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Racism, History of Hatred

August 4, 2002

'Racism': History of Hatred


There are many claims about racism that would be accepted by most reasonable Americans. Here, for example, are three. Nazi ideology was racist. Apartheid was racist. The Ku Klux Klan was racist. These cases are easy to agree about in part because they involve judgments about other places or other times. Ask people, on the other hand, whether recent Republican campaign rhetoric or current Democratic support for affirmative action is racist, and the consensus disappears. Racist laws, pronouncements and actions, we can agree, marred much of American history (and in this respect our history is far from unique). But how racist is the United States today? And who are the racists? Try getting agreement about that.

One reason for the disagreement is just that people have different hunches about what's going on in other people's heads. Announce, say, that African-Americans with good credit pay more on average for their cars than whites, and some will assume bigotry, others (including, no doubt, many who count car salesmen among their friends) will not.

But another reason we cannot agree about racism is conceptual: people understand the term rather variously. More than this, while you would have to be eccentric to think that racism is not wrong, it is far from clear that most of us share a view about why it is wrong. Is it that racists have hatred or contempt for people of other races? Or that they have irrational beliefs about them? Or that they tend to treat them badly? Is it, as some opponents of affirmative action allege, that it is wrong to take account of a person's race at all? Or is it, as those who speak of ''institutional racism'' hold, that the motives and acts of individuals matter less than the systematic ways in which people of some races are disadvantaged in law and social life?

Over the last few decades, philosophers, historians and social scientists have debated these questions, deepening our understanding of racial attitudes and of the ways in which race affects the life chances of individuals, and exploring the history of those attitudes and of the social practices within which they are embedded. One of the earlier contributions to this discussion was ''The Black Image in the White Mind'' (1971), in which the historian George M. Fredrickson discussed white American racial attitudes in the century leading up to World War I. In 1981, Fredrickson published ''White Supremacy,'' a comparative study of North American and South African racism. In ''Racism: A Short History,'' written in his characteristically crisp, clear prose, he draws both on a wide range of recent work by others and on nearly half a century of his own writings on immigration, race and nationalism, in the United States and elsewhere, to provide us with a masterly -- though not uncontroversial -- synthesis.

Fredrickson announces in his introduction that his aim is ''to present in a concise fashion the story of racism's rise and decline (although not yet, unfortunately, its fall) from the Middle Ages to the present.'' Historians are often reluctant to theorize, and Fredrickson, a former president of the Organization of American Historians, is very much a historian's historian. But, as he acknowledges at once, the task he has set himself for this book requires him to have what he calls ''a theory or conception of racism.''

If we all agreed what racism was, one would not need a theory to find examples of it in the past. But things are made even more difficult by the relative novelty of the term ''racism'' itself. Sometimes historians can avoid taking sides in contemporary semantic squabbles by using words as they were used in the period about which they are writing, but that would make a history of racism going back to the Middle Ages impossible. For the word ''racism,'' in something like its modern sense, appears only in the 1930's, ''when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews.'' The late start of the word ''racism'' has led some to think that the phenomenon itself must be relatively new; that it is, as Fredrickson summarizes the view, ''a peculiar modern idea without much historical precedent.'' At another extreme are many who think of racism as ''simply a manifestation of the ancient phenomenon of tribalism or xenophobia.''

Fredrickson proposes that racism combines ''an attitude or set of beliefs'' with a set of ''practices, institutions and structures.'' The attitude in question involves treating what are in fact mutable ethnic or cultural differences ''as innate, indelible and unchangeable.'' And the practices range from ''unofficial but pervasive social discrimination at one end of the spectrum to genocide at the other, with government-sanctioned segregation, colonial subjugation, exclusion, forced deportation (or 'ethnic cleansing') and enslavement among the other variations on the theme.'' Racism, as he puts it, is difference plus power. All forms of racism suppose, on Fredrickson's conception, that the differences between races mean that they cannot coexist in one society on terms of equality. That is difference. Expulsion, elimination or subjugation are, for the racist, the only options. That takes power.

''Racism: A Short History'' does not stray beyond Western racism, in part, Fredrickson says, because it has had a wider impact than any comparable ideology, spreading, as it did, with European empires around the globe. But he also believes that racism received its fullest theoretical elaboration in the West because racist ideology developed in societies where it offended against a growing conviction that ''all men are created equal.'' As a result, as the ideology developed, it was also ''condemned and resisted.'' If racism is indeed an ideology that grows up in order to rationalize expulsion, elimination or exploitation, it makes sense then that it is a relatively modern phenomenon in the West. For it is only in the modern period that these offenses against others needed rationalizing.

