The Rise and Fall of the Laboratory Racist

By Fredrickson, George M. | UNESCO Courier, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Rise and Fall of the Laboratory Racist


Fredrickson, George M., UNESCO Courier


Until the Middle Ages, communities discriminated against each other and vied for power. In the following centuries, the Bible, economics and science gave birth to a new phenomenon: the hierarchy of race

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. An ideological basis for explicit racism, in this sense, came to a unique fruition in the West during the modern period: no clear and unequivocal evidence of racism beyond discrimination or rivalry between communities has been found in other cultures or in Europe before the Middle Ages.

Perhaps the first sign of this racist view of the world appeared in the identification of the Jews with the devil and witchcraft in the popular mind of the 13th and 14th centuries. Official sanction for such attitudes came in 16th-century Spain, when Jews who had converted to Christianity and their descendants became the victims of a pattern of discrimination and exclusion.

The period of the Renaissance and Reformation was also a time when Europeans were coming into increasing contact with people of darker pigmentation in Africa, Asia and the Americas, and were thus making judgements about them. The motive for enslaving Africans was primarily economic--their labour was needed on the plantations of the New World--but the official rationale was that they were heathens. Slave traders and slave owners sometimes interpreted a passage in the book of Genesis as their justification. Ham, they maintained, committed a sin against his father Noah that condemned his supposedly black descendants to be "servants unto servants." When Virginia decreed in 1667 that converted slaves could be kept in bondage, not because they were actual heathens but because they had heathen ancestry, the justification for black servitude was thus changed from their religious status to something approaching race. Beginning in the late 17th century, laws were also passed in British North America forbidding marriag e between whites and blacks and discriminating against the mixed offspring of informal liaisons. Without clearly stating so, such laws implied that blacks were unalterably alien and inferior.

During the Enlightenment, a secular or scientific theory of race moved the subject away from the Bible's teachings, with their insistence on the essential unity of the human race. Eighteenth-century ethnologists such as Linnaeus, Buffon and Blumenbach began to think of human beings as part of the natural world, and subdivided them into three to five races, usually considered as varieties of a single human species. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, an increasing number of writers, especially those committed to the defence of slavery, maintained that the races in fact constituted separate species.

The 19th century was an age of emancipation, nationalism, and imperialism--all of which contributed to the growth and intensification of ideological racism in Europe and the United States. Although the emancipation of blacks from slavery and Jews from the ghettoes received most of its support from religious or secular believers in fundamental human equality, the consequence of these reforms was to intensify rather than diminish racism. Race relations became less rigidly hierarchical and more competitive. The insecurities of a burgeoning industrial capitalism created a need for scapegoats. The Darwinian 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 the outcome of a stable ranking.

Moral revulsion

It was nationalism, especially a type of romantic cultural nationalism marrying ethnic heritage (thought of in terms of blood) to a sense of collective identity, that marked the growth of a new variant of racist thought, especially in Germany. …

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