This book makes a good case for racism–the word, not the ideology. What necessitated a defense? The term has been both abused and abandoned; many scholars, and most of us, use it so widely that it has lost specificity and, with that, analytic value. As a result, other scholars have found alternatives.

George M. Fredrickson tells us that he did, too. In an earlier book he employed instead the phrase “white supremacy.” The problem was that his topic there, “color-coded” discrimination in the United States and South Africa, developed as part of a larger phenomenon, and the best word for that turned out to be “racism.” For despite having been stretched, the word has the weight of tradition. It became common coinage after one of the early systematic critiques of Nazism. Just after the Nazis had ascended to power, Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay German-Jewish sexologist, attached the label of racism to their worldview, pithily evoking the centrality of race in it. Racism stuck for a reason.

Of course, Fredrickson’s main argument is historical rather than terminological. But the issue of naming deserves attention, because writing the history of “racism” entails defining or, really, redefining this very important word. And, indeed, at the beginning of his book Fredrickson hazards a formal definition.

It [racism] originates from a mind-set that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable…. In all manifestations of racism from the mildest to the most severe, what is being denied is the possibility that the racializers and the racialized can coexist in the same society, except perhaps on the basis of domination and subordination.

For Fredrickson, racism includes both idea and act. It occurs where stereotypes about irreversible racial differences mandate injustice. As he observes, “My theory or conception of racism, therefore, has two components: difference and power.” What limits his theoretical account of racism are the terms “permanent” and “unbridgeable.” These characteristics implicitly distinguish racism from the many forms of ethnic and religious prejudice that assign a more flexible role to race. They also set up Fredrickson’s historical narrative, which amounts to a practical definition of racism. In order to show us when racism began, he has to show us what is racism, and what is not.

Fredrickson locates the origins of racism in the late Middle Ages and early-modern period, putting himself into a kind of centrist position–twice. Whereas quite a few historians of anti-Semitism believe that racist anti-Semitism emerged as something fundamentally new in the nineteenth century, Fredrickson sees “proto-racist” anti-Semitism in certain late-medieval Spanish attitudes. According to them, Jews could never become Christian; “permanent” differences separated Jews from, and made them enemies of, Christianity. Second, unlike some historians of the early slave trade and the first phases of colonization, Fredrickson thinks it is inaccurate to call these fateful undertakings “racist.” Here too proto-racism existed; yet during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, slavery and colonialism were not supported by an ideology grounded in “unbridgeable” racial differences. Witness, for example, the famous debate between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas. In 1550 Las Casas argued that because Indians had reason, they could be converted to Christianity and become “peaceful” subjects of the Spanish crown. Degrading them with slave labor was therefore wrong. Tellingly, Las Casas’s views, which the Catholic Church endorsed, became official policy. Europeans continued to enslave Africans and Indians, but for the most part they did so without an explicitly racist justification. That came later–in the Age of Enlightenment.

Fredrickson frequently directs our attention to a depressing paradox: “The scientific thought of the Enlightenment was a precondition for the growth of a modern racism based on physical typology.” Consider that Johann Blumenbach’s “authoritative” physical typology, On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, appeared in 1776, or at the very height of the Enlightenment. Around this time a prominent German advocate of Jewish emancipation insisted that “the Jew is more man than Jew.” Such assertions of universal human equality put new pressure on racists: If they wanted to legitimize their belief in inequality, they now had to make the opposite claim. So, not only did the Enlightenment make modern biological racism possible, it made this nastiness necessary–it pushed racists into dehumanizing the objects of their biases. And they did that, working mainly in the burgeoning discourse of pseudoscience. Hence the nineteenth-century idea of the “White Man’s Burden,” according to which nonwhites are “half-devil and half-child,” and color alone is a moral license for colonial rule. Hence also the term “anti-Semitism.” Circulated throughout the German public sphere in 1879 by a book titled The Victory of the Jews Over the Germans, anti-Semitism defines Jews as a race rather than as a religious or ethnic group.

Many factors caused the radicalization of Western racism. In cases where racism was coded into law, military defeat often played a decisive part. Germany and South Africa enacted racist legislation after suffering bitter, humiliating losses. In the Southern United States, after Emancipation, there was a reintensification of race-based legislation, while overseas other contingencies, like Hitler, were crucial. Furthermore, the histories of the racist regimes collided. Nazi ideologues influenced South African political theory, and the genocidal outcome of racist anti-Semitism in Germany discredited racism everywhere. Certainly it is no coincidence that in 1944, with rumors of the concentration camps spreading, pro-civil rights sentiment in the United States rose dramatically. To underpin this thought, Fredrickson cites several wartime admonitions for greater racial equality, including Gunnar Myrdal’s famous study An American Dilemma. He also notes that even neo-Nazis treat the Holocaust as a moral liability–after all, why else would they deny that it happened? Apartheid may have survived until the last days of the cold war, but that was largely because the people responsible for it presented themselves to the West as a buffer limiting the spread of Communism in Africa. By its end apartheid had become one of the world’s most obvious atavisms. Needless to say, racist cultural stereotypes still pervade Western political talk. But the terms have changed. The “virus” of racism, as Fredrickson frequently refers to it, has traveled its course. Now we must endure “post-racism.”

