Thursday, September 30, 2010

Racism: A Short History (1)

George M. Frederickson’s Racism: A Short History is a deeply informed, clear, historically nuanced history of racism. Defining what is, or is not, racism is a fraught activity. The definition Fredrickson comes to, and which concludes his book, is:
… 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).
So Japanese xenophobic exclusion of Koreans is racism.

But it is racism in European history that Frederickson is concerned with, the form for which the most historical evidence exists. Frederickson is very concerned to locate racism within history. As he says in his Introduction:
The climax of the history of racism came in the twentieth century in the rise and fall of what I will call “overtly racist regimes” (p.1).
By which he means the American South, apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.

As he notes ironically “Hitler, it has been said, gave racism a bad name”, creating a revulsion against the scientific racism that had been respectable; a loss or respectability aided by various anti-eugenics scientific studies (p.2). The anti-colonial pushes against Western rule also gave a great impetus to attacks on racism (p.3). The apartheid regime based its claims on culture rather than biology:
No better example can be found of how a “cultural essentialism” based on nationality can do the work of a racism based squarely on skin colour or other physical characteristics (Pp3-4)
But just because explicit state racism has receded into the past, does not mean racism has:
Discrimination by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially distinct can long persist or even flourish under the illusion of nonracism, as recent students of Brazilian race relations have discovered (p.4).
To put it another way, social cartels do not need the state to operate. Though, like all cartels, some form of coercion makes them work more effectively.

It is most emphatically racism as an historical phenomenon that Frederickson is concerned with:
As is the case with many of the terms historians use, the phenomenon existed before the coinage of the word used to describe it. But our understanding of what beliefs and behaviours are to be considered “racist” has been unstable. Somewhere between the view that racism is a peculiar modern idea without much historical precedent and the notion that it is simply a manifestation of the ancient phenomenon of tribalism or xenophobia may lie a working definition that covers more than scientific or biological racism but less than the kind of group prejudice based on culture, religion, or simply a sense of family or kinship (p.5).
The extra element Frederickson identifies as:
It is when differences that might be otherwise be considered ethnocultural are regarded as innate, indelible, and unchangeable that a racist attitude or ideology can be said to exist (p.5)
Racism is a particular form of essentialism, in other words.

But Frederickson is not concerned merely with attitudes. Racism:
… also expresses itself in the practices, institutions and structures that a sense of deep difference justifies or validates. … It either directly sustains or proposes to establish a racial order, a permanent group hierarchy that is believed to reflect the laws of nature or the decrees of God (p.6).
A form of essentialism with certain sorts of consequences. One that is historically specific, not some innate element in the human condition: this is important, as some people clearly see anti-racism as a defining characteristic of their own identity, so tend to expand its ambit across both social phenomena and human (particularly European) history.

Federickson distinguishes racism from xenophobia: xenophobia may the starting point of racism, but racism goes further. The key element in racism is the denial of any possibility of being incorporated. Religious bigotry is thus not racism, since:
The religious bigot condemns and persecutes others for what they believe, not for what they intrinsically are (p.6).
Nationalism becomes racism when it takes cultural identity to be “encoded” by descent. Racism is thus a “scavenger ideology”, with enough continuities for a general history to make sense (p.8).

My theory or conception of racism … has two components: difference and power. It originates from a mind-set that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the ethnoracial Other in ways we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group (p.9).
In other words, racism operates to strip the racial “others” of moral protections because they are cast outside the moral community.

This provides a grim commonality across the manifestations of racism:
In all manifestations of racism from the mildest to the most severe, what is being denied is the possibility that the racializers and the racialized can coexist in the same society, except perhaps on the basis of domination and subordination (p.9)
Nor, due to the essentialist conception of identity, can the individual escape by changing their identity.

Racism comes in two varieties or possibilities: that of inclusion (which allows a multi-racial society according to a strict racial hierarchy) and that of exclusion (which insists on a mono-racial society). Forms which waxed and waned across time and space (Pp9-10). While Frederickson notes there are non-Western forms of prejudice and ethnocentricity that would be hard to exclude under his definition – he cites Japanese exclusion of Japanese-born Koreans and Tutsi domination of Hutu agriculturalists as possible examples – he concentrates on Western (European and European colonial) forms from the C15th on. Since such racism only emerges in the late medieval/early modern periods, it can be studied from its origins, a time and place with lots of historical evidence. Moreover, Western racism has just mattered much more for world history (Pp10-11).

There is a further context:
What makes Western racism so autonomous and conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind (p.11).
A presumption of inequality carries no need to attack the humanity of underlings. But:
If equality is the norm … and there are groups of people within the society who are so despised or disparaged that the upholders of the norms feel compelled to make exceptions to the promise or realization of equality, then they can be denied the prospect of equal status only if they allegedly possess some extraordinary deficiency that makes them less than fully human (Pp11-12).
Hence the intensity of European racism, as a profoundly denigrative essentalism is required to generate exceptions from “equal in the sight of God” or Enlightenment “equality of man”.

Religious precursors
Frederickson argues that is uniquely in the West that one gets that conjunction (p.12). A caveat on this – which Fredrickson touches on later – is the rise of anti-black rhetoric in C13th and C14th North African Islam. Islam – with its structure of men dominating women, believers dominating non-believers – is less inherently committed to equality than Christianity. Nevertheless, it is open (indeed obligatory) to all people to accept Islam – hence the ranking of those who accept the One God and His Prophet as being superior to those who only accept the One God who are superior to those who accept neither. The choice to have a permanent (black) population open to slavery (since it was forbidden to enslave fellow Muslims, though it was permissible to have Muslim slaves if they converted after enslavement) contravened the obligation to spread Islam, so encouraged the use of anti-black discourses as an excuse for this failure. (A discourse which is still reflected in modern Arabic, where the word for blacks is ‘abeed’, the plural of ‘abd’ meaning slave.) But the effect was never as intense as later Western racism, since there were also white slaves and Islam has never held that everyone is equal in the sight of Allah. (While the ban on enslaving fellow Muslims was sometimes simply ignored, with anti-black discourse being harnessed to this as well – racism as scavenger ideology.)
Frederickson notes that there is no evidence for concern about skin colour as a moral distinguisher in the ancient world (p.17). The lead into making descent a moral distinguisher was the belief that Jews inherited responsibility for the crime of Deicide: though that was not yet racism, since conversion to Christianity absolved one of that “burden”. Even in the worst of the pogroms, escape through baptism was an option, if not always offered (Pp18ff).

The various forms of bigotry that did exist lacked the ideological edge of organic essentialism to make them racism in the full sense (Pp24-5). Like the Classicals, the medieval world lacked any notion of skin colour as moral distinguisher. Indeed, there were saintly and heroic renditions of black persons (Pp26-27). Frederickson does note that Iberia was where the association of blackness with slavery spread from Muslims to Christians – an association that Iberian (and later European) involvement in the African slave trade was to complete (p.29):
The fact that Europeans were ceasing to enslave other Europeans at the time when African slaves become suddenly and readily available was at the root of white supremacist attitudes and policies (Pp29-30).
Though it took considerable time for attitudes to crystallise into anti-black racism, since there were legal and religious status justifications for slavery (Pp30-1).

The Iberian treatment of converted Jews, conversos, was much closer to modern racism: indeed, arguably “its first real anticipation” (p.31). Waves of pogroms, persecutions and expulsions created a large population of former Jews and their descendants. This was a large, hard to assimilate, culturally different population. Certificates of pure descent from “old Christians” became required for various offices, both religious and lay, under the doctrine of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). This represented Jew-hatred becoming a racial rather than a religious doctrine (Pp32-3) for, to the extent it was enforced:
It represented the stigmatization of an entire ethnic group on the basis of deficiencies that allegedly could not be eradicated by conversion or assimilation (p.33).
It was a form of social cartelisation that went significantly beyond privileging certain noble lineages.

