Cover image for Racism : a short history
Racism : a short history
Fredrickson, George M., 1934-2008.
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
207 pages ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1700 Lexile.
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HT1507 .F74 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Are antisemitism and white supremacy manifestations of a general phenomenon? Why didn't racism appear in Europe before the fourteenth century, and why did it flourish as never before in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Why did the twentieth century see institutionalized racism in its most extreme forms? Why are egalitarian societies particularly susceptible to virulent racism? What do apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany, and the American South under Jim Crow have in common? How did the Holocaust advance civil rights in the United States?

With a rare blend of learning, economy, and cutting insight, George Fredrickson surveys the history of Western racism from its emergence in the late Middle Ages to the present. Beginning with the medieval antisemitism that put Jews beyond the pale of humanity, he traces the spread of racist thinking in the wake of European expansionism and the beginnings of the African slave trade. And he examines how the Enlightenment and nineteenth-century romantic nationalism created a new intellectual context for debates over slavery and Jewish emancipation.

Fredrickson then makes the first sustained comparison between the color-coded racism of nineteenth-century America and the antisemitic racism that appeared in Germany around the same time. He finds similarity enough to justify the common label but also major differences in the nature and functions of the stereotypes invoked. The book concludes with a provocative account of the rise and decline of the twentieth century's overtly racist regimes--the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, and apartheid South Africa--in the context of world historical developments.

This illuminating work is the first to treat racism across such a sweep of history and geography. It is distinguished not only by its original comparison of modern racism's two most significant varieties--white supremacy and antisemitism--but also by its eminent readability.

Author Notes

Historian George M. Fredrickson was born in Bristol, Connecticut on July 16, 1934. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1956 and then studied in Norway on a Fulbright scholarship. After serving in the Navy for three years, he earned a doctorate from Harvard University in 1964. He taught at numerous universities including Harvard University, Northwestern University and Stanford University. He retired from teaching in 2002.

During his career, he wrote eight books and edited four more. His book White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Some of his other works include The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crises of the Union, Racism: A Short History and Big Enough to Be Inconsistent: Abraham Lincoln Confronts Slavery and Race. He died from heart failure on February 25, 2008.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

An erudite comparison of racism and anti-Semitism throughout Western history, George M. Fredrickson's amazingly concise Racism: A Short History explains how medieval anti-Semitism influenced the racist rationalization of the African slave trade; shows how the Enlightenment and Romanticism opened up new avenues for thinking about Jews and slaves; and contrasts American Jim Crow laws, Nazi Germany's Aryan nation and South African apartheid. A U.S. history professor at Stanford and co-director of the Research Institute for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, Fredrickson offers a scholarly but compelling and accessible narrative. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Amid the many books on the why's of racism comes a new analysis from Fredrickson (history, Stanford Univ.), author of several books on the history of racial ideologies, including The Arrogance of Race and Black Liberation. In this concise history, Fredrickson seeks to answer where and why racism began and what forms it has taken through the ages. Combining comparative, geographical, and historical perspectives, he studies the origin of Western racism from its emergence in the late Middle Ages to the present time. He begins by defining racism as a system that establishes a permanent racial hierarchy reflecting the laws of nature or decrees of God. Thus, stigmatized groups can never change their status and rise to a position of power within the dominant group. According to Fredrickson, this was first applied to Jews in the Middle Ages. Racism spread following European expansion and the African slave trade and grew during the Enlightenment. A particularly interesting insight is the comparison of the Jim Crow South, Nazi Germany, and apartheid South Africa. Both illuminating and distressing, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the evolution of one of the darkest sides of human nature. Recommended for informed readers in both public and academic libraries. Deborah Bigelow, Leonia P.L., NJ (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In this incisive and thoughtful essay on the nature and historical trajectory of racism in the modern world, Fredrickson's magisterial command of his subject is on display as he provides a concise overview of racism's rise, climax, and retreat. His case is predicated on the view that racism ought to be construed as historical and therefore as something that is socially constructed in particular places at particular times. As such, racism is neither inevitable nor immutable. Tracing the precursors to modern racism, Fredrickson (Stanford Univ.) discusses the role that Christianity played in facilitating the emergence of racist ideologies and, because of its universalism, the brake it put on such ideologies. Racism truly emerged when freed from dependence on Christian thought, chiefly due to the advent of scientific racism. Fredrickson sketches the histories of three racist regimes of the 20th century--the US South during the Jim Crow era, the Nazi regime, and the apartheid government of South Africa. The collapse of such regimes during the past century has led to considerable discussion about the future of racism in the new century. As with the core of the book, Fredrickson's brief conclusion adds considerable clarity to this dialogue. All levels and collections. P. Kivisto Augustana College (IL)



