Saturday, October 2, 2010

Racism: A Short History (2)

This is the second part of my review of George M. Frederickson’s Racism: A Short History which began in my previous post.

C20th apogee and collapse
The first two chapters of Frederickson’s book dealt with religion and the invention of racism followed by the rise of modern racisms in the C18th and C19th. The third chapter deals with the climax and retreat of racism in the C20th.

The ideology of white supremacy reached its climax in the American South of the 1890s to 1950s, in South Africa from 1910s to 1980s (particularly after 1948) and when Jew-hatred reached its hideous climax in Nazi Germany from 1933-1945. Frederickson is concerned to tease out what the comparison between them can tell us, particularly for racism’s future prospects (Pp99-100).

Modernisation lead to legalised racism: one cannot have an overtly racist regime without an official ideology that is explicitly racist, where racial egalitarianism is a dangerous heresy. In such a regime, this ideology is expressed most firmly in laws banning intermarriage while social segregation is maintained by law. Any democratic elements in the polity are managed by excluding the outgroup from holding office or exercising the vote. Access to economic resources by the outgroup is so limited that the outgroup is either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished.

The American South, apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany all fulfilled these criteria: no other societies did so thoroughly. The colonies of the imperial powers, with their “civilising mission”, for example, had aspects of these features, but not the full structure while the “unofficial” racism of the American North or Latin America was a social phenomenon (however powerful) not a legal one: however onerous the burdens on its victims, they were not as onerous. However vicious anti-Semitism in Poland, Austria and Czarist Russia became, all believed in Jewish “redemption” through conversaion (Pp100-3).

This is a perceptive analysis. Queers are born into straight families, making them more isolated and vulnerable in some ways (particularly in adolescence) but it also means they can hide in the general population somewhat more readily, or be otherwise shielded. (Particularly those who are members of elite families.) But many of the patterns Federickson identifies are replicated in queer-hated: an explicit ideology that excludes from the “properly human”, using marriage as the mark of exclusion is a familiar contemporary phenomenon, while being openly queer has only recently stopped being a complete bar to electoral success. The “insult of equality” operates as well.

Bigotry – being a moral claim about exclusion from the moral community – really does have enduring patterns, an enduring logic. If one wants to understand the arguments and political debates over Jewish emancipation in the late C18th and early C19th, the contemporary debate over giving queers equal protection of the law replicate the patterns very closely. (For example, the Catholic Church plays the same role as an avid opponent of legal equality, the same bullying cowardice in inciting a large majority against a small and vulnerable – yet allegedly corrupting and powerful – minority.)

The great irony is that the overtly racist regimes gave the world a lesson in the implications of racism that has changed international conduct:
The story of racism in the twentieth century is one story with several subplots rather than merely a collection of tales that share a common theme (p.104).
One of the great divisions in contemporary affairs is between those who understand (implicitly or explicitly) that the yellow stars and pink triangles of the death camps impart the same lessons, and those who do not. Many practising Christians and, sadly, Jews, do not: it seems that most Israelis, however, do.
But that informal racism existed in many countries raises the question of why those particular places created overtly racist regimes. Frederickson suggests that:
Negative feelings about Jews or blacks were undoubtedly stronger or more salient in the countries or regions that constructed overtly racist regimes than in those that did not (p.106).
In the case of German attitudes towards Jews, this seems clearly false. Jew-hatred was much stronger, and had far greater popular support, in Czarist Russia for example. Prior to 1914, anti-Semitic scandals and politics did not reach the peak in Germany they did in Austria or France. The notion that there was some specific intensity to Jew-hatred in Germany is just false. Hitler, after all, learnt his Jew-hatred in Austria, not Germany.

Federickson seems on much stronger ground with his next explanation:
the extent to which the racial Other came to be identified with national defeat and humiliation (p.106)
The role of outgroup as scapegoat is a very powerful one. (It is a major factor in anti-Israeli sentiment in the Middle East, for example, where frustrations with political repression and economic failure in their own societies can be transferred to the “Zionist entity”.) Even more so, as Federickson points out, if the outgroup is vulnerable and the actual sources of humiliation are too powerful. (Israel is, after all, rhetorically vulnerable.)

