The Threat of Race

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The Threat of Race by David Theo Goldberg Now available from Blackwell Publishing and

Sunday October 12, 2008


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Two competing historical frames have marked thinking about race and the conceptualization of racism.

A dominant view among academic commentators takes racism to acquire its explicit modern expression only from the nineteenth century onwards.  Advocates may acknowledge that a notion of race appears in literature and popular expression increasingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  But they deny that such expression amounts to the sort of explicit, sustained, and elaborated mode of racist expression so widely circulated in the nineteenth century.

Implicit in this view is a set of presumptions. First, racism is thought to acquire its character in and through the expanding scientific elaboration gathering steam throughout the nineteenth and into the first half of the twentieth centuries. Second, and relatedly, from the hindsight of twentieth century critical commentary, the nineteenth century “science” of racism is nothing more than pseudo-science.  Its driving ideas are deemed misguided, fuzzy, built on pre-existing biases, inevitably contradictory. Racism, by extension, is inherently irrational, conceptually implosive, incoherent. And singular: it is taken to be nothing else at root than the rationalization of irrational prejudice.

The contrasting view takes a considerably longer tack. It starts by making more of the fact that the language of race—the term itself, the sorts of expressions that more recently have come to be identified with it, the variety of its substitute terms, the range of commitments it expresses, the array of principles and positions it has shaped, articulated, and represented—long precedes the nineteenth century. How long thickly are open questions, varying across proponents of this view. 

Most commentators concede that race is a modern term, appearing in European languages explicitly only in the second half of the fifteenth century. Some nevertheless argue that, no matter the availability of the term to characterize population groups, the kind of thinking that later came to be associated with the notion long pre-dates its appearance: identification of population groups in terms of physical appearances, most notably skin color; preferential personal treatment of some group members on the basis of these traits or greater familiarity of members than with strangers to look or behave oddly, to exhibit weird customs and perverse habits. The term “racism,” after all, is coined only in the 1930s and nobody denies that the sort of phenomena later identified as racism had long existed.  Why should it be any different for race?
There is no doubt that personal and social prejudice extensively pre-dates the modern world.  But the pressing question here is how those biases and bigoted circulations become rationalized, what social sources and forces have prompted and sustained them.  For those of us taking racial discourse and the thick notions of socially mobilized racisms to be characteristically modern phenomena–born of, shaped by and shaping the modern world from roughly the late fifteenth century onwards–race becomes not just increasingly thick in its articulation and elaboration.  It no longer is simply or solely personal prejudice, individual bias, or religiously driven exclusion or repression.

From the late fifteenth century on, the apparatuses of the state and philosophical thought increasingly underpin racially articulated expression, of administrative practice and ultimately scientific thinking. Racially elaborated expressions are born out of and represent what are taken to be the highest  and most compelling orders of modern modes of thinking. Race may have had earlier resonances, discursive precursors, hints of something larger yet to come.  But without the state apparatus representing its terms, racial expression at most would have remained pretty much at the level of personal prejudice.
The modes of exclusion, discrimination, humiliation, and degradation race has enabled in its name, and the thickening articulation of racial conception with the psyche, sociality, and state formation are modern phenomena.

Here too there are presuppositions and implications at work.  For one, racism is not singular but a set of ideas, conditions, and implications differing across time and from one place, one instance, to another, as I demonstrate in The Threat of Race.  There is not just one transcendent form but many; there are (to use a terms critical race analysts have popularized) racisms.  The meanings of the term and the character of the phenomena expressed in their name shift over time, and across the map, caught in the web of expressive conditions of local ecologies. Nineteenth century racism—the mode that comes to be so deeply identified with its scientific expression—is one, albeit assertive, even dominant strand of the set. Philip Rushton’s work or the undertaking to extend sociobiological explanation to purportedly racial distinction represent two more recent attempts to extend this tradition of scientific racism. Of course, all this is not to deny that there are also some conditions or characteristics general to or generalizable across racism  “as such.”

