When Did Racism Begin? The Fractious Historical Debate ExplainedHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, racism, Modernity
Vanita Seth is an associate professor of politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Does racism have its roots in the ancient and premodern past, or is it a product of Western modernity? That question has animated a significant body of recent scholarship on ancient, medieval, and early-modern texts and cultural practices. In his 2015 editorial introduction to a journal issue on race and the Middle Ages, the medievalist Cord Whitaker wrote that the “question of race’s relevance is solved: yes, the Middle Ages have been thoroughly raced.” But has it?
The recent scholarship on medieval “racism” resolutely rejects, and seeks to overturn, a prior consensus, broadly dating from the 1990s, that the concept of race is both modern and Western. What constituted “modernity” was up for grabs — depending on the scholar, it could be as early as the 1700s or as late as the 19th century — but there was general agreement that what we witness in ancient and premodern history is xenophobia, prejudice, and ethnocentrism, but not racism. The origins of racism, these scholars argued, were tethered to the rise of centralized states or nationalism or anthropology or biological science — in other words, the appendages of modernity.
But by 2019, the Trump presidency, the specter of white supremacy, and increasingly tense and ugly exchanges on social media among medieval scholars (as well as between scholars and alt-right pundits), ensured that the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Mich., was so politically charged and fractious that it made the front page of The New York Times. At the core of these divisions — both at the conference and, more broadly, in the published scholarship — is the fraught question of whether race and racism are viable categories in the study of the European premodern.
For the scholars who answer that question in the affirmative, the old consensus — that race is a uniquely modern construct — is a political, historical, and scholarly provocation. From this perspective, the language of racism (as opposed to ethnocentrism, for example) is necessary to make legible the prejudices of the ancient and premodern past — and the atrocities committed in their name. It was historically legitimate to speak of ancient, medieval, or early-modern racism because discrimination was directed at “racialized” groups, for instance, Jews and Moors.
The scholarship thus produced mobilizes contemporary politics — insisting on the relevance of the medieval past to the racial configurations of our current moment — but it does so through an appeal to a mid-20th-century historical methodology: the history of ideas.
For the 20th-century historian Arthur Lovejoy, one of the great architects of the history of ideas, “to trace an idea” through history involves identifying “behind the surface-dissimilarities” a recognizable coherence, that is, the continuity of “old elements,” “which holds the mass together,” thus permitting us to “see the real units, the effective working ideas, which, in any given case, are present.” Ideas, to be sure, will be shaped, reconfigured, modified, and altered through the course of history, and discerning such shifts is a crucial component of the historian’s task. It involves knowing “as far as may be known, the thoughts that have been widely held among men on matters of common human concernment, to determine how these thoughts have arisen, combined, interacted with, or counteracted, one another.” But this task is enabled only by the prior recognition of an essential form, a “unit-idea” sufficiently intact and retaining enough cohesion and familial features that its constancy over time (“through all the provinces of history in which it figures”) can be the object of historical narration. Tossed and battered by the waves of time, unit-ideas always rise to the surface revealing an essential constancy of form, a resilient continuity, and a conceptual durability that the particularity of history fails to erode.
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