Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century

Francisco Bethencourt, Author
Francisco Bethencourt. Princeton Univ., $39.50 (448p) ISBN 978-0-691-15526-5
Reviewed on: 10/07/2013
Release date: 01/01/2014
Bethencourt, professor of history at King’s College London, examines how expansion abroad shaped European systems of ethnic prejudice in a tour de force spanning the Americas, West Africa, India, and other colonial environs. He views racism instrumentally, not as a blind animus towards the other, but as a flexible, precise tool for engineering social realities among diverse populations: “ethnic prejudices were never isolated; they belonged to a rational, hierarchical system concerning different ethnicities (and constructed races) in time and space.” Across different periods seemingly deprecated strands of thought reoccur, refracted through successive generations’ worldviews; Bethencourt is able to compare the Hindu caste system to the finely graded racial hierarchy governing mixed peoples in Latin America, while elsewhere noting how “[t]he difficulty of matching skin tones with precise professions and occupations… in Iberian America” in turn influenced the British colonies, which implemented the simpler biracial dichotomy of the “one drop” rule. Finally, we see aristocratic European notions “challenged by intermixing and inevitable decline, as the darker races carried within them the seeds of democracy and egalitarianism that flourished because of their low standards,” a sentiment visible in the assertion common today that certain peoples or nations are unprepared for democratic rule, now the sine qua non of civilized society. (Dec.)