The interwar years gave antiracism a new lease on life, thus reversing a long decline that had begun in the late 19th century. This reversal was driven largely by two events: the acrimonious debate over U.S. immigration in the mid-1920s and Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. Many people, especially academics, were convinced of the need for an uncompromising war on “racism”—a word just entering use as a synonym for Nazism.
The war on racism began in the social sciences, especially through the efforts of John B. Watson in psychology and the Boasian triad in anthropology (Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead). After initially holding a more balanced view, these social scientists began to argue that genes contribute little to differences in behavior and mental makeup, especially between human populations.
In addition to the political context, there was also the broader cultural setting. The 1920s brought a flowering of African and African-American influences on popular culture, as seen in the Harlem Renaissance, the emergence of jazz, and the infatuation with art nègre. African Americans were viewed no longer as an embarrassment but as a source of excitement and novelty. In this role, black singers, musicians, and artists would lead the way in mobilizing mainstream support for the war on racism, such as Marian Anderson in her concert at the Lincoln Memorial and Paul Robeson through his political activism.
Would things have turned out differently if the immigration debate of the 1920s had been less acrimonious or if Hitler had not come to power? The most widespread answer seems to be “no”—sooner or later, men and women of reason would have broken free of the ideological straightjacket imposed by racism, social Darwinism, and hereditarianism. Franz Boas said as much in an interview he gave in 1936: “I will try to clean up some of the nonsense that is being spread about race those days. I think the question is particularly important for this country, too; as here also people are going crazy” (JTA, 1942).
How true is this view? Was the war on racism a healthy reaction to a mad ideology?
First, the word “racism” scarcely existed in its current sense back then. Continuous use dates from the 1920s and was initially linked to the rise of Nazism, the word itself being perhaps a translation of the German Volkismus, i.e., blood and soil nationalism. Its use in a broader sense is largely postwar and has rarely been positive or even neutral. It’s an insult. The racist must be re-educated and, if necessary, eliminated.
If the racist is no longer an ignorant person but rather a villain, and if he is defined by his impulses or negative passions (hate, aggressive intolerance, etc.), then the evil is in him, and his case seems hopeless. The antiracist’s task is no longer to lead the “racist” towards goodness, but rather to isolate him as a carrier of evil. The “racist” must be singled out and stigmatized. (Taguieff, 2013)
The term “social Darwinism” likewise came into use well after the period when it was supposedly dominant:
Bannister (1988) and Bellomy (1984) established that “social Darwinism” was all but unknown to English-speaking readers before the Progressive Era. Hodgson’s (2004) bibliometric analysis identified a mere eleven instances of “social Darwinism” in the Anglophone literature (as represented by the JSTOR database) before 1916. Before 1916 “social Darwinism” had almost no currency whatsoever […].
“Social Darwinism” did not acquire much greater currency between 1916 and 1943; a mere 49 articles and reviews employ the term.(Leonard, 2009)
The term did not become commonplace until 1944 with the publication of Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter. Since then it has appeared 4,258 times in the academic literature. Like “racism” it has seldom been used positively or neutrally:
“Social Darwinism” had always been an epithet. From its very beginnings, reminds Bellomy (1984, p. 2), “social Darwinism” has been “heavily polemical, reserved for ideas with which a writer disagreed.” (Leonard, 2009).
The term “hereditarianism” likewise entered common use long after its supposed golden age. According to Google Scholar, “hereditarian” and “hereditarianism” appear 0 times in the literature between 1890 and 1900, 6 times between 1900 and 1910, 8 times between 1910 and 1920, 18 times between 1920 and 1930, and 52 times between 1930 and 1940. In most cases, these terms seem to have been used pejoratively.
Thus, all three words entered common use when the beliefs they described were no longer dominant. More to the point, these words were more often used by opponents than by proponents, sometimes exclusively so.
Of course, an ideology doesn’t need a name to exist. Many people engaged in racial thinking without bothering to label it. As Barkan (1992, p. xi) observes: “Prior to that time [the interwar years] social differentiation based upon real or assumed racial distinctions was thought to be part of the natural order.” It is difficult, however, to describe such thinking as an ideology, in the sense of a belief-system that seeks obedience to certain views and to a vision of what-must-be-done. William McDougall (1871-1938) was a prominent figure in psychology and is now described as a “scientific racist,” yet his views showed little of the stridency we normally associate with ideology:
Racial qualities both physical and mental are extremely stable and persistent, and if the experience of each generation is in any manner or degree transmitted as modifications of the racial qualities, it is only in very slight degree, so as to produce any moulding effect only very slowly and in the course of generations.
I would submit the principle that, although differences of racial mental qualities are relatively small, so small as to be indistinguishable with certainty in individuals, they are yet of great importance for the life of nations, because they exert throughout many generations a constant bias upon the development of their culture and their institutions. (Mathews, 1925, p. 151)
Similarly, the anthropologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) is described today as a “social Darwinist,” even though the term was never applied to him during his lifetime or long after. He did believe in the struggle for existence: “Before the tribunal of nature a man has no more right to life than a rattlesnake; he has no more right to liberty than any wild beast; his right to pursuit of happiness is nothing but a license to maintain the struggle for existence…” (Sumner, 1913, p. 234). He saw such struggle, however, as an unfortunate constraint and not as a normative value. Efforts to abolish it would simply transfer it to other people:
The real misery of mankind is the struggle for existence; why not “declare” that there ought not to be any struggle for existence, and that there shall not be any more? Let it be decreed that existence is a natural right, and let it be secured in that way. If we attempt to execute this plan, it is plain that we shall not abolish the struggle for existence; we shall only bring it about that some men must fight that struggle for others. (Sumner, 1913, p. 222).