But enforcement was erratic, and certificates of pure blood could be purchased (p.34). The Moriscos (former Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity also excluded by the limpieza de sangre rules) were finally expelled in 1609-14, but the urban-dwelling conversos were harder to treat as a lump group than dwelling-in-separate-villages Moriscos (Pp34-5).

At the same time, Spain and Portugal were confronting how to think of the Amerindians. It was decided that pagans innocent of any contact with the word of Christ were morally superior to infidel Jews and Muslims, who directly contradicted His word (Pp35ff). It was argued that African souls could only be saved by becoming slaves of Christians: this was not true of indigenous peoples. That Amerindians living in tropical climates did not have nearly as black skins as Africans also led to speculation about what the distinguishing blackness of Africans might signify, since it was clearly not merely living in the tropics (Pp38-39).

The failure of significant numbers of Iberian women to migrate to the New World created a large racially mixed population (true also in British India prior to the opening of the Suez Canal). Nevertheless:
Sixteenth- and seventeenth century Spain is critical in the history of Western racism because its attitudes and practices served as a kind of segue between the religious intolerance of the Middle Ages and the naturalistic racism of the modern era (p.40).
The persistence of universalist religious aspirations limited the movement to full racism, however, though there was plenty of dehumanising treatment and differentiation on the basis of lineage, with Catholic bishops rationalising the discrimination against conversos on the basis that many were secret Jews (Pp40-5).

Meanwhile the convenience of black slavery raised issues about the status of blacks – particularly the need to justify why conversion to Christianity did not bring freedom. The Curse of Ham provided a religious excuse, though the lack of a fully-fledged attack on slavery limited the need to provide justification. Slavery encouraged deprecation of blacks as inherently servile and inferior (just as it had in Muslim North Africa). Still, the movement from heathenism to heathen ancestry as a justification for slavery clearly moved things in the direction of racism:
As in the case of antisemitism a conflation of religion and race in the popular mind would prepare the ground for the more explicit and autonomous racism that would emerge in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (p.46).
Hence, we can trace:
the two main forms of modern racism – the color-coded white supremacist variety and the essentialist version of anti-Semitism – to the late medieval and early modern periods (p.46).
But it was still too religious a society for the full step to be made, for racism:
came into conflict with the main thrust of Christianity – the salvation of the entire human race, which, according to the New Testament, was of “one blood” (p.46).
to achieve its full potential as an ideology, racism had to be emancipated from Christian universalism (p.47).
Moreover, a society riven with inequalities of birth also had no great need to create special justifications for exclusions. A society where equality in this world was a powerful aspiration was in a rather different situation (p.47).

The decline in Biblical literalism opened the way for notions of separate human ancestry. Notions of heredity mattering were well established (in horse-breeding, for example) but the notion of a white race did not cohere until the C18th (Pp52-53). That slavery remained a legal rather than a racial status (there were always some free blacks in the American colonies) also limited the resonance of skin colour.

Racism coalesces
The Enlightenment undermined religious grounds for discrimination against, for example, Jews. But:
The scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology (p.56).
C18th biological taxonomy began to differentiate humans on the basis of morphology, with alleged associated characteristics ranking races. Even aesthetics was marshalled in the service of such distinctions, a process the unearthing of milky-white Classical statues encouraged (Pp56ff). (Modern science had not yet discovered that many of the statues were originally painted.)

Such distinctions were not yet marshalled in support of European imperialism, which was explained via cultural and technological advantages prior to the mid-C19th (p.61). Frederickson examines the thought of Voltaire, as an Enlightenment thinker who both undermined old hierarchies and generated new ones (Pp62-3). The Enlightenment made “scientific” racism thinkable while providing a basis for critiquing hierarchies on the basis of an aspiration for equality in this world (p.64).