There’s a deeper conceptual distinction cutting across this history of racial thought. In The Racial State (2002), I elaborate a key contrast in the modernizing history of racial conception between racial naturalism and racial historicism. Strains of both mark explicit racial conception from its earliest modern moments to our own time. The former dominates from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and the latter increasingly orders the racial out of the nineteenth and across the long twentieth century.

Racial naturalism is what I call the inherent inferiority set of claims many think exhaust racial understanding and elaboration.  Racial naturalism takes those who are not European or of European descent (or more generally those not belonging to the racially conceived group making the claim) to be “naturally” less capable—in rational power, in capabilities that matter, in achievements, in social system, and so on—to those who are.  These differentiated natural capacities may be considered God-given, or genetic, somehow conveyed in “the blood” or passed on inevitably in the social (or sociobiological) cultures in question. The point of their “naturalism” has more to do with the inevitability and lines of passage and inheritance than with their medium.

Racial historicism, by contrast, claims that those generally not belonging to the racially conceived group making the claim (most usually those who are not European or of European descent) are less mature than those who are, and that this relative immaturity has been produced by historical forces built up over time. It might be tempting to say that whereas racial naturalism is a claim about the hold of biology on developmental capacity, racial historicism is a claim about cultural facility developed over time.  But this could be too simplistic, for just as naturalism no doubt could incorporate claims about culture and need not be reductively biologistic, so racial historicism could incorporate developmental claims about biology. 

Sepulveda represented an early expression of racial naturalism; Las Casas, by contrast, was committed to racial historicism, at least regarding New World Indians.  Similarly, Thomas Carlyle was clearly a naturalist in the sense I intend here, John Stuart Mill a principal (and principled) proponent of historicism, helping to shift the rhetorical dominance of naturalism towards historicism.  The eugenicists of the late nineteenth century were obviously naturalists, early proponents of colorblindness such as Justice John Harlan at the end of the nineteenth century self-evidently historicists.

Colonial orders and racially repressive or relatively exclusionary regimes likewise were predicated on the distinction. Thus early Spanish and Portuguese colonists were explicit in their racial naturalism, as were Leopoldian Belgian colonizers in the Congo Free State, American “one-droppers,” Hitlerian ideologues, and apartheid apologists.  By contrast, British missionaries, many European or European-American abolitionists, conservative anti-racialists, most early anthropologists, even African-American proto-black nationalists such as Edward Blyden and many proponents of area studies, development aid, and advancing global democracy (think Iraq) have resorted to some version or another of historicism in their invocation of racial difference, presumptive civilizational hierarchy and the presumptuous promise of progress.

Nevertheless, some contemporary commentators committed to restricting racism historically to the biologistic naturalism of the nineteenth century and its legacy deny that racial historicism is actually racist.

Georgios Varouxakis, in disagreeing explicitly with me, writes that

. . . Mill’s thought was indeed Euro-centric, and despite his efforts to be open-minded, he did show himself to be deplorably ignorant and prejudiced about non-European cultures, not least those of the Indian Peninsula. And his belief that a benevolent despotism was a legitimate mode of governing those he called “barbarians” (provided its aim be to “civilize” them and thereby prepare them for self-government) was paternalistic and based on assumptions that we cannot accept today.  However, this does not render him a “racist.”  I object to the terms “racist” and “racism” to designate all sorts of people and attitudes with which those who use the terms today disagree or which they find exclusionist or prejudiced, etc. There are plenty of more accurate terms to describe each of these attitudes.  But “racism” should be reserved for attitudes of those who believed in the all-importance of biologically transmitted characteristics and in the existence and great significance of inherent traits that are there to stay with all the deterministic implications of such beliefs. This does not mean that there are no problems with attitudes like Mill’s or that he should not be criticized for his pronouncements on the non-European colonized peoples. . . we should not confuse these other reproachable attitudes with “racism,” thereby impeding  the understanding of where the problem is in each case. [1, my emphasis.]

