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The History of Racism

John Simkin

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In an article in yesterday's Guardian, Niall Ferguson looked at the history of racism:


Some things are worth debating. Are empires always and everywhere irredeemably malignant? Or might some empires have conferred benefits as well as costs? I am happy to argue about such questions, even if it can be frustratingly hard to get specialists in postcolonial studies to think intelligently about the economics of imperialism.

There is, however, no debate worth having over racism. In my new book, I argue that it was the willingness of groups of men to identify one another as aliens - as if "the Other" were actually a different species - that lay at the root of much of the 20th century's worst violence. The idea of racial difference spread round the world like a virus of the mind.

So I was appalled by a recent article on these pages that strongly implied that I condone racism. According to Priyamvada Gopal, my book is helping to bring "the racism institutionalised by empire ... back in fashion". My argument, she alleges, is "not far from the pseudo-scientific nonsense that once made it possible to punish interracial relationships". This is a gross misrepresentation.

Race mattered, and, alas, may still matter, not because there are biologically distinct races but because people believe in their existence. That belief has repeatedly served to justify acts of organised repression, ranging from discrimination to attempted annihilation. It is therefore of considerable importance to understand why racism persists as a belief system.

First the reality about race. Modern genetics has revealed that humans are remarkably alike. The evolutionist Richard Lewontin famously calculated that about 85% of genetic variation in humans occurs among individuals in an average population; only 6% occurs among races. The variants that affect skin colour, hair and facial features - the things that are perceived to differentiate races - involve an insignificant amount of the billions of nucleotides in an individual's DNA. Our underlying similarities reflect our shared origins. It is clear that, despite the obstacles of distance and mutual incomprehension, human populations have been interbreeding since the earliest times.

Why, then, have men repeatedly thought and acted as if a few superficial differences were evidence of biologically distinct races? The superficial answer is that people swallowed a lot of 19th-century pseudo science: the idea of biologically distinct races was able to reproduce itself far more successfully than the distinct races it claimed to identify.

But why was this idea so contagious, when so many other theories of heredity declined? In the 20th century, most people stopped believing that power and status should be inherited. Some doubted if even property should. Why did people persist in believing that a combination of character traits could be passed from generation to generation?

Here the work of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists - not, however, postcolonialists - offers important insights. The first is that when people were few and far between, the overriding imperatives were to hunt or gather sufficient food and to reproduce. People formed small groups because cooperation improved the individual's chances of doing both. Tribes were inevitably in competition for scarce resources. Hence, as Paul Seabright has argued, conflict could take the form of plunder - the seizure by violence of another tribe's means of subsistence - and downright murder of unrelated strangers, to get rid of sexual rivals. Man, so some neo-Darwinians argue, is programmed by genes to protect his kin and fight "the Other".

Second, there is evidence from the behaviour of humans and other species that nature does not necessarily favour breeding between genetically very different members of the same species. As Patrick Bateson and others have shown, "optimal outbreeding" is achieved with a surprisingly small degree of genealogical separation. A first cousin may actually be preferable as a mate to a wholly unrelated stranger. This makes evolutionary sense. A species of hunter-gatherers that could reproduce successfully only with genetically (and geographically) distant individuals would not have lasted long.

Third, it must be significant in its own right that separate human populations so quickly developed distinctive facial characteristics. Some evolutionary biologists argue that this was a result not just of "genetic drift" but "sexual selection". Like attracted like, and continues to; those drawn to "the Other" may be atypical in their sexual predilections.

Finally, recent research by Andreas Olsson and his collaborators has indicated that human beings seem predisposed to trust members of their own (self-identified) race more than members of other races, though how far this can be explained in evolutionary terms and how far in terms of inculcated prejudice is clearly open to question.

In short, racial differences may be genetically few, but humans seem to be designed to attach importance to them.

No one would accuse the authors I have cited of seeking to make racism fashionable. Rather, we are all concerned to understand better why the biologically nebulous concept of racial difference has proved so resilient - and dangerous - a force in modern history.

At a time when British voters are expressing unprecedented anxiety about immigration - when terrorist acts and the measures to prevent them threaten to polarise our multi-ethnic society - it is imperative that we improve our understanding of racism. The last thing we need is crass distortion of a serious historical attempt to do so.

