The word “racist” is so common today that you may have trouble imagining a time when neither the word nor the concept existed. Yet such a time did exist, and not so long ago.
The first appearances of this word seem to date to the 1920s, in both English and French. At that time “racist” was a translation of the German völkischand, as such, referred to the “blood and soil” nationalism so prevalent in Germany and in other countries that looked to Germany as a model (Taguieff, 2013, p. 1528). It remained a rather esoteric term during the interwar years, being narrow not only in its range of meaning but also in the political spectrum of those who used it—essentially the left, if not the far left.(1)
All of this changed with the Second World War. At first, the word “racist” was used mainly in postwar Europe—as part of the effort to root out ex-Nazis and their collaborators. Bit by bit, however, it became more widely used elsewhere, particularly in the contexts of race relations in the United States and colonialism in Africa and Asia. It also began to appear in the emerging context of Afro-Asian immigration to Western Europe. “Racists” were no longer Nazis. They could in fact be people who had valiantly fought against Nazi Germany.
Yet there were certain unspoken limits. By and large, this word was not directed against non-Europeans. Even today, it just doesn’t sound right when applied to a man with brown or black skin, no matter how intolerant he might be. A racist should at least look like a Nazi.
Besides becoming broader in meaning, this term also became less descriptive and more pejorative. It took on a highly emotional intent, even more so than words like “bastard!” or “liar!” Pierre-André Taguieff describes this transformation:
[…] over the last thirty years of the 20th century, the word “racism” became an insult in everyday language (“racist!” “dirty racist!”), an insult derived from the racist insult par excellence (“dirty nigger!”, “dirty Jew!”), and given a symbolic illegitimating power as strong as the political insult “fascist!” or “dirty fascist!”. To say an individual is “racist” is to stigmatize him, to assign him to a heinous category, and to abuse him verbally […] The “racist” individual is thus expelled from the realm of common humanity and excluded from the circle of humans who are deemed respectable by virtue of their intrinsic worth. Through a symbolic act that antiracist sociologists denounce as a way of “racializing” the Other, the “racist” is in turn and in return categorized as an “unworthy” being, indeed as an “unworthy” being par excellence. For, as people say, what can be worse than racism? (Taguieff, 2013, p. 1528)
What can be worse than racism? The question would have been incomprehensible a hundred years ago—and not just because the word didn’t exist yet. The underlying concept didn’t exist. People did not consider it sinful to prefer the company of their kith and kin. Nor did they consider it unfair to judge non-kith and non-kin by a higher standard. Such individuals existed outside one’s moral community and could not be trusted to the same degree as someone within it. So where’s the unfairness? And where’s the sin?
1. The first author to use the term raciste seems to have been Leo Trotsky in his work Histoire de la revolution russe (1930), in which he applied it to traditionalist Russian slavophiles. During the late 1930s, and with the rise of Nazism, it became much more negative than the German term it had originally translated, so much so that a German anti-Nazi, Magnus Hirschfeld, introduced it into German for his work Rassismus. His book then appeared in English translation under the title Racism (1938). This was the first appearance of the term “racism” in the title of a book, and it was really at that point in time that it entered the language of academics and political activists (Taguieff, 2013, p. 844; Wikipedia, 2013).
Taguieff, P-A. (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: PUF.
Wikipedia (2013). Racisme – Étymologie http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racisme#cite_note-10