It has been said before and it cannot be said often enough: The Nazis ruined the conversation about race. Because they sucked all the evil unto themselves, they erased any other kind. Bring up the problem of racism in any individual or institution and the response you get is, “How dare you! Are you accusing us of being Nazis? That is malicious and unfair. We utterly deny the charge.” But there are other kinds of racism besides the Nazi kind.
It is possible to quietly create a world of putting down any culture that does not celebrate triumphalism. Racism can sneak up on you. It seeps into our way of seeing the world. It feels comfortable, like a second skin. It’s not a virulent hatred and soon it’s normal to think: One culture is superior and all the others are doomed to extinction. Nothing wrong with that, especially if the dominant culture brings so many benefits. At its most successful, even the allegedly inferior cultures come to agree. Resistance is futile. The culture that has been given second-rate status lapses into a coma. And when that happens, the superior people say it was inevitable and it was deserved, otherwise there would have been more resistance.
Quiet racism is mostly unconscious and invisible (or almost so). For these reasons, it is difficult to combat. People are reluctant to acknowledge anything that is not obviously out there and open to view. It is easier to pretend it is not there.
Darwin was not strident about his racism. Not generally. Occasionally he slips up and lets slip a more brutal remark. There is a moment in one letter where he crows that “The more civilized so-called Caucasians have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence,” which is followed by a comment he makes even in The Descent of Man, “Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.” While it is true that, most of the time, he is low-key and prefers to insidiously promote ideas of inferiority, we should remember that ‘beat’ is a word he loved and used frequently in The Origin of Species — as when he speaks of dominant species beating the less dominant — so that even in his more subdued moments, the quality of his racism does not change.
What Darwin did in his quiet way was to make scientific racism more respectable. He was not the worst racist. He did not invent scientific racism. And whatever he did, he did not do it alone. But because of his status, he helped to advance this way of thinking.
What the cutting edge of evolutionary scientists, like Darwin and Huxley, did was that (and here I am borrowing from another writer) they “picked up the pre-existing prejudices and stereotypical attitudes of European and white colonial societies, repackaged them as scientific theory, and then mirrored them back to a literate public.” That’s the way Neil MacMaster puts it in Racism in Europe, 1870-2000. He does not specifically refer to Darwin and Huxley here. He makes some scattered references to Darwin throughout his book, while preferring to talk more about Social Darwinists, but his comment about repackaging prejudice as scientific theory applies just as well to what Darwin did (I just want to be clear that MacMaster himself did not explicitly refer to Darwin in this remark).
Anthropological racism not only became acceptable, it was considered top-notch science. Again, it’s worth quoting MacMaster: “What distinguished the late nineteenth century was not so much the elaboration of a new science of race, in spite of all the talk of a Darwinian Revolution, but rather the sheer speed with which a discourse of radical biological difference was diffused within European science and became an almost universally accepted way of thinking about history, contemporary politics and national identity.” One of the items that became so well-accepted was the talk of extermination and extinction of native peoples. It had come to seem natural and obvious, even objective. Europeans were not making this happen. This was nature’s doing. Natural selection, not injustice, gives us extermination.
The top scientists of the day would have been incensed if we accused them of racism (the latter being a word they did not use, but they would have recognized ‘complexional misanthropy’ or antipathy or even simply prejudice). They would have denied any feelings of hatred. But it would have been harder for them to deny fear — their fear that inferior races could have a harmful effect on the superior race. That fear of degeneration was widespread. They just would have claimed it was an objectively valid fear.This cultural attitude was not limited to science. The Catholic Church did its fair share of talking about extermination. Many Christian writers spoke of exterminating Jews as a possible solution to their Jewish problem, and were usually quick to add that they could not pursue this option because they were Christian after all, but the key point is that they made extermination a thinkable idea. There is no need to accuse any of these nineteenth century thinkers and writers of being Nazis. They weren’t that. But it is equally false to say that the Nazis did the unthinkable. Europe had made the elimination of so-called inferior races a very thinkable idea. And Darwin made a contribution. He helped everyone to think of inferiority and lower races and extermination as normal ideas, and he never qualified any of this as having potentially dangerous consequences, just as the Church did not see the danger in bringing up extermination.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer