In the four articles surveyed, a common theme uniting and underscoring each of them is the complex historiographical roots or developments of “racist” attitudes. “Racist” is placed in quotes because some of the authors, acknowledging the complexity of this history, are not even confident enough to use the term forwardly and unapologetically. Whether we discuss racism, ethnocentrism, or something else, each of these authors is, in the words of David Goldenberg, asking “how did insert society look at the black African? ” The answer is “unfavorably,” whether we call it racism, ethnocentrism, or something else.
In a meta-mystical and meta-physical introduction to race and racism, Barbara Fields and Karen Fields notice (at least) three interwoven threads, each mutually supporting racial constructs and ideas. Ultimately the authors cannot be read as concluding anything other than race being completely imaginary, something that a term like “racecraft” (an obvious play on “witchcraft”) suggests from the beginning. Racism, to them, is a combination of social-political plays, pseudo-science, and American introspection. Racism is social political in that it begins with a general idea—mainly, of categorical inferiority fueled, enabled, and proffered by the “will to classification “—and then in a logically ad hoc fashion applies this idea to race (i.e., “how people look”), thus making racism out of race. Added to that there are no shortage of various biological theories and suppositions about blacks as, in some way or another, having a fundamentally or at least significantly different biology from whites. And finally, the sort of introspective American view of “white people” being some monolithic race of uniform traits and behaviors—as opposed to a more polylithic (and accurate) view of the “white race” being an admixture of different ethnicities which, with enough historical mapping, eventually are quite dissimilar from one another—serves as a social assumption about ethnic and racial origins which is then read into “other” races. Simply put, if one fails to recognize the differences (and the significance of those differences) in their own back yard, one can hardly be expected to accurately recognize and assess the differences elsewhere. These three factors are, Fields and Fields argue, the “soul” of inequality in America.
Fields and Fields do not attempt to trace this idea back much further than twentieth century America, but other authors have picked up that baton. Goldenberg treats of racism in antiquity (despite his reticence to call it that) and notes that historiographically, authors have struggled to accurately categorize what they find—some calling the enslavement or maltreatment of blacks and relative minorities as ethnocentrism, others minimizing it or acting as though it didn’t exist. In his conclusion he distinguishes between race and ethnocentrism in the following way: “Ethnocentrism is not tantamount to racism. The former recognizes physical reality, the latter orders that reality into a hierarchy of domination .” His conclusion is somewhat interesting if not surprising, in that his research led him to believe that racism is relatively new, and especially identifiable with the colonial period as political interests made African subservience especially expedient relative to prior times, at least especially in the Jewish tradition. Ethnocentrism may abound throughout history, but racism does not.
Goldenberg’s conclusions, if we take them as valid, point to racism as being a matter of opportunity (among other things, of course). The actual ordering and classifying of a society according to categories like race is a pragmatic measure to achieve some desired outcome. The short survey provided by Jablonski seems to affirm this. Although not explaining it in these exact terms, racism appears to distinctively converge with rationalist thought—especially after the sixteenth century. Pre-Adamism, for instance, supposed a special (i.e., pertaining to the species) distinction based on polygenism and Kant, perhaps riding on the coattails of his own respect and reputation for being a critical thinker, baldly asserted that skin color was an indication of moral righteousness . The sort of budding empiricism and pre-scientism was a veritable playground for the construction of dubious theories on racial differences, and given its convergence with world conquest and globalization among the European powers, made for an environment in which racism could easily be cultivated.
Finally, there are the observations of Paul Zeleza. Zeleza is less concerned with the origins of racism and more with African identity relative to the Diasporas. Zeleza cannot help but display his having been overwhelmed by how the different experiences of diasporic blacks have no predictable parity at all. In Zeleza’s view, analyzing “black people” is incalculably difficult because the diasporic experiences are far too rich and complex to be accommodated by or conformed to any particular analytical paradigm . If Zeleza is right, the whole idea of there being a “black people” to analyze and understand—in whatever terms or for whatever reason—is undermined.
On that note, we see that these four articles all circle around and hone in on racism as “real” only in its infliction. Its actual object—some monolithic, inferior and naturally subservient collection of people denoted by skin color alone—simply doesn’t exist. It is very challenging and difficult to imagine it in those terms because we have inherited that tradition, but on this item all authors appear to agree.
Fields, Barbara J., and Karen Fields. Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life. Verso Books, 2012.
Goldenberg, David M. The curse of Ham: Race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press, 2009.
Jablonski, Nina G. Living color: the biological and social meaning of skin color. Univ of California Press, 2012.
Zeleza, Paul Tiyambe. “African diasporas: toward a global history.” African studies review 53, no. 1 (2010): 1-19.