Similarly, Alan Ryan distinguishes between being “a racist” (not Mill, he likewise insists) and being “an imperialist” [2], as though one could not be both and that the one did not shore up the other. What histories are these folks reading?  Ryan rests his claim on the fact that Mill thought that merely a different environment would lift Indians out of their “slavishness,” “indolence,” “and superstitiousness.” No concession is given to the fact that Indians were being conceived in terms of these readily racially circulated stereotypes in his day; the difference between seeing a group as biologically unsalvageable or environmentally upliftable, after all, is the very point of the distinction between racial naturalism and historicism. And in the same volume H.S. Jones chides me (he actually slips, uncorrected by the editors, into calling me“Goldstein,” oops, can’t tell one from another now can we) for the “postmodernist” and “postcolonial” view that “civilizing mission [sic] was imbued with racism.” [3] How shocking.

I am less concerned with whether someone like Mill himself was racist than with whether the sorts of views he represents, for which he stands, that he voices for a general public disposition are so. (I prefer not to call Mill “a racist,” concerned rather as I am with the general commitments of historical liberalism than with tired accusations about whether this or that thinker is a bad guy.) And it would have been nice had the editors of this volume, one of whom is my most vociferous critic on this score, extended to me the same courtesy of responding to essays critical of my contribution to the volume that they gave to my critics in previewing my essay they included.

Nonetheless, to reduce racism to the singularity of biologistic naturalism is completely arbitrary.  Indeed, the likes of Varouxakis and Ryan offer not a single argument for this conceptual reduction other than to attribute to Mill a principled “antiracism” because of his “rejection of biological race.”  An argument that is no more than the circularity of the claim that Mill can’t have been a (biological) racist because he rejected biological racism.  And nothing else is racism because we say nothing else is. Which amounts to no more than to say we can call these sorts of Millian views a whole range of things, but please, pretty please, not racist. 

Why not, exactly? If racism doesn’t include European paternalistic arrogance, a claim to lack of self-governance on the part of all those not European and autonomy on the part of all those who are, an Orientalist failure to seek comprehensive knowledge of those political and social cultures about which one quickly makes generalized pronouncements, the characterization of those not European as “barbarians” tout court, indolent, lazy, and superstitious, and a European duty to “educate and “civilize” them, then what exactly does it include?

Ask a person of African, Asian or indigenous American descent what they find especially pernicious about racist expression directed at them.  The most compelling responses are not likely to be that they are being told that some of “their characteristic traits are biologically inherited” (this, after all, suggests Appiah’s notion of “racialism,” not racism [4]). They might even find such a claim appealing, depending on the traits in question.  Rather, it is likely to be that claims about their relative inferiority or incapacity, inherent or developmental, especially in the absence of understanding their history, their cultural traditions, and the sorts of conditions they face are derogatory, demeaning, humiliating, dismissive. (Absent the terms “racism” or “racist” in the nineteenth century notwithstanding, the response 150 years ago from those subject to these views was likely to be little different).

It’s the humiliating, de-humanizing exclusions, stupid. 

The pernicious implication of the derisive but knowing (or that ought to be known) put-down, the pernicious degradation, the self-promoting exclusions, all at least racially prompted or promoted, legitimated or rationalized. Not simply silly biologism. (That’s exactly why McCain’s ugly attacks, resting as they have on Obama’s “character,” “associations,” and imputations of affiliation, tend to the racist, even while racially silent.  “That one.” Identified by being unnamed by one who knows your name all too well. Boy.  Boy Friday.  Friday. Their winking knowingness.)

Of course claims about biological inheritance can be deterministic, fixing in place, incapacitating.  But they are not necessarily so.  Racism, to press the point, is not one thing, not to be arbitrarily diminished in scope to suit a narrow philosophical agenda, to save a liberal hero or more broadly a cherished set of beliefs or “civilizational view” no matter how progressive in other respects.  The historical record is littered with the embarrassment of generally “liberal” philosophers elaborating racist accounts or imputing generalized derogatory, racially implicit or explicit stereotypes of others, from Kant to Levinas, Mill to Levin, Locke to Sedgwick, Carlyle even to Camus. That said, their expressive racisms are not all of a piece, foundationally or expressively.  Why should this surprise, given that their philosophical views vary so widely?

