Race and the Nation

Steve Fenton. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

The concept of race was mobilized throughout much of the nineteenth century and at least the first half of the twentieth century as an analytical tool within a science of races and a racial theory of civilizations. Since its demise as an analytical term both in biology and the social sciences (Gould 1981), it has lived on in the popular imagination of difference qua racialized difference (Essed 1991; Tyler 2004). It continues to be found as a discursive category in public spheres and in everyday language and in a sociology of ‘race and racism.’ In the latter the bio-meaning of race is denied but the social referent ‘race’ is constituted as an ideological and social formation (Omi and Winant 1986). Since both nation and race have moved through significant periodic shifts in meaning, tracing the relations between them involves tracking the positions of two moving ‘objects.’ Equally, at any given historical moment, each of the categories ‘race’ and ‘nation’ bears contradictory ideas. Thus nation carries its universalistic (or civic) meaning as well as a particularistic (or ethnic) meaning (Brubaker 1996; Eriksen 2004); race is universal as a science of the world’s peoples and civilizations (Balibar 1991), and is particular as racialized difference and communalism.

In what follows we shall trace out three formulations: race as nation, races within nations and race as civilization. Race as nation reflects the fact that theoretically, historically and ideologically, race and nation have occupied the same terrain. Races within nations shows that ‘races’ (plural) have been seen as constituting divisions within a given social formation. Race as civilization indicates that race has borne both a national and transnational sense. Thus British or French or American national interests, identities and cultures are transmuted into bearers of something beyond their national boundaries—civilization. Nationally and transnationally, race has usually been a language of domination. In the transnational civilizational frame, race-nations have been the dominant (that is, imperial) nations which have posed as bringing civilization to the dominated. This relationship of domination has been stripped of its racist language, but continues under the language of civilization—for which read freedom and democracy.

Historically, the idea of a racial foundation of civilization was probably at its height in the latter part of the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries. The idea of America or Britain as the bearers, on a global scale, of Anglo-Saxon Christian civilization was to be found both in theory and in practice. Parallel with this was the fear of the degradation of white European societies in consequence of the ‘rising tide of color’ (Stoddard 1923). By contrast, in the 1980s and up to the present Europe has been the site of a series of racialized nationalisms in which there is a fusion of the imagery of race and nation.

Universalism, Civic Ideals, and the Nation-State

State-level universalism expresses the idea that states are capable of being primary bearers of a civic morality which bestows rights and dignity on all individuals, irrespective of particularities, such as class or gender. One of the sources of this optimistic view of the modern state can be found in the political sociology of Emile Durkheim (1898; cf. Fenton 1980; Lukes 1973), wherein he argued that France and its civic institutions embodied and protected civic rights. Durkheim’s well-known attacks on German nationalism (Qui a voulu la guerre?, 1915) indicate that he distinguished his own civic love of country from imperial and chauvinistic nationalisms. If internal racism persisted, it was a symptom of social malaise. Race was not a proper category for politics, nor was it a proper category for sociology, in which it could only function as biological reductionism (Fenton 1980).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the problem of state and nation would be stated much more acutely and critically: we cannot now expect to make an unproblematic defence of state-based universalism. This is not only because so many states are a threat to their citizens rather than a protector of them. It is also because, as long as the state-nation continues to embrace the idea of its citizens as valuable, it is frequently drawn to view its own citizens as more valuable than the citizens of other states, or to view ‘others’ as having no value at all. These doubts about the nation-state are raised as questioning of the state and the nation. Wallerstein has described the nation-state as ‘a geo-cultural value,’ constituted by the belief that ‘Every state should be a nation. This is what we mean by citizenship … turning on the myth of the primacy and legitimacy of popular sovereignty within each state’ (1994:9). He goes on to argue that the ‘liberal reformism’ expressed by the sovereign state is dead and that people must find their solutions elsewhere: ‘Races, cultures, peoples have therefore a new … acute political resonance … no longer contained by a belief in the centrality of the state’ (1994: 9). Wallerstein’s critique is directed primarily at the state as no longer capable of leading a universalist reforming programme. Others have directed their critiques at the nation, viewing the liberal universalism of the nation-state as masking the particularism of the category ‘nation’ (Silverman 1992, Soysal 1995; Castles and Davidson 2000).

