"Racism" is the doctrine that one group of men is morally or mentally superior to another and that this superiority arises out of inherited biological differences. Of the modern theories aimed at dividing one portion of humanity from another, it is the most morally reprehensible and the least substantially based. Nationalism has a certain rationale in the existence of nation-states, and it does not, at least not necessarily, imply the inferiority of one nation to another. The various doctrines of the struggle between economic classes can point to a wide assortment of empirical evidence in support of their claims; in the Marxist version the exploiting capitalist is as much a victim of the capitalist system as is the exploited proletarian, and the eventual overcoming of all class distinctions is a moral aim as well as a prophesied event. The tenets of racism, however, lead to moral conclusions that contradict many of the most generally accepted civilized standards and have notoriously led to what on ordinary grounds are inconceivable crimes. It might be claimed that ordinary standards are mistaken and that, for example, it was morally imperative that the Nazis exterminate the Jews—if racist claims had a substantial factual basis. Fortunately for ordinary moral standards, if not for the exterminated Jews and other victims of racial persecution, the tenets of racism are not merely unsubstantiated by the facts but in large measure contradicted by the facts.
Nor have the most important racist theorists been equipped to judge the alleged facts on which they based their claims. The question of race is an enormously complex one, and a judgment on it requires a synthesis of materials from history and prehistory and from a wide variety of biological, anthropological, and psychological disciplines, but primarily from genetics. Many of the necessary facts have only recently become available, and major questions remain unanswered. Yet most racist theories were put forth prior to the accumulation of this evidence, and even most contemporary racist theories are based on outdated biology. Furthermore, most racists—Houston Stewart Chamberlain, with his varied but erratic education, is a possible exception—have lacked the scientific training required to judge whatever evidence was available at the time they wrote. And until a racist theory can be substantiated to a very high degree of probability, the unsavoriness of the conclusion that there are inequalities in the capacities of groups of men requires that the theory be rejected.
Outline of the Theory
Although there are many variations on the racist theme (the number of contradictions among racist claims, notably about which are the privileged races, is enough in itself to cast doubt on the tenability of the whole racist enterprise), a model set of racist tenets, divisible into three groups of claims, can be isolated.
The first group starts with the premise that humankind is now, has been in the past, or ought to be in the future divided up into biologically distinct groups. The different tenses must be distinguished because in some instances the claim is made that the superior race is not now in existence but should be bred from the "best blood" among various existing groups. This claim is the link between racism and eugenics, but although eugenicists often fall into racist language or hold racist beliefs (Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, rated blacks as about two grades below the Anglo-Saxon "race," and the British pragmatist philosopher F. C. S. Schiller supported both eugenics and the English fascist Sir Oswald Mosley), the connection between the two theories is not inevitable.
The distinction between groups of humankind is held to be based on the common biological heredity of the members of each group. Among the biological distinctions between groups are inherited capacities for certain cultural activities—some races, it is claimed, are more warlike than others, some more musical, others predestined to be dominated. These are factual claims, seemingly open to confirmation or refutation by a scientific examination of the evidence, and the evidence seems overwhelmingly against every one of them. Someone who upheld these views would not necessarily be a racist, but they are essential to the racist position.
In a class by itself is the claim that the mechanism of transmission of group characteristics is the blood. Of all racist claims this is the one most surely refuted, and it would seem to be inessential to the doctrine. Yet the insistent stress on this claim even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its falsity is an index of the nonrational sources of racist thinking. Theories of inheritance through the blood, of blood kinship, of bluebloods, and of good and bad blood are survivals of age-old prescientific thought, on the same order as the view that the soul is the breath.
The final set of doctrines are essential to racism and distinctive of it. Not only are human groups different from one another but some are "better," "stronger," "higher," or "more creative" than others—physically, intellectually, or morally. (The proponent of a particular racist doctrine quite naturally almost always identifies himself with the race he judges superior. Thus, Comte Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, who was born in the south of France and who placed the "Nordic race" at the pinnacle of humanity, devoted considerable research to proving his own descent from the Viking Otto Jarl; the British-born, French and Swiss-educated Chamberlain, who espoused Aryan or Teutonic superiority, included the contemporary English—and the Slavs and Celts—among the Teutons.) The higher race or races, it is claimed, have a moral right to dominate, to enslave, or even to eradicate the lower races. Finally, higher and lower races should not intermarry. Race mixture, or "mongrelization," is against nature. For the superior race it can lead only to the lowering of standards and to racial degeneration. It would seem that race mixture would improve the "lower" race, but this is generally denied either on biological or on historical grounds. Thus, Chamberlain held that the "lower" Jewish race was not improved by an alleged ancient admixture of Aryan blood, which came too little and too late.
