History Of Racism Research Paper

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In common usage the term racism is often employed in a loose and unreflective way to describe the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or historical collectivity toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes. But historians and social scientists normally require a more precise and limited definition, although they may disagree on what it should be. It is useful, therefore, to review the historiographic discourse on the meaning of racism before attempting a brief survey of what contemporary historians might accept as its principal manifestations.

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1. Historiography Of Racism

The term racism was coined in the 1930s mainly in reference to the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews. The first historian to focus directly on the subject was Barzun. His book Race: A Study in Superstition (originally published in 1937 and reprinted in 1965) set two important precedents for most future historians of racism: it presumed that claims of the innate inferiority of one ‘race’ to another were false or at least unproven, and its main concern was with the history of ideas rather than with the social and political applications of prejudiced beliefs and attitudes. Barzun’s concern with the intellectual origins of Nazi antisemitism was shared by the many scholars who wrote on the subject after World War II in response to what the Holocaust had revealed about the horrifying consequences of racist ideas. A notable example was Poliakov’s Le Myth Aryen, translated into English as The Aryan Myth (1974). But disagreements developed on whether biological racism was continuous with earlier antisemitic attitudes that were, ostensibly at least, based on religion or whether it was a radical new departure, a sine qua non for something like the Holocaust.

In the immediate postwar decades, the term racism was also applied with increasing frequency to the relationships between whites or Europeans and people of color, especially Africans or those of African descent, in colonial, postcolonial, and former slave societies. The rising concern with black–white relations in the US, South Africa, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) in Great Britain, beginning in the 1950s and early 1960s, gave rise to an enormous literature on the origins and development of white supremacy as an ideology. Historians of ideas did most of the early work, but gradually the emphasis shifted somewhat from the racist ideas themselves to the patterns or racial discrimination and domination for which they served as a rationale. Many historians of black–white relations used the term casually and without reflecting on its exact meaning. At its most imprecise, it could mean anything that whites did or thought that worked to the disadvantage of blacks.

There have been relatively few attempts to write general histories of racism, which encompass both the antisemitic and color-coded varieties. For the most part, the two historiographies have not addressed each other, and the definitions employed have sometimes been incompatible. Some historians of antisemitic racism have found the term applicable only if the aim was the elimination of the stigmatized group. Some historians of white supremacy, on the contrary, would limit the term to ideologies associated with patterns of domination or hierarchical differentiation. The first attempt at a comprehensive history of American racism, Gossett’s Race: The History of an Idea in America (1963) traced consciousness of race to the ancient world. Its treatment of specifically American manifestations cast its net quite wide to include representation and treatment of American Indians and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, including Jews, as well as blacks. But most subsequent work on the history of American racism has been group specific and has concentrated most heavily on attitudes toward African Americans. Mosse’s general history of European racism, on the other hand, pays most of its attention to the growth of antisemitism between the Enlightenment and the Holocaust (Mosse 1978). But there appear to be only two significant attempts to cover Western attitudes toward race comprehensively: Hannaford’s Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996) and Geiss’ Geschichte des Rassismus (1988). Hannaford’s study, as its title indicates, is strictly an intellectual history and considers race as a concept more than racism as an ideology. It argues strenuously that no clear concept of race existed before the seventeenth century, thus raising the issue of whether anything that existed before the invention of race in the modern sense can be legitimately labeled racism. Geiss, on the contrary, sees racism as anticipated in most respects by the ethnocentrism or xenophobia that developed in the ancient world, as reflected, for example, in the Old Testament.

2. Toward A Definition Of Racism For Historical Purposes

Somewhere between the view that race is a peculiar modern idea without much historical precedent and the notion that it is simply an extension of the ancient phenomena of ethnocentrism and xenophobia may lie a working definition that is neither too broad for historical specificity or too narrow to cover more than the limited span of Western history during which a racism based on scientific theories of human variation was widely accepted. If racism is defined as an ideology rather than as a theory, links can be established between belief and practice that the history of ideas may obscure. But ideologies have content, and it is necessary to distinguish racist ideologies from other belief systems that emphasize human differences and can be used as rationalizations of inequality. The classic sociological distinction between racism and ethnocentrism is helpful, but not perhaps in the usual sense, in which the key variable is whether differences are described in cultural or physical terms. It is actually quite difficult in specific historical cases to say whether appearance or ‘culture’ is the source of the salient differences, because culture can be reified and essentialized to the point where it has the same deterministic effect as skin color. But it would stretch the concept of racism much too far to make it cover the pride and loyalty that may result from ethnic identity. Such group-centeredness may engender prejudice and discrimination against those outside the group, but two additional elements would seem to be required before the categorization of racism is justified. One is a belief that the differences between the ethnic groups involved are permanent and ineradicable. If conversion or assimilation is genuinely on offer, we have religious or cultural intolerance but not racism. The second is the social side of the ideology—its linkage to patterns of domination or exclusion. To attempt a short formulation, we might say that 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 hereditary and unalterable.

