Bruce Baum, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race: The Political History of Racial Identity, New York University Press, 2006, 341 pp., $45.00.
It would be difficult to think of a subject on which more foolishness has been written than race. Many of the books published on race today are so wrongheaded it is hard to believe normally functioning humans actually wrote, edited, proofread, printed, and tried to sell them. The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race is a good example.
The author, Bruce Baum, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. Like all academics these days, he claims there is no such thing as race, but he goes farther: He wants to show us where this false idea came from, and just how nefarious were the motives of the white men who invented it. His view—widely shared by social scientists in North America and laughed at by everyone else—is that people are not born with race but are “racialized” by society. The people we know as “Caucasians” “racialized” themselves as “white,” and “racialized” Africans as “black,” Asians as “Asians,” etc., and in so doing justified their own oppression of other “races.”
Even if only as an attempt to solve an intellectual riddle, it is worth trying to puzzle out what this means. The idea seems to be that what we call “race” is based on physical differences so trivial no healthy person would even notice them. Having fastened upon these meaningless, superficial differences, “white” people then rigged the world so that people they “racialized” as non-white ended up on the bottom.
Sometimes we get the impression that there need not even be physical differences between groups for some people to be “racialized” and oppressed. Prof. Baum quotes someone named Kenan Malik: “It is not ‘race’ that gives rise to inequality, but inequality that gives rise to race.” Prof. Baum adds: “The nature of modern society has created inequalities between different groups and these have come to be perceived in racial terms.” “Groups of people have been made into ‘blacks’ and ‘whites,’ ” he explains, “and this was a social and political process.”
Race, in other words, has no independent existence. Certain bad people somehow got the better of certain unoffending and almost indistinguishable other people and then declared, “We’re Caucasians and you’re not.” They then went on, generation after generation, to use this who-is/who-isn’t trick to grind down the ones who weren’t.
As Prof. Baum tries to explain, “While there are no white and black races in the biological sense, there have been (and still are) white and black racialized groups, and these racialized group identities have had and continue to have enormous social, cultural, and material consequences.” Somehow, the people whites have “racialized as dominant” stay dominant, and the people they have “racialized as inferior,” stay inferior.
We will return later to just how silly all this is, but we must negotiate much silliness in order to grasp what people like Prof. Baum are saying. Race, he says, was literally invented by white people in the 16th and 17th centuries as a justification for mistreating other people, and he will tell us how.
Where Race Came From
Prof. Baum reluctantly concedes that people other than whites have occasionally noticed group differences and disliked strangers. He insists, however, that this was mere ethnic prejudice, which is not nearly so vicious as full-blown racism, which was invented by whites. Hutus and Tutsis may massacre each other, but this is only “ethnic prejudice.”
According to Prof. Baum, whites probably invented race as a way to justify slavery. He quotes a fellow student of the subject who puts it bluntly: “Slavery produced racism.” It was the Atlantic slave trade that drove whites to the delusion that they were white and Africans were black, and “this divide was arguably the pivot on which racial thought was further elaborated.” Once whites got a taste for dominance, “all that remained for the full elaboration of the concept of race was for intellectuals and scientists working in the fields of ‘natural history’ and biology to use the term to classify supposedly distinct types of human beings in a systematic way.” The stage was set for centuries of racism.
Much of this book is a history of racial classification, and especially of the origins of the term “Caucasian.” Prof. Baum reports that the word “race” is first found in Italian and Spanish in the late 1300s, and meant “of common origin or descent.” He adds that the Frenchman Francois Bernier (1625-88), an avid world traveler and popular travel writer, was the first to use the word in something like the modern sense to mean varieties of humans. His contemporary, the British philosopher and admirer of Bacon, William Petty (1623-87), was typical of the pioneering generation of early race scholars. He noted that Europeans and Africans differed remarkably in skin color, type of hair, and shape of nose, lips, cheeks, and skull. “They differ also in their Naturall Manners, & in the internall Qualities of their Minds,” he added.
As science progressed, classifications became more refined. The celebrated Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) first published his Systems of Nature in 1735. As he updated it through 10 editions, Linnaeus tried out several sets of categories for human classification but eventually settled on four “varieties:” Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, and Afer. He categorized people, just as he did plants and animals, and his descriptions of appearance and behavior include the details any careful observer of the period would have thought significant.
Where did the term “Caucasian” come from? It is usually associated with the German naturalist Johann Blumenbach, but Prof. Baum reports that it was another German, Christoph Meiners (1747-1810), who first used the expression in 1785, when he divided man into two great branches, Caucasian and Mongolian. It is not entirely clear why Meiners called white people Caucasian, but it was widely believed in Europe that after the Flood, the Ark came to rest not far from the Caucasus, and that this was where Europeans originated. Like many people who later promoted the term “Caucasian,” Meiners also thought the Georgian people who lived in the area were especially beautiful.
