Last week, Irish author and polymath Bill Holohan published a viral Twitter thread explaining that modern train rails are set at a particular width because that was the width of Roman chariots. If you haven’t already encountered it, the condensed version is that early train rails were designed to accommodate the wheels of horse wagons, which were designed so their wheels would stay in the deep ruts then common to European roads, which were worn by Roman chariots on the long-distance roads initially laid by the Romans.
Bill presented his thread as a sort of joke (chariots were made wide enough to accommodate two horses, therefore everything is determined by horses’ asses) and I’m obligated to point out that historians took some issues with his summary — but the point is, it got me thinking.
A few days later, I was in a group conversation about mass incarceration and the American prison system, where someone asked why the US approach to incarceration is so different from virtually every other Western nation. Again, for the unfamiliar, the US represents about 7% of the world’s population, but 22% of the world’s prisoners. For every one person in prison in most other countries, the US has five. After the United States, Cuba has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world; 36 US states have rates higher than Cuba.
Our system is also incredibly racist; Black and Latinx people are far more likely to go to prison than white people. Approximately 1/3 of Black men without college degrees will go to prison in their lifetime; among those without high school diplomas, that number is 2/3.
We know that America’s approach to criminal justice and incarceration relies on dehumanization and racism, but why is that so much stronger in this country than in others? This is where I got thinking about those Roman Roads.
The United States has always designated a portion of its population as less than human — in fact, dehumanization might be the single most American trait. It’s been with us since the beginning of European colonization: Christopher Columbus’s first expedition treated the Arawak people as beasts of burden; they rode on the backs of Arawak men and used the flesh of Arawaks to test the sharpness of their blades. Early European settlers regarded indigenous people as barbarian savages, to be killed on sight; as the institution of chattel slavery grew, Americans were taught that those of African ancestry were less than human — this idea was taught as science in the 19th and 20th centuries, and persists today. The era of slavery gave way to Jim Crow, when white communities would gather in a festival atmosphere to eat popcorn and watch the lynching of a Black person. As the Civil Rights movement dragged us out of Jim Crow, we moved almost immediately into the era of Mass Incarceration, expanding our prison population from around 150,000 to more than 1.5 million in only about 30 years.
America dehumanizes people because we have always dehumanized people — and I say this during an era in which, as we begin to see real progress reforming our criminal justice policies, we are constructing immigration detention centers, prosecuting people who providing water to immigrants crossing a desert, and electing politicians who literally describe immigrants as “animals” while caging them and separating families.
Racism and dehumanization are deep ruts worn in the culture of the United States throughout our history, like those left by Roman chariots in European highways. We might not be conscious of the fact that we are following them — I can guarantee you no medieval European tradesman knew the origin of those wheel ruts — but we know it’s easier to succeed if we keep our wheels in those ruts, and there’s a lot more wear and tear if you stray outside that path.
I have a similar thought when people say things like “Slavery ended 150 years ago,” as if the end of slavery meant the end of systemic racism in the United States. Slavery was visible, but institutional racism is insidious in the most literal sense — persistent, subtle, and hard to detect. It reveals itself in small ways, often forgotten or easily dismissed — like Black veterans being denied the GI Bill after World War II, memos telling attorneys how to keep Black Americans from serving on juries, or “bad apple” police officers who spout white nationalist rhetoric between brutalizing or murdering Black people.
The ruts in the road might be hard to see, but we are still following them.
Or how about this: Just recently, I discovered quite at random that the traditional image of a Halloween witch (black cape and pointy black hat) is in fact derived from the traditional medieval image of a Jewish person.
The pointed cap, known as a Judenhut in German, was traditional Jewish attire and worn by choice throughout the Middle Ages. By the end of the 12th century, European authorities were suggesting that Jews should be forced to wear such clothing, and in 1215 the Vatican officially announced that Jewish people and Muslims would be required by law to wear special clothes so they could be distinguished easily from Christians. Throughout the next millennia, Jews in Europe were persecuted and accused of witchcraft, even burned alive as witches. And today, when an American child dresses as a witch for Halloween, they put on a costume any medieval European would recognize as “Jew.”
Now… Does anyone in modern-day American, whether manufacturing or purchasing or wearing a “witch” costume, have any idea of its origin? Did Margaret Hamilton know, when the Wizard of Oz makeup artist was adding the big hooked nose to her Wicked Witch costume? Highly doubtful. And yet we still associate that appearance with black magic and evil — in many stories, witches are even depicted cooking and eating children, echoing one of the oldest and most hateful anti-Jewish myths.
We don’t know where those ruts in the road originated, but we still follow them.
It’s interesting to remember that no one intentionally made those ruts in European roads; they appeared as the result of a lot of people, doing the same thing for an extended period of time. While I wouldn’t argue that no one intentionally made the United States racist, it’s certainly true that the majority of Americans reinforcing racist patterns are not thinking about the long-term impact of their actions. Yes, in plenty of cases they are motivated by their own racism, but they’re not thinking “let me set a pattern others will follow,” they’re simply following the path they and others have trod before them, reinforcing and deepening those metaphorical ruts in the road.
Bill Holohan might not have all his facts exactly right, but he’s provided us with a powerful metaphor to illustrate the influence of past generations on present behavior. I dare say, what he saw as a good joke about the conservative nature of corporations works even better to show the way past behavior shapes the present and future.
The Romans never imagined trains, or that the distance between the wheels of their chariots might influence railroad track gauges some two millennia in the future. There is no chance they considered the future ramifications of such a decision. So we, too, fail to appreciate the gravity of the choices we make today, and the ripple effect they may have on future generations.
What ruts are we leaving behind for the people of the future?