So, the heart of the dispute concerns the distinction between what I characterize as racial naturalism and racial historicism.  A dispute, as I have argued at length in The Racial State and on which arguments I draw in The Threat of Race, far exceeds the mid-nineteenth century debate between Carlyle and Mill.  True, in contrast with Carlyle, Mill seems positively progressive.  But his progressivism embeds—yes, that word—stereotyping presumptions about racial otherness.  That my critics all admit the stereotyping presumptions about otherness leads me to wonder, aloud, why exactly the resistance to naming it racism?  It can’t just be that, as Varouxakis insists, there are more precise terms for non-inherent claims about pernicious prejudicial judgment.  He offers none.  And as I have said, imperialism hardly foregoes the fact that racisms were among its major props.

Citing Peter Mandler’s work approvingly, Jones even tries to downplay the strong hold concepts of race and nation exercised on nineteenth century English thought. The evidence (or counter-evidence) for this  historical revisionism: according “exaggerated” emphasis to works by the likes of Robert Knox that were much less read at the time than critically assumed. [5] Well, not everyone was reading the likes of Knox, to be sure.  But they sure were reading Fraser’s Magazine, listening to Sunday sermons, taking odious delight in exoticizing and derogatory travelogues, paying attention to politicians fulminating about the costs of white man’s burden and the civilizing mission, pasting their walls and advertizing their businesses with sambo-esque wallpaper and signage. Pears Soap wrappers, recall, sought to convey what cleansing power it would take to set oneself apart from the smelly and significantly less civilized. Benjamin Disraeli was not exaggerating in declaring, in 1847, that “All is race.”

Regarding my contrast between naturalism and historicism, Charles Mills (in a vocal reply to his critics) waves away “the significance of the distinction” by refusing any judgment of it himself, declaring that “it will have to be evaluated by historians of racism.” [6]  Having left to “historians of racism” the judgment about whether there is a distinction between what I distinguish as “racial naturalism” and “racial historicism,” Mills then quickly insists he is able to accommodate the distinction by emphasizing that the naturalist is “the paradigmatic” but not the  “only form” of racism.  And yet, having resisted the weight of social science accounts of racism, he insists, nevertheless, that he is right that “on the level of mass consciousness . . . naturalism historically is the dominant form” [p. 251]. No historical evidence offered.

While more nuanced in his lately revised views than Varouxakis or Jones, Mills, however, likewise loses sight of the deeper thrust of my argument here, the historical movement between naturalism and historicism.  It is not simply that the naturalist is paradigmatic for all time; each holds sway at different historical moments.  The point is to attend to the shift in racial meanings, to the dominance of one kind of racial conception or another at different points in time, to the work each does in holding up racially conceived and tilted worlds. In taking the naturalist as paradigmatic of racist configuration as such, Mills belies the very possibility of any other conception becoming so under different socio-conceptual conditions. Historians of racism may have to settle whether the distinction has held at all; but on Mills’s account the historical record bows to the philosopher’s prescription regarding paradigmatic status. Some of us would call that self-serving.

Mills is similarly disingenuous in defending criticisms of his initial conception of “the racial contract.” Lately, Mills declares he had always intended that this concept represents a claim about philosophical normativity, not a social science claim about the existence of the historical record of racism driven by actual contractual agreements by whites globally.  But Mills’s shift to thinking of the racial contract as a metaphor concerned principally with highlighting normative considerations of racial injustice largely overlooked in the social contract theory tradition is made only in the wake of withering criticism from a range of sources regarding his earlier assertions of a literalist historical reading of the racial contract. This is what I call Mills’s realist claim. He can say all he wants that I (and others) mistakenly criticize him for his (earlier) ”literalist reading of the racial contract.”  His own words belie his refusal.

