Friday, July 13, 2018

Mark Koyama — Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?

Weekend reading.
Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie set off a heated online debate with a series of tweets[1] claiming “the concept of race was birthed by the Enlightenment,”[2] which then sparked a full-length article fleshing out his position.[3] His key claim is that colonialism, slavery, imperialism, and racism in general were not “incidental developments or the mere remnants of earlier prejudice.”
Race as we understand it—a biological taxonomy that turns physical difference into relations of domination—is a product of the Enlightenment. Racism as we understand it now, as a socio-political order based on the permanent hierarchy of particular groups, developed as an attempt to resolve the fundamental contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery. Those who claim the Enlightenment’s mantle now should grapple with that legacy and what it means for our understanding of the modern world. (Bouie 2018)
Bouie draws on the works of several distinguished scholars on this topic, including George Fredrickson, Ivan Hannaford, Emmanuel Eze, Robert Bernasconi, and Charles Mills.
Nevertheless, these arguments and the support Bouie received from numerous scholars on Twitter was surprising to me. In my research on religious intolerance I’d encountered detailed discussions of racism emerging in 15th century Spain. And I was aware of literatures on ethnocentrism in Song dynasty China, on racialist categorizations in the middle ages and in the classical antiquity.
But given the boldness of Bouie’s claim and the support he received, his challenge to “grapple with” the troubling aspects of the Enlightenment seems worth taking up. If reflection on the long history of racial prejudice, on the diverse legacies of the Enlightenment, and the troubled relationship between the humanities and the sciences today interests you, read on.[4]
The questions to be addressed
What does it mean to say that racism is a “product of the Enlightenment,” or that it was “birthed by,” or had its foundations “laid by key thinkers like Locke and Kant”? It’s clear that Bouie doesn’t simply mean coining the word “racism”. For example, antisemitism is a late 19th century word. No one before the late 19th century identified as an antisemite, but claiming that antisemitism didn’t exist before then is absurd, and clearly not what Bouie is getting at.[5]
The claim made by historians of childhood that modern western notions of childhood became prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries is, to the best of my knowledge, a credible one. In what follows, I will assume that Bouie meant modern racism was a “product” of the Enlightenment in much the same way that historians meant modern childhood is a “product” of the 18th and 19th centuries. Though there is clear continuity with past phenomena, there are also enough distinct characteristics to speak of something singular.
My critique of Bouie will proceed as follows: first, I will establish the universal nature of prejudice against outgroup and advance a speculative hypothesis on the dynamics of how this manifested in complex agrarian societies in general, exploring examples in antiquity, early Islamic history, and Medieval Iberian antisemitism. These sections will seek to lay crucial context rather than directly contradict Bouie, who acknowledges examples such as these.[6]
Once this is established, I will proceed to the key points which undermine the specific culpability of the Enlightenment: the universalism of its main thinkers, and the environmental and institutional theories of racial and ethnic differentiation which made up the bulk of their writings on the matter (with important exceptions such as David Hume and especially Immanuel Kant). And finally, the critique of the Enlightenment passes over the role of the Counter-Enlightenment, which was particularistic and directly involved in the development of a biologically-based “scientific” racism.…
Liberal Currents
Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?
Mark Koyama | Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the W. Glenn Campbell and Rita Ricardo-Campbell Fellow at the Hoover Institution for the 2017-2018 academic year
ht Tyler Cowen  at Marginal Revolution

See also

Bracing Views
The Races of Man
W.J. Astore

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