It is the dominant view among scholars who have studied conceptions of difference in the ancient world that no concept truly equivalent to that of "race" can be detected in the thought of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. The Greeks distinguished between the civilized and the barbarous, but these categories do not seem to have been regarded as hereditary. One was civilized if one was fortunate enough to live in a city-state and participate in political life, barbarous if one lived rustically under some form of despotic rule. The Romans had slaves representing all the colors and nationalities found on the frontiers of their empire and citizens of corresponding diversity from among those who were free and proffered their allegiance to the republic or the emperor. After extensive research, the classical scholar Frank Snowden could find no evidence that dark skin color served as the basis of invidious distinctions anywhere in the ancient world. The early Christians, for example, celebrated the conversion of Africans as evidence for their faith in the spiritual equality of all human beings. It would of course be stretching a point to claim that there was no ethnic prejudice in antiquity. The refusal of dispersed Jews to accept the religious and cultural hegemony of the gentile nations or empires within which they resided sometimes aroused hostility against them. But abandoning their ethnoreligious exceptionalism and worshiping the local divinities (or accepting Christianity once it had been established) was an option open to them that would have eliminated most of the Otherness that made them unpopular. Jews created a special problem for Christians because of the latter's belief that the New Testament superseded the Old, and that the refusal of Jews to recognize Christ as the Messiah was preventing the triumph of the gospel. Anti-Judaism was endemic to Christianity from the beginning, but since the founders of their religion were themselves Jews, it would have been difficult for early Christians to claim that there was something inherently defective about Jewish blood of ancestry. Nonetheless there was an undeniable tendency to consider the Jews who had not converted when Christ was among them as a corporate group that bore a direct responsibility for the Crucifixion. "For the organization of Christianity," writes the French historian Léon Poliakov, "it was essential that the Jews be a criminally guilty people." In Matthew 27:25 Jews who called for the death of Christ cry out after the deed has been done: "His blood be upon us and our Children." The notion that Jews were collectively and hereditarily responsible for the worst possible human crime-deicide-created a powerful incentive for persecution. If it had been believed that the curse fell on individual Jews in such a way that they could never be absolved of it, racism would be a proper term for the prejudice against them. But the doctrine, as expounded by Saint Augustine and others, that the conversion of the Jews was a Christian duty and essential to the salvation of the world meant that the great hereditary sin was not as a indelible and insurmountable source of difference. Anti-Judaism became antisemitism whenever it turned into a consuming hatred that made getting rid of Jews seem preferable to trying to convert them, and antisemitism became racism when the belief took hold that Jews were intrinsically and organically evil rather than merely having false beliefs and wrong dispositions. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the attitudes of European Christians toward Jews became more hostile in ways that laid a foundation for the racism that later developed. Once welcomed as international merchants and traders, Jews were increasingly forced by commercial competition from Christian merchant guilds into the unpopular and putatively sinful occupation of lending money at interest. But in this period of intense religiosity, it was the spiritual threat Jews allegedly represented that inspired most of the violence against them. Massacres of Jews began at the time of the First Crusade in 1096. In a few communities, mobs, stirred up by the rhetoric associated with the campaign to redeem the Holy Land from Muslims, turned on local Jews. Later Crusades stimulated more such pogroms. The church and the civil authorities viewed Muslims as a political and military threat to Christendom, while Jews had seemed to them to be relatively harmless and even somewhat useful. The church valued the presence of dispersed and suffering Jews as witnesses to divine revelation, and rulers sometimes employed them as fiscal agents. Consequently the ruling powers tried, with varying degrees of conviction and success, to protect Jews from the murderous mobs and roving bands that perpetrated violence against them in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. But even the mobs did not regard Jews as beyond redemption. Most historians affirm that to be baptized rather than killed was a real option. That so many Jews chose to die was a testament to the strength of their own faith and that of their executioners rather than a prelude to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, in the heat of killing Jews and pillaging their communities, some must have questioned the notion that Jews had souls to be saved, and that they chose to be the way they were rather than being naturally and irredeemably perverse. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, a folk mythology had taken root that could put Jews outside the pale of humanity by literally demonizing them. The first claim that Jews had crucified a Christian child for ritual purposes was made in England around 1150. Other such accusations followed in England and elsewhere, often combined with the assertion that Jews required Christian blood for their most sacred ceremonies. After the doctrine of transubstantiation was made an article of faith in 1215 came the most bizarre charge of all. Despite the traditional notion that the Jews' principal deficiency was their lack of a belief in the divinity of Christ, some of them were accused of stealing the consecrated host from Christian churches and torturing it, thus repeating their original crime of torturing and killing Jesus. (This myth presumed that what was wrong with Jews was not their unbelief but rather their evil disposition; like Satan himself they seemingly knew very well that Christ was the Son of God but nonetheless arrayed themselves against him.) Increasingly in popular mythology, folklore, and iconography, an association was made between Jews and the Devil or between Jews and witchcraft. In the popular mind of the late Middle Ages, the problem presented by Jews was not so much their unbelief as their malevolent intent against Christians and their willingness to enlist the Powers of Darkness in their conspiracies. The highest authorities in the church for the most part repudiated such fantasies and generally adhered to the principle that the existence of Jews must be tolerated because their ultimate conversion was essential to God's plan for the salvation of the world. But the popular belief that all Jews were in league with the Devil scarcely encouraged a firm conviction that they were fellow human beings. According to Cecil Roth, a pioneer historian of medieval antisemitism, the Jews' "deliberate unbelief" made them seem "less than human" and "capable of any crime imaginable of unimaginable." The verdict of Joshua Trachtenberg, author of the classic study of medieval associations of Jews with the Devil, was similar: "Not being a human being but a demonic, a diabolic beast fighting the forces of truth and salvation with Satan's weapons, was the Jew as medieval Europe saw him." Although more recent historians of medieval antisemitism have found this picture to be exaggerated if taken literally, at least some medieval Christians-a substantial minority, if not an actual majority-undoubtedly felt this way about Jews. The terminology and frame of reference continued to be religious, but the conception of Jews as willing accomplices of Satan meant, at least to the unsophisticated, that they were beyond redemption and should probably be killed or at least expelled from Christendom. At the time of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, thousands of Jews were massacred in those countries that had not already expelled them, because of a widespread belief that Christians were dying, not because of disease, but because Jews had poisoned the wells. Peculiar to the denigration of the Jews over the centuries, whether as imps of Satan, international financiers, of fomenters of world revolution, has been the role of mass paranoia. Intense irrational fears have been somewhat less central to the racialization of other groups, who were more likely to be viewed with a mixture of contempt and condescension. Jews have again and again served as scapegoats for whatever fears and anxieties were uppermost in the minds of antisemites. Medieval Christians were concerned with the growth of market economies, the enhancement of state power and bureaucracy, and threats to religious orthodoxy from a variety of quarters. Perhaps, as Gavin Langmuir has suggested, some were beginning to doubt their own faith and needed to be reassured by the kind of militancy that hating and persecuting Jews (or heretics) signified. Always a scavenger ideology, racism reared its ugly head in this instance by adopting the garb of Christianity while implicitly repudiating its