Federickson explores the complicated interaction of imperialism and racism: on one hand, racism did develop as a justification of white rule. On the other, imperial ambitions and policies were far more complicated than any explanation in terms of racism can cope with. Nor were racists necessarily conventional imperialists – Hitler was against Germany seeking tropical colonies: only land suitable for mass German settlement had value (Pp106ff).

Nor did any imperial Powers display anywhere near the bitter hatred and violence, or the pervasive control of social contact, visited upon blacks in the American South in the late C19th and C20th. In reaction against the violence and disorder, and as Jim Crow laws excluded blacks from the franchise, attitudes and behaviour shifted more towards something that could get legitimacy by being more like a form of civilising “white man’s burden” in the imperial colonies (Pp110-1).

The poisonous capacities of German national sentiment were on display in the Second Reich’s genocidal war against the Herrero and Namaqua people. Admittedly, protests inside Germany led to a tardy revocation of the policy by the Reich government but, as Frederickson notes:
The history of German colonialism also suggest that “final solutions” to the “problems” created by ethnoracial groups considered useless or dangerous were acceptable to at least some Germans as early as 1904 and 1905 (p.113).
Yet such genocidal actions were hardly merely a German problem. The Argentine extermination of its indigenous peoples in the early C19th and the Qing slaughter of the Dzungar people in the mid C18th, as well as more recent horrors, indicates the perennial human possibilities.

Federickson notes that political anti-Semitism waned in Germany (though it did not disappear), as weltpolitik and colonial success gave a sense of national success (Pp113-4). Defeat in the Great War (aka World War One) changed that dramatically. Federickson takes us through Hitler’s rise, obsessive Jew-hatred and its consequences noting that, unlike the American South and South Africa, the Nazi racial system did not rise out of a pre-existing order of racial domination but was the actions of a “revolutionary totalitarian regime” (Pp117ff).

In the US, labour shortages encouraged black migration to the North, nationalising what had been a “regional” issue. Respect expected from black participation in the armed forces was met by lynchings, violence and the Ku Klux Klan. Collapse of the notion of the “happy darkie” led to rising white sympathy for black advancement, particularly in the North (helped by cultivation of black voters) and among liberal intellectuals – notably including Jewish intellectuals (Pp114-6).

In South Africa, black migration to the cities led to intensive competition with white labour. “Influx control”, legal protection of white workers and the 1936 ejection of black voters from the common voters roll in Cape Province followed, with white intellectuals using anthropology to justify group segregation (Pp116-7).

The collapse of the Nazi project in defeat, and the revelation of the death camps, revealed the full horror racist ideology was capable of. The eugenics movement – and “scientific racism” generally – were discredited. The pressures of the Cold War, and decolonisation, generated practical, geopolitical, pressures for improving the situation of American blacks, though it took two decades for it to be fully reflected in federal law and US Supreme Court decisions.

Federickson insists that the moral dimension also mattered, and notes the role of federalism in inhibiting realisation of legal equality but, rather surprisingly, fails to mention Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. (One could, of course, equally argue that federalism had provided opportunities to nurture examples of change.)

In South Africa, the threat of decolonisation led to the construction of an elaborate system of white domination expected to be permanent. Frederickson contrasts this with the Nazi system, on the grounds that that was to be a system for one race only (p.133). This, though correct with the Jews, puts too little credence on Nazi plans for the East, where the Germans were to be a master-race over Slav untermenschen.

In the end, the apartheid regime was too much a manifestation of the overt racism that the Holocaust had so discredited (and whose association with racism was actually increasing over time, though Federickson does not note this), was too offensive to too many newly independent former colonies and collapsed in internal demoralisation (p.138).

