Books reviewed:

Review of Lindon Barrett, Racial Blackness and the Discontinuity of Western Modernity, edited by Justin A. Joyce, Dwight A. McBride, and John Carlos Rowe (Urbana, 2014); Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt (eds), Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation (New York, 2011); Francisco Bethencourt, Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century (Princeton, 2013); Nicholas Guyatt, Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation (New York, 2016).

Scholars disagree as to when and where racism originates. Various arguments have been put forward holding that the roots of racism can be found in antiquity,1 the Middle Ages,2 the early modern period,3 or only in the modern era.4 Much of the controversy stems from a lack of consensus concerning what, precisely, should count as racism, a twentieth-century neologism. If we define it broadly, then it certainly extends back into the recesses of the deep past, but we then forfeit conceptual precision in amalgamating xenophobia, prejudice and discrimination, phenomena which can be found in all times and places. If we define it narrowly, for example as ‘a mindset that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable,’5 then many scholars argue that racism has relatively recent origins, rising in the late Middle Ages, intensifying with early modern European expansion, and reaching a murderous climax when combined with twentieth-century nationalism. When we ask how modernity bears on racism, the issues quickly proliferate, given the highly contested nature of the concept and period.6 The connection between modernity and racism has been made most explicitly and famously by Zygmunt Bauman. He explains that ‘as a conception of the world, and even more importantly as an effective instrument of political practice, racism is unthinkable without the advancement of modern science, modern technology and modern forms of state power. As such, racism is strictly a modern product. Modernity made racism possible.’7 Modernity is understood here as the building of institutions we associate with modernization, such as parliamentary legal systems and capitalist businesses and factories,8 and these homogenizing forces, according to Bauman and many other scholars, generated racist ideologies. While Bauman makes a powerful case, many scholars challenge Bauman’s contention that racism, even narrowly defined, has existed and could only exist in the modern period. Some scholars have pointed to the case of racist attitudes and actions towards Jewish converts to Christianity, ‘New Christians,’ in late medieval Spain, which demonstrates that racism could exist without the institutional, rationalizing and centralizing forces associated with modernity.9

This review essay examines several recent scholarly works that engage with the relationship between constructions of race, the phenomenon and practice of racism, and modernity. One of the most prominent themes that emerges from these scholars’ research is that there exists a dialectic between equality and racism. While racism has certainly occurred in regimes that do not adhere to any notion of equality, these studies nonetheless demonstrate that the assertion of the basic equality of all human beings was a significant element that lay behind the transformation of prejudice into racism. In the edited volume Racism in the Modern World: Historical Perspectives on Cultural Transfer and Adaptation, the contributors analyze the complex processes of the diffusion and appropriation of racist ideas across the globe from roughly the late eighteenth century to the present. Frank Dikötter, in his concise and penetrating chapter ‘The Racialization of the Globe,’ argues that the globalization of the race concept since the late eighteenth century can best be explained by two factors: opposition to a powerful theory of human equality and the increasing traction of the language of science.10 Using other scholars’ research on the construction of human kinds among Native Americans and his own on China, he gives agency to non-European peoples in the creation of a racialized worldview. While not denying the virulence of European racisms, the contributors to the volume as a whole rightly reject the notion that Westerners simply imposed racism on the rest of the world as ‘a Eurocentric interpretation of a Eurocentric ideology.’11 Dikötter demonstrates that equality and race are ‘dynamically related’ and that, while both equality and race have roots that long antedate the eighteenth century, it is only in modernity that equality developed into a fully universalist concept as part of a social theory and as a foundational element in state constitutions, and racism crystallised as an ideology in opposition to this emancipatory worldview.12