It was the far better known Blumenbach (1752-1840), however, who popularized the term “Caucasian,” when he used it in the 1795 edition of On the Natural Variety of Mankind. Like Meiners, he considered Georgians and Ossetians especially handsome. He studied skull shapes as a part of racial classification, and thought the skull of a Georgian female was the most beautiful in his collection. Blumenbach was unusual for his time in expressly rejecting the idea that races differed in mental abilities.
The French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1767-1832) adopted and promoted the term “Caucasian”—along with the idea that Georgians were beautiful—as did the American Samuel George Morton (1799-1851). Like Blumenbach, Morton studied skulls, and found racial differences in cranial capacity that corresponded to differences in intelligence. Within a generation, therefore, the term “Caucasian” became widespread, and men like John Stewart Mill and Charles Darwin used it.
Whether or not they adopted the term “Caucasian,” Immanuel Kant, George Buffon, John Locke, and David Hume all wrote intelligently about human biological differences, which they referred to as race. Kant, for example, concluded that racial characteristics were irreducibly biological, given that these characteristics persist from generation to generation, and that racial mixes produce what are clearly half-breeds. Like most men of his time, Kant did not think highly of Africans, concluding that they “have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”
As for calling whites “Caucasians,” it was not long before scientists began to point out the geographical eccentricity of applying this term to Europeans, and to suggest that Georgians weren’t all that good-looking anyway. For a time, according to Prof. Baum, the idea of a Caucasian race fell into relative eclipse, as Europeans turned upon themselves the urge to classify. (Prof. Baum takes the absurd position that this was in order to “racialize” European class differences.) The invention of the cephalic index, calculated by dividing the breadth of the skull by its width and multiplying by 100, was one of the bases for dividing whites into Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans. The American race scholar Madison Grant was greatly taken with this typology, which nevertheless fell out of favor by the 1930s or 1940s.
Prof. Baum writes derisively about the work of these pioneering scholars, emphasizing their disagreements and occasional contradictions. Despite his sneering, however, it is clear that they were simply trying to understand their world. As Europeans explored more obscure corners of the earth they discovered unfamiliar peoples, and were naturally curious about their origins and how they might be related to each other. It was also natural that they should consider themselves superior to these primitives.
Some of their assumptions and disputes—Voltaire thought blacks and whites were a different species; there was disagreement over whether whites had developed from non-white ancestors or whether non-whites had degenerated from early white ancestors—may seem odd today, but were entirely understandable at a time before paleo-anthropology or genetics.
More to the point, Prof. Baum provides no evidence that any of the men he discusses were trying to justify slavery or any kind of mistreatment of non-whites by classifying varieties of man. His assertion that they had impure or non-scientific motives appears to reflect his refusal to recognize the value of human taxonomy and his deep suspicion of anyone who would study race.
There are, of course, heroes in this book: people such as Franz Boas, Ashley Montague, and Stephen Gould, who downplayed race and were among the first to promote the idea that race is a myth. Naturally, Montague gets a lot of attention, along with his 1942 claim that “the idea of ‘race’ represents one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of errors of our times, and the most tragic.” Even Montague, however, does not quite measure up because he showed some grip on reality by writing, “Truth will not be advanced by denying the existence of large groups of mankind characterized more or less, by distinctive inherited traits.” Prof. Baum thinks this gives the idea of race too much credit.
What, in Prof. Baum’s view, brought the race scientists around at last to the view that race is unimportant? Here he admits that pure science had very little to do with it, noting that from the 1930s onwards, people injected egalitarian ideas from other fields into the study of race. In other words, the currently fashionable view that race is irrelevant is the result of deliberate attempts to subvert science through ideology. After claiming, and failing to prove, that the early scholars had non-scientific motives, Prof. Baum confesses that his heroes deliberately bent their research to political ends.
Prof. Baum therefore takes the view that race has never been studied objectively. He simply happens to like the race-is-a myth fad because it fits his ideology, and even admits he thinks ideology is what leads to truth: “Democratizing” movements such as feminism, decolonization, and anti-racism “have often revealed limitations of existing theories about the world and generated advances in human knowledge.” He cites no examples of such advances.
For a book that claims there is no such thing as biological race, The Rise and Fall of the Caucasian Race devotes almost no space to this subject. Prof. Baum’s only “scientific” argument is the old chestnut that there is more genetic variety within populations than between them. He then goes on to draw the incorrect conclusion that this means a black could be more genetically similar to a white than to other blacks (see “Race Denial: The Power of a Delusion,” AR, June 2003; “The Genetics of Race,” AR, July 2006). He even argues that although race can sometimes be a useful medical category—it is now well established that there are distinct population differences in how certain drugs work and certain diseases develop—this is only because race “provides information about the social circumstances and lifestyles of patients.” He insists that as groups become more equal, race will become medically meaningless. We are left wondering why the heart-failure drug BiDil, which does not work on whites, nevertheless works on blacks who have high incomes, are married, and speak standard English just as well as it works on ghetto miscreants.
