17 March, 2014Issue 24.5HistoryPolitics & Society

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Racism Is Inherently Plural

Philippe-Andre Rodriguez

Francisco Bethencourt
Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century
Princeton University Press, 2014
444 pages
ISBN 978-0691155265

The last decade or so has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the historiography of racism and racial thought. Beginning with George Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History (2002) and Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004), debates surrounding the origins and development of European racism—within and beyond the continent—have heated up, and the issue is far from being resolved. Francisco Bethencourt’s latest book is consciously intended as a contribution to this ongoing conversation. Expanding on previous work on the Inquisition and Portuguese Imperialism, the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London offers a grand history of racism, from classical antiquity up to its contemporary forms. Yet his working hypothesis is simple: racism is inherently plural (hence the title of the book) because it is always motivated by local political projects rather than abstract theses about the scientific nature of mankind. As he notes, “[r]acism […] cannot be understood within the confines of intellectual history. Instead, political and social practices are crucial”. This methodological approach will lead him throughout the book to look especially at art and culture as testimonies of specific historical contexts.

Bethencourt develops a conception of racism—”prejudice concerning ethnic descent coupled with discriminatory action”—that is broad, yet useful. It allows him to reject the most commonly held view in the literature that racism is a product of seventeenth and eighteenth century empiricist and scientific revolution—i.e. that racism is necessarily linked with modern science. Following this definition, he also rejects a recent revisionist account developed by Isaac and others which traces racism back to classical antiquity. Whilst he successfully defends the former rejection, showing persuasively that racism did occur before the seventeenth century and that linking ethnic discrimination to science is in itself politically motivated, the same cannot be said about the latter dismissal. He only devotes two pages of his book to this topic, and the only argument he puts forward—that the ancients imposed no policy based on ethnic prejudice—is not argued convincingly.

In any case, Bethencourt traces racism back to the High Middle Ages, and more specifically to the crusades, which he understands as including the Spanish Reconquista. He argues that during these military campaigns “[t]he projection of permanent psychological features onto different peoples and their descendants was part of the process of building alliances and defining enemies.” He adds later on that “the maintenance of links with Europe defined a colonial model that would be replicated in the future.” Although Bethencourt does not define them as such, it seems safe to assume that he sees these processes of differentiation during the crusades as proto-racist, and not racist per se.

The book takes the sixteenth century as a turning point. For Bethencourt, the European overseas expansion is especially significant: “[t]he myth of continents, already built up in the Greek and Roman world, was followed by the personification of those continents, bestowing on them attributes that configured a hierarchy of peoples globally”. Domestically, the Spanish purity of blood doctrine towards Jews and most importantly the New Christians (i.e. the Muslims and Jews who converted to Christianity in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century) is also assessed as “not simply a religious issue” but rather as “represent[ing] clear cases of racism”. Bethencourt is therefore part of an increasingly popular movement within academic circles—alongside scholars such as Princeton’s David Nirenberg and Montpellier’s Rafael Carrasco—that looks to Early Modern Spain as the genitor of racism.

The third and fourth parts of the book show how the colonial societies expanded and institutionalised racist ideologies from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Bethencourt focuses specifically on how these early Southern European racist prejudices were transferred to Northern societies via white (and Anglo-Saxon) supremacy.

With the slave trade as its main protagonist, Bethencourt builds a narrative tied to specific political projects in order to demonstrate the distinction between the racist ideologies in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Britain. He then assesses the way in which scientific racialism and the different theories of race developed throughout the world. He devotes particular attention to how Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution transformed the racial debate from one between Monogenism and Polygenism—i.e. whether there were one or multiple Creations—into one about social Darwinism—i.e. if different races were at different stages of evolution.

The fifth and final part of the book focuses on the late nineteenth century onwards. As one might expect, the Nazi ideology figures prominently in Bethencourt’s narrative. However, he also focuses on the segregationist policy in the United States up to the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement as well as racism in post-colonial societies, with a special emphasis on the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Throughout the chapter, the author shows how different contexts led to very different racist discourses. He then presents very succinctly a “global comparison” of racism in societies which were not deeply affected by European colonialism, such as Japan and China.

The presentation of racism as changing according to political circumstances leads Bethencourt to conclude that racism still exists today within the so-called ‘Western world,’ albeit in a different form: “[t]he argument of inferiority has been abandoned in the political debate; rather, immigrants are accused of benefiting from social assistance not designed for them.” Although this specific example might seem problematic, the overarching point still holds: racism need not be linked with a scientifically-driven discourse of inferiority.

Bethencourt’s book reads like an impressionist painting by Claude Monet or Camille Pissarro. It offers a great overview of the history of European racism and its global impact, beginning in classical antiquity and concluding with contemporary forms of racism. It leaves the reader with a strong impression of what racism is and has been throughout history, as well as the way in which its malleability has served different political purposes. The book represents further evidence that focusing too narrowly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries misses the bigger picture of European discriminatory strategies. However, the book gives an unsatisfactory account of some of the periods which it covers. The specific and local historical contexts in which racism was used are oftentimes described very schematically, which does not serve the author’s aim of showing how racist discourses are answers to political contexts and objectives. The aforementioned example of classical antiquity is important in this respect, but the same can be said for other periods which he describes, such as that of the discovery of the Americas.

Any attempt to recount the history of racism in just over four hundred pages would be bound to have this kind of problem, and the book might generate misconceptions about the topic in the neophyte. For those who are already working on racism, or who are at the very least acquainted with it, the book should prove a very useful tool in locating specific work within a larger historical landscape. It serves as a very strong call to open one’s historical horizons, both temporally and geographically, which can only improve one’s work. In this sense, Racisms is well worth reading. It represents a welcome contribution to the growing body of work on the topic by debunking some very persistent myths about it.

Philippe-Andre Rodriguez is reading for a D.Phil in History at Exeter College, Oxford.