The fact of the matter is that in his first statement of the racial contract claim in the book of that title, to which I was responding, Mills does say explicitly in the first pages that “ . . . the Racial Contract is real.” [7, my emphasis, obviously).  Not metaphorical, real. In case readers miss the point, he repeats it (p. 9). The “Racial Contract has the best claim to being an actual historical fact” [p. 20]. Mills  indeed uses the term “metaphorical” in his first book, but to repudiate what he in fact intends by the Racial Contract: “. . . there is a series of acts . . .which collectively can be seen, not just metaphorically but close to literally, as its conceptual, juridical, and normative equivalent” [pp. 20-1, my emphasis].

That Mills insists on the metaphoricity of the racial contract, then, only emerges in later work, to his credit a shift in his view in relation to the criticism he received from me and others.  But having shifted he cannot deny that he set out believing it literal. Indeed, Mills goes further, distancing himself from the normative claims of the Rawlsian corrective and siding explicitly with the classic social contractarians who sought “factually,” “descriptively, to explain the actual genesis of the society and the state, the way society is structured, the way the government functions, and people’s moral psychology.” [p. 8]

This is not a passing remark by Mills.  He repeats himself again and again, to make sure readers get the point. The point in this first book is also pointedly aimed at the poverty of philosophical normativity for liberal philosophers like Rawls, exactly when it comes to racism, a point well taken but abandoned by Mills as he retreats into the coziness of normative philosophy to evade the howl of critique. “My aim is to adopt a nonideal contract . . . for understanding the inner logic of racial domination and how it structures the West and elsewhere . . [T]he notion of the Racial Contract might be more revealing of the real character of the world we are living in. . . .[I}t is crucial to understand what the original and continuing actually was and is so that we can correct for it in constructing  the ideal ‘contract’. “ [p. 9, my emphases]

I could go on citing passage after passage.  I only suggest here that the remainder of Mills first book be read in light of these passages cited to establish that in his first conception, the racial contract was intended literally as historical claim of fact.

For early Mills, his account more readily emulates Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality rather than Rawls’s Theory of Justice, as Mills himself explicitly emphasizes, as though conceding the point.  No metaphor here. His concern with philosophical normativity, such as it is in this early work, is expressly to be built on the claim of revisionist facticity of the supposed racial contract.  We are in the realm of the very social science Mills rejects in his later work to escape criticism from the likes of me.  Not a bad thing to stand corrected, to be sure.  But to deny what you explicitly said to begin with, hoping no one will notice or—worse—believing it yourself in order to make your critics look foolish is McCainianism of the most misleading kind.

So I rather doubt I missed Mills original point that subpersonhood was literally the result of a real contract, as he chides me for doing in his “Reply to Critics” [p. 252]. Here he claims that what he has always intended was “normative philosophical judgments about [subpersons’] ‘contractual’ moral inferiority” [p. 252, his emphasis].  This is certainly a more interesting claim than the one about a literally real contract.  But even here I wonder what “contractual” adds to the insight.  When McCain-Palin supporters harangue Barack Obama for being a “terrorist,” “Muslim” or Arab,” a “liar” or “untrustworthy” or that “he should be killed,”  there seems little doubt that these are racially tinged if not charged, no matter that biological claims  may not be in play, Mr Jones. 

Mills is right, of course, that they are normative philosophical judgments. But contractual?  They may operate “as if” there were some sort of implicit contractual agreement. Among whom, exactly? All those agreeing with the claims? All those present? Far from all whites, or all whites in America, or all white Republicans. Nor all white Christians, or even many.

