scientific racism, eugenics, and modern race discourse
January 11, 2015
Recently I’ve been delving into the history of scientific racism and eugenics. This includes not only reading critical historical accounts but also reading some primary sources (note: mega trigger warning for the links to primary sources. This is pure, undiluted white supremacy). Sources like johann blumenbach’s on the natural varieties of mankind or Francis Galton’s inquiries into human faculty and its development.
Blumenbach is one of the central figures in scientific racism (also one of the ‘fathers’ of anthropology) as he is generally credited with putting forward the ‘Caucasian’ race that, obviously, became so popular that it remains a common way to refer to white people today. He also also noteworthy for advancing a five race theory: Caucasian/white, Yellow, Red (Indigenous american – both south and north), Brown/Malay, and Black. Interestingly, he supported a monogenisis theory where all people descended from a white Adam and Eve. And from this white source, the race degenerated into two extremes: Black and Yellow. The intermediary stages between white and Black is the Brown/Malay race and between white and Yellow is the Red/American race. While, yes, historically, there have been other race theories and pretty much no one is really agreed on the number (some have three, four, five, six, or seven).
Galton is actually the person who made ‘eugenics’ into a word and science. Literally. Eugenics was his proposal for a ‘kinder’ genocide that direct violence (this is something he more or less says outright. In many ways, eugenics is a natural consequence of scientific racism. But the way eugenics played out in the real world does heavily rely on the work of people like Blumenbach.
One of the interesting aspects of scientific racism as created by Blumenbach is seeing the actual scope of ‘caucasian’. The scope of caucasian/white is Europe (minus the Saami), the Middle East, North Africa, the Meditteranian, and West Asia. However, within white there are sub-races who were not considered equal. This is what gave rise to ‘Nordicism’, which is the idea that the europeans of west and north are the pinaccle of whiteness with the other white sub-races like Southern Europeans or Jewish people being ‘degenerate’ or ‘inferior’ white people.
One of the interesting conclusions we can draw from this is that, contrary to what is an axiom of anti-racist of today, white people can experience racism and certainly did historically. This is if we use the common definition of racism as ‘power + prejudice’. Since one only needs to look at the history of anti-Semitism to see that there was prejudice and institutional power enforcing this prejudice.
However, as is also common these days, you’ll see white ethnics disavow whiteness because of their historical and current experiences of racism. Except that this is also an error based on the science of racism. White ethnics are white. They are inferior whites, which is why they experience discrimination but this doesn’t actually mean that the were or are ‘not-white’ as many claim. This is often the argument put forward by that irritating book how the irish became white, which relies on an ahistorical conception of race to claim that at some past point the irish weren’t white and then became so… even as they were always considered white by other white people. Inferior white is still white.
One of the things that becomes clear when you look at this, is that white supremacy cannot be reduced to racism. They are intimately and closely connected, but they are not the same thing. And, if you’ve been listening to Black people (and/or Indigenous people), this notion shouldn’t be a surprise. Anti-Blackness, as theory, consistently makes the claim that whiteness (and white supremacy) is grounded in the unhumanity of Black people1. Rather, we can see that racism, as a tool for justifying and rationalising colonialism, is also a tool of white supremacy, but it is not identical.
White supremacy explains how and why ethnic whites still are privileged by white supremacy even as they can be oppressed racially. This structural privileging can be seen when european scientific racism finds institutional and legal form in US foreign policy.
All those people labelled as Caucasian (with the exception of the visually Others, like South Asians) were able to voluntarily immigrate to the US as ‘free white people’. They were able to be naturalized as citizens of the US (pretty much right away with some exceptions with early Sephardic Jewish settlers). They could vote. They could marry the ‘superior’ Nordic whites – even if it was frowned upon. They could own (stolen) land. They could own enslaved Africans (and descendents).
These last two ‘privileges’ of white supremacy are pretty key and essential for truly understanding who was and is white. Because white supremacy, as noted earlier, is defined by the fungible Black body, as well as the ability to settle on stolen land.
If you look at the history of every non-white group, these privileges were not granted immediately and without contestation. Yes, some Indigenous nations owned slaves but they also could not become citizens for a very long time (and were/are the targets of genocide and land theft). Asian settlers likewise couldn’t vote or become citizens (and there doesn’t seem to be any easily found evidence that Asians in the US ever owned enslaved Black people).
Of course, at this point, I imagine that white europeans (esp. ethnic whites) are starting to complain about the US-centrism of this analysis of white supremacy. But this is a mistake. Understanding how the US implemented European scientific racism is actually super important for understanding the history of eugenics. But also because the way that the US distilled certain aspects of race, when it came to settlement, impacted race relations back in Europe.
Significantly the way that race, today, has become (as I said on twitter twice yesterday) more reductionist and less complex.
One of the interesting things about reading primary sources on scientific racism is seeing the way that colour really was just one generalized trait of races. But it was not the defining or essential quality. We can see this quite clearly in the formulation of the caucasian race since it encompassed South Asians who can get quite dark skinned. Today, however, we’ve actually essentialized skin colour far more than it was when racism was being formulized into a science. Certainly, we don’t rely on skin colour alone for racial classification, but it we weigh it far more importantly than at any earlier point in history2. This is what I mean that race has become even more reductionist. Similarly, we can see that the Yellow and Brown races have been collapsed into one category, Asian.
I don’t really have much…. specific purpose in writing this. I mean. I have thoughts and feelings about the implications of all of this but I probably need more time to really get them together into something I can coherently articulate.
I really don’t expect that this post or explorations will have much of an impact on current discourse on race and white supremacy (but more race). This is largely due to the difficulty of having really nuanced discussions about this sort of thing. Because… I have no doubts that some shitty white people will see the earlier claim that, yes, some white people do experience racism as a clear sign that any given white person can claim to experience it. Or to remove the historical and geographical context for this articulation and apply it everywhere and everywhen. All as ways to derail productive conversations about resisting racism. Also as a way to dodge accountability.
Likewise, amongst iaopoc this insight about the non-identity of white supremacy and racism means having truly honest, involved discussions about anti-Blackness (for those of us who aren’t Black) and settler colonialism (if we are settlers). Since the insight that white supremacy is a structuring force that uses but is not equivalent to racism requires truly grappling with the notion that anti-racism is not enough to dismantle white supremacy.