It is possible, thus, to argue that an attachment to nation, as a value to be preserved, necessarily sees other nations and peoples as less valuable. If my people are very important people then ipso facto other people are less important. Hence we find the contradiction that the state is the bearer of a civic universalism whilst simultaneously being founded on a particularism (Balibar 1991). Nowhere is this more starkly demonstrated than in the reporting of wars, accidents and disasters. The dead of one’s own country (or ‘side’) are counted as the war dead, enemy dead sometimes neither counted nor reported. In the 2003 Iraq war an American general was reported as saying that the United States would not be carrying out ‘body counts’ of the enemy. This was in a war in which over a thousand coalition soldiers were killed and reported, as against, on one estimate, a possible 100,000 Iraqis (Roberts et al. 2004) unreported. Accidents are only reported fully if they are near enough to home, and in both accidents and natural disasters there are usually two figures (for example, ‘Four Britons were among the thousand dead’).

Nations may not have navels (Gellner 1996) but they certainly have histories and construct histories for themselves. Somewhere in the life of a nation we tell a national story about ‘our’ distinctiveness, our excellence, fair-mindedness, bravery, and our ‘genius for democracy’; for others their shared travails form the oft-told stories, as is found in the victim state-nations of Serbia and Afrikaanerdom (Bennet 1995; Adam and Gilliome 1979). The national story, it has been argued, has all the potential of functioning in a manner parallel to racial exclusiveness (Parekh 2000). We can distinguish nation and race, and thus nationalism and racism (Mosse 1995), but we have to accept that the contemporary world, as well as much of the twentieth century, offers many examples of racism-nationalism fusions. The New Right movements of Britain (the British National Party) and continental Europe, in France (The National Front), the Netherlands and Austria, express racial ideas but tactically fly under a ‘nationalist’ banner, bowing to the utter unacceptability of avowed racialist politics (Miles 1993). In Belgium the Bloc Flams could be declared unlawful if it is found to be racist, thus requiring the party to re-shape (and re-name) itself as a populist party or a freedom party. If these are viewed as extremisms, and being the ‘extreme right,’ at the point where excessive nationalism becomes racism, then these racist nationalisms are viewed as deviations from ‘good’ (that is, civic) nationalisms. They are distortions of a benign social form. There is, however, a quite opposite view: that (extreme) nationalisms are not deviations (Billig 1995). Rather the racist core is wrapped inside the national message; the concept of nation is seen to function qua race. A traversing of the history of race, and its connections to and departures from ‘nation,’ will help to unravel this problem.

Races and Nations: Classes of People and Things

In the earliest English language usages of the concept race, in a period which undoubtedly is pre-racist, it equates not only to nation but also to any class of people, animals or even things in a metaphorical sense: hence famously, and often cited, Robert Burns was able to write of the haggis as belonging to ‘the pudding race.’ We could under this dispensation also write of the race of Scots, meaning little more than the Scottish ‘people.’ The Oxford English Dictionary (1993) offers an early meaning of race as ‘tribe, nation, or people regarded as of common stock,’ citing a description of ‘Llewelyn ap Gruffith as ‘the last Prince of Wales of the Brittish race,’ in a quote dated as 1600. A mid-eighteenth-century use refers to ‘a race of sheep in this country with four horns’ (1745) and at much the same time we find ‘the race of learned men still at their books’ (1748). Two other shades of meaning do not appear till the latter part of the eighteenth century and through the nineteenth. One is of a ‘group of several tribes’ seen as being of ‘distinct ethnical stock’; and the second, ‘one of the great divisions of mankind,’ which share physical characteristics. This last, which the Dictionary describes as a ‘disputed meaning,’ is the one closest to the science of races.

With the exception of poetic usage and in the classification of animals, the modern use of race is almost exclusively with reference to populations and peoples. Between its earliest seemingly benign descriptive meaning and the present, the word race has come to be connected with a biologized theory of the unequal qualities of the world’s peoples and populations. In the present day the association of the word ‘race’ with a world hierarchy of peoples and types is so compelling and so recent that it can no longer—in the human sphere—have a neutral or purely descriptive meaning.

Race and nation have, at different points in their volatile histories, occupied some of the same terrain. Cited uses of the words provide evidence of this sharedness, indicated by the fact that one is used to define the other. We have (above) seen race defined as ‘nation or tribe’ of common stock. Similarly a core definition of nation, with examples from the fourteenth century, is given as, ‘an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history as to form a distinct race of people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory’(Oxford English Dictionary 1993).

In these references ‘nation’ is called upon to assist in the definition of race, whilst ‘race’ is called upon to assist in the definition of nation. In Latin ‘natio’ has the general sense of breed, stock, kind, species, race as well as a more specific sense of ‘a race of people, a nation, people.’ It is related to a root meaning of birth, being a noun akin to the verb nasci, to be born. Nation and race have both had, and to some extent retain, this sense of ‘breed’ or people united by common descent. (Fenton 2003a).

Walker Connor has remarked that the language of ethnonationalism is the language of ‘blood, family, brothers, sisters, mothers, forefathers, home’ and cites Ho Chi Minh as asking Vietnamese people to remember that ‘we have the same ancestors, we are of the same family, we are all brothers and sisters, … no-one can divide the children of the same family’ (Connor 1993: 379).

Connor has indeed sought to restrict the use of the term nation to peoples who form an ethnonational community in the strong sense of a real or fictive claim to common ancestry, coupled with a powerful sentiment of belonging. In this way a ‘civic nation’ (connected to a state) is difficult to accommodate in Connor’s thinking, except in the limiting case where the people of a state also form an ethnonation. For others, the idea of nation as the citizens or ‘people’ of a (multi-ethnic) state is also a powerful one, co-existing in a kind of continuous tension with the idea of an ethnonational community. The closer the concept of nation approximates to a concept of an ethnonational community, the closer it comes to some uses of race. Balibar speaks of the schema of genealogy as the centre of the race idea, a schema transferable to the idea of nation: ‘The nation form is articulated to the modern idea of race … The idea of a racial community makes its appearance when the frontiers of kinship … are imaginarily transferred to the threshold of nationality’ (Balibar 1991: 100).

Classificatory Race, Anthropological Races: A Victorian Hierarchy

Michael Banton has done more than any other modern writer to define and illustrate the shades of meaning which have been implied in or attached to the word race, of which race as lineage, race as type and race as sub-species are among the most important (Banton 1998). In race as lineage, sections of humanity may ‘trace their histories back genealogically through the links in the ancestral chain’ (Banton 1998: 17). Descent from common ancestors becomes one element of the race idea, and uses of this kind can be traced among some of the earliest English language uses of the word race. A turning point was reached with the publication of the work of the great classifiers of the plant and animal and (subsequently) human worlds, 1800 marking the date when Cuvier began his work of exploration and science. Cuvier divided Homo sapiens into three subspecies, Caucasian, Mongolian and Ethiopian, and described ‘certaines conformations héréditaires que constituent ce qu’on nomme des races’ (cited in Banton 1998: 45). Cuvier himself defined some subsets of these grand types, and for more than a century subsequently, anthropologists would vie for creating the proper classificatory system which best accorded with physical anthropological observations. Race as descentis not the same thing as race as type, that is, as a ‘group defined by shared classificatory criteria.’ But, as Banton (1998) observes, it is not difficult to understand why the two became confused, that is, that similarity of appearance is attributed to common descent. The third great departure in nineteenth-century ideas of race, race as subspecies, stemmed from Charles Darwin, whose work effectively undermined the idea of fixed and permanent types by being essentially a theory of adaptation and change. The idea of natural selection was popularized in many fields. But the meanings associated with race as lineage, type and subspecies were not always successfully distinguished by practitioners using the word ‘race’; they could and did use the word in varying senses. Banton reaches a quite stunning conclusion:

In retrospect it can be seen that the years from 1859 to 1930 were a dead period for physical anthropology as a generalising science. No progress could be made in solving the central problems until work in other fields—mainly in genetics but also in the study of human development – had reached the point where they could bear effectively on questions about variations in the shape of skulls, and so on. (Banton 1998: 90)

This ‘dead period’ did not prevent anthropologists, more social than physical, drawing far-reaching conclusions about society, the institutional order, and beyond these the world order, from what they believed to be the lessons learned from the study of races.