No complete examination of the fallacies of racist doctrines can be presented here. What seems most important is that there are not now and, so far as anthropological evidence shows, have never been any pure races of men and that the very concept of race as applied to groups of human beings is suspect. In the vast number of its traits humankind is one, and there has been constant intermarriage and a consequent diffusion of genetic traits throughout the species. There are obvious dissimilarities among groups of people, but these differences more or less gradually shade off into one another; it is a question of statistical predominance of certain physical or physiological traits in a population rather than of sharply defined group differences.
Estimates of the number of genes in man range from 10,000 to 100,000, whereas the number of genes that control skin color, shape of lips and nose, and hair form are few. Racists want to correlate these obvious differences—which in themselves are purely statistical and thus no certain guide to the ancestry of a particular person—with differences in innate inheritable mental characteristics. Yet the evidence is against any such correlation. Each gene or gene cluster, except for certain linked genes, is inherited individually; on the average, half comes from the father and half from the mother. The number of possible combinations of ancestral genes is astronomical, and the question whether specific mental characteristics are linked with a particular genetic heritage can almost certainly be answered in the negative for human beings, if not, perhaps, for certain domestic animals.
In any case, humankind has apparently been faced with an environment that puts a premium on intelligence, and there seem to be no detectable group differences in intelligence. It is practically impossible to devise a satisfactory test to determine whether there are biological differences in intelligence. In most cases the available methods of classifying by ancestry those to be tested are quite fallible. It is equally difficult to find two groups genetically distinct and culturally alike, and intelligence tests are quite generally distorted by cultural factors and place a premium on particular cultural achievements that obscures any possible genetic factors in the results.
Finally, if there were any evolutionary reasons for thinking that some race was at one time constitutionally better fitted to one environment than another, the rate of human cultural change is such that this supposed superiority would have been insignificant for many centuries. There is no reason to think that one group of humankind is mentally or physically better fitted than another to cope with the complexities of modern urban civilization and an internationally dispersed technology.
To the above summary and inadequate account of the biological claims that contradict racism should be added the overwhelming historical evidence of constant migrations and intermarriages of human groups and the highly probable inference that movement and mixture was also the rule during the prehistory of the human species. This has been especially true of the two alleged races most notoriously prominent in racist literature, Aryans and Jews. The Aryan is generally presented as a pure and superior race and the Jewish "race" as inferior, contradictorily characterized as both pure and bastardized, often by the same author. However, there neither is nor could be evidence that either race is more or less "pure" than the other. Each group is an amalgam of people of varied ancestry, and mixture has produced no apparent genetic debilitation of the sort that racists inveigh against when they deplore the "mongrelization of the race." Cultural differences exist between Germans and Jews, but there are likewise cultural differences between different groups of Germans and between groups of Jews, as well as cultural similarities between German and Jewish groups. To assign these likenesses and similarities to race rather than to a vast complex of recognized sociocultural factors is to ignore a great bulk of historical evidence.
the irrationalism of racists
Arguing with a proponent of racism is like arguing with someone who would today claim that the earth is flat and at the center of the universe. The evidence that the earth is round is so overwhelming, and so bound up with our very conception of what physical science is, that in the face of someone who claims that the earth is flat we can only point helplessly at the great body of scientific factual claims and scientific laws and ask, "But don't you see?" Similarly, when we are faced with the claims of a racist who persists in his doctrine in the face of our very notions of what constitutes biology and what constitutes historical research, we have no common ground for argument with him. An extreme but typical racist statement can be used as an example:
It is established for all time: "alien albumen" is the sperm of a man of alien race. The male sperm is partially or completely absorbed by the female and thus enters her bloodstream. One single cohabitation of a Jew with an Aryan woman is sufficient to poison her blood forever. Together with the "alien albumen" she has absorbed the alien soul. Never again will she be able to bear purely Aryan children … they will all be bastards. (Julius Streicher, quoted in Quentin Reynolds, Ephraim Katz, and Zwy Aldouby, Minister of Death, New York, 1960, p. 150)
To someone with the most elementary acquaintance with contemporary biology it is unnecessary to point out the false assumptions and false statements in this quotation. But to refute the argument in a way that would satisfy its maker is impossible, because he denies the very grounds on which a scientific refutation as we understand it could be based.
