fwd from Henry Liu] Blaut on Racism

Les Schaffer godzilla at SPAMnetmeg.net
Wed Nov 15 12:43:30 MST 2000

[Part I of forward from Henry Liu of a piece written by Jim Blaut,
broken up into multiple parts and reformatted to look nice for Jim.


You're 100% right. Nonwhites actually make up 80-85% of the world's
population. I wrote a paper on this: Reprinted from   Antipode: A  Radical
Journal of Geography   23(1992): 289 299.

                  The Theory of Cultural Racism
                           J. M. Blaut
                     Department of Geography
                University of Illinois at Chicago

i. Theory and Practice

Very few academics these days consider themselves to be racists, and
calling someone a racist is deeply offensive. Yet racism in the
universities is just as pervasive, just as dangerous, as it was a
generation ago. Nowadays we seem to have a lot of racism but very few
racists. How do you explain this paradox?

The place to begin is to notice the essential difference between
racist theory and racist practice.  Racism most fundamentally is
practice: the practice of discrimination, at all levels, from personal
abuse to colonial oppression.  Racism is a form of practice which has
been tremendously important in European society for several hundred
years, important in the sense that it is an essential part of the way
the European capitalist system maintains itself.

Racist practice, like all practice, is cognized, rationalized,
justified, by a theory, a belief-system about the nature of reality
and the behavior which is appropriate to this cognized reality. (The
word "theory" is better in this context than the word "ideology,"
because we are talking about a system of empirical beliefs, not about
the cultural bindings of belief.) But theory and practice do not have
a one- to-one relationship. One form of practice can be underlain by
various different theories. Since racism-as-practice, that is,
discrimination, is an essential part of the system, we should not be
surprised to discover that it has been supported by a historical
sequence of different theories, each consistent with the intellectual
environment of a given era. Nor should we be surprised to find that
the sequent theories are so different from one another that the racist
theory of one epoch is in part a refutation of the racist theory of
the preceding epoch.

Putting the matter in a somewhat over-simplified form, the dominant
racist theory of the early nineteenth century was a biblical argument,
grounded in religion; the dominant racist theory of the period from
about 1850 to 1950 was a biological argument, grounded in natural
science; the racist theory of today is mainly a historical argument,
grounded in the idea of culture history or simply culture.  Today's
racism is cultural racism.

I will try to show, in this paper, what cultural racism is all about
and how and why it has largely supplanted biological racism (at least
among academics). To start things off, I'll explain the paradox that,
today, in universities, we have racism but few racists.

Generally, when we call a person a racist in the academic world of
today we are accusing this person of believing in the hereditary,
biological superiority of people of one so-called race over people of
another so-called race, with the implication that discrimination is
justified, explained, rationalized, by the underlying biological
theory. But hardly anybody believes in this theory anymore. Most
academics believe that the typical members of what used to be called
inferior races have a capacity equal to that of other so-called races,
but they have not been able to realize this capacity.  They have not
learned the things one needs to know to be treated as an equal. They
have not learned how to think rationally, as mental adults. They have
not learned how to behave in appropriate ways, as social adults. The
problem is culture, not biology. And, naturally, the inequality will
disappear in the course of time. But in the meantime, discrimination
is perfectly justified. Of course it is not called "discrimination" in
this newer theory. It is a matter of treating each person in a way
that is appropriate to his or her abilities. The people of one race --
pardon me: one ethnic group -- demonstrate greater abilities than
those of other ethnic groups, abilities in IQ, ACT, and SAT
test-taking, in "need achievement motivation," in avoidance of
criminality, and so on. Given that they have these higher realized
abilities, they should be given greater rewards. They should be
admitted to college, be granted Ph.D.s and tenure, and the rest. And
so racist practice persists under the guidance of a theory which
actually denies the relevance of race. The differences between humans
which justify discriminatory treatment are differences in acquired
characteristics: in culture.