Indeed, the period described above—the second half of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth century—may have been a dead period for physical anthropology but it was an extremely lively period for the racialization of society politics and the world order. Diverse but connected events and trends in this period attest to the strength of the idea of race, and to the forms of super- and subordination within which concepts of higher and lower races were expressed. Most observers of the latter half of the nineteenth century in England, for example, suggest a very considerable hardening of racially hostile attitudes (Lorimer 1978; Hall 2000), some of these attitudes stemming from the intense public debates about the Indian mutiny and the quelling of the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica; thus the attitude shift began at roughly the mid-point of Victorian England: ‘In the mid-nineteenth century, a new vigorous racist ideology challenged the humanist traditions of the anti-slavery movement and preached a new doctrine of racial supremacy’ (Lorimer 1978: 14).

This new doctrine became part of the orthodoxy of the age. In Lorimer’s words ‘belief in the superiority of one race over another was a consistent part of mid-Victorian attitudes toward man and society in general’ (1978: 203). Lorimer contended that this harshness in racial attitudes and ideas reflected a harshness in the search for confirmation of social status in an era when old statuses were losing ground and new men sought to confirm their own position:

A change in attitude occurred when the quest for gentle status within English society intensified, and the aspirants for gentility became more concerned about excluding those of questionable status. Blacks were identified by their race and history with servitude and savagery (1978: 203)

This makes Lorimer’s thesis an exact example of what Michael Banton (1998) was later to call ‘race as status.’

Racial hierarchy was a matter both of ideology and political domination: with respect to race, the Victorians practised what they preached. At this point we reach something like the apogee of the British empire (Schama 2002). On the other side of the Atlantic Americans were guided by a sense of manifest destiny (Gossett 1965; Horsman 1981), a destiny seen as the fate of a vigorous Anglo-Saxon people, towards new worlds of domination in central America and the Pacific, following their internal mastery of the American west. In internal race matters in the United States, the end of the period of reconstruction following the civil war had been superseded by a period of intensified racial exclusion in practice and in theory. The intensification of racial antagonism in Britain was more than matched by the post-reconstruction developments in the United States.

Races within Societies and Nations: Race Struggle and Class Struggle

We are most familiar with race as a formulation of internal social divisions in the modern period, where, for example, the United States as a post-slavery society, and many European nation-states as post-imperial societies, take on a multiracial character. This formation of racial differences broadly matches lines of social inequality and class position. Thus, the post-slavery African-Americans once constituted a racially demarcated segment of a rural poor and sharecropping class in the American South, and now make up a wholly disproportionate element of the urban poor (Massey and Denton 1993; Wilson 1999). Less familiar to us is a much older history of a kind of racial view of internal divisions in emerging European states, of which France and England form two prominent examples. In this respect at least, the concept of race has been closer to the concept of class than to the concept of nation; put another way, struggles between (class-based) races form part of the history of emerging European nations. Indeed Foucault (2003 [1976]) has argued that class war, having once been discursively constituted as race war, gave way to ‘races as nations’ when new nation-states adopted a race discourse to express their nationhood.

The French case, as an instance of class divisions being racially represented, is well documented (Barzun 1937), with the aristocracy portrayed as Frankish and the common people as Gallo-Roman. In Banton’s words, ‘the nobility claimed to be descendants of the Franks and derived their claim of privilege from the right of conquest’ (1977: 16). Banton suggests that it had been shown earlier (in Barzun 1937) how an ‘opposition between Teuton and Latin ran through much French historical writing from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century’ (1977: 16).

The English case takes on a similar form, with a conquering race, the Normans, forming an aristocratic class over and above the common Anglo-Saxon folk. ‘The ruling class is pictured as the descendants of an alien oppressing race, who have no right to be in the country and no claim to the obedience of Englishmen’ (Banton 1977: 17). This kind of thinking could be described as Anglo-Saxonism, as seeing English virtues as ‘derived from their Anglo-Saxon forebears,’ a view reproduced not just in political histories but also in Walter Scott’s romance Ivanhoe (Banton 1977: 20).

