Races and Racism
I am not a historian, and I do not try to pretend to be one. And I’m not really saying anything here that hasn’t been said before, and better — still, no matter how often and how well it has been said, sadly it needs to be said again. I’m painting a broad and admittedly Eurocentric picture here, not going into details, and not providing any evidence for my assertions. It’s up to you to consider them, or not.
Ever since the dawn of history, you fought your opponents — your neighbors, your enemies, or someone whose territory you had just reached — because of the actual or perceived threat they posed towards you, because they were in the way, or because you wanted what they had. And it was an obvious and unquestioned rule that when you had won the war, you were entitled to deal with the defeated in whichever way you thought was most beneficial to you. Kill them, rape them, rob them, drive them off, enslave them, torture them to death in private or in the arena, subjugate them, make them pay tributes, make them your allies, or incorporate them into your own society, with limited or with full rights. Which of those options you choose, or what combination of them, may have needed to be justified politically, but not morally. Or, if to some degree moral justification seemed advisable, you could rely on your god or gods to provide it.
I was your victory that entitled you, not something in the nature of the defeated, whatever you thought of them. When the Romans (for example) looked down upon barbarians, they looked down upon their culture (or, from the Roman point of view, lack thereof) — they did not look down upon the individual members of barbarian nations, though, because of their perceived biology, or “race.” There existed privileges of birth, of course, but these were social, not biological. Romans often manumited their slaves — these then had limited rights, but their children could become fully entitled Roman citicens. A tributary tribe was tributary because they had been defeated, a slave was a slave because he or she had been enslaved — this sufficed to constitute their condition. Slaves were not inferior to Romans by nature. Racism didn’t exist, because there was no need for it. I have focused on Roman history here, but the principle holds across civilizations and through the ages.
And then came the late 18th century — the Age of Enlightenment, liberté, égalité, fraternité, human rights — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The principle that defeating someone in war gave you unquestioned ownership rights and power of disposition over them became questionable, and ultimately unsustainable. The problem needed to be solved, and the solution was the invention of the concept of “races” — an invention that, like the steam engine and the electric generator, essentially shaped the 19th and 20th century, and still shapes our present.
Human “race” is a political construct that has no foundation in reality, which modern genetic science has finally proven beyond any doubt, but with little impact — it is just too useful to be given up simply because it isn’t true. Race was invented when the need arose to justify colonialism and slavery, to justify the oppression and exploitation of other human beings — these could now be based on the constitutional moral and intellectual inferiority that all members of morally and intellectually inferior races necessarily shared. Their unquestionable inferiority, expressed in scientific and moralistic terms, justified patronizing as well as violently aggressive attitudes and acts towards them, with the distinction between patronizing and violently aggressive always being blurred. The victors now ruled not only because they had won the wars, but because their moral and intellectual superiority entitled them to rule, even for the benefit of the ruled. Their victories were just the logical consequences and obvious proofs of their natural superiority.
Of course, ruling elites had always liked to see themselves as being distinct from their subjects by birth — think of the “blue blood” of European aristocrats — but their dynasties came and went, and when they came, they often enough came from humble origins. The blue blood was never anything else but metaphorical, no actual biological difference was seriously implied. This changed with the invention of races, and though this invention in the late 18th century preceded the theory of evolution, that theory came in handy for putting “races” on a seemingly scientific foundation. When homo sapiens had “descended from apes” (or, correctly, descended from common ancestors), then different “races” could be described as having progressed further along this path than others. Differences between higher and lower, advanced and primitive races could now be discussed in biological and scientific terms — closer to, or farther removed, from their simian progenitors. Darwin himself was no stranger to this line of thought.
The culmination of this concept was the invention of the “white race.” Detached from any observable physical traits, to a large degree even from the color of skin, “white” never meant anything else but “we” — we with our guns, our ships, our laws, and our feelings of entitlement. But, and this is important, the privileges of birth/ancestry/blood, and the entitlement, had now been democratized. Those who had been the subjects of their own ruling elites were now given a share in the benefits of being masters, by virtue of belonging to the master race. Or at least they were given the illusion of having a share — how much of it being real, and how much of it being bogus, of course depending on their proximity to their own masters.
To sum it up, racism is not a relict that has come down to us from distant and less enlightened ages, but is actually the child of the modern age of enlightenment. Race is a racist invention. Races do not exist, but racism does. (And, by the way, in some ways gender could be seen as a form of race, but here is not the place to discuss this further.)
Ethnicity isn’t race. Nationality isn’t race. Color of skin isn’t race. Nothing is race, because races do not exist. Races are made up. And when you look more closely you see that actual biological traits, however irrelevant they would be, have not even been used to define races in any consistent ways — these were always defined according to specific political needs. Races are made up for a purpose — inequality. While large-scale inequalities obviously date back to long before races were invented, races are essentially useful in deepening, perpetuating and justifying inequality, and, of course, in helping to utilize it — for what’s the point of being superior, after all, when you cannot reap economic or emotional profit from it? And “inequality,” for this purpose, covers everything from discrimination and exploitation to slavery and genocide.
There are many lines along which “the others” can be de-humanized — religion, nationality, politics, social status, lifestyle, sexuality — but “race” is the most powerful one, because of the fake biological arguments that it comes armed with. But the fact that races are made up does not prevent them from being relevant — of course those to whom membership of a certain race is ascribed share common experiences, and can form, or can be forced to form, a distinct social group. Their ascribed “race” can become a tool of their own emancipation, when it forms the basis for solidarity, based on common experiences, interests, and aspects of culture — therefore, denying the social reality of race can be an instrument of oppression, and in itself be racist. Even so, we need to be clear about the fact that there is no biological reality in which human “races” exist.
If you are interested in the topic of race, colonialism and genocide, I strongly recommend the short, powerful and excellently written book by Sven Lindqvist, “Exterminate All The Brutes”. Really, get and read it. I am grateful to K2 for having told me about that book after she had read a first draft of this essay.