The racist views in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf likewise seem based on a different biology from the one we know, but in Hitler's thought there is an added historical dimension. The picture Hitler draws of the sociopolitical situation in Germany and Austria during his own lifetime is often shrewd, but it is open to rational criticism: he makes factual claims that can be shown to be historically untrue and historical interpretations that can be challenged by an appeal to evidence and probability. His picture of the Aryans as the only culture-creating people, whose presence in a certain area at a certain time can be demonstrated simply because cultural innovation must have taken place then and there, bears no relation to what we know of the movements of peoples or to our notions of probability. In the chapter "Nation and Race," Hitler uses few examples, and when examples are given they are used tendentiously to show what they could not prove. Thus, the culture of contemporary Japan, he claims, is the product of European stimulation: It is Western culture and technology with Japanese trimmings. Without continued infusions of Western culture, the culture of contemporary Japan is doomed to decay, and the culture found in Japan by Western explorers must itself have been the ossified remnants of some earlier, but forgotten, Aryan invasion. Hitler's arguments do not generally reach even the level of this one, circular as it is. Yet to show that no such invasion took place in historical times, and probably could not have taken place in prehistoric times, seems no answer to Hitler's claims. The picture he presents of the past is a deliberately mythical one, on a deliberately mythical time scale that bears no apparent relation to the known events and temporal ordering of history. In the absence of such relationships, all appeals to facts become irrelevant, and facts are notably absent from the argument.
Racism Outside Germany
Although racism as a fully articulated doctrine and the central feature of official policy is notoriously associated with Germany, it has been powerful elsewhere. It was among thinkers of the French Enlightenment—Comte de Boulainvilliers, Comte de Buffon, and Baron de Montesquieu—that the concept of race was first made explicit and the germs of racism were implanted. Gobineau, in the mid-nineteenth century, was the true originator of the doctrine of racism, and throughout the nineteenth century and later, French thinkers vied with one another to show their descent from Gauls, Romans, Gallo-Romans, Celts, or Teutons and the superior Frenchness of one of these purported races over another.
In the United States and England also racism has flourished, and in these countries the complex interconnection of racist doctrines with social and economic factors is most apparent. In English thought racism has been mainly a concomitant of imperialism. The influx of darker-skinned peoples from the Commonwealth has led both to widespread resentment and to the expression of racist sentiments, but not as yet to any new fully developed racist theories. In the United States racism first arose in the South as a defense of slavery, was invoked as a justification of American imperialist expansion into the western Pacific and the Caribbean and for the restriction of the immigration of "undesirable" stock into the United States, and arose again as a defense of segregation.
Twentieth-century arguments that blacks were biologically inferior are not essentially different from earlier ones, of which Samuel Cartwright's "The Prognathous Species of Mankind" (1857) is an example. The argument moves from stressed and exaggerated physiological differences between blacks and whites to the claim of broad mental differences. Features of the "typical negro" are closer to "the simiadiae and the brute creation" than to whites. The standard black color is a shiny, oily black, and lighter colors are the result not of intermixture with whites but of sickness or degeneration. In "the bleaching process of bad health or degeneration" even the pigment of the iris is lost, and the degenerate Negro is clairvoyant at night. The Negro does not have real hair: "the shaft of each hair is surrounded with a scaly covering like sheep's wool, and, like wool, is capable of being felted. True hair does not possess this property.… the negro approximates the lower animals in his sense of smell, and can detect snakes by that sense alone. All the senses are more acute, but less delicate and discriminating than the white man's." Natural history, like the Bible, "proves the existence of at least three distinct species of the genus man, differing in their instincts, form, habit, and color. The white species having qualities denied to the black—one with a free and the other with a servile mind—one a thinking and reflective being, the other a creature of feeling and imitation, almost void of reflective faculties, and consequently unable to provide for and take care of himself."
