at England's paintings and drawings in past centuries tells the story of the western world's bigotry. An art exhibit at Yale Center for British Art in 2014 made this point, too.

The collection offered portraits of aristocrats with their African servants, and as curator Cyra Levenson told the Hartford Courant: “Slavery is aestheticized and woven into the fabric of British culture.”

Elitism at its worst

But it was England's portraiture that most showcased who was who in society. Blacks were posed in the background, sometimes wearing adoring expressions on their faces.

A 1782 portrait of Charles Stanhope, one of the Earls of Harrington (painted by Joshua Reynolds, the country's leading portrait artist), depicts the subject on a hunting trip with a nameless and clearly worshipful servant. Never mind that black people lived in England since the days of the Roman Empire. A 2011 BBC report on the African figure in 18th century art noted that the African slave trade was at its height. As many as 20,000 slaves were counted by London in a 1764 edition of Gentlemen's Magazine, and they were portrayed as either beggars, prostitutes, or performers. As if to explain such narrow-mindedness in art, the BBC quoted Reynolds as saying: “...custom alone determines our preference of the colour of the Europeans to the Ethiopians.” Somehow “custom” seems like a whitewashed word.

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