It is common nowadays to argue that racism is a relatively recent invention in human history. It is said to be a creation of European imperialists justifying their conquering, enslaving and colonizing other parts of the world. It was necessary, the argument goes, that the Christian conquerors of the Americas and enslavers of Africans needed to provide justification for the economically profitable subhuman treatment of the diverse people they encountered. Since European colonial adventurers tended to stake their claims in non-neighbouring lands, on account of Europe being hemmed in by the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the robust Islamic world, and Orthodox Russia, they found the peoples there to be different in appearance as well as in customs, languages, religion, and other practices. By making white, Christian Europeans into the paragon of humanity, the story goes, the colonial powers could justify paternalism and exploitation of the indigenous populations, who were “less than human” and not worthy of the same respect as another European.
All of this is true in so far as it describes how Europeans constructed justifications for treating non-Europeans as inferior. But it simply does not describe any sort of meaningfully new phenomenon.
The following excerpt is from Plato’s Republic, Book V, page 469.
First take slavery. Is it right that Greek states should sell Greeks into slavery? Ought they not rather to do all they can to stop this practice and substitute the custom of sparing their own race, for fear of falling into bondage to foreign nations?
That would be better, beyond all comparison.
They must not, then, hold any Greek in slavery themselves, and they should advise the rest of Greece not to do so.
Certainly. Then they would be more likely to keep their hands off one another and turn their energies against foreigners.
Is it not also reasonable to assert that the Greeks are a single people, all of the same kindred and alien to the outer world of foreigners?
Then we shall speak of war when Greeks fight with foreigners, whom we may call their natural enemies. But Greeks are by nature friends of Greeks, and when they fight, it means Hellas is afflicted by dissension which ought to be called civil strife.
Substitute “Greeks” for “whites” and this text reads like the most detestable white supremacist literature out there. Plato’s Greece and European Christendom are similar in other pertinent respects, too. Both were political disunities, filled with many states that warred amongst themselves, yet had a common religion and antagonism towards barbarians (Macedonians or Lithuanians, for example) and strong, neighbouring empires (Persian and Islamic, respectively). In both cases visionary figures dreamed of civilization that, if not unified, at least enjoyed fraternal relations among its constituent states. Both regarded “barbarians” or “savages” as inferior. In Europe the advocates of such figures are well known; in ancient Greece, Aristotle held these views.
This shows the problem with claims that racism is an invention of modern Europe. Unfortunately such viewsare all too widespread, and obscure demonstrably universal tendencies towards racism. For example, in a recent book review, J. Kameron Carter, author of the widely praised 2008 book Race: A Theological Account, writes that
We must remember that it was a form of theology … that gave birth to the modern/colonial/racial world in the 15th and 16th centuries, which then perfected itself in the 19th and 20th centuries when modern knowledges were consolidated as Wissenschaften.
Here Carter as theologian appropriately looks for historical antecedents to the racial thinking that arose in early modern Europe in theology. However, his statement is only accurate inasmuch as it is understood as referring specifically to the particular kind of racism that first arose in early modern Europe. This particular form of racism is conspicuous in its effects around the world today, and is certainly something worth studying, understanding, and fighting. However, if someone reads it and understands that “racism happened for the first time in 15th and 16th century Europe,” that person has believed wrongly. (In this case, it is also wrong to believe that Christian or monotheistic faith is what leads to racism, given that Plato was neither.) In fact, I believe this particular historical error is based on a racist assumption. It fundamentally depends on the myth of the “noble savage,” that superior, “natural” person untainted by Western civilization. That belief itself depends on a sort of “Western exceptionalism,” in which European civilization has produced a people fundamentally more developed than their counterparts in the rest of the world. Inverting this exceptionalism to claim that that development was a bad thing may be helpful in reducing bigotry, but it perpetuates prejudicial treatment of non-whites and thus reinforces racial categorization.
Racism is not, in fact, something all that different from what gets called “tribalism” when practiced on a smaller scale. Most people have, on some level, greater solidary with some sort of “in-group” defined over and against a group viewed as being “other.” Racism locates this all but universal human instinct specifically in ethnicity rather than (though sometimes coupled with) language, religion, city, or state. But it isn’t as unique as it’s made out to be. And since it is but a particular manifestation of a common prejudice, it is appropriate to treat it seriously without viewing it as some sort of historical anomaly.