Several racial theories, notably those of Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, reflected the growing awareness among the descendants of earlier groups of immigrants to the United States of the changing national origins of later groups. The works of these men both promoted the fear of the ultimate extinction of the "white race" (which was often meant to exclude southern and eastern Europeans) by rising birth rates among Asians and Africans and influenced the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s. But it is doubtful whether these or later writers have added anything substantially new to the racist theses.
See also Affirmative Action; Boulainvilliers, Henri, Comte de; Buffon, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de; Chamberlain, Houston Stewart; Enlightenment; Fascism; German Philosophy and National Socialism; Gobineau, Comte Joseph Arthur de; Montesquieu, Baron de; Nationalism; Schiller, Ferdinand Canning Scott.
The fountainhead of racist doctrines is Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau's four-volume Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (Paris, 1853–1855); Vol. I has been translated by Adrian Collins as Essay on the Inequality of Races (London and New York, 1915). The first two volumes were also published at Philadelphia as early as 1856 in a translation by H. Hotz and with an introduction by Josiah C. Nott, both of whom were propagandists for slavery. For an early refutation of Gobineau's views based on moral grounds, see Alexis de Tocqueville's correspondence in his "The European Revolution" & Correspondence with Gobineau, edited by John Lukacs (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).
Richard Wagner published his anti-Semitic essay, "The Jews in Music," in 1850. Wagner later became an enthusiastic supporter of Gobineau, and Gobineau of Wagnerism. Representative writings of Wagner on race are available in Wagner on Music and Drama, compiled by Albert Goldman and Evert Sprinchorn (New York, 1964). Also important in disseminating Gobineau's views in Germany was Ludwig Schemann, founder of the Gobineau-Verein, translator, editor, and biographer of Gobineau, and author of such racist works as Die Rassenfrage im Schrifttum der Neuzeit (Munich, 1931).
Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Wagner's son-in-law, ranks with Gobineau as a race theorist; the two-volume Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1899), his major work, was translated by John Lees as The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, 2 vols. (London and New York: J. Lane, 1911). Chamberlain influenced both Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (2 vols., Munich, 1925–1927) and Alfred Rosenberg's Der Mythus des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1930).
The term Aryan was popularized by Friedrich Max Müller as a label for the speakers of the hypothetical language from which Indo-European languages were allegedly descended. Although Müller later denied that the term had any racial significance, the romantic claim that language expresses the soul of the race made the identification of Aryan speakers with an Aryan race almost inevitable, and Müller's own writings abound in such identifications. See, for example, Lectures on the Science of Language, 2 vols. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861–1864).
In defense of slavery on racial grounds, see, in addition to Cartwright's essay, Josiah Nott's Types of Mankind (Philadelphia, 1854), parts of which are reprinted with Cartwright's essay and other writings in Slavery Defended: The Views of the Old South, edited by Eric L. McKitrick (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963). Other American works are Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (New York: Scribners, 1916), and Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (New York: Scribners, 1920).
works on race and racism
Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), is a historical survey. See also Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946), Ch. 16, and Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd ed. (New York: Meridian, 1958), especially Ch. 6.
Ashley Montague, Man's Most Dangerous Myth, 4th ed. (New York, 1964), and Ashley Montague, ed., The Concept of Race (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964), together survey much of the present relevant biological knowledge and opinion. L. C. Dunn and Theodosius Dobzhansky, Heredity, Race, and Society, 2nd ed. (New York: New American Library, 1952), is a clear and useful account of the genetic aspects. Carlton S. Coon, The Origin of Races (New York: Knopf, 1962), is a work by a physical anthropologist who believes in the existence of biological differences between human groups that are associated with intellectual differences. Henry E. Garrett, "The Equalitarian Dogma," in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 4 (1961): 480–484, presents a minority view by a former head of the American Psychological Association.
Philip W. Cummings (1967)
"Racism." Encyclopedia of Philosophy. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/racism
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