(One in a series of posts on George Fredrickson’s 2002 book, Racism: A Short History.)
Fredrickson begins the second chapter of Racism: A Short History by reemphasizing both the extent to which Europeans had developed racist ideologies in the centuries leading up to the 1700s CE, and the limits that constrained those ideologies:
“When Europeans of the late medieval and early modern periods invoked the will of God to support the view that differences between Christians and Jews, or between Europeans and Africans were ineradicable, they were embracing a racist doctrine. The curses on Jews for the killing of Christ and on blacks for the sins of Ham could serve as supernaturalist equivalents of biological determinism for those seeking to deny humanity to a stigmatized group. But the highest religious and temporal authorities generally avoided sanctioning this form of ethnic predestination.” (p. 51)
While there were unorthodox beliefs (e.g., the theory of human polygenesis) floating around, “the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of mankind, based on the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humans, was a powerful obstacle to the development of a coherent and persuasive ideological racism.” (p. 52)
It’s not until the 18th century that Europeans develop the modern conception of “race” based primarily on skin color. “The scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a pre-condition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology.” (p. 56) Scientific giants like Linneaus and Blumenthal (the father of physical anthropology) “opened the way to a secular or scientific racism by considering human beings part of the animal kingdom rather than viewing them in biblical terms…“. (p. 57)
Fredrickson also argues that “the purely aesthetic aspect of eighteenth-century racial attitudes deserves more attention…” (p. 59) and that “aesthetic prejudice may have been more central to the negative assessments of non-Europeans and Jews in the eighteenth century than the tentative and ambiguous verdict of science about their intellectual capacities“. (p. 61) Basically, white Europeans of the day (and their American cousins)—while they debated whether other races were the intellectual and moral equals of whites—had little doubt that whites were the most beautiful race (a conclusion based in part on neoclassical conceptions of beauty inspired by “the milky whiteness of marble and the facial features and bodily form of the Apollos and Venuses that were coming to light” (p. 59) with the rediscovery of Greek and Roman statuary.
Fredrickson calls the Enlightenment “a double-edged sword” in the development of modern racism:
“Its naturalism made a color-coded racism seemingly based on science thinkable and thus set the stage for nineteenth-century biological determinism. But at the same time, it established in the minds of some a premise of equality in this world rather than merely in heaven or under God, an assumption that could call into question the justice and rationality of black slavery and Jewish ghettoization.“
And he points to Voltaire (“the first thoroughgoing modern racist” p. 62) as an example of “the dual character of Enlightenment rationalism—its simultaneous challenge to hierarchies based on faith, superstitution, and prejudice and the temptation it presented to create new ones allegedly based on reason, science, and history.” (p. 63):
“(Voltaire’s) opinion of the black or African ‘species’ can only be described as extremely dismissive and derogatory. His reading of the Old Testament and his observations of the contemporary descendants of the ancient Hebrews made him thoroughly unsympathetic, not only to Judaism, but also to Jews….
On another level, however, his general defense of religious toleration and civil liberties promised more to Jews than did the traditional Christian view…. Despite his contempt for blacks, Voltaire was generally critical of slavery and condemned Christianity for having tolerated it.” (pp. 62-63)
Crossposted at: masscommons.wordpress.com