The theme of class rule or class war as race war constitutes a central thread in a set of lectures (1976–77) by Michel Foucault. In the lecture for 28 January he quotes a letter to Engels in which Marx writes: ‘You know very well where we found our idea of class struggle; we found it in the work of the French historians who talked about the race struggle’ (Foucault 2003: 79). In other words, ethnonations (Gauls, Franks) are represented as races and as opposing classes. Both Michael Banton and Michel Foucault, remarkably, writing at much the same time (1976–77), pick up the threads of the links between Marx, the French historians such as Thierry and the romantic novelist Scott, the last of whom was undoubtedly read by Marx. Foucault however gives the ideas of race, nation and class one further speculative twist. If ‘race war’ had constituted a discourse for class war and revolutionary struggle, then the translation of races plural into race singular signals the matching of race with nation and its transformation into a counter-revolutionary tool.

Race war was class war and as such was an idea with revolutionary potential, much approved by Foucault. Such an understanding would fit the case of the Anglo-Saxon common folk fighting to throw off the Norman yoke. The discourse of Saxonism against the Norman state is what Foucault refers to as a counterhistory of a revolutionary type. This idea of historical struggle comes to be replaced by a ‘biologico-medical’ discourse in which the purity and survival of the ‘living body of society’ is the central theme:

The theme of the binary society which is divided into two races or groups with different languages, laws and so on will be replaced by that of a society that is, in contrast, biologically monist. It is (however) threatened by … heterogeneous elements (Foucault 2003: 80)

The state therefore ‘takes over’ the discourse of race struggle and makes it its own by re-framing it as the struggle for racial purity. Thus a race (class) war in which one race is identified as the superior power over another race-class is replaced by a racist state in pursuit of race purity:

The state is no longer an instrument that one race uses against another; the state is the protector of the integrity, the superiority, and the purity of the race … racism is born at the point when the theme of racial purity replaces that of race struggle, and when counter-history begins to be transformed into a biological racism (2003: 81)

Foucault signals that this transformation, which he also refers to as the emergence of state racism, took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the Nazi regime and the Soviet regimes were to give this state racism two further twists. The Nazis partially turned state racism, the preservation of state-race purity, back towards the idea of race struggle by identifying the race enemies of the ‘Germanic race’ as the European powers, the Slavs and so on. Soviet state racism, having eliminated the class enemy, then turns upon ‘the sick, the deviant, the madman’ so that the ‘medical police eliminates class enemies as though they were racial enemies’ (2003: 83).

It is clear that these Foucauldian speculations about ‘state racism,’ only recently circulating in English translation (cf. Stoler 1995; Kelly 2004), are closely linked to his better-known ideas of bio-politics and the state. Central to his arguments is the assumption by the state of the ‘right to kill,’ discursively represented in the state’s punitive criminology and control over the body. This is matched by the state’s concern for physical reproduction and the health of the population. In this framework it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the categories of ‘society,’ ‘nation’ and ‘race.’ Nation is in part represented as a discursive myth about the historical origins of the people, as opposed races or as a single race, or as a dominant race; it is in part represented as ‘the population’ which is the subject of bio-politics, that is, it must be preserved, ‘defended,’ purified and maintained in a healthy condition. Once the state takes on the race myth, then ‘nation,’ ‘people’ and ‘population’ are subsumed within this discourse. For our purposes we find in Foucault an elision of these discursive categories. Similarly, in Balibar’s account, society is ‘nationalized,’ that is, represented as a nation. And, crucially, the nation is racialized, or ‘ethnicized’:

The symbolic kernel of the idea of race is the schema of genealogy … the idea that the filiation of individuals transmits from generation to generation a substance both biological and spiritual, and thereby inscribes them in a temporal community known as kinship. As soon as national ideology enunciates the proposition that individuals belonging to the same people are interrelated we are in the presence of this second mode of ethnicization. (Balibar 1991: 100)

What Balibar terms ethnicization is the process of representing the nation-state as a community. He asks himself how ethnicity can be produced and appear natural. His answer is that ‘there are two competing routes … language and race’ of which ‘race’ is the second mode of ethnicization described above.

Tacit Majorities and Multi-Ethnicity

In the period identified as the high point of racist thought, the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth, mono-racial discourses were pre-eminent in societies such as the United States, Germany and Britain. Despite the multiracial character of the United States, the category constituted the tacit majority which was taken to represent the American people. As Jacobson (2001) has admirably demonstrated, successive waves of European immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were initially categorized in some racial, national or religious grouping which marked their social inferiority and class position. Anglo-Saxon was a preferred category of ‘race’ as was Protestant of religion. If ‘the American people’ was not precisely conceived as mono-racial or mono-ethnic, White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant stood for a norm from which others were a deviation. This was a code of race, ethnicity and culture as described just before the mid-twentieth century by Lloyd Warner (Fenton 2003a). Race and nation coincided to the extent that the white Anglo-Saxon model was the dominant norm. Constituted within this white nationhood we find a system of racial subjugation, with the subordinated black Americans confined to an inferior status.

