(This originated from a discussion question in an online classes, but I figured I’d share my response. The professor and students were discussing racism and emotional or cognitive responses to certain situations. A few people noted how visits to Europe did not reveal the same divides. Interracial or multicultural unions or mingling were much more accepted, and a few people wanted to know why.
Please bear with my response and try not to be too critical; I am not a historian, I am not a sociologist, and I don’t claim that my answer is supported by peer-reviewed articles or college degrees. What I based my response on is simplifications of human history blended down into a few paragraphs. If there is a glaring error in my logic and deduction, feel free to note that. Otherwise, please read this as something posted in layman’s terms.)
In Europe, before the Dark Ages, the Roman Empire could be considered a true melting pot. Certainly there was prejudice and division; certain cultures remained in their own parts of the city, others were made subject to the ruler(s) of the time, and the “pure-blooded” Romans likely held more power. However, slavery was not necessarily based on racial appearance or ethnicity but just as easily on social or economic status. There were individuals from a wide variety of cultures working in the same jobs, including Spanish and Jewish merchants, German and Greek soldiers, etc. Exposure to individuals from all over the “civilized world” could breed a grudging respect if not outright camaraderie depending on the people and the situation. Thus, from the beginning of the major European civilizations one might say that Europe was already on the way to handling racial prejudice.
Even after the Dark Ages, with the rise of Medieval and Renaissance eras, the countries had a tendency to blend. There were wars and divisions, but royalty married each other, merchants from across the world visited major cities, and cultures blurred at the borders between kingdoms. Taking a look at locations like Belgium or Switzerland and one can see how these countries were composed of a number of kingdoms that blended the cultures of the surrounding larger powers. Servitude certainly existed (in the form of serfs), but once more this was just as likely to be caused by social or economic status as it was by ethnicity. The main bigotry that we recognize today occurred less because of events in Europe but more as Europeans began to “colonize” the rest of the world. As these “civilized” cultures began to expand and take over from the “savages”, there was rampant enslavement and killing of indigenous African, American, and Australian peoples. Stereotype would lead to prejudice which would lead to bigotry, all in the name of civilization. Still, inside Europe? Individuals of other races or cultures still interacted with respect, whether through being a local (similar language and dress) or being a wealthy/educated visitor (as with ambassadors and royalty).
Now, let’s take a look at America. By the time the English settlers started moving in, the continent had already been rife with slavery and genocide, thanks to the Spanish, French, and Dutch. Then you add into this that the Puritans followed a religious path that lent itself toward superiority and an “us vs them” mentality. You have thus created a social and mental breeding ground for stereotype and bigotry. Yes, other cultures would eventually settle and blend in, but each time they did there was conflict and prejudice. Irish, Scots, and Welsh? Yep. Germanic and Nordic settlers during the western expansion? Certainly. Chinese and other Asian setters? Definitely. Spanish Mexicans? Let’s not forget the conflicts over Texas and the southwest. Each time Americans came face to face with a new culture, they immediately jumped on an “us vs them” bandwagon, only grudgingly accepting them after generations or when a new threat arose. Whereas European cultures were constantly exposed to each other through trade, war, and multicultural cities in a 10 million square mile plot of land, American “cultures” purposefully closed themselves off from each other in a 24 million square mile plot of land.
To summarize, although both Europe and North America have had conflicts that can breed stereotype and prejudice, Europe has been a “melting pot” since the Roman times. America, on the other hand, started out as a land of divisions since the first European settlers started interacting with the indigenous peoples. It’s almost as if the “us vs them” policy of the first settlers has continued into modern mentality. There are still old prejudices based in historical conflicts (slavery, religious differences, etc.) and even when the races do come together it becomes an “America vs Everyone Else” idea. Is there hope for this country? Maybe… but I think we may always be a bit behind other parts of the world when it comes to tearing down old walls. After all, “progression” is such a dirty word in the current socio-political environment…