Ideas of separate origins for human races began to rise. In the Anglosphere, Protestant evangelicalism inhibited such notions: not so in France. Yet French theorists actually advocated intermarriage as a way of “improving” the black race, a world away from the horror of intermarriage that operated in North America (Pp65ff). But stigmatising intermarriage served the interests of white women so that white men did not look elsewhere for wives, while white men did not want sexual competition for white women. (Again, a pattern that asserted itself in British India after the opening of the Suez Canal greatly increased the population of British women in India – the “fishing fleet” of women looking for husbands, as it was known.)

As the suffrage advanced, the notion of excluding women, children and the insane from voting due to their deemed mental inferiority was extended to races deemed mentally inferior (Pp68-9). In Germany, the association of Jewish emancipation with Napoleonic rule encouraged a racially-based civic nationalism excluding Jews:
The civic form of nationalism, in which citizenship is allegedly based on universal human rights rather than ethnic particularities, can become extremely oppressive or exclusionary if some segment of the population is viewed as less than fully human (p.69).
But, of course, an egalitarian moral universalism ends up effectively requiring the humanity of groups to be excluded be attacked. Moreover:
Where nationality is ethnic, and if ethnicity is thought to derive from the blood or the genes, those of the wrong ancestry can never be accepted as sons and daughters of the nation (Pp69-70).
A key difference between nationalism – political identity based on ethnicity – and patriotism – loyalty to a particular polity not based on ethnicity.

Ironically, it was a cultural pluralist, Johann Gottfried von Herder, whose:
contention that each people possesses a unique and presumably eternal Volksgeist (or folk soul) laid the foundation for a culture-coded form of racism (p.70).
A folk soul that needed to be nourished by continued interaction with the physical environment of its ancestors, outside influences being a source of contamination to be resisted. While Herder hoped Jews could be assimilated, his biological metaphors set up the path for defining Jews as “contaminating virus”. Particularly as the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation were both imports from French invaders, German nationalism became deeply imbued with the notion of Jewish identity being un-German. The philosopher Fichte held that giving Jews civil rights would only work if they were purged of all Jewish ideas (Pp70-1). The great uncertainty being either requiring full assimilation or deeming it impossible, with anti-Jewish feeling shifting from religious distinctions where conversion to Christianity erased the Jewish “taint” to a conception of irredeemable biological difference (indeed, opposition to “Germanness”). So the historian Heinrich von Treitschke deemed Polish Jews within the Reich to be a misfortune, while still hoping for the full assimilation of German Jews.

Frederickson draws a parallel from American experience:
The belief that Indians, unlike blacks, were capable of being civilized, but only under conditions that they were likely to resist, gave way around the turn of the century to a conviction that Indian resistance to white ways was genetically programmed and could not be overcome by education and indoctrination (p.73).
Frederickson draws a striking contrast between German and American attitudes:
If Germans endowed themselves with a “racial” identity and then excluded other from it, Americans tended to racialize others and consider themselves simply human—citizens of “Universal Yankee Nation: and beneficiaries of what was promised to “all men” by the Declaration of Independence (p.73).
The notion developed, however, that an aptitude for liberty and self-government arose in the German forests, and was transmitted via England to the US. While American self-image tried to tie identity within Enlightenment concepts by claiming that liberty and self-government was more “natural” to some nations than others, German nationalism became strongly anti-Enlightenment in its thinking. (Pp74-5).

The manifestations of racism are specific to context, so Frederickson focuses on the interaction between black and Jewish emancipation and the crystallisation of racist thought and action:
To achieve its full development as what Michael Omi and Howard Witnant call “a social formation”, racism must, in their words, become “a political project” that “creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race.
That process of crystallisation in the US and Germany in the late C19th and early C20th being opposition to:
organized efforts to reverse or limit the emancipation of blacks in the former country and of Jews in the latter (p.75)
This was a product of what Federickson calls the “democratic” revolutions of the late C18th, noting that the supporters of black or Jewish emancipation:
tended to have a low opinion of the actual cultural and moral condition of those whose freedom they advocated and whose “elevation” they sought. But unlike true racists they attributed those deficiencies to an oppressive environment rather than to nature (p.76).
Jews were only about one percent of the German population, but Jewish emancipation in Germany was a fraught affair. Even after they were granted full citizenship as part of Bismarck’s unification drive, Jews who were not Christians were often denied access to civil service positions, university professorships (or even school-teaching) and military commissions (p.77).