Prof. Baum is relieved that Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, the Stanford geneticist who has done pioneering work in charting the genetic distances between populations, rejects the use of the word “race.” He fails to point out, however, that Cavalli-Sforza’s “populations” and the genetic distances between them correspond almost perfectly with the findings of physical anthropologists who freely used the R-word (see review of Cavalli-Sforza’s Genes, Peoples, and Languages, AR, August 2000).
Prof. Baum also makes much of the fact that students of race have seldom agreed on how many races there are, and draws from this disagreement the non sequitur conclusion that race must not exist. In any discipline, there are lumpers and splitters, that is to say, people who like large, inclusive categories, and people who like fine distinctions. What is the best way to classify motor vehicles? Some people would be satisfied with a division between cars and trucks. But then where would you put school buses? Other people would insist that convertibles, two-seaters, and SUVs were distinct classes, while others might say they were all cars. There would be disagreement on how to classify motorcycles and whether even to include gas-powered golf carts. Prof. Baum would say that these disagreements mean there are no meaningful categories of motor vehicles and that all motor vehicles are really the same.
Prof. Baum gets into tangles like this because he will not face the obvious. He would insist that all races or human groups are equal; but if that is so, how did whites manage to enslave blacks and not the other way around? And how did whites manage to paralyze entire races for centuries simply by “racializing” them as inferior? The moment whites said they were black, Africans apparently collapsed into helplessness from which they have yet to recover. The truth, of course, is that Africans and Australian Aborigines were primitive long before any white man came along to “racialize” them, and would have stayed primitive with or without white men.
Even more fundamentally, if there is no such thing as biological race, how do white people tell themselves apart from the people they are trying to “racialize” and dominate? Might it be that people are born with physical traits so striking and unmistakable it is natural to group them by these traits?
Prof. Baum would probably admit that he can distinguish unerringly between Pygmies and Danes. He would perhaps admit that if Danes keep marrying Danes and Pygmies keep marrying Pygmies, they will look just as different 1,000 years from now as they do today. Prof. Baum is adamant that these striking differences do not amount to something we should call race. What, then, should we call them? Is it evil even to notice them? And why is it wrong to wonder whether the hundreds of thousands of years of separate evolution that produced those differences did not also produce mental differences?
Ultimately, the race deniers fear the truth might knock the props out from under their illusions. Ideology comes first, and then the facts, and we can tell from how he writes how slavishly Prof. Baum hews to ideology.
According to Prof. Baum, Columbus did not discover America; he “discovered” it. It is not European natives but European “natives” who resist non-white immigration. Prof. Baum even feels compelled to assert his ideological superiority over authors he cites with approval. He quotes a 1937 passage from one of his heroes, Frankfurt School founder Max Horkheimer, about “the world which is given to the individual and which he [sic] must accept . . .” Prof. Baum would have written “he or she,” and wants to be sure we know it. He quotes another passage about the “major ethnic groups of man [sic].” Correct ideology comes even before common sense, much less inconvenient facts.
What are Prof. Baum’s policy recommendations? In his circle, there is a brisk debate over whether the word and concept of race should be completely junked because any talk of it, even of the most earnestly anti-racist kind, might “reify” a false concept. As Prof. Baum frets, “There are risks involved in using racial categories in efforts to overcome racism—most important, this practice may perpetuate racialist thinking despite the most vigilant efforts to critique ‘race.’ ”
Prof. Baum finally concludes, however, that the risks must be run. Colorblindness will only perpetuate inequality and let “racists” off the hook. Anti-racists must therefore face the demon head-on: “People who have been racialized as Caucasians must acknowledge our historically racialized identities as Caucasian—along with the social and material advantages it entails—even as we work with others to end the myth of a ‘Caucasian race.’ ”
But how would we know we had destroyed the myth? Prof. Baum doesn’t say. He does urge upon us the goal of “planetary humanism,” but when he finally descends from abstractions to practical advice, he says only that whites should support racial preferences for non-whites. Or should they? Racial preferences are based on race, which we know is an illusion. He says classifying by race is as irrational as classifying people as witches, but how do we know whether the university has admitted enough blacks and American Indians if we don’t classify by race? It is hard to know how to fight racism when there is no such thing as race.
The best stance may simply be to adopt Prof. Baum’s basic contempt for whites. He writes that the race that called itself “Caucasian” is “bound up with various crimes against humanity during the past two centuries, even if it has not yet been called into account for its role in these crimes,” so anything that hurts or insults whites can presumably be seen as calling them to account. Prof. Baum also believes that aside from the invention of racism, there is probably nothing of cultural value that could be characterized as white. Whites could conceivably disappear and little of value would be lost.
Some day, academics will look back on books like this and see them for the insulting nonsense they are. In the meantime, they are the sort of thing university presses publish and employees of the state teach to our children.
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