The key ingredients of modern racism are: a scientific or pseudoscientific theory of fixed differences between human “species”; an emphasis on group or collective identity; a stress on national culture and ephemeral spiritual differences rather than institutions to explain differences in societal outcomes. All of these were products of the 19th century and in many cases emerged in diametrical opposition to Enlightenment ideas of individualism and egalitarianism.
This is not to excuse the racism of any given classical liberal or to deny that racialism and liberalism could coexist. But it does suggest that a Foucauldian attempt to trace back the sins of the modern world to the Enlightenment is hardly the path towards a better understanding of the past. Mark Koyama "Did the Enlightenment Give Rise to Racism?" @Liberal Currents, [HT David M. Levy]
Koyama, an economics professor, does not recycle the uncritical platitudes common to friends of the Enlightenment. He draws on an impressive and wide array of recent scholarship to engage with the question that gives his essay its title. Even so, his narrative fails to do justice to the underlying evidence.* (In what follows, I am drawing on work of many scholars that I will not credit independently--mea culpa.)
Before I get to that let me give a sense of his strategy. In addition to alertness to the thought that the Enlightenment is itself a diverse set of intellectual traditions, Koyama's strategy can be best summarized three moves:
- Where Enlightenment figures are racist, their racialism is not modern scientific racism. A characteristic example is the encyclopedic naturalist Buffon, who embraces a racialist theory in which, in principle, reversible environmental features can explain racial difference (and hierarchy)
- Where Enlightenment figures do seem to anticipate modern scientific racism, treat them as exceptions ("such as David Hume and especially Immanuel Kant").
- Treat the racialized ideas of civilizational hierarchy and progress of Victorian imperialists (