The Invention of Racism

In reading Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, it has struck me how the Western cultural ideas concerning race are largely fabricated. That is to say, race thinking and racism are social constructs. Obviously there are distinguishable physical traits of different peoples, but I am speaking here of the more inflammatory nature of race-thinking which leads to racism and the extermination or discrimination of a given ethnic group. It is the idea that one race is better than another and such a view underlies the whole of even the most liberal and democratic countries.

Racism and race-thinking are relatively new and modern concepts considering that they only arose during the 19th century and not say, during the medieval era, which was merely a clash of religions and the people’s rights to live in peace from the expansionist tendencies of more powerful civilizations. Arendt also differentiates between Roman imperialism and say, the British or European brand of imperialism, where Roman citizenship was widely distributed and the European powers did not see fit to count their new “property” as citizens, but as subjects in the sense of domination and servitude. Arendt suggests that race-thinking flared up during this imperialist era with the scramble for Africa, when the civilized white men felt shame towards the tribal “savages” on the African continent coupled with a deeply felt duty to “cultivate and civilize” through the methods of slavery.

So why not introduce education to civilize your fellow man? Nationalism was also another factor in the development of race-thinking, since at the time, the nation-state was declining according to Arendt (into the totalitarian tendencies soon to be manifested in the 20th century). Nationalism was felt less at home with movements to abolish the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeoisie who were more international in their tendencies. Imperialism was a one-step solution to rekindling the old flame of nationalism, striking out to claim land for king and country. The superiority of one’s nation to conquer other peoples and subjugate them inflated national pride and provided opportunities unavailable to young fortuneseekers to pursue a political and profitable course of action in the New World, seeking purpose in adventures that were essentially purposeless in that Heart of Darkness.

Looking back, Arendt notes the original insanity and often absentmindedness of the European powers in acquiring their African, Asian, and American possessions. For her, race-thinking and racism were only thought up after these mass subjugations to hard labour and  “administrative massacres” to justify them in retrospect. Western civilization was too proud to admit that these less developed parties to their world were in fact of the same origin and rational species, too proud to suffer a blow to their human dignity by extending the equal rights of man.

Perhaps that is the underlying reason behind racial profiling and racial discrimination: hurt pride for losing a job to an Indian man or shame when arresting a black man  who commits a crime. It is merely a justification for ourselves that we were somehow more qualified for the job because of the colour of our skin, not by the simple lack of merit. It is the excuse for our negligence in providing decent education and a way out of poverty for minority populations. While Western civilization may have come up with many brilliant technological and philosophical advances, they have a shocking record for ignorance and sloth.

The Clash of Civilizations Discredited

One thought on “The Invention of Racism

  1. The root of racism is the surrender of individual identity to a mass identity. Individuals who are nationalistic graft onto their own identity parts of the mass identity of the nation. They take pride at the accomplishments of their nation and of their compatriots and feel as if they themselves have accomplished something even though they’ve contributed nothing at all.

    (The same behaviour can be seen in any sort of organization. People become followers and components of an inside collective and become mistrustful of outsiders.)

    When this sort of nationalistic non-individualistic person comes into contact with an alien from another culture xenophobia kicks in. Instant mistrust. Instant fear. There is a threat to the nation!

    And racism is born.

    (Nice blog by the way.)

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