- Historic Sites
The End Of Racism?
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
I came to realize as I began to look into the subject that for all the multiple hues of American society today, the race problem remains fundamentally a black problem. People may not like Hispanics, regarding them as lazy, or not like Asians, regarding us as clannish, but they don’t think that we’re inferior. It is the belief in intrinsic inferiority that is at the heart of racism. And I think that suspicion—what writers at The New Republic some years ago called “rumors of inferiority”—persists. Ultimately, my argument in The End of Racism is that racism will not end until blacks are competitive with other groups.
What we’ve had are a lot of reasons given for why blacks are not competitive. And these reasons have become more elaborate and I think less plausible over the last couple of decades, so that we now have a revival of suspicions of black inferiority. The Bell Curve gave that a degree of scholarly respectability. What we need is not more reasons for black failure but more evidence of black success. Racism can be discredited by removing its empirical foundation.
Let’s work through the theory of the book, beginning with this: What is racism?
Historically racism has been, and I think still is, a doctrine of biological inferiority. So to be a racist, you have to believe in races. You have to believe that there are human groups that are distinguishable biologically. Second, you have to believe that these races can be ranked on some kind of scale. Third, you have to believe that these rankings are intrinsic, or natural, not merely accidental. And fourth, you have to use this hierarchy as a basis for segregation and discrimination. If you satisfy those four requirements, then you are a classic racist.
Who invented racism?
I began this book with the belief that racism is universal. The Japanese are notoriously xenophobic. In India you have the caste system. You have tribal wars in Africa. To my surprise, I discovered, or I realized, that this concept is just not so. I was confusing racism with tribalism, or ethnocentrism. Preferring one’s own to others, or to strangers, is universal. However, seeing human intellectual and moral qualities as attaching to biology, which is the heart of racism—that’s a Western view. So racism, in my view, is modern and Western. It is a theory of civilizational superiority. And it arose because of the unique circumstances of modernity. In the ancient world you had many cultures, and no single culture had a permanent or decisive civilizational advantage. But because of the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment, Western civilization became cumulatively more rich, more powerful, and more influential than all the other cultures of the world combined. Racism became a commonsensical way of explaining this large gap in civilizational development.
In the United States there were no white slaves; virtually all slaves were black. Wasn’t slavery in the United States therefore a racist institution?
Slavery in the United States, like slavery all over the world, began for economic rather than racial reasons. There was work to be done, and it was preferable to have people do it for free. The Europeans tried to enslave some of the local Indians, with disastrous results. There was already a profitable slave trade going on in Africa, with the Arabs as middlemen. So the Europeans began slavery here out of convenience. Slavery developed a racist character in the United States for a very peculiar reason. And that is that it clashed with the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The Spanish, for example, practiced slavery but didn’t develop an elaborate theory of racism. The reason is that there was no egalitarian ideology in Spain that slavery was radically inconsistent with. Essentially everybody was, to some degree, unfree. Spain was a monarchy, and the slave was only the most unfree person on a continuum. In the United States many people say that slave owners like Jefferson were hypocrites, because they couldn’t have believed it when they said all men are created equal. But what I argue is that precisely because they did believe it and at the same time had slavery, it became necessary for them to argue that blacks are not men, that blacks are lesser than men, inferior human beings, not entitled to the same rights as everyone else.
Why, then, were there no white slaves here even preceding the development of the American ideology of individual freedom?
Well, there were white slaves in Greece and Rome.
But why not here, in the colonial period? Don’t you think that the distinction between indentured servitude and slavery was racially based?
Well, there’s some evidence that the earliest blacks who came here came not as slaves but as indentured servants and that there was almost a metamorphosis from indentured servitude to slavery.
Then why didn’t white indentured servants make the same metamorphosis?