Culture and Society

When did racism begin?
Answered by Jacob Silverman
  • Jacob Silverman

    Jacob Silverman

  1. It's difficult to cite a particular beginning for racism, in part because it is a nebulous concept open to varying interpretations. Just think of how often some public figure is accused of making racist remarks,  only to have other people jump to his or her defense, saying that the comment wasn't racist at all. Racism is also a concept very much tied in with modern Western history and all of its attendant tragedies. The philosopher and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah traces the origin of the term "racism" to the 1930s, in response to Nazi persecution of German Jews [source: Appiah].

    But human beings have been divided along tribal, ethnic or political lines for millennia. These sorts of divisions inevitably led to the demonization of others, and inculcating prejudicial attitudes towards other peoples has long served leaders as a useful pretext for war or simply for boosting a community's sense of self-worth in comparison to others.

    In that sense, one can see "proto-racist" attitudes in the widespread persecution of European Jews in the late Middle Ages, particularly in the Spanish Inquisition. During this period, anti-Jewish feelings coalesced into something more deeply held and violent, as Jews were seen by Spanish authorities as inherently evil, deserving of expulsion or death. Although the term racism didn't then exist, one can see it here as it's typically defined -- in the view of historian George Frederickson, hatred based on "differences that [a group] believes are hereditary and unalterable [source: Miller]."

    These attitudes recur throughout history's most infamous episodes of racist behavior, most of which accompanied by horrific violence: the African slave trade; the Holocaust; Apartheid; and the lynching of blacks in the American south. But they did not manifest out of nothing; in terms of precedence and ideological underpinnings, one can find the history of racism influenced by the Spanish Inquisition, Darwin's work on evolution and Western powers' colonization of the Americas, Africa and Southeast Asia. Although more emotional than logical, racism remains an enduring phenomenon, capable of adapting to the historical moment.

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