Fredrickson’s claim about the trajectory of racism runs parallel to William Julius Wilson’s argument in The Declining Significance of Race. When Wilson’s book appeared, in 1978, it prompted rancorous debate. With fist-shaking indignation, Wilson’s critics demanded to know: How dare he suggest that the importance of race has ebbed in race-obsessed America? It would be surprising if Racism: A Short History elicited anything other than warm praise, for much has changed in the meantime. While insisting that race still matters, most scholars of the subject recognize that it matters in very new ways. Fredrickson himself adverts to the work of the sociologists John Solomos and Les Beck, who maintain that today race is “coded as culture.” The structures of racist ideology remain operative, in other words, but they now stigmatize cultural–not specifically racial–groups as innately deficient and dangerous.

Yet shifts in cultural context only partly explain why Fredrickson’s book should be celebrated. The chief reason is the text itself. One of only a handful of attempts to cover Western attitudes toward race comprehensively, Fredrickson’s Racism is by far the most concise and lucid. It is also the most balanced. In Race: The History of an Idea in the West (1996) Ivan Hannaford asserts that the intellectual basis for racism developed in the seventeenth century. Imanuel Geiss, by contrast, finds embryonic racism in biblical and ancient Greek xenophobia. Moreover, both Hannaford and Geiss, whose Geschichte des Rassismus (History of Racism, 1988) has not been translated into English, focus on “classic” texts. Fredrickson engages with them as well; he offers a reading of Mein Kampf in which he artfully demonstrates how Hitler “managed to synthesize the mystical tradition of völkisch nationalism with the new scientific racism.” But in addition, Fredrickson discusses the views of everyday white Southerners in the Jim Crow era, and of everyday white South Africans during apartheid. And he alone effectively speaks to the question: In what ways did material contexts shape racist ideology?

Writing about Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Ralph Ellison challenged social scientists to examine race relations from the place “where Marx cries out for Freud and Freud for Marx.” That describes Fredrickson’s point of departure–racism as the meeting of a mentality and a practice–although his idiom is neither Marxist nor Freudian. Here a “mindset” fixated on “difference” produces systems of power, of “domination and subordination.” At the same time Fredrickson stresses that in both the Southern United States and Germany, the process of social and economic modernization created anxieties that in turn facilitated racism. In neither American nor German studies is this a novel approach. But that is not necessarily a weakness. Fredrickson’s historiography is free of dogmatic tendencies, which enables him to draw effectively on the most diverse scholarship. In refining, qualifying and substantiating his arguments Fredrickson invokes thinkers as dissimilar as the historian Peter Pulzer, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, the cultural theorist Sander Gilman, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant and the film scholar Eric Rentschler.

Still, what ultimately makes Fredrickson’s book so valuable is its original vision of the major racisms–its view of them as belonging to a coherent historical narrative, as sharing a basic logic of development, notwithstanding the many variations among them. “These continuities suggest to me that there is a general history of racism, as well as a history of particular racisms, but knowledge of specific contexts is necessary to an understanding of the varying forms and functions of the generic phenomenon with which we are concerned.” This innovative framework sets the stage on which Fredrickson plays out the plot of his book: a comparative analysis of the most virulent Western racisms.

Reviewers often apply the term “path-breaking” to works that simply trim back a few errant branches. But Fredrickson’s book really is path-breaking. He takes on vexing issues, such as the problem of how Nazi anti-Semitism relates to Christian anti-Semitism, with aplomb. Again, we see the striking contemporaneousness of Western racist regimes: The emancipation of Jews in Germany and blacks in the Southern United States failed at almost exactly the same time–in the late 1870s. Also, the so-called Nuremberg Laws (1935) went into effect the year before the first ordinance against intermarriage was passed in South Africa. In both the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany, racists contended that their racial Others spoiled modernization. But whereas blacks supposedly retarded progress with lethargy, the Nazis vituperated against archcapitalist Jews for recklessly accelerating the destruction of communal life.

This comparison deepens our knowledge of racism’s embeddedness in particular cultural contexts. Yet above all, Fredrickson teaches us to see the general historical specificity of the racisms in question, as oxymoronic as that may sound. Their singularity–especially the singularity of German anti-Semitism–has often been illuminated, albeit seldom with such precision. Understanding them as interdependent parts of a blood-soaked whole, of an era that has ended–that is new, and it gives new meaning to the word “racism.”