3. The Emergence Of Racism

Historians who can accept this middle-of-the-road definition can agree with the scholars who have examined conceptions of human diversity in classical antiquity and the early Middle Ages without finding clear evidence of color prejudice or racism. Neither the classical conception that one becomes civilized through being able to engage in politics nor the Christian belief that everyone regardless of color or ancestry is a potential convert with a soul to be saved could readily sustain a racist view of the world. The period between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries is much more problematic. The literal demonization of the Jews in the late middle ages, the belief that they were in league with the devil and plotting the destruction of Christianity, could lead unsophisticated folk to believe that they were outside the bounds of humanity, even though church authorities persisted in advocating their conversion. Folk antisemitism resulted in massacres and expulsions of Jews in virtually every country in Western Europe. A degree of elite or official sanction for such attitudes came in sixteenth century Spain when Jews who had converted to Christianity and their descendants became the victims of a pattern of discrimination and exclusion. When purity of blood, or limpieza de sangre, became a qualification for certain offices and honors it signified that what people could accomplish or achieve no longer depended on what they did but on who they were. Precedents for the notion that blood will tell could be found in the inheritability of royal or noble status but the designation of an entire ethnic group as incapable of a reliable conversion to Christianity constituted, at the very least, a transitional stage between religious bigotry and biological racism.

The period of the Renaissance and Reformation was also the time when Europeans were coming into increasing contact with people of darker pigmentation in Africa, Asia, and the Americas and were making judgments about them as they traded with them, fought with them over territory, or enslaved them. A belief that all these non-Europeans were children of God with souls that missionaries could save did not prevent a brutal expropriation of their land and labor, but it did inhibit the articulation of a racial justification for how they were being treated. When Africans were carried by force to the New World to labor on plantations, slave traders and slave owners sometimes invoked an obscure passage in the book of Genesis to explain the color of their human property. Ham had committed a sin against his father Noah that resulted in a divine curse on his descendents to be ‘servants unto servants.’ When Africans were enslaved, first by Arabs, and then by Europeans, it became convenient to believe that the punishment of God had included a blackening of the skin. But the passage had other possible meanings, and no orthodox religious authorities ever endorsed the interpretation of the curse popular among slaveholders, because they feared that it would impede conversion of blacks to Christianity. The standard and official justification for enslaving Africans was that they were heathens and that enslavement made heaven accessible to them.

An implicit racism became evident, however, when converted slaves were kept in bondage, not because they were actual heathens but because they had heathen ancestry. As with the doctrine of purity of blood in Spain, descent rather than performance became the basis for determining the qualifications for membership in a community that was still theoretically based on a shared Christian faith. Beginning in the late seventeenth century laws were passed in English North America forbidding marriage between whites and blacks and discriminating against the mixed offspring of informal liaisons. Without clearly saying so, such laws implied that blacks were unalterably alien and inferior.

4. The Rise Of Modern Racism

A modern naturalistic form of racism could not be articulated fully until the Enlightenment. A secular or scientific theory of race required a new way of looking at human diversity, one that moved the subject away from the Bible, with its insistence on the essential unity and homogeneity of the human race and its collective elevation above the animal kingdom. Eighteenth-century ethnologists began to think of human beings as part of the natural world and subdivided them into three to five races, usually considered as varieties or subspecies. Most eighteenth-century ethnological theorists believed that whiteness was the original color of humanity and that blackness or brownness resulted from a process of degeneration caused by climate and conditions of life. Although the white or Caucasian race was generally considered more beautiful and civilized than the Mongolian and especially the Negro, the belief that human beings constituted a single species with a common origin remained dominant. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, however, an increasing number of ethnologists asserted that the races were separately created and constituted distinct species. As debates over the morality of slavery and the slave trade erupted in Western Europe and the US in the wake of democratic revolutions and the rise of humanitarian movements, some of the most militant defenders of black bondage adopted these polygenetic arguments as a justification for enslaving Africans and holding them in permanent servitude. But the fact that polygenesis seemed to conflict with scripture limited the usage of this extreme version of scientific racism. Many defenders of slavery in the American South, where evangelical religion enforced biblical literalism, reverted to the Curse on Ham or made the degeneracy hypothesis of Enlightenment ethnology into an argument for the permanent or irreversible divergence of the races from their common origin.

The nineteenth century was an age of emancipation, nationalism, and imperialism—all of which contributed to the growth and intensification of ideological racism in Europe and in the US. Although the emancipation of blacks from slavery and Jews from the ghettoes, which seemed a logical consequence of the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth century, received most of its support from religious or secular believers in an essential human equality, the consequences of these reforms was to intensify rather than diminish racism. Race relations became less paternalistic and more competitive. Poor or working class whites in the US, for example, feared competition with emancipated blacks for work, land, and social status. Middle class (especially lower middle class) Germans viewed the increasing involvement of Jews in finance, commerce, the professions, journalism, and the arts during the late nineteenth century as a potential threat to their own economic security, social status, and traditional values. Of course, it was the legacy of inherited stereotypes about ‘the Other,’ in addition to the immediate economic and social circumstances, that gave edge and intensity to these feelings of insecurity and hostility. The idiom of Darwinism, with its emphasis on ‘the struggle for existence’ and concern for ‘the survival of the fittest’ was conducive to the development of a new and more credible scientific racism in an era that increasingly viewed race relations as an arena for conflict rather than as a stable hierarchy.

The growth of nationalism, especially romantic cultural nationalism, encouraged the growth of a more mystical variant of racist thought. When it could be assumed that one had to be of German ancestry to participate in the German Volkgeist, Jews could be discriminated against or excluded just as effectively as if their deficiencies were clearly defined as genetic or biological. For most of the nineteenth century the question of whether German Jews could or should be converted to Christianity was an open one. Beginning in the late 1870s and early 1880s, however, the coiners of the term ‘antisemetism’ made explicit what some cultural nationalists had previously implied—that to be Jewish was not simply to adhere to a set of religious beliefs or cultural practices but meant belonging to a race that was the antithesis of the race to which true Germans belonged. The latter was variously designated as Teutonic, Aryan, Nordic, or simply Germanic. In Great Britain and the US romantic nationalism took the form of a veneration for Anglo-Saxon ancestors and legacies that could turn racist, as it did for a time in the US, when confronted with large-scale immigration from eastern and southern Europe. In France, an ethnocentric cultural nationalism fed the fury against the Jews that surfaced in the Dreyfus affair at the turn of century. It did not triumph against the universalistic civic nationalism inherited from the revolutionary past, but it did make antisemitic racism a strain of right-wing French thought that would resurface during the 1930s and especially under the German occupation.

The climax of Western imperialism in the late nineteenth century ‘scramble for Africa’ and parts of Asia and the Pacific represented an assertion of the competitive ethnic nationalism that existed among European nations (and which, as a result of the Spanish–American War came to include the US). A belief that different races, subraces, or racial mixtures inhabited each nation led some, especially the Germans and the English, to suppose that the quality of each nation’s racial stock was being tested for its fitness. But imperialism also required the massive subjugation and colonial domination of non-European populations. An ideology proclaiming that whites were superior to ‘lesser breeds’ and responsible for ruling over them and tutoring them in the rudiments of civilization was a prime rationale for this new burst of European expansionism, even if it was not a cause of it. The relation of racism to imperialism is more problematic than one might suppose, however, because the most consistent and extreme racists were often anti-imperialists. They believed that nothing useful could be done with people whose inferiority was so profound and permanent that they were incapable of being civilized. For them the taming or domestication of such savages was not worth the trouble. Within colonies that attracted substantial numbers of European settlers, such as French Algeria or some of the British colonies of South and East Africa, a more extreme and explicit racism than the one usually professed by government officials or missionaries could be found in the discourse of white colonists about their ‘native’ servants or farm laborers.