Nicholas Guyatt also places the promise of political and social equality that is foundational to modern democracy at the centre of his highly readable, impeccably researched and ultimately unsettling account of the origins of racial segregation among ‘enlightened Americans.’ In Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation, Guyatt exposes the centrality of segregation to American racial thought in the antebellum period. He frames his study around the issue of equality, arguing that while Jefferson did not perhaps intend his pithy phrase ‘all men are created equal’ to apply to Native or African Americans, it quickly became clear that, as Lynn Hunt states, rights questions have a ‘tendency to cascade.’13 While multi-ethnic societies had certainly existed before the founding of the United States, the American revolutionaries embarked on something unprecedented in world history: ‘a multiracial society dedicated to equal rights and potential.’14 He demonstrates that long before the 1896 decision of Plessy v. Ferguson established ‘separate but equal’ as the rule of law in the U.S., the idea of racial segregation had in fact been promulgated by a wide range of American thinkers from the Revolution to the Civil War as the only viable option for the peaceful coexistence of Europeans, Africans and indigenous peoples on the North American continent. His study is particularly powerful in that it brings together the history of Native American removal and black colonization, underlining the similar thought structures and prejudices which lay behind both phenomena. This text is unsettling because Guyatt persuasively demonstrates that rather than resulting from blind racism, the policy of segregation came from ‘liberal’ Americans: ‘men and women who thought themselves enlightened and benevolent.’15

Guyatt begins by charting the legacy of Enlightenment anthropology, which he essentially takes to be that of the Enlightenment’s most influential naturalist, Charles-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707–1788): ‘racial’ divisions result primarily from environment and culture and, while Buffon and his contemporaries generally believed in the superiority of eighteenth-century European culture, they also held that all human beings could become the equals of Europeans. The plasticity of mind and even body was a dominant trope among learned Europeans and Euro-Americans in the wake of the Enlightenment. Guyatt then analyses the growth of opposition to interracial marriage in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Key reformers such as the Presbyterian ministers and abolitionists Samuel Stanhope Smith and David Rice argued that both science and religion supported the unity and equality of humankind and therefore that opposition to interracial unions resulted from prejudice alone. Despite the lack of theoretical opposition to ‘race mixing,’ there were a number of social and political barriers to it. In the case of the Native Americans, white settlers rarely respected Native Americans’ land rights and among those native groups who had not yet developed a strong distrust of Euro-Americans, the unprecedented pace of land grabs in the first decades of the nineteenth century sowed the seeds of lasting grievances. In addition to encounters on the frontier, the ‘interracial’ romantic relationships that developed between whites and Native Americans attending Foreign Mission Schools in New England created scandals as a result of white prejudice. Interracial unions between blacks and whites were arguably even more contentious, given that such unions were generally associated with the sexual abuse concomitant with slavery. Abolitionists therefore found it difficult ‘to imagine intermarriage on the other side of emancipation’ and often reinforced existing prejudices against interracial sex in the North.16

After tracing these formidable political and social obstacles to fostering support for an ethnically diverse nation, Guyatt details the concrete plans and projects for Indian removal and black colonization, such as in Cayenne and Sierra Leone, but especially in Liberia, the only colony established by the American Colonization Society (ACS). Rather than stemming from racists who believed in the inherent inferiority of non-Europeans, colonization was most vociferously supported by reformers like Anthony Benezet, Benjamin Rush and St. George Tucker, thinkers who believed in basic human equality and saw colonization as the best way for Native and African Americans to achieve their full equality and live prosperously. Guyatt demonstrates the many connections, of both people and ideas, between the ACS, concerned solely with blacks, and the evolving American policy towards the native population, which reached the nadir of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the Trail of Tears. He accomplishes what history writing does at its best: it invites the reader to truly appreciate what was at stake for the historical actors themselves. Guyatt’s book sheds light on the ongoing struggle to realize the promises of the founding creed of the U.S. beyond a select few, demonstrating that we cannot write off segregation as springing from, at least initially, a deeply racist ideology.

In addition to the modern dialectic between equality and race that these studies have brought to fore, they also demonstrate that discriminatory practices, particularly the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery, were peculiarly modern phenomena instrumental in forging racial divides and racism.17 They essentially confirm what Eric Williams memorably argued long ago, that ‘slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.’18 By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the liberal thinkers that Guyatt analyses had reached the conclusion that two intractable obstacles stood in the way of the integration of blacks after emancipation: the damage done by the experience of bondage and the colour prejudice of whites.19 The association of dark skin colour with servitude contributed to the creation of racial categories, even in the case of those committed to an egalitarian politics. And in his contribution to Racism in the Modern World, Michael Zeuske shows that although the practice of slavery in nineteenth-century Cuba did not depend upon extensive ‘race-making,’ Cuba’s elites ‘developed a peculiar biological theory of slavery that amounted to some kind of functional racism.’20