The rise of abolitionist sentiment in the US led to the articulation of explicit anti-black rhetoric and agitation, which extended to free blacks. In 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, the US Supreme Court declared that free blacks were outside the protection of the Constitution, on the grounds that the framers of the Constitution assumed that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect”. (Mr Justice Scalia has a similar view about queers.) The Fourteenth Amendment changed the Constitution, but black emancipation continued to be an uncompleted project because:
it exceeded the capacity of white Americans—in the North as well as the South—to think of blacks as genuine equals (p.81).
Indeed, Federickson argues that the post-slavery drive for civil equality awoke “the demons of racism” worse than the defence of slavery had (Pp81-2). It was one thing to be against human beings being property, another to give up the sense of being a superior being and to accept the different as equal.

Frederickson notes similarities in the experience of the US and Germany: federalism was a barrier to equal citizenship, industrialisation increased competition for jobs, the fortunes of Jews and blacks rested on the fortunes of the liberal-to-radical movement, economic downturn sharpened tensions to the detriment of the politically marginal and eugenics was enlisted to support racial denigration (Pp82ff). Still, he holds the differences were even more significant. In particular, where social competition was strongest: angst over black status in the US was largely a working class concern; over Jewish status, a middle (particularly lower middle) class one in Germany. This led to different patterns of accusation and denigration, and different conceptions of the (allegedly threatened) identity (Ppp86ff).

Since American identity was conceived in Enlightenment terms, blacks were either full human beings or relegated to lower-caste status: whatever the “inevitable messiness of social practice”, no other position existed within the logic of the framing. A choice made one way could be reversed later (p.92). German ideology rejected Enlightenment rationalism, universalism and associated values: it was “relentlessly particularist”. There was no legitimate place for Jews, no dilemma of choice:
According to the German ideology that would come to fruition in the Nazi era, it is people or Volker who have rights, not individuals. As a unique and superior Volk, Germans were entitled to defend themselves by any means necessary against alien blood and values. The crimes against humanity perpetrated by Germans in the twentieth century were rationalized as much by idealization of themselves as by hatred of the Other (p.92).
The power of collective narcissism is not to be underestimated.

In central Europe, Jews were an “entrepreneurial minority”. Such groups are an easy scapegoat and object of resentment in difficult times, whose elimination by deportation or worse is likely to be proposed, or even acted upon. The Indians of East Africa and the Chinese of South-East Asia are other examples (Pp92-3).

By contrast, African-Americans were originally slaves, so were acceptable – as long as they “knew their place”. It was only if they start aspiring to equal treatment that racist anger was likely to be provoked (p.93).

As I have noted before, one cannot understand bigotry if you do not understand the insult of equality.

Sadly, cultural stereotypes that arose in one situation can persist and be carried to another:
A culture of racism, once established, can be adapted to more than on agenda and is difficult to eradicate (p.93).
Scapegoating has endless appeal, as does effortless virtue.

Economics, cultural patterns and politics all interacted to produce the historical dramas of racism. The US, having less social angst about capitalism than Germany, found Jews relatively easy to absorb but African-Americans were dismissed as “too primitive”. Conversely, Jews in Germany were “too modern”, too adapted to the new world of industrialised capitalism that many found so threatening (Pp94-5).

(This review will be concluded in my next post.)


  1. HI! What is meant by Fredrickson's "Scavenger Ideology?"

    1. He means it picks up ideas from all over the place, latching on to anything that its ideas can be usefully tied to.

  2. Thank you for writing this out.

  3. What does Frederickson mean be "xenophobia"?

  4. hello i need help in interpreting this text. can you help me? it would be helpful if you email me asap at