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Once considered an objective scientific theory of difference within human populations, racism has become regarded as an ideology of social domination and exclusion on the basis of biological and genetic variation. The scientific basis of racism has been largely discredited, but the ideas that human populations can be divided into distinct groups based on phenotype, that the culture and behavior of these groups is determined by genetic differences, and that biological difference justifies the dominance of certain races over others remain widely influential.

Racism often figures prominently in the ideologies that justify and promote genocide and other crimes against humanity. Dominant social groups commonly use racial categorizations to differentiate other social groups and justify their exclusion and marginalization. The belief that personality and social behavior are linked to biology and therefore are unalterable makes physical removal or annihilation the only possible means of solving the perceived problem of undesirable social groups.

Scientific Racism

The idea that human populations can be divided into distinct racial groups based on physical differences dates back many centuries. Modern racism, however, is distinguished by the assumptions that racial categorizations are scientifically valid and objective, and that personality, mental ability, and social behavior of individuals within racial groups are biologically determined. Racial prejudice and discrimination may be based on various factors, but racism focuses explicitly on the hereditary and immutable nature of social difference. Racism blames the subordinate and exploited status of certain racial groups on genetic inferiority.

The roots of modern racism lie in the late Medieval period, when Jewishness came to be regarded as an issue of ancestry rather than belief and black skin was seen as a curse that doomed Africans to mental and cultural inferiority. Because racism regarded Jewishness and blackness as unalterable biological facts, it followed that Jews and blacks could never be reformed and integrated into civilized society. Racism thus justified the expulsion and massacre of Jews in Spain beginning in 1492, and the subsequent persecution of Jews in other countries. It also justified the enslavement of millions of Africans in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The British came to excuse their domination of Ireland, in part, by depicting the Irish as an inferior race who would benefit from British rule.

During the Enlightenment, race became a focus of scientific analysis, as biologists and anthropologists sought to develop objective measures for differentiating between peoples. Yet the study of race was never truly objective, because race scientists were deeply influenced by the assumption that Caucasians were more evolved than other races and that Western civilization was superior to all others. The measurement of physical attributes of various racial groups, phrenology, the quantification of intelligence, and other supposedly objective tools were used to explain the biological sources of the preconceived inferiority of non-white groups and to justify their colonization and domination by Europeans.

Comte Arthur de Gobineau's 1855 "Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races" popularized the idea that social differences were linked to biology, and inspired extensive scientific study of the biological roots of social distinction and identity. Francis Galton, adapting Darwin's ideas on evolution to the study of human development, argued in 1869 that selective breeding could be used to create a superior race of human beings. He coined the term eugenics for this idea, which later influenced the development of Nazism and other genocidal ideologies.

Racism and Genocide

The idea that group identities are fixed and that group characteristics are rooted in biology has often been used to justify crimes against humanity. Minority groups have commonly faced exclusion and discrimination on the basis of their language, religion, or other cultural factors, but when cultural differences are regarded as natural and therefore immutable, more drastic and violent responses become more defensible. Viewing other racial groups as not simply different but inferior effectively dehumanizes them, making violence against them more acceptable.

Racism influenced the development of the institution of slavery in the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shaping an emerging distinction between indentured laborers from Europe and and those who came from Africa. The status of European indentured servants gradually improved, while Africans lost rights and benefits, until slavery became an institution uniquely imposed upon those of African ancestry.

The assumption that black people were inferior, even subhuman, justified the extreme brutality of the slave trade, in which Africans were captured and shipped across the Atlantic in terrible conditions, leading to the deaths of millions. Even after the elimination of slavery, ideas of racial superiority continued to justify the social, political, and economic dominance of whites or those with more European ancestry in the United States, Brazil, the Caribbean, and South Africa, the denial of rights to black people, and atrocities such as lynching.

Racism also justified colonialism and the massacre and subjugation of native populations by colonial powers throughout much of the world. Viewing Native Americans as a different, sub-human race allowed Spanish colonizers to feel justified in enslaving and slaughtering them in Central and South America, wiping out entire native peoples. The belief in racial inferiority likewise allowed colonists in North America to displace, subjugate, and kill Native Americans. Colonial conquest of Asia and Africa was promoted as a moral obligation for Europeans, the "white man's burden" to bring civilization to supposedly inferior races. When indigenous populations resisted conquest, these same ideas of their inferiority were used to justify the use of brutal force against them, as in the German extermination of the Herero in Southwest Africa from 1904 to 1907. Africa was colonized after ideas of scientific racism had become widely accepted, and this powerfully shaped colonial policy on the continent. In particular, the British and Belgians understood ethnic group differences in racial terms, and discriminated among their colonial subjects on the assumption that certain "tribes" were better at ruling, others at fighting, and others at laboring.

Within Europe, scientific racism transformed the nature of anti-Semitism, providing scientific justification for the exclusion and persecution of Jews. These ideas reached their peak in the ideology adopted by the National Socialist Party in Germany. The idea that Jews were not simply believers in a different faith but were a different race whose supposed negative characteristics, such as greed and cunning, were biologically programmed excluded the possibility of conversion, assimilation, or reform. Because Nazis regarded the Jewish race as inherently dangerous to Aryan civilization, their complete extermination was posited as the only possible "final solution" to the "Jewish problem," ultimately justifying the massacre of six million Jews. Ideas of racial inferiority and the need to preserve Aryan racial purity were also used to justify the Nazi extermination of an estimated 400,000 Roma people, pejoratively known as Gypsies.

Racism has served as a factor in more recent genocides as well. In the early 1990s, Serbian and Croatian leaders in the states of the former Yugoslavia depicted Muslims not simply as a religious minority but as a non-Slavic racial group, related to the much-hated Turks, who had to be eliminated from the territory in order to purify it. Such beliefs were used to justify ethnic cleansing and ethnic massacres in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Rwanda, German and Belgian colonizers understood the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa as three distinct racial groups, an artificial interpretation of ethnic differences that Rwandans themselves came to internalize. Colonial policies regarded the minority Tutsi as a superior Hammitic race and gave them control over the rest of the population. A Hutu uprising just prior to independence transferred power to Hutu hands, transforming the Tutsi into a persecuted minority. Hutu extremists ultimately used the idea that the Tutsi were a separate race whose origins lay outside Rwanda to dehumanize the Tutsi and justify the mass slaughter of more than 500,000.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Eugenics; Genocide; Holocaust; Nationalism


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Timothy Longman