offer of salvation to all of humanity, including Jews. Medieval antisemitism is sometimes distinguished from its modern manifestations on the grounds that it functioned in a society premised on hierarchy, and that discrimination against Jews was merely part of a general pattern of group inequality. But to the extent that Jews were relegated to pariah status and isolated from the larger society, they became external to the official hierarchy of estates or status groups and therefore became truly Other and expendable. The premise of equality that operated for Christians was that all were equal in the eyes of God, whatever their earthly station. Those medieval Christians who viewed Jews as children of the Devil in effect excluded them from membership in the human race for which Christ had died on the cross. (They also excluded non-Jewish witches and heretics, but not because of their ethnicity.) The scriptural passage most often quoted to associate Jews as a collectivity with Satan was Christ's denunciation of the Jews who rejected him: "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires" (John 8:44 RSV). The historian Robert Bartlett has argued that the racism or protoracism of the late Middle Ages extended well beyond the Jews. As the core of Catholic Europe expanded, conquering and colonizing the periphery of the continent, attitudes of superiority to indigenous populations anticipated the feelings of dominance and entitlement that would characterize the later expansion of Europeans into Asia, Africa, and the Americas. If the demonization of the Jews established some basis for the racial antisemitism of the modern era, the prejudice and discrimination directed at the Irish on one side of Europe and certain Slavic peoples on the other foreshadowed the dichotomy between civilization and savagery that would characterize imperial expansion beyond the European continent. "On all the newly settled, conquered or converted peripheries," Bartlett writes, "one can find the subjugation of native populations to legal disabilities, the attempt to enforce residential segregation, with natives expelled into the `Irishtowns' of colonial Ireland, and the attempt to proscribe certain cultural forms of native society. Ghettoization and racial discrimination marked the later centuries of the Middle Ages." To support his thesis that this intolerance was not purely cultural of "ethnocentric," Bartlett describes legislation in parts of eastern Europe in the fourteenth century that made German descent a requirement for holding office of belonging to a guild and banned intermarriage between Germans and Slavs. In Anglo-Irish cities, at about the same time, guild membership was being denied to those of "Irish blood of birth," and "there were to be no marriages between those of immigrant and native stock." What was missing-and why I think such ethnic discrimination should not be labeled racist-was an ideology or worldview that would persuasively justify such practices. Bartlett's account suggests that these ethnic exclusions were usually the self-interested actions of conquering families and lineages and were likely to be condemned by church authorities as a violation of the principles governing the rights and privileges of Christian fellowship. Where a conquered population had not been converted to Christianity, as in the case of the Muslims of Castille in the fifteenth century, discrimination on religious grounds could be justified. But where the natives had embraced Catholicism, unequal treatment is best regarded as an illicit form of group nepotism, lacking the full legitimacy that a racial order would seem to require. The notion that Jews in particular were malevolent beings in league with the Devil provided such an ideology and gave antisemitism an intensity and durability that prejudice against the peripheral Europeans would never quite attain. Suspicions that recent Slavic of Scandinavian converts had not fully internalized the true faith, and might even remain secret pagans, may well have been justified in some cases. But unless-or until-it was presumed that such infidelity was organic and carried in the blood, it would not be proper to describe such an attitude as racist. Continue... Excerpted from RACISM by GEORGE M. FREDRICKSON Copyright © 2002 by Princeton University Press Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
1 Religion and the Invention of Racismp. 15
2 The Rise of Modern Racism(s): White Supremacy and Antisemitism in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuriesp. 49
3 Climax and Retreat: Racism in the Twentieth Centuryp. 97
Epilogue: Racism at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Centuryp. 139
Appendix The Concept of Racism in Historical Discoursep. 151
Notesp. 171
Indexp. 193