This resulted in some interesting letters in today's paper:

(1) The argument Niall Ferguson develops on racism (We must understand why racist belief systems persist, July 11) contains enormous leaps of illogic.

For a start, he bases his explanation of racism on a pseudo-scientific basis of evolutionary psychology. This requires us to speculate, without any evidence, about the pressures of natural selection on an imagined early human society and draw conclusions from this about our current genetic makeup, again with no evidence from actual genetic studies. Ferguson might be excused for this, as he is outside his area of expertise, but surely even he can see it has nothing to do with notions of race. The story may explain notions of "otherness" but it is clear that such notions can be and often are defined on other criteria of language, religion and culture.

Race is a particular notion of otherness, the origins of which lie not in our evolutionary past, but in history. As a historian, he ought to be aware that racism is a specific ideology of separateness intimately tied up with European colonial empires. All empires have devised means of distinguishing the metropolis from the peripheral peoples, but the use of race for this purpose is specific to European colonialism. This is why to embrace colonialism while rejecting racism, as Ferguson appears to attempt, amounts to wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

Dr Anuj Dawar, Robinson College, Cambridge

(2) What Ferguson fails to explain, probably because it would refute his argument, is how history is littered with people of the same race killing one another, as in the case of Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. Race, like religion, gender and sexual orientation, is a false division created by ruling classes all the way from ancient to modern times. The real division in our society, and by extension the world, is between rich and poor.

John Wight, Edinburgh

(3) Niall Ferguson misses an important point, namely the demagoguery and sophism practiced by our so-called leaders like Bush and Blair and other politicians, which can lead to racism.

Politicians have had a huge effect on the public's perception of and reaction to other cultures and peoples - Bush and Blair are merely at the end of a long line of leaders who have practised foreign policy based on a supercilious view of non-European people and cultures, which is still informed by feelings of superiority that linger on from our imperial past. How else can we explain the fact that we have destabilised governments, replaced them with puppets, supported ruthless dictators, killed, bombed, invaded etc? All, of course, because we can and, more importantly, because we still believe we have the right to do so.

Alan Hind, Glasgow

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  • 2 weeks later...

I think it's also important to realise that notions of black and Asian people being somehow inferior as an entire group are fairly modern notions, dating from around the time when Europeans developed such seaworthy ships and powerful weapons (together with improved military tactics) that they could defeat more or less anyone else on the planet. As European powers started to subjugate people from other parts of the world, it became important to create an ideology which would back this subjugation up.

One of the interesting features of most of the Gulf Arab states is that the 'native' population is made up of very diverse 'racial groups'. You'll find plenty of Saudis with very African appearances, who co-exist with Saudis who look very European and others who look very 'Arab'. The explanation is that if slaves embraced Islam they could be freed under certain circumstances, and once you were a free man, who believed in Islam, you had to be treated as an equal of all others. This integration took place in the period of our Middle Ages, so it's had plenty of time to become permanent. (The 'European' Saudis are descended from slaves taken from the north, by the way).

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John quotes Niall Ferguson as follows:

"Why, then, have men repeatedly thought and acted as if a few superficial differences were evidence of biologically distinct races? The superficial answer is that people swallowed a lot of 19th-century pseudo science: the idea of biologically distinct races was able to reproduce itself far more successfully than the distinct races it claimed to identify."

I had long believed that the modern concept of 'race' and tendencies to 'racism' as we currently understand it were strong from Victorian times onwards. It was therefore something of a surprise to find that in my much-prized 20-something volume Encylopedia Britannica 11th edition (published 1910/11), the entry for 'Race' occupies less than a sixth of a page - half of which is devoted to use of the word in the context of water courses. This was no related entry as far as I could discover (no terms such as 'Racism' or 'Racial' were covered). By contrast, 'Prussia' had a ten-page entry, and even 'Prussic Acid' is more than two pages long.

This suggests less interest in "race" than I had imagined in the years preceding the First World War.

Perhaps, for some reason, the Encylopedia Britannica understated the importance of the term. Or perhaps different terminology was in use for the same concept?

Any thoughts?

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