By David Nirenberg
The Origins of Racism in the West, edited by Miriam Eliav-Feldon, Benjamin Isaac, Joseph Ziegler (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Introduction: Less than a lifetime ago many scholars agreed that racial concepts offered reasonable explanations for the differences they perceived between certain human populations. That consensus extended, not only to such “colour” distinctions as those between “white” European and “ black ” sub-SaharanAfrican, but also to less chromatic classifications such as “Indo-European” and “Semite.” It extended backward in time, as well. In the nineteenth-century, for example, the most eminent historians did not hesitate to describe medieval and early-modern conflicts between Christians and Jews (or Muslims) as racial. Today the situation has so reversed itself so that no scholar of any stripe or period can strip the word “race” of its scare-quotes without inviting polemic.
It is not difficult to find the turning point in the fate of race as theory. It came at mid-twentieth century, with the German National Socialists’ implementation of an explicitly racial ideology that culminated in the extermination of millions of members of those races deemed most dangerous or degenerate. Opponents of fascism often pointed critically to the brutality of Nazi racial policies, even if they made relatively little effort to help the victims of those policies, and this critique in turn strengthened the arguments of those who sought to challenge the authority of racial ideologies in the countries and colonies of the eventual Allies. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s in the United States, for example, African-American journalists drew frequent comparisons between the treatment of Jews in Germany and blacks at home. In those same decades, social scientists like Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montague took up Franz Boas’s invitation to demonstrate the arbitrariness of any definition of “race.” In Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942), Montague made the point through the then timely example of the Jews. For centuries, he claimed, the persecution of Jews
was always done on social, cultural, or religious grounds … [W]hatever was held against them was never attributed to clearly defined biological reasons. The ‘racial’ interpretation is a modern ‘discovery.’ That is the important point to grasp. The objection to any people on ‘racial’ or biological grounds is virtually a purely modern innovation.