Even if it were conceded that there is an implicit contract among all those agreeing with the claims, what does it add?   It simply restates tautologically that those who agree agree (the heart of the contract, after all).  It doesn’t add any ground to the normativity of the claim. If the set of persons making such racially charged claims is just one, the presumed normativity is no less, but in the absence of anything like a contract.  The normativity is not extended by the fact of 100 or 1000 people contractually agreeing, even if the potential social force or violence may be.  This suggests that a contract is more than merely agreeing.  It is, in a sense, agreeing to agree. And that meta-agreeing would heighten the charge, ratchet it up, make it (more) threatening.  But if this is right it requires the contract to be literal, not metaphorical, and I have been suggesting all along that the history of racisms can hardly be reduced to the singularity of contractual agreement, neither literal nor metaphorical.

What this line of counter-critique points to, then, is that the histories of racisms show a considerably more variegated and complex conception of racism historically conceived than any of my critics here—Varouxakis, Jones, or Mills–seem aware of, let alone acknowledge. None of this is to say I am unqualifiedly right on all points.  Mills correctly points out that Kant considered “American peoples” more inferior than “Negroes.” I stand corrected, at least in part.  For while Mills quotes Kant to this effect, there is at least another occasion where Kant conveys that he considers Negroes on crucial registers (“mental” and “moral character”) to occupy the bottom of the hierarchy. [10] Which just goes to show that the Enlightenment proponent of the force of Reason contradicted himself.  It is not insignificant or surprising that such contradictory thinking should have been prompted around racial projection.

The larger question raised by this entire set of considerations, accordingly, concerns the historical reach of racial configuration.  For Varouxakis and Ryan and Jones, not to mention Mendler, racism marks pretty much only nineteenth century England, and then at least for some not as much as commonly assumed.  Phew, off the hook. It’s funny, racism has become pretty much the curse word of all curse words, to be evaded at all costs, not least to the historical record.  Mills, by contrast, readily seems to agree that racism significantly predates the nineteenth century, though the implication of his insistence that naturalism is the historically dominant form suggests that racism (in the presumption of its singularity) at least recedes if not largely dissipates with the march of post-abolition, post-imperial, post-colonial, and post-civil rights time. There we clearly differ too, even as we might agree that race is a notion peculiarly modern in its explicitation and explication.

The Threat of Race seeks to elaborate not just how modern are the notion(s) of race and the perversely de-meaning social modalities thus prompted, perfected, and prevailed.  But there are two additional concerns the book seeks in general to evidence.  The first is to portray in considerable regional detail just how variable continues to be racial meaning and representation, the articulations and experiences of racisms across place and through time.   And the second is precisely to consider in some detail how contemporary modes of racial expression and racist dehumanization and exclusion have been re-shaped and to a degree re-directed under and by the forces of neoliberalism.

I will leave more nuanced readers than those discussed here to assess how compelling this project turns out to be. The virtual pages of this website invite readers to join the critical conversation by posting your considered contributions and interventions to the site.

Irvine. October 12, 2008   

[1] Georgios Varouxakis, “Empire, Race, Euro-centrism: John Stuart Mill and is Critics,” in Utilitarianism and Empire, eds. Bart Schultz and Georgios Varouxakis (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005), p. 144.
[2] Alan Ryan, “Introduction,” in J.S. Mill’s Encounter with India, eds. M.I. Moir, D.M. Peers, and L. Zastoupil (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), pp. 15-16. As cited in Varouxakis, p. 147.
[3] H.S. Jones, ”The Early Utilitarians, Race and Empire: The State of the Argument,” in Schultz and Varouxakis, p. 185.
[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Racisms,” in Anatomy of Racism, ed. David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), pp. 4-5.
[5] Jones, p. 181.
[6] Charles Mills, “Reply to Critics,” in Carole Pateman and Charles Mills, Contract and Domination (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 251.
[7] Charles Mills, The Racial Contract, Cornell University Press, p. 4.
[8] Mills, The Racial Contract, pp. 4-5.
[9] Mills, The Racial Contract, pp. 4-5.
[10] Charles Mills, “Reply to Critics,” p. 254; Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (Berkeley: University of California press, 1960, pp. 111-114.

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