Racism as a Political Project

Ausgabe: 2014 | 2

Racism; it is a charged word that carries with it a long history of violence, prejudice, political action, and discrimination.  It is a concept that has affected populations from every corner of the globe, perpetrated by virtually every civilization.  It is precisely this history that Francisco Bethencourt tackles in his book, “Racisms:  From the Crusades to the 20th Century”.  The book is an exhaustive history of racisms in the Western World covering an immense period of time (approximately 900 years) from the 11th to the 20th centuries.  The author includes a wide range of historical periods ranging from the persecution of “New Christians” in 15th century Spain, to the colonial domination of the Americas, to the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust in the 20th century.

Bethencourt defines Racism as “prejudice concerning ethnic descent, combined with discriminatory action”.  This allows him to focus his work on certain events and historical periods rather than attempting to include every example of ethnic prejudice, which would be next to impossible to include in one volume.  The author works around several main ideas that are interesting and often not heard during modern discourse on the subject.  He rejects “the idea of racism as an innate phenomenon shared by all humankind’’.  He also says that racism cannot be understood by examining short periods of time (i.e. the Holocaust) or simply by looking at well-known victims (1).  This is his reasoning for the scale and scope of this work.  Although it covers a massive amount of time, the author argues that it is necessary to understand how racism arose in each historical period.  The author’s main thesis is that in each case, racism emerged as a political response to a specific set of political and economic circumstances.  Lastly he rejects the idea that the “theory of races” occurred before “racism”.  In the introduction he explains how most historians had always considered racism to be a fairly recent phenomenon that arose from Social Darwinism and the belief that the human species was divided into subspecies that existed in a hierarchy dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.  Previous conflicts were thought to have resulted from religious and cultural differences between ethnicities.  The author rejects this idea and maintains that racial conflicts existed before the development of the “theory of races” in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I believe that the author is successful in his debate and presents a clear and definitive argument in favor of his position.

One of the strongest cases that he uses to support his thesis is the persecution of “New Christians” in Spain during the 14th century.  After the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Islamic invaders, the remaining Muslims and Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity.  However they continued to experience distrust and discrimination from the “Old Christian” population and became known as “New Christians”.  These perceptions were passed down to their descendents, through blood, in rejection of the principle of “equality amongst believers” espoused by St. Paul.  According to the author this is a clear example of racism rather than religious turmoil since the discrimination was based upon their perceived inequality through blood descent.  The author is able to apply his thesis very clearly in this case as well.  Once the Jewish and Muslim populations had been converted to Catholicism, the legal barriers that had once marginalized them were lifted and they were able to freely interact with society.  This meant that the old Christian population was forced to compete with the new converts for wealth and prestige.  Wanting to maintain their privileged status, they responded with discriminatory action against a perceived threat to their well-being.

Bethencourt also looks at the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust through the lens of his thesis and provides new perspectives.  In 1915, in the midst of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire began a campaign of mass killings, deportations, and death marches directed against its minority Armenian population.  According to the government the Armenians were planning to conspire with the Russian Empire and this was used as a justification for its brutality.  The Armenians, being Christians, were also considered a threat to the Turkish well-being and the overall wealth of the Armenian population was seen as proof that the Armenians were benefiting at the expense of the Turks.  The author makes the case that these allegations were made for political and economic reasons rather than a simple belief in Turkish racial superiority.  The Ottoman Empire had suffered several serious defeats on the battlefield and the campaign against the Armenians provided the Turkish people with an internal enemy upon which to vent their wrath.  The Armenians, being fairly well-off in comparison to the Turkish population, were also seen as competitors (much as the Jews were in Europe) and their elimination would clear the way for Turkish advancement (in the eyes of the Ottoman Imperial Government).  Adolf Hitler’s racial theories can also be examined in this way.  During the reign of the Nazi regime Jews were never targeted for their religious beliefs, instead they were categorized as an inferior race and enemies of the state.  However the Nazis never succeeded in defining racial characteristics that were specific to the Jewish people, showing that racism isn’t always linked to skin color.  In each case of racial discrimination by Nazi Germany the author argues that each race was targeted in different ways for different reasons to achieve a specific goal for the regime.  Jews were identified as an internal enemy that needed to be exterminated in order to unite the German population.  Slavic peoples were considered inferior in order to use them as slave labor.  Gypsies and people with disabilities were targeted as part of the policy of racial purity based on Eugenics (the belief in the ability to “improve” a race).  However the author argues that the “old” system of religious discrimination can’t be separated from “modern” scientific racism because Nazi Germany could never have succeeded in mobilizing the population against these groups without presence of the old stereotypes, stigmas, and prejudices in the public conscience (370-371).

I feel that the author’s interpretation of these historical periods is a great addition to the current discourse on the subject.  By seeing racism as a product of specific political and economic conditions he provides a reasonable answer to the often asked question of “how could these things have happened?” (especially concerning the Holocaust).  The length of the volume is considerable but, it provides a thorough explanation of the various racisms that occurred throughout western history.  He also briefly describes comparative experiences outside of the Western World such as the Rwandan Genocide, the Untouchables in India, and Chinese discrimination against ethnic minorities.  These are welcome additions and I would look forward to a companion book examining racisms outside of the West.  In summary, I would highly recommend Racisms by Francisco Bethencourt as a thorough history of the various types of racism that arose throughout history in the Western World and the complicated reasons for their occurrence.

(John Steinmeyer)

Bethencourt, Francisco: Racisms. From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013. 444 S., £ 27.90, ISBN 978-0-691-15526-5