The current narrative about racism is based on a set of propositions which, upon closer examination, are both factually unfounded and logically incoherent. Let’s look at these propositions in turn.
1. Racism is a social invention. This proposition draws on the sociological assertion that human reality is socially and culturally constructed, which is a partial truth at best and a toxic distortion at worst. Human reality is much more a matter of our biological construction, ecological and technological constraints and affordances, and individual choices. The social reality of a human being can be socially constructed in a fairly superficial way by multiple ethnic and customary habits, fashions, family traditions, peer groups, commercial advertising, and the cultural mix that goes into most humans everywhere, changing day by day. But it is our genes and their epigenetic settings, the laws of physics, chemistry, and physiology, our own understanding of them, the available technological and economic uses of them, and our own self-training and self-education, that are by far the most important influences on our thoughts and behaviors. If racism is socially constructed, it is only one meme among many, and dealing with it is just a matter of changing the current fashion. The most ardent upholders of the current narrative all recognize that this has not worked.
Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, has been shown to be innate by many studies in psychology, anthropology, sociology and other disciplines (not to mention almost all the literatures of the world that tell the story of one tribe’s victory over another). Infants already seek comfort with humans that are known to them and humans that look like the ones they know, and fear odd-looking strangers. The adaptive commonsense of this tendency should be obvious. It is an indelible part of our makeup. The oxytocin reward system that makes us love our own group also tends to make us suspicious of others.
Xenophobia, like many human givens, can certainly be counterbalanced by other predispositions, such as the exploratory instinct, the lure of the sexually other, and the incentive of gain by trade. But xenophobia is always there and is indeed easily shaped by both an individual and his or her group into more specific forms, ranging from irrational support of one’s own sports team and hatred of the opponent to religious prejudice and inquisitions, jingoistic nationalism, civic pride, class conflict (which redirects our racist instinct into an economic conflict) and of course the theory of racism itself. Political partisanship uses it all the time—as “dog whistles” about monkeys, and the “orange” slur often used about Trump, clearly attest. Racism as a basic instinct did not need inventing. Racism was not taught but inherited in our genes; it is not a moral failing unless it is unchecked, and must be treated as we treat a hereditary condition like sickle cell anemia, or nymphomania, or Tay-Sachs, or autism: with compassion, education, and therapy.
2. Racism is a clear and distinct concept in itself. This impression can be easily corrected with a little examination of how the word is used. The word “racism” is itself incoherent, meaning several (sometimes contradictory) things: a belief that there are distinct races of humans (as opposed to various local groupings of human haplotypes); a habitual preference for one “race” over others; a belief based on bad science that one “race” is superior to others; a social and legal practice based on that belief; an irrational preference for one skin color, hair texture, or nose or eye shape over another; a political position to justify the economic oppression of one defined group by another. One can be racially hostile to another person who has the same skin color, etc, but who is simply identified as belonging to another race, as evidenced by Nazi racism against Jews and Slavs, the evident racism of the Qiché against the other tribes in the Popol Vuh, the protestant Irish against the Catholics, the Japanese use of Korean “comfort women,” and countless other examples.
Racism is hugely varied in its manifestations. One can believe in the inferiority of members of one race but sincerely support their equal rights as human beings, as Lincoln did. One can love another race but regard it as basically lesser, as we do dogs. One can, sadly, prefer members of one’s own “race” but believe that another race has superior natural talents. Either as a bearer of the white man’s burden or of white guilt, one can be paternalistically protective of the “inferior” race; one can profess to seek the emancipation of other “races”, as did Marx and Stalin, while ardently despising them. “Scientific” racism was a standard socialist position for much of the last two centuries, leading to eugenics programs in many left-leaning nations.
3. Racism always involves contempt or a belief in the inferiority of another group. Again, not so. Here a hugely important distinction, virtually ignored by contemporary theorists, emerges. The quality of feeling that characterizes our racist distaste for the “inferior” racial Other is quite different from that which we feel about the “superior” Other. One can hate “another” race precisely because one believes it is superior, as with antisemitism in general and some strains of American anti-Asian prejudice, especially exemplified in college admissions policies. Race bias toward the “inferior” can range from genial condescension and paralyzing paternalism to animal fear, exploitation and brutal sadistic repression; toward the “superior” it ranges from secretly sneering compliance and sabotage to cold mass murder on an industrial scale. We seek to subjugate the “lower” race; but we seek to eradicate the “higher” race.
