A Lucid Analysis of the Origins of Racism

By Rosenthal, Gilbert S. | Midstream, February-March 2004 | Go to article overview

A Lucid Analysis of the Origins of Racism


Rosenthal, Gilbert S., Midstream


Racism: A Short History, by George Fredrickson. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002, 207 pp., $22.95.

"Racist" is a term of opprobrium these days. For years, Israel was branded a most "racist nation" and Zionism was equated with racism by the United Nations until that organization finally repealed the infamous resolution. Black demagogues like to brand opponents "racists." The word is loaded with nasty connotations almost equivalent to "Nazi." But the phrase has been more often than not misapplied, as George Fredrickson insists in his latest work, Racism: A Short History. A professor of sociology at Stanford University and author of significant works on anti-black racism, Fredrickson offers a concisely lucid analysis of the origins of racism, which he defines as hostile or negative feelings of one group towards another and actions that result. The defining traits of race are innate or unchangeable, e.g., skin pigmentation. "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 or unalterable." A racist doesn't hate a person for "what he believes but for what he is." A racist state such as South Africa under the apartheid regime or Nazi Germany legalizes racism and develops a hierarchy to promote and enforce its racist ideology.

Fredrickson maintains that racism was born in Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries with the Marrano problem and the notion of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). Hitherto, a Jew could pass into the mainstream of Christian civilization by conversion. But as tens of thousands were forcibly baptized, especially after the pogroms of 1391, Spanish grandees and churchmen found themselves swamped by conversos, Jews of questionable Christian loyalties, many of whom were indeed secret Jews. Consequently, they developed the new theory that race is ineradicable. In a sense, the author suggests that the seeds of Nazism were sown in late medieval Spain, a point developed long before by Yitzhak Baer, Cecil Roth, and Salo W. Baron, whose works seem not be familiar to the author.

Color prejudice, however, is the product of the modern period, argues the author. It stems from the colonial experiences of the Western nations who were ambivalent as to how to deal with the colonial peoples they conquered: Were they children of God to be converted to Christian truth, or were they to be viewed as subhuman and to be subjugated?

The modern theory of race is to be traced to the 18th century with the scientific studies of Linnaeus and Blumenback who propagated the theory of several basic racial types, the noblest being the "Caucasians" or white groups. The pseudo-science of race blossomed in the 19th century thanks to the writings of Chamberlain, Duehring, Marr, and Herder (Fredrickson curiously omits Drumont, the widely read French purveyor of race-hatred of Jews) who developed the notion of the Volksgeist and the Herrenfolk--doctrines that would prove so lethal in the 20th century in the hands of the Nazis. Unwittingly, cultural anthropologists added grist to the mill of the racists by their studies of racial types and anatomies and formulation of racial categories, genotypes, and biological differences.

Fredrickson's judgment of Western nations is harsh and frank. The Western Enlightenment has been a double-edged sword on the issues of race: its naturalism made color-coded racism based on science thinkable; at the same time, it established in the minds of some a premise of equality in this world. He highlights the paradox of Western culture and civilization, opining, "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. …

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