The connection between slavery, racism and modernity emerges most explicitly in Lindon Barrett’s study Racial Blackness and the Discontinuity of Western Modernity. Barrett follows Foucault in arguing that Western modernity can best be understood as a historical rupture or discontinuity dating to somewhere between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In this view, European imperialism in the Americas and the growth of the transatlantic slave trade and race-based slavery are fundamentally constitutive of modernity.21 In the first chapter, Barrett traces the rise of ‘racial blackness’ in the European and Euro-American imagination from 1500 to 1800, connecting it to capitalism in general and slavery in particular. In his analysis, racial blackness is ‘impossible’ as per the Foucauldian view that the body is not an object ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered but is instead a creation of power alone.22 Not only is the body a creation of Western modernity, but so too is the human subject inextricably connected to the modern episteme, and both the body and the subject are consequences of the insidious power of a European mercantile class which lies at the basis of modern capitalism.23 The intensification of connections in the Atlantic world was fuelled by the European appetite for exotic products such as coffee, sugar and tobacco, which depended on African slave labour in the New World. Here, we find the fundamental connection between capitalism, race and modernity, as Barrett explains: ‘The establishment of these modern commodity chains constitutes “racialization” as a signal proposition for their viability.’24 Barrett devotes his second chapter to an analysis of the consequences of the modern invention of racial blackness and of the individual, using the case of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative. Olaudah Equiano was his original African name and Gustavus Vassa was his name as a free British subject and Barrett argues that the binomial title exposes ‘the international violence inextricably linked with the proposition of modern individual and autobiographical identity.’25

Barrett then uses Equiano’s autobiography to expose what Barrett considers to be the wilful blindness of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) contention that sub-Saharan Africans are a people without history in his influential The Philosophy of History. A more detailed discussion of the key mid-nineteenth-century American slave narratives and abolitionist texts follows, and the final chapter takes the story of racial blackness and modernity into the early twentieth century with an analysis of two towering intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance: George Schuyler (1895–1977) and Langston Hughes (1901–1967). Barrett passed away in 2008 and the book was published from his incomplete manuscript. It is slightly disjointed as a result, but Barrett succeeds in synthesizing much of the most important recent work by historians, philosophers and critical theorists on race and modernity. His analysis is ultimately limited, however, because of his heavy reliance on a Foucauldian assessment of the ills of modernity. He considers a wide swathe of time (the sixteenth to the early twentieth century) as a homogenous unit, thereby ignoring the complexities and peculiarities of specific moments of interaction between Europeans, Africans and Native Americans.26

His presupposition that ‘rather than self-evident forms of worldly agency, the human subject and the human body are precisely the enabling and exclusionary inventions of the modern episteme’27 essentially posits that there is nothing outside of language and discursive constructions. Barrett treats capitalism as an all-encompassing, monolithic system rather than as a historically specific phenomenon, obscuring the fact that racism can exist, and certainly has existed, without capitalism. Additionally, his understanding of the self as a purely modern invention connected to capitalism and slavery ignores the biological aspects of selfhood.28 As Jerrold Seigel has argued, ‘selfhood is always cultural but never wholly and completely so.’29 Most disappointingly, Barrett seems to equate race with racism and both with modernity, eliding a distinction between the two that most scholars would agree is necessary.30 While race is a biologically incoherent concept, that does not mean that all reflections on genealogies, patterns of inheritance, or resemblances are a priori racist.31

In addition to the transatlantic slave trade and New World slavery, the rise of the state in western Europe and a related vocabulary of modern political thought have long been associated with modernity.32 In one of the most insightful interventions on the sources of racism, Francisco Bethencourt argues that racism, which he defines as ‘prejudice concerning ethnic descent coupled with discriminatory action,’ has primarily resulted from political projects over the past millennium.33 While he does not offer any extensive discussion of modernity, given the common association of modernity with political projects of various kinds (and even of modernity itself as a large meta-project), his insights prove particularly fruitful for thinking about the relationship between modernity and racism. Bethencourt opposes those scholars who locate the origins of racism in antiquity because, although there may have been prejudice against certain ethnic groups in the ancient world, he posits that it was not coupled with systematic discriminatory action in the political or social spheres.34 The first of the book’s five parts, ‘The Crusades,’ presents a largely schematic overview of the late eleventh to the late thirteenth century in which he concludes that animosity to a given group based on descent occurred, but it was not systematic or dominant until the late-medieval period in Iberia when discrimination against Jews and Muslims was grounded in ideas of ethnic descent.

Part II, ‘Oceanic Exploration,’ analyzes the growth of the idea of white supremacy alongside the shift away from Jerusalem as the symbolic centre of the world and the dominance of prejudice based on religious allegiance, to Europe as the imaginary centre. His attention to the causal relationship between categorization of peoples in emerging hierarchies is particularly strong, as he considers how the criteria of classification changed across space and time. He demonstrates that while the stereotype of Europe as the paragon of ‘wisdom, justice, ethics, and labor’ emerged in the first century after the discovery of the New World, Europeans were sensitive to the differences between various ethnic groups throughout the world in the first two centuries of early modern European expansion. Part III, ‘Colonial Societies,’ is the strongest of the book, as it is analytically sharp and less schematic than the earlier parts, likely owing to Bethencourt’s previous work on the Iberian Atlantic world of early modernity. It looks at how the establishment of European colonial societies in the New World created new ethnic prejudices or racisms, covering the Iberian, British, Dutch and French cases. He demonstrates that prejudice against dark skin colour was quite pervasive though not unchallenged, particularly intensifying with the growth of an Afro-diasporic slave population. Bethencourt might have more systematically explored the relationship between social advancement or equality and racism, as in many cases where discriminatory action was taken against non-Europeans, it was in retaliation against the upward social mobility of these people. For example, he mentions that a French royal decree of 1764 which barred mixed-race people from practising medicine and surgery in the French colonies came at a time when this group competed more successfully in occupations traditionally held by white Europeans.35

In Part IV, Bethencourt traces the theories of race from the eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, concentrating on such thinkers as Linnaeus, Buffon, Camper, Herder, Kant, Blumenbach, Knox, Gobineau and Darwin. He points to the importance of new conceptions of time, the demise of the importance of the biblical narrative, and the inclusion of humanity within natural histories during the Enlightenment. Bethenourt is careful in pointing out the prejudices and stereotypes that informed novel eighteenth-century classificatory schemes but rightly emphasizes the egalitarian leanings of many of these prominent Enlightenment thinkers. He traces the trajectory of these racial theories into the nineteenth century and offers a particularly clear and convincing analysis of the impact of Darwinian theory on race, remarking, ‘theories of social evolution rendered obsolete creationism and the vision of immutable races with innate characteristics, but reinforced the ideas of hierarchy and different rhythms of human progress, or access to higher forms of civilization.’36 The final part of the book, ‘Nationalism and Beyond,’ details how nationalism combined with the newly elevated status of race in scientific literature to give rise to particularly virulent forms of racism, culminating in the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust.

Bethencourt skilfully covers a vast terrain and draws on a wealth of primary and secondary sources (the pictorial material included is especially rich), such that every reader will certainly learn something new. He combines intellectual, social and political history to demonstrate how racisms operated at various times and in diverse places. The benefit of Bethencourt’s longue durée approach is a clear demonstration that political projects of various kinds throughout the last millennium have resulted in the transformation of prejudice into racism, a more systematic form of discrimination. Examples abound from the history of Europe and European expansion, and his inclusion of indigenous forms of racisms in Africa and Asia amply demonstrate the centrality of political projects, both Western and non-Western, to racism. His vast temporal and geographical scope is both a strength and a weakness, as patterns and analogies of different forms of racism are well-demonstrated but his analysis is at times overly schematic, eclipsing the motivations and mind-sets of the historical actors. Manfred Berg and Simon Wendt’s comment in the introduction to Racism in the Modern World casts doubt on Bethencourt’s bird’s-eye view: ‘The essays that follow clearly demonstrate that it is necessary to probe the history of particular racisms rather than explore a general history of racism. They also show the importance of historicity and context, without which the emergence and development of particular racisms cannot be fully understood.’37 Despite Bethencourt’s acknowledgment of the importance of looking at racisms rather than racism and his concession that ‘there is no cumulative and linear racism,’38 the historicity and context of particular racisms in his story is sometimes lost. However, Bethencourt succeeds in demonstrating that the distinction many scholars hold between modern natural racism and pre-modern religious racism is untenable because the idea that certain moral or social characteristics are innate and inheritable predates the modern concept of race.

Bethencourt’s insight into the importance of political projects in creating racism is confirmed by many of the contributions to the essays in Racism in the Modern World, such as Paul A. Kramer’s analysis of the early-twentieth-century American creation of a Filipino ‘race’ that was simultaneously malleable enough to ‘benefit’ from US colonial rule but also intractable enough to require long or perhaps indefinite tutelage. And in their contribution, Gita Dharampal-Frick and Katja Götzen demonstrate that the racialization of ‘caste’ in modern India was bound up with the British colonial political project, although the authors fail to engage with ideas of essential difference that were indigenous to India. Nicholas Guyatt’s research also demonstrates that it was the political project of creating an ethnically diverse republic that motivated racial segregation, if not a hard-line racism. While political projects long pre-date the beginning of what we usually consider the ‘modern’ world, the rise of the state and the increased interconnectedness of the globe over the past five hundred years indicate that there is more than a tenuous connection between modernity and racism.

Scholars often argue that racism is a peculiarly modern phenomenon because it depends upon a modern ‘biological’ concept of race. In his contribution to Racism in the Modern World, Benjamin Braude investigates the differences between pre-modern and modern race and racism. In a paper reminiscent of Bethencourt, Braude emphasises the importance of the shift from the ancient concept of climatic zones to the rise of the continents in modern imaginary geography in creating a racialized worldview. He argues that ‘pre-modern’ thinkers, from ancient Greek philosophers to medieval theologians, subscribed to a ‘protean’ view of identity, one that emphasized fluidity and malleability rather than the fixity of modern race.39 Braude is too insistent on a distinction between pre-modern fluidity and modern rigidity, however, as he elides such issues as the fifteenth-century phenomenon of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) or the reification of an inescapable peasant identity one can find in some medieval texts.40 One of the most valuable contributions of the ever-expanding scholarship on race in recent years is to have called into question the contention that racism depends upon a biological concept of race.

In the epilogue to his classic comparative history of racism, George Fredrickson noted that although overtly racist regimes may have been discredited since World War Two, many racists have since concentrated on essentialized notions of culture rather than genetic endowment, making ‘culture do the work of race.’41 This is an interesting and important intervention, given that the concept of culture served important anti-racist ends during the high tide of scientific racism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In his provocative and stimulating contribution to Racism in the Modern World, Christian Geulen argues for a broader definition of racism given that throughout the twentieth century, race and culture have shared a broad semantic field and that, contrary to what many scholars hold, the two have never been polar opposites. Darwinian evolutionism in fact opened up the conceptual space for the importance of culture in creating a racial order, an idea which took both racist and liberal forms, and culture has been essentialized at an increasing rate since World War Two and since the end of the Cold War in particular; for instance, present-day right-wing German nationalists do not talk about the preservation of a German Volk or German race, but of German culture.42 The complexity of the interplay between the concepts of culture and race in the modern period is also brought out by Christoph Marx’s contribution on the racism of the main architect of South African apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd, as Marx argues that Verwoerd’s racism was in fact divorced from biological determinism. Marx explains: ‘The fact that Verwoerd saw whites and blacks as belonging to different cultures was not in itself racist, but his perception of each as captive to these cultures was.’43 Paul Gilroy’s seminal book The Black Atlantic also took aim at the rise in the notion of the purity of culture in both English nationalist discourse and black politics in the late twentieth century that remains relevant today.44

Although it is likely untenable to limit racism, even narrowly defined, to the modern period alone, these studies demonstrate that a number of trends central to modernity created the conditions in which racism arguably became more systematic and widespread. The egalitarian claims of modern liberal democracies necessitated new and modern justifications of inequality, and the idea of a racial hierarchy served this purpose in many places around the world. The strong racial component of the transatlantic slave trade and the establishment of New World slave societies meant that discriminatory practices and extreme exploitation in the modern world have shaped processes of racialization. Yet regardless of how far the connection between racism and modernity may go, modernity has institutionalized equality and freedom to an unprecedented degree in world history. Thus, we cannot blame racism on modernity; rather, we must look for the specific political, social, economic and psychological factors that lay behind the creation of a racist worldview. Histories of racism have the merit of demonstrating that racism is not inevitable but depends upon contingent circumstances and, in recognizing and understanding those circumstances, we can be better prepared to change them.