4. Racism is only a “white” phenomenon. This assertion is spectacularly wrong, and is a racist position in itself. Scientific racism, which replaced the normal folk unwisdom about perceived human differences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, certainly could not have been invented without science. Most of modern science was created in Europe and North America by “white” people. Like the faulty phlogiston theory of combustion, it was a mistake. But it fed into other political and social incentives, such as the slave trade, colonialism, and socialism itself, which always sought ways to identify human groupings as more important than human individuals. The West made science available, and racism misused its mistake.
But racism in all other senses than the scientific fallacy is sturdily universal among human beings. History presents an overwhelming picture of clan warfare, tribal massacres, ethnic holocausts, pogroms, and enslavements. Whole populations of modern humans show marked differences between the inheritance of mitochondrial DNA through the mother and the Y chromosome from the father that can only mean a period in which one racial strain virtually exterminated all the males of another and raped its females. The history of the relations among the Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han and Mongolian tribes and their surrounding peoples is a story of successive racial exterminations. So too the establishment and collapse of the Roman Empire. Under the Caesars, darker-skinned Mediterraneans crushed fair-skinned Celts. Ancient Mesopotamia’s history of tribal holocaust is perhaps the oldest, vying with ancient Egypt’s. We have already briefly looked at the tribal wars of Mesoamerica, as we could also at the Andean civilizations. Polynesians subjugated Melanesians, and were subjugated in turn.
Apart from the Mongol invasion of Asia and Europe, perhaps the largest territorial story of racist subjugation and extermination is that of sub-Saharan Africa long before the white colonies were created. Beginning in the first century AD, Bantus from the general region of Cameroon swept eastward across Africa, wiping out hundreds of native societies including many Nilotic groups; another wave drove southward, subjugating or exterminating indigenous peoples such as the Pygmies and the Khoisan, arriving in what is now South Africa to meet the European settlers moving north from the Cape in the sixteenth century. Subsequent vicious tribal wars between different Bantu-speaking tribes continued to this day. Black racism against the brown peoples of the south and against other black tribes was always part of a norm that indeed included trade, cooperation, and great cultural achievements as well.
5. Slavery is a racist practice. This proposition is only half true. Slavery—the ownership of other human beings and their forced labor–has been practiced in one form or another by most human societies at one time or another. If we include such practices that meet the definition, as the belonging of children to parents, military conscription, serfdom, and in many traditions marriage itself, it is universal. It was normal practice in ancient and classical times to enslave populations conquered in war, and often this practice had little at all to do with race or perceived race differences. The combatants in Homer’s Iliad all explicitly belong to the same Greek-speaking race, connected often by ancient family ties, yet they cheerfully enslaved each other when they could. Poor people in many cultures sold their children as slaves to racially identical rich people, and the practice still continues in many places. Slavery only became a specifically racist practice with the slave trade, when the earlier relationship of belonging turned into a new relationship of chattel ownership.
6. The slave trade is a European invention. This is patently false. What we usually mean by slavery is the slave trade, or chattel slavery, which was not so prevalent as normal local slavery, though it too certainly took place in all known major civilizations. Slavery as a commercial industry does have a specific history, but it is not in any sense exclusively a European one. The slave trade we know as such is an African and Middle Eastern invention. Ancient southern Egypt sold Nubian slaves to northern Egypt and then later to Rome. In Egyptian wall-paintings pale-skinned Hittite and Amorite slave girls serve black Pharaohs. Bantu kingdoms sold their own slaves to other Bantu kingdoms, and began the systematic process of rounding up village populations to be sold. Mighty slave-trading nations like Mali, Ghana, the Ashanti and the Yoruba grew rich on the practice. Mansa Musa’s gold was legendary. Under the Arabs, beginning in the sixth century, and later the Turks, slave trading moved north and became a massive industry, and now it was European coastal populations as far north as Iceland that were being captured in millions by corsairs and Ottoman raiding parties and sold in the great world slave trading center of Istanbul. It is unclear whether the Slav peoples gave their name to the institution, or whether they took their name from it; the connection itself is eloquent.
It was only in the 1600s that the disease of the mass slave trade spread from Africa and the Mediterranean to northern Europe and the New World. It is a truly remarkable achievement of the European Enlightenment that so ancient, profitable, customary and universally accepted a practice should have lasted only two hundred years before its evil was recognized and banned by the major European nations, beginning with France and England and finally ratified by all nations of whatever racial makeup. In the slave-dependent United States that moral realization cost a bloody civil war that took the lives of three quarters of a million people. The effective figures in the battle against slavery were predominantly “white” cultural and political leaders in nations with predominantly European populations.