Yet his belief in the struggle for existence was not associated with imperialism and “might makes right.” Indeed, he considered imperialism a betrayal of America’s traditions and opposed the Spanish-American War and America’s subsequent annexation of the Philippines. A class of plutocrats would, he felt, come into being and foment imperialist wars in the hope of securing government subsidies and contracts (Wikipedia, 2015).
Herbert John Fleure (1877-1969), a geographer and anthropologist, is similarly described today as a “scientific racist” who saw racial differentiation taking place even at the micro level of small communities:
[…] Fleure accepted the reality of racial differentiation even in Europe, where all the populations exhibit types of diverse origins living and maintaining those type characters side by side in spite of intermarriage and of absence of any consciousness of diversity. These various types, each with mental aptitudes and limitations that are in some degree correlated with their physique, make diverse contributions to the life of each people. (Barkan, 1992, p. 60)
Nonetheless, he condemned the “folly” of confusing such differentiation with language and nation states (Barkan, 1992, pp. 60-64). He also became a strong opponent of Nazism and attacked anti-Semitism in his lectures and articles (Kushner, 2008).
I could give other examples, but why bother? There was a spectrum of racial thinking that encompassed a wide range of scholars, many of whom were sympathetic to the plight of minorities. This variability is hardly surprising, given that racial thinking of one sort or another was typical of most educated people who came of age before the 1930s. Indeed, we are regularly treated to the discovery that some respected person, like Winston Churchill or Albert Schweitzer, was, in fact, a racist. This historical reality is embarrassing not just because the people in question are still role models, but also because it undermines the notion that antiracism freed us from an ideological straitjacket.
Words like “racism,” “social Darwinism,” and “hereditarianism” create the impression that a single monolithic ideology prevailed before the triumph of antiracism. Actually, the truth was almost the reverse. There was initially a wide spectrum of beliefs, as is normally the case before one belief pushes out its rivals and imposes its vision of reality. Antiracism triumphed because it was more ideological than its rivals; it possessed a unity of purpose that enabled it to neutralize one potential opponent after another. Often, the latter were unaware of this adversarial relationship and assumed they were dealing with a friendly ally.
History could have played out differently. Initially a tool in the struggle against Nazi Germany, antiracism became critically dependent on a postwar context of decolonization and Cold War rivalry. Without this favorable context, it would have had much more trouble seizing the moral high ground and locking down normal discourse. Its revival would have likely stalled at some point.
A world without antiracism could have still brought in laws against discrimination, particularly for the basics of life like housing and employment. But such efforts would have been driven not by ideology but by a pragmatic wish to create a livable society, like modern-day Singapore. In this alternate world, rational people would act rationally. They would not, for instance, be blindly sticking to antiracist principles—and insisting that everyone else do likewise—in the face of the demographic tsunami now sweeping out of Africa.
Social scientists in particular would be acting more rationally. They would not have to assume human sameness and arrange the facts accordingly. They would not face the same pressure to ignore embarrassing data, to choose the less likely explanation, and to keep quiet until … until when? They would be free to work within the earlier, and more fruitful, paradigm that viewed human differences as a product of genes, culture, and gene-culture interaction.
Such a paradigm could have absorbed findings on learning and conditioned reflexes, perhaps even better than the one we have now. Indeed, the current paradigm has trouble explaining why the effects of conditioning disappear at different rates, depending on what one has been conditioned to do. For instance, people lose a conditioned fear of snakes and spiders much more slowly than a conditioned fear of electrical outlets, even though the latter are more dangerous in current environments (Cook et al., 1986; Ohman et al., 1986). Conditioning, like learning in general, seems to interact not with a blank slate, but rather with pre-existing mental algorithms that have modifiable and non-modifiable sections.
Of course, this is not how history played out. We are living under an ideology that claims to be an anti-ideology while demanding the sort of conformity normally found in totalitarian societies. In the past, this contradiction largely went unnoticed, perhaps because the full extent of the antiracist project remained poorly known. Or perhaps people chose not to know. Increasingly, however, even the pretence of not knowing is becoming difficult. As French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut wrote, “the lofty idea of the ‘war on racism’ is gradually turning into a hideously false ideology. And this anti-racism will be for the 21st century what communism was for the 20th century” (Caldwell, 2009).
Barkan, E. (1992). The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars, Cambridge University Press.
Caldwell, C. (2009). Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, Penguin.
JTA (1942). Dr. Franz Boas, Debunker of Nazi Racial Theories, Dies in New York, December 23
Kushner, T. (2008). H. J. Fleure: a paradigm for inter-war race thinking in Britain, Patterns of Prejudice, 42
Leonard, T.C. (2009). Origins of the myth of social Darwinism: The ambiguous legacy of Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization,71, 37-51
Mathews, B. (1925). The Clash of Colour. A Study in the Problem of Race. London: Edinburgh House Press.
Ohman et al. (1986). Face the Beast and Fear the Face: Animal and Social Fears as Prototypes for Evolutionary Analyses of Emotion,Psychophysiology, 23, 123-145.
Sumner, W.G. (1913). Earth-hunger and other essays, ed. Albert Galloway Keller, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Taguieff, P-A. (2013). Dictionnaire historique et critique du racisme, Paris: PUF.
Wikipedia (2015). William Graham Sumner