There is, in all such cases, an acknowledgement of a multiracial population, coupled with an equation of a dominant population with ‘the nation.’ This dominance is not wholly phrased within a language of racial purity, and after international revulsion at the genocides of the German Nazi regime, the explicit discourse of ‘race’ has receded. Hence we have the concept of dominant ethnicity to signify the way in which a particular ethno-racial and cultural category is imagined as the nation. On the face of things, the concepts of race and racial difference—and certainly ‘racial purity’—are much less negotiable than the concept of culture, although it has been argued by some that a ‘new racism’ predicated on an exclusivist cultural imagination functions in much the same way as an ‘old racism’ (Balibar 1991).

One of the most important sites for the efflorescence of the nationalisms of new nations was the dismantling of the empires of the European powers in the three decades subsequent upon the end of World War II. In many of these cases, nationalisms had been anti-imperial, and, in the post-independence phase, nation-building. Two circumstances impeded a thoroughgoing ethno-cultural or ethno-racial as against ‘territorial’ (cf. Brubaker 1996) nationalism in many of these instances. Frequently, as Brubaker observes, the inheritance of competitive European imperialisms had been that ethno-cultural regions did not match the territorial boundaries of the new states, especially in Africa. In other cases, the demand for labour in colonies had often led to the importation of labouring populations whose descendants formed the ethno-racial plurality of the postcolonial states. In the British empire these were usually Indian labourers imported into labour-intensive (plantation, mining, railroad building) works in colonies outside India; such was the case in Fiji, Malaysia, East Africa and countries of the Caribbean. Both colonially and postcolonially there was a certain matching of class and the division of labour with ethno-racial group. In Fiji and Malaysia the relative exclusion of the ‘native’ population from the modernizing economic sector became the basis of a postcolonial fear of losing ground ‘in our own country.’ In Fiji the taukei movement as an expression of indigenous Fijianism is a persistent obstacle to bi-ethnic or non-ethnic Fijian nationhood. In Malaysia the concept of Bangsa Melayu (the Malay people) has been mobilized as the foundation of Malaysian nationality, but has partly given way to Bangsa Malasia, the concept of a post-ethnic Malaysian citizenship.

Transnational Hierarchies: Race as Civilization

In much of what has preceded in this chapter we have examined the fit of race with nation, or the racialization of nationhood; we have also looked at ‘races within nations,’ where class divisions are expressed in a racial language, within a framework of a dominant ethno-race. At several points in this debate we have hinted at a transnational dimension of a racial hierarchy, in particular in the colonial relationship, of racial dominance being expressed across societies, peoples and states. The concluding task is to make explicit this transnational dimension of race. For it is clear that in the case of all the (European) imperial nations, and including in the present age, the United States, internal class-race hierarchies have been matched by a nation-over-nations hierarchy. This inter-nation or people-over-people inequality has historically been expressed in a language of race and civilization.

This was quite explicitly the case at the height of the racial age. The same anthropologists who tried to establish world racial classifications and apply them to internal differences, also saw racial difference as a key to explaining levels of civilization. In 1873 in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, the paper read by J. G. Avery was recorded in minute form. His main message was that ‘racial characteristics are not the result of accident, habit, climate … but are physical, material, and indelible’ (1873: 63). He goes on to classify races in three divisions: civilized, semi-civilized and savage. Thence he sets himself three questions, all of which will subsequently be answered in the negative:

  • Has any race now civilized descended from savages or any savage race become civilized?
  • Has any civilized race degenerated into partial or total barbarism?
  • Has any partially or wholly civilized race exchanged its civilization for another? (Avery 1873: 63)

Others present questioned what Avery had argued. Were not the ancestors of the modern British as ‘savage as any uncultivated races of the present day’? Avery remained unconvinced and ended by arguing that the failure of progress of the uncivilized must cast doubt on Darwinian theory:

If it cannot be shown that any race of men have emerged from barbarism to civilization, it will be very difficult to prove that according to Darwinian theory, they have risen from the state of monkeys to that of men. (Avery 1873: 67)

Only a few years later, at a conference on the Native Races of Australia, James Bonwick (1887) read a paper, the meeting (held in June 1886) being chaired by Francis Galton. The opening remarks show howphysical the geographical and anthropological interest was—Avery above had spoken of race as ‘physical, material, and indelible.’ Bonwick begins by a description of the aborigines’ colour, height and strength, ‘which is reputed below that of the English. Furthermore ‘an odour, somewhat resembling that emitted by a goat, has been detected’ and ‘the breast of the female is pendulous in early motherhood’ (Bonwick 1887: 201). Hair, chin, thick skull, nose and teeth all receive attention but the comments on the shape of head are remarkable for their specificity: ‘A pyramidal shape of the head has been compared to that in old Gaulish reindeer-hunters and the boat-headed Brochmen of ancient north-east Scotland’ (Bonwick 1887: 202). Like many commentators on the position of native peoples at this period, Bonwick believed that the Australian aborigines were on the verge of extinction. Paucity of birth was one sign of decadence, he reports. Decadence—and degradation, degeneracy, decay—were characteristic and crucial terms of this commentary. ‘The end is approaching,’ he concludes. Bonwick, like Avery, suggests that, for a time and in small measure, the native people acquire some attributes of ‘civilization,’ only for it, under pressure, to be extinguished. So, Bonwick reports:

Civilization and religion have advanced for a time. But the ploughman tires, and takes to the hunt again. The scholar becomes a drunkard, or enters the Native Police. The convert lapses, or dies. The race, as a race, is not rising. All surroundings are too much for the man. The weight of our civilization crushes him. (Bonwick 1887: 207)

By contrast with Avery, Bonwick does express some expectation that the Australian natives are ‘improvable’ and acknowledges that the decline of the race may be partly on account of the denial of their rights and lands. Anthropological views, and the political prescriptions taken from them, were not uniform, but the central tendency was to identify ‘lower races’ with lack of civilization. J. W. Powell in the American Anthropologist of 1888 again asks whether it is possible for peoples to ‘acquire culture and lose it—and become degraded.’ He, like others, routinely refers to ‘civilised travelers among the lower races of mankind’ (1888: 99). In 1919 George S. Painter writing on ‘The Future of the American Negro’ advises us that: ‘the hothouse plant may bring more immediate and brilliant results, because of forced and abnormal conditions, but at the expense of hardiness and vitality. It is proverbially true that primitive peoples cannot stand an enforced civilization’ (Painter 1919: 410).

Holmes (1910) similarly writes of the ‘Problems of the American Race’ and predicts the ‘complete absorption or blotting out of the red race’ leading to a final reduction of all peoples to a common race type. He continues, ominously: ‘if peaceful amalgamation fails, extinction of the weaker by less gentle means will do the work … The final battle of the races for possession of the world is already on’ (Holmes 1910: 161)

Both Painter and Holmes are concerned about America and the American Negro’ and ‘red race’ but the belief that ‘weaker peoples’ would fall to the stronger more advanced races, was a universal one, applicable across all continents. Holmes concludes his comments by referring to ‘the battle for possession of the world,’ race struggle on a global scale.

The anthropological views recorded above were concentrated in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. They carry an academic tone, notable for their confident scientific attitude. A fine example comes in a review of a book on the ‘races of Europe’ by the Librarian of the Musée d’histoire in Paris, M. Deniker. Largely agreeing with Deniker, the reviewer (Ripley 1899) nonetheless points to the author’s failure to emphasize ‘the extremely brachycephalous spot at the mouth of the Scheldt’ and notes a difference of three and a half points between Deniker’s (77) cephalic index for Denmark and Beddoes’s published index (80.5). If Deniker were right this would make for an index that was ‘strongly Teutonic.’ What confidence in the miracle of the cephalic index! If they were aware of them, Deniker and Beddoes may have been alarmed by Lapouge’s earlier comments:

I am convinced that in the next century millions will cut each others’ throats because of one or two degrees more or less of cephalic index. This is the sign by which people will recognise one another as belonging to the same nationalities and by which the most sentimental will assist in the wholesale slaughter of peoples. (1887, cited in Banton 1998: 91)