7. Enslavement and genocide based on race was a conservative idea. Just as scientific racism was generally a product of left-leaning progressives in the West, the opposition to slavery came originally from sources generally considered today as conservative—Whiggish supporters of business enterprise, Protestant religious moralists like William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison, the Catholic Church, and the nascent Republican Party. Progressivist Fabians like Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes, the intellectual leaders of British socialism, were ardent eugenicists, as of course were the national socialists of Sweden and Germany. In the communist Soviet Union whole populations were ethnically “cleansed,” including Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Inguish, Karacheys, Kalmyks, Koreans and Turks, who were reduced to second-class citizenship and deported to central Asia with huge loss of life. And in the Holodomor about ten million Ukrainians were exterminated for refusing to work as slaves. Communist China even now is doing the same sort of thing to the Uyghurs.
8. Racism is a capitalist phenomenon. One of the most striking things about American slave narratives is that the escape from slavery is not ever conceived as an escape to a socialist world of paternal state control but to a place of free enterprise where the former slave could enter the marketplace and make a decent living by their own work. Here an important distinction needs to be made, between mercantilism, which is compatible with and indeed relies upon slavery (and thus on racist justifications for it), and capitalism, which inherently rejects slavery. Mercantilism works basically as an extractive industry that rifles the earth and the human body to create wealth for a few. It requires imperialist colonization, and it does not like innovations that disturb its process. Capitalism, as its name implies, replaces human brute labor with capital stock such as technology and marketing tools, replaces labor-intensive foreign raw materials whenever it can with common and easily obtainable local ones, and thrives on technological progress. It does so not out of the goodness of its heart but because its core principles, the creation of value and the reaping of the rewards of value-creation, rely on a skilled and flexible workforce and as broad a market (people who can pay for its products) as possible. Even Henry Ford, like other progressives an avowed racist, recognized that for the system to work his workers would have to earn enough to buy his cars. And that meant the creation of large working and middle classes and enough public education and medical care to maintain competent workers who would be flexible enough to keep up with accelerating technological innovation. Black former slaves flocked north to work in his factories, beginning the slow process of black economic emancipation in America.
The American Civil War was a war between the mercantilist South and the capitalist north. As everywhere else in the world where capitalism took root, the result of victory was the outlawing of slavery and the gradual integration of former slave populations into the market economy. Russia had already abolished serfdom as its capitalist middle class expanded in the early twentieth century; tragically its form of socialism after the Revolution replaced the old form of serfdom with the new one of the collectives.
Capitalism is the only reliable economic antidote to slavery.
9. Racism can be countered by identity politics. Identity politics, that is, the ideological cultivation of solidarity based on race (gender, gender identification, disability, etc), has been put forward as a potent weapon against the oppression of a minority by the majority. Virtues unique to this given identity, heroic stories about it, and atrocities committed by the enemy can then be marshaled to organize enthusiastic support for violent resistance. The problem with this means of countering racism is that it is inherently impractical, for two reasons.
The first reason is that it is folly to attack and attempt to damage or destroy a group that is much larger, better armed, richer, and more organized, with its own rules, laws, material resources, and infrastructure. If the attack is ineffective, it is ineffective. If it is effective enough to be a real nuisance, it will be counterproductive, resulting in the delegitimation of its just claims and possibly increased repression. Hostilities based on inalienable group identity by definition exclude members of the majority that might see and assist the justice of their cause and join their numbers. In reality the success of mass protests against racism is based crucially on the forbearance of liberal capitalist societies from brutal repressive measures that are possible under socialist rule, on civil pacifist restraint by the protesters, and on the continued appeal to the painfully slow conscience of the oppressor.
Worse still, the weapon of race identity is not available to minorities alone. When the majority is insulted and tormented enough into identifying itself as a special race with its own heroic history, grievances, and special virtues, very terrible things can happen and have happened again and again. The apathy of the majority is a precious protection. It is not wise to awaken a sleeping dragon, as the Great Depression did in Germany after the treaty of Versailles in which Wilsonian “social justice” elevated ethnic identity into a political and moral imperative. Or as Trump did after the Great Recession, when racial political correctness and accusations had alienated the majority of the American working class.
The only effective remedies for racism seem to be four: religious solidarity that supersedes race, as with Catholicism and Islam; the capitalist free market, where individual profit supersedes racial solidarity and abundance overcomes scarcity and want; equal laws equally enforced; and the long slow process of liberal persuasion and education. Human beings of all kinds have a conscience, even those whose habit involves racial categories. To dismiss anyone’s conscience as invalid or insincere is an evil. The only effective appeal to majorities whose very existence as a working majority is oppressive to a minority is the old-fashioned appeal to our common humanity and to its collective conscience. This was the vision of Martin Luther King, like that of Mandela and Gandhi–the great apostles of liberalism for our times.