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.