Another way of putting this is to say that cultural racism substitutes
the cultural category "European" for the racial category "white." We
no longer have a superior race; we have, instead, a superior
culture. It is "European culture," or "Western culture," "the West"
(see Amin 1989). What counts is culture, not color.

ii. Religious Racism

The notion of European cultural superiority is not a new one. Early in
the 19th century, Europeans considered themselves to be superior
because they are Christians and a Christian god must naturally favor
His own followers, particularly those who worship Him according to the
proper sacrament. He will take care of such matters as hereditary
abilities, thus making it easier for His followers to thrive,
multiply, progress, conquer the world. He will even make certain that
the physical environment in which Christians live is more favorable
than the environment surrounding heathens: hence Europe's climate is
neither too hot nor too cold, not "torrid" nor "frigid" but nicely
"temperate." In a word: it was believed that the people of Europe,
traditional Christendom, possess cultural superiority, biological
superiority, even environmental superiority, but all of this flows
from a supernatural cause. This was the theory which, in the period up
to roughly the middle of the 19th century, underlay most racist

Note that the religious theory of racism was an empirical
argument. The cause was supernatural, but the effects were
straightforward facts. God had created white people, in a region which
Europeans considered to be their own cultural hearth: the "Bible
Lands." The Garden of Eden was thought by many scholars to have been
located somewhere around the headwaters of the Tigris river, in the
healthful, temperate, mountains of Armenia, not far from Mt.  Ararat,
where Noah landed, not far from the Caucasus Mountains which were
known to be the home of the Caucasian race, and (as was often pointed
out) in the same temperate latitude as Greece and Rome (see, e.g.,
Lord 1869). There was no such thing as early cultural evolution, since
Man was given agriculture, cities, and civilization in the days of
Genesis. All of pre-Christian history took place among white people in
a small piece of the earth's surface, roughly between Rome and
Mesopotamia. The rest of the world was uninhabited. People migrated
from this hearth to, and so populated, Asia and Africa. During the
course of this exodus they became non-white, and they degenerated
(Bowler 1989), and lost the arts of civilization (although Asians
retained some of these arts).1 All of this was considered to be
historical fact. It followed, then, that the white race has always
been superior and still remains superior, and for very evident
reasons. In short: an empirical theory, giving scientific
justification for racist practice.

iii. Biological Racism

Toward the end of the 19th century, naturalistic arguments had
displaced biblical and theological arguments in most scholarly
discourse. But it should not be thought that religious racism (as
theory) had entirely disappeared. In many contexts thereafter, this
theory was (and still is) used to justify racist practice in which
people of one religion oppress people of another on grounds of this,
or some very similar, theory. An obvious contemporary example is
Israeli expansionism. God gave all of Palestine (and more) to the Jews
long ago, so the Jews have overriding rights to all of the God-given
land, and can expel anyone else from that land on the basis of this
absolute principle. It is quibbling to object that this is not racism
because Jews are not a race.  It is religious racism.

The secularization of thought after about 1850 made it necessary to
rest racist practice in a new and different theory. Religious racism
had already established the causality by which God gives better
heredity to Christians, and this argument could now be adapted to
assert the genetic superiority of the so-called white race, grounding
this argument now in the immensely influential biological theories of
the period, notably Darwinism and (later) Mendelianism.  The genetic
superiority of the so-called white race was now believed in
axiomatically by nearly all social theorists. The cultural superiority
of Europeans (a category vaguely identified with the white race) was
also believed in, also axiomatically.  Cultural superiority was
mainly, though not entirely, considered to be an effect of racial
superiority. (I say not entirely because various other sorts of
naturalistic causality were also invoked: Europe's environment is
superior. Or Europe's cultural priority originated in the mysterious
and impenetrable mists of prehistory. Or no causation was postulated
because none was thought to be needed. For some thinkers, among them
Max Weber, all of these arguments were heaped together in a melange of
race, culture, and geography.) But it is fair to say that the
hereditary superiority of the white race was considered to be the
single most important explanati multipart fon for the white man's
obvious superiority in culture. This was the era of classical or
biological racism.

After the First World War, the theory of white biological superiority
began to lose force in the scholarly communities of most (not all)
European countries. This reflected several causes. Some were internal
to intellectual progress, in, for instance, culture theory (e.g.,
Boas, Radin), psychological theory (e.g., Lewin), philosophies
grounded in experience rather than the Cartesian-Kantian a priori
(e.g., Dewey, Whitehead, Mead). One external causes was the rise of
egalitarian values, notably socialism, which militatated against
theories of innate superiority and inferiority. A second external
cause, a very powerful one, was opposition to Nazism, which almost
necessarily meant opposition to doctrines of biological superiority
and inferiority.

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