Federickson fails to note how South Africa had come to offend the US post-civil-rights self-image. Nor that the end of the Cold War, and collapse of the Soviet Union, ended the geopolitical utility that was apartheid South Africa’s only hold on Western official support.

Racism in past and prospect
In an epilogue, Federickson surveys racism at the beginning of the C21st. He identifies racism as being a conception of ethnic identity and hierarchy where some features are identified as innate and unchangeable. It can therefore be distinguished from xenophobia (fear of difference) as well as belief-based religious bigotry. Racism is something specific to certain times and places, unlike the historically perennial phenomenon of xenophobia (Pp140-1).

Racism persists, as does the fraught issues of how to deal with its legacies. Made even more complicated by the fact that group discrimination, oppression, violence and murder can take place across other divides than “racial” ones, leading to the temptation to widen the ambit of the term “racism”. A temptation Federickson thinks should be resisted, so that we can analyse racism as a specific phenomenon. Not least because different marks of distinction have different implications and not always for the better – racist claims are open to empirical contestation and refutation that religious differences are not, for example. Frederickson points to religious differences and hatreds as being much more likely to be the source of intergroup conflict and aggression in the foreseeable future than racial claims – particularly as vehicles for expressing alienation from a capitalist order that cares not for the colour of its customers, only the colour of their money (Pp146ff).

Frederickson finishes with an appendix on the concept of racism in historical discourse, justifying the linking of black and Jewish experience as the victims of the worst excesses of racism. The difficulty is that the term has been used in so many different senses that its utility as a term of analysis has been undermined. But neither does Federickson believe that ‘race’ can be neatly differentiated from ‘ethnicity’.

His own previous attempts to abandon the term failed because no other captured what he wished to study. “Somatic” or “colour-coded” racism of white supremacy is something that can be legitimately, and revealingly, analysed in conjunction with anti-Semitism – as his book demonstrates – and approaches that exclude one or the other miss vital aspects of the phenomena. So, Zygmunt Bauman’s short definition of racism:
Man is before he acts; nothing he does may change what he is. This is roughly the philosophical essence of racism (P.157)
is used by Bauman only with regard to the eliminationist (by extermination or expatriation) variety, thereby excluding white supremacist claims. But belief in innate racial hierarchies does not, of itself, exclude either systems of social domination or of territorial exclusion (by whatever method).

Frederickson provides a brief history of the scholarship of racism, which he identifies as originating with Belgian colonial ministry librarian Theophile Simar’s 1922 publication of the history of the “la doctrine des races”, concerned mainly with German claims of superiority over “Latin” peoples. American Frank H. Hankins’ 1926 The Racial Basis of Civilisation also attacked the racial purity claims of the Nordicists while reflecting standard American anti-black racism. The term ‘racism’ was publicised by a book of that title by Magnus Hirschfield published posthumously in 1938. He found the concept of ‘race’ to be of little value, but was perceptive about the emotional value of racism, as providing:
for a restoration of self-esteem, for satisfaction for the assertive impulse of a will to power by tyrannising over an enemy within the gates who was certainly more accessible and less dangerous to tackle than a reputed enemy across the national frontiers (p.163).
Jacques Barzun attracted more attention with his 1932 and 1937 books The French Race and Race: A Study in Modern Superstition, the second in particular openly motivated by the intent to show how ill-founded racist pretensions were. He conceived his subject broadly – racialising Franco-German rivalry as Aryanism versus Celtism, attributing the rise of socialism to Jewish conspiracy, assertions of a rising German and declining Latin peoples, that civilising white races must unify to hold in check yellow, black and red races.

The Eurasian War brought increased focus on Nazi ideology, with anthropologist Ruth Benedict publishing (and then re-publishing) her Race, Science and Politics. As with the other authors, she managed to both critique racism and reflect common racial beliefs of her time.

Provoked by the threat, and then horror, of Nazism, aflood of works examining anti-Semitism began. Economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma sparked off a wave of social science studies of American segregation which delineated its costs and undermined its justifications. The earlier term ‘racial prejudice’ gave way to ‘racism’ without much precise reflection on its meaning. But, while the literatures of examining colour-coded racism and anti-Semitism burgeoned, there were few attempts to connect the two.

There was also a persistent tendency to examine racism in the context of the history of ideas, rather than its practical implications. Federickson’s project is to not be so narrow as to exclude relevant manifestations nor so broad as to lack historical specificity. He ends with his definition of racism quoted at the beginning of part one of this review:
… racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditable and unalterable (p.170).
Federickson’s Racism: A Short History is a clearly written, short book covering the interaction of ideas and social practice. It is precisely because the analysis is so perceptive and informative that I have provided it with such extensive coverage. A book to savour and enlightened by.


  1. "One of the great divisions in contemporary affairs is between those who understand (implicitly or explicitly) that the yellow stars and pink triangles of the death camps impart the same lessons, and those who do not. Many practising Christians and, sadly, Jews, do not: it seems that most Israelis, however, do."

    In all fairness I would say that Israel is like the US in that it has a very vocal religious-conservative minority that is vocally anti-gay, and vocal liberal minority that supports gay rights, and a center that doesn't hate gays but is not that supportive either.

    In Israel there are two extreme attitudes toward the holocaust. On one side you have people who emphasize a specifically Jewish lesson, and tend to be hostile to trying to speak in the same sense of other peoples affected by the Nazis or other genocides. On the other extreme side are people who emphasize a universal lesson of hostility against racism and prejudice in general. But, as you know, this sometimes (but not always) comes together with hostility to any Jewish particular lesson. Some people are in the middle.

  2. More than a few people have attempted to characterize Zionism as racism because it is the movement of a group that conceives itself in ethnic, nationalist and religious terms.

    I disagree, of course, but I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about this.

  3. Micha, on Zionism-as-racism: the claim to a Jewish state is no more racist than a claim to a Danish, Swedish etc state. Israel allows non-Jews to be citizens and to fully engage in political life, it therefore clearly fails to live up to Frederickson's definition of … racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditable and unalterable. That conversion to Judaism is possible, though difficult, further separates Zionism from racism. (The rescue of the Falashas comes to mind in particular, even if there may be informal prejudice within Israel.)

    I take your point about Israel and gays, though I would point out that:
    (1) the current Israeli PM is, as far as I am aware, the only Head of Government to speak up at the UN for the rights of homosexuals;
    (2) as a long-term reader of Michael Lucas (so NOT worksafe), I am aware that Israel can be surprisingly welcoming of gay Russian Jewish porn director (who happens to be an ardent Zionist); and
    (3) the recent murderous attack on a gay youth centre was condemned with apparently genuine feeling across the Israeli political spectrum.

  4. More than a few people have attempted to characterize Zionism as racism because it is the movement of a group that conceives itself in ethnic, nationalist and religious terms.

    Someone should tell those people that Zionism arose as a self-defence mechanism against those who actually FORCED Jews into the ethnic, national, and religious margins, and then persecuted and mass-murdered them.

    Ironically, it is precisely those anti-Semites who forced the Jews finally to defend themselves, who then led the Zionism = Racism charge.

    The evil of the Socialists never sleeps.

    1. It's funny to me how most of Jewish community seem to remember all the disadvantages and oppressions that their ancestors suffered from, which we all feel sorry for, and turn their heads on the oppressions done in Israel against people of Palestine. I see it myself, people across Israeli media calling for the necessity of using absolute force dealing with Arabs existing in the aria. I saw a number of incidents where officers are harassing children under 17 years old by searching them and shouting some racial words in the attempt of oppressing the few only schools for Arabs until the point that they give up and the parents would be forced to take their children out of school. I remember even when Palestinians started immigrating to the US and other countries, forced out from countries where they were born and lived most of their life. I remember my young Palestinian friend Omar, who told us in school that they came here until the situation in his country gets better, which was a false image drawn by his family because the situation kept getting worse and Arab population dropped massively .

      So please tell me how is it that Zionism differs from racism ?