I spent part of yesterday finishing up George M. Fredrickson's Racism: A Short History. Well, trying to; haven't read all of the appendix yet. The prose style makes for slow going at times, but I'm hardly one to talk, seeing as mine is even worse. . .
The aim of this book is to present in a concise fashion the story of racism's rise and decline (although not yet, unfortunately, its fall) from the Middle Ages to the present. To achieve this, I have tried to give racism a more precise definition than mere ethnocentric dislike and distrust of the Other. The word "racism" first came into common usage in the 1930s when a new word was required to describe the theories on which the Nazis based their persecution of the Jews. As is the case with many of the terms historians use, the phenomenon existed before the coinage of the word that we use to describe it. But our understanding of what beliefs and behaviors are to be considered "racist" has been unstable. Somewhere between the view that racism is a peculiar modern idea without much historical precedent and the notion that it is simply a manifestation of the ancient phenomenon of tribalism or xenophobia may lie a working definition that covers more than scientific or biological racism but less than the kind of group prejudice based on culture, religion, or simply a sense of family or kinship.
Eschewing (note to self: never use the word "eschewing" again) the Racism = Power + Prejudice formulation, Fredrickson does maintain that only when differences between one group and another are seen as innate and unchanging, and used to justify unequal treatment of one group by another, should the term racism be applied. If that sentence makes any sense whatsoever. Basically, though, "mere" dislike of the Other doesn't rise to the level of racism, nor is the term generalized to apply to other forms of bigotry such as religious intolerance.
Antisemitism is included, concentrating on state-sanctioned discrimination and the notion of ethnicity/ancestry rather than religious difference. Again, if that makes sense.
Main reason I never went into teaching, right there. Utter inablility to convey complex ideas in bite-sized pieces. And why bother with the simple stuff?
Chapter Three, Climax and Retreat: Racism in the Twentieth Century, starts off with this:
To conceive of racism as a natural and virtually inevitable human response to encounters with strangers or aliens is to take the subject outside of history and into the realm of psychology or sociobiology. But if we continue to think of it as a historical construction associated with the rise of modernity and with specific national or international contexts, we have to conclude that it came to a hideous fruition in the century that has just ended. Its two most persistent and malignant manifestations -- the color-coded or white supremacist variety and antisemitism in its naturalistic or secular form -- both reached their logical extremes. White supremacy attained its fullest ideological and institutional development in the southern United States between the 1890s and the 1950s, and in South Africa between the 1910s and the 1980s, but especially after 1948. Antisemitism of course reached its horrendous climax in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945. Several historians have made comparisons between the two versions of legalized white supremacy, but none to my knowledge has attempted in any systematic way to compare either or both with what the Nazis did to the Jews. All of these racist regimes have been overthrown, and the ideologies on which they were based have apparently been discredited. But a final issue that will have to be confronted in the epilogue is whether their demise also means that the virus of racism has been exterminated or that it has merely mutated into new and still-virulent forms.
Guess these could be considered leading questions, but since the author is not a pundit, he merely raises them and offers tentative answers, allowing the possibility of rational disagreement. Which might be why I read this rather than any of the blog discussion of MLK, affirmative action, Bush's judicial nominees, antisemitic violence in Europe. . .