5. The Climax: Racism In The Twentieth Century

The climax of the history of racism came in the twentieth century in the rise and fall of what might be called overtly racist regimes. In the American South, the passage of racial segregation laws and restrictions on black voting rights reduced African Americans to lower caste status, despite the Constitutional Amendments that had made them equal citizens. Extreme racist propaganda, which represented black males as ravening beasts lusting after white women, served to rationalize the practice of lynching. These extra-legal executions increasingly were reserved for blacks accused of offenses against the color line, and they became more brutal and sadistic as time went on; by the early twentieth century victims were likely to be tortured to death rather than simply being killed. A key feature of the racist regime maintained by state law in the South was a fear of sexual contamination through rape or intermarriage, which led to efforts to prevent the conjugal union of whites with those with any known or discernable African ancestry. The effort to guarantee ‘race purity’ in the American South anticipated aspects of the official Nazi persecution of Jews in the 1930s. The Nuremberg laws of 1935 prohibited intermarriage or sexual relations between Jews and Gentiles, and the propaganda surrounding the legislation emphasized the sexual threat that predatory Jewish males presented to German womanhood and the purity of German blood. Racist ideology was eventually of course carried to a more extreme point in Nazi Germany than in the American South of the Jim Crow era. Individual blacks had been hanged or burned to death by the lynch mobs to serve as examples to insure that the mass of southern African Americans would scrupulously respect the color line. But it took Hitler and the Nazis to attempt the extermination of an entire ethnic group on the basis of a racist ideology.

Hitler, it has been said, gave racism a bad name. The moral revulsion of people throughout the world against what the Nazis did, reinforced by scientific studies undermining racist genetics (or eugenics), served to discredit the scientific racism that had been respectable and influential in the US and Europe before World War II. But explicit racism also came under devastating attack from the new nations resulting from the decolonization of Africa and Asia and their representatives in the United Nations. The Civil Rights movement in the US, which succeeded in outlawing legalized racial segregation and discrimination in the 1960s, was the beneficiary of revulsion against the Holocaust as a logical outcome of racism. But it also drew crucial support from the growing sense that national interests were threatened when blacks in the US were mistreated and abused. In the competition with the Soviet Union for ‘the hearts and minds’ of independent Africans and Asians, Jim Crow and the ideology that sustained it became a national embarrassment with possible strategic consequences.

The one overtly racist regime that survived World War II and the Cold War was the South African, which did not in fact come to fruition until the advent of Apartheid in 1948. The laws passed banning all marriage and sexual relations between different ‘population groups’ and requiring separate residential areas for people of mixed race (‘Coloureds’), as well as for Africans, signified the same obsession with ‘race purity’ that characterized the other racist regimes. However, the climate of world opinion in the wake of the Holocaust induced apologists for apartheid to avoid straightforward biological racism and rest their case for ‘separate development’ mainly on cultural rather than physical differences. The extent to which Afrikaner nationalism was inspired by nineteenth century European cultural nationalism also contributed to this avoidance of a pseudo-scientific rationale. 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 color or other physical characteristics. The South African government also tried to accommodate itself to the age of decolonization. It offered a dubious independence to the overcrowded ‘homelands,’ from which African migrants went forth to work for limited periods in the mines and factories of the nine-tenths of the country reserved for a white minority that constituted less than a sixth of the total population.

6. The End Of Racism?

The defeat of Nazi Germany, the desegregation of the American South in the 1960s, and the establishment of majority rule in South Africa suggest that regimes based on biological racism or its cultural essentialist equivalent are a thing of the past. But racism does not require the full and explicit support of the state and the law. Nor does it require an ideology centered on the concept of biological inequality. Discrimination by institutions and individuals against those perceived as racially different can long persist and even flourish under the illusion of nonracism, as historians of Brazil have discovered recently. The use of allegedly deep-seated cultural differences as a justification for hostility and discrimination against newcomers from the Third World in several European countries has led to allegations of a new ‘cultural racism.’ Similarly, those sympathetic to the plight of poor African Americans and Latinos in the US have described as ‘racist’ the view of some whites that many denizens of the ghettos and barrios can be written off as incurably infected by cultural pathologies. From the historian’s perspective such recent examples of cultural determinism are not in fact unprecedented. They rather represent a reversion to the way that the differences between ethnoracial groups could be made to seem indelible and unbridgeable before the articulation of a scientific or naturalistic conception of race in the eighteenth century.


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