Fredrickson argues that Western racism has two prime strands -- one anti-Semitic, the other white supremacist -- and that anti-Semitism came first. It was only in the 15th century that the religious anti-Judaism of the European Middle Ages -- which allowed that, though Judaism was religiously incorrect, Jews, once converted, were as good as anyone else -- was replaced, in Spain, with something more like racism. The process began when religious antipathy to Jews as nonbelievers was replaced by ''a consuming hatred that made getting rid of Jews seem preferable to trying to convert them.'' This anti-Semitism became racist when ''the belief took hold that Jews were intrinsically and organically evil rather than merely having false beliefs and wrong dispositions.'' Now conversion was not so much undesirable as impossible. In a sense, then, anti-Semitic ideology developed in an attempt to reconcile that supposed impossibility with the conflicting demand that Christians should treat all men as children of a single God.

Similarly, when the Atlantic slave trade in Africans began, it largely involved the capture and exploitation of heathens. Even as slaves in the New World came increasingly to be baptized, there was no need to justify their enslavement -- until it was challenged, in the Enlightenment. At that point slavery's defenders needed an ideology. It is something of an irony that the tools with which they addressed this task came increasingly from another side of the Enlightenment, the rationalizing, scientific side that was beginning to treat human beings not (or at least, not only) as God's special creation but as natural creatures whose history could be studied along with that of other organisms. It is in the Enlightenment that the first modern attempts at racial classification, based not on religious ideas but on purportedly scientific ones, were developed. And these naturalistic accounts of the supposed inferiority of blacks and Jews eventually overtook the religious ones that dominated the debates of the early 19th century about slavery.

Fredrickson's idea, then, can be put this way. People everywhere, throughout history, have sometimes been beastly to members of groups they thought of as different. What is distinctive about racism in the West is the development of a full-scale systematic ideology to explain why these others deserved bad treatment. And that theory was necessary only because modern Western societies were unlike most others, which did not share the assumption that human beings were created equal and thus had nothing to explain away.

Within this framework, Fredrickson sketches out the key developments, both in attitude and in institutions, in the treatment of Jews and blacks in Europe and the Americas over the last half-millennium. The book is worth reading just for its pathbreaking attempt to tell the stories of anti-Semitism and white supremacy together, while insisting both on their interconnections and their differences.

Nevertheless, I think Fredrickson's analysis is potentially misleading in two ways. First, his just insistence on the role of racism as an attempt to rationalize abuses might lead some readers to conclude that the real harm is done by whatever causes people to abuse outsiders in the first place. But, of course, once a racist ideology is in place -- as we have seen in episodes on five continents in the last few decades -- it can lead people to do the most appalling things. Even if racism starts as a rationalization for abuses that have other motivations, it ends up having a powerful negative force of its own. Fredrickson says toward the end of his book that racism in the United States is ''like a bacillus that we have failed to destroy, a live germ that not only continues to make some of us ill but retains the capacity to generate new strains of a disease for which we have no certain cure.'' So he is not himself misled on this point. Still, his theory might be carelessly construed as the view that racism is a rationalizing gloss for forms of exploitation whose real motivation is something else.

A second difficulty comes from Fredrickson's insistence that racism must involve both difference and power. ''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.'' It is certainly true that racism developed in the West that way. But once the ideology developed, it colonized minds, many of which are now far from the levers of power. An individual racist attack surely need not be part of a current pattern of attempts at group domination.

There is a deeper difficulty here, that the attitudes Fredrickson stresses are, as he says, ''sets of beliefs'' about the immutable awfulness of other races, rather than hostile feelings toward them. But while racist ideology -- formal, articulated, theoretical racism -- is indeed a characteristic and distinctive feature of the forms of hostility to blacks and Jews that provide the central paradigms of racism, at least as important in the everyday life of racism are the deep feelings of revulsion, hostility, contempt or just plain hatred that many racists feel. As the philosopher Jorge L. A. Garcia has put it, racism lives more in the heart than in the head.

It is, I think, quite natural, faced with the worst moments in the history Fredrickson recounts -- slavery, lynching, genocide -- to focus on the terrible harms to racism's victims. And certainly the greatest wrongs have occurred when racial hostility or contempt has been combined with power. But hate-filled or contemptuous thoughts and feelings about other races can be found too, alas, among the powerless.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University and its University Center for Human Values and the author, with Amy Gutmann, of ''Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race.''

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