But as well as the scientific method there were countless examples of the uses of race science for political prescription. We referred earlier to the debates surrounding the Indian Mutiny and the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, which triggered bitter disputes, laced with racial attitudes. Even earlier than this, Thomas Carlyle had published his vituperative attack on philanthropists and ‘negrophiles’ for their failure to recognize the indolence of the Negro and the threat he represented to white civilization. (His essay was first published in 1849 (in Fraser’s magazine) as ‘The Negro Question’ and reprinted in 1853 with the word ‘nigger’ replacing negro.) The language of Carlyle’s essay (1971) is astonishingly crude. He was, it seems, obsessed by pumpkins, so frequently does he refer to the ‘jaws of Quashee’ eating them. His racial views could be applied to national questions and racial purity at home, or could be applied internationally. This was truly a world perspective in which his conviction of the racial superiority of whites could be read into his views on white degeneracy at home (the Irish), the plight of planters in the Caribbean (bedevilled by the Demerara Nigger), or the impending conflict (that is, the coming civil war) in the United States.

In the early twentieth century, just after the Great War, two books appeared which proclaimed the superiority of the Nordic white European peoples, and trajected their views beyond nations and onto civilization and the global condition. Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race had appeared in the United States in 1918, pronouncing that ‘race was everything.’ Similar in style and import was Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in New York in 1923: ‘All over the civilized world racial values are diminishing, and the logical end of this disgenic process is racial bankruptcy and the collapse of civilization’ (Stoddard 1923: 303).

Conclusions: Nationalizing Race, Globalizing Race

The pre-modern meanings (that is, prior to the biologizing of race) of race and nation converged on the sense of ‘a people.’ These ‘peoples’ may on the one hand form a nation and may on the other hand represent divisions in a society, as instanced in the distinction between Gauls and Franks in France, and between Saxons and Normans in England. In the modern period the meaning of race as a unitary body of people, physically and culturally, is nationalized, that is incorporated into the concept of nation. Peoples which are self-evidently multiracial (like the United States) nonetheless adopt ‘a dominant race’ framework within which others are inferiorized. These inferiorized groups are also overwhelmingly associated with low status and class position, and with social disorder, failure and deficiency. In the social theorizing of nation and race, the universalist (civic) paradigm of nation departs from the equation of race and nation and attempts to replace race-nation exclusiveness with a multiethnic inclusiveness. But as, in different ways, Foucault and Balibar argue, there is a constant pressure towards racializing (or particularizing) nation, both in its internal representations, and in the control of borders and inter-state relations. Thus both historically and theoretically it is possible to discern race as nation, and races within nations, as divisions within them. Finally, we have suggested, the theory of races becomes a global paradigm of the dominance of a particular civilization seen as civilization itself. Not uncommonly, this civilization is seen to be in peril, by decay from within, or threat from without. The theme of race as civilization, or indeed civilization as race, was to be found in scholarly and popular works in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, from which many of our examples have been drawn. In the twenty-first century, in a de-racialized form, the language of civilization, survival and threat is repeatedly evoked in international relations. The United States, from its position of global economic, military and cultural domination, continues to speak of Western civilization, civilization itself and the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ which are being defended by military means. Nation and civilization are stripped of biological language but live on as key terms in a tacit politico-cultural hierarchy.

It would require another chapter to discuss one crucial manifestation of ‘racial solidarity,’ that is race as resistance, where suppressed or inferiorized groups build an oppositional sense of peoplehood, in a fight for equality and liberation. This raises two questions which can only be hinted at here. First, is the language of race capable of being transformed into a message of liberation without replicating the race chauvinism which it opposes? Second, is the de-racialization of the language of state, inter-state and global-civilizational politics a real or pyrrhic victory? Wallerstein (1994) has argued that the ‘universalist’ response to multi-culturalism (as a progressive force) masks a deep conservatism. But does Wallerstein really believe that multicultural politics poses any real threat to the world capitalist order at the centre of his own analysis (cf. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999)? On the second issue, the argument that de-racialization has been a limited gain does appear to be a deeply pessimistic view. However, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that future generations might look back on the contemporary ideologies of freedom and democracy (as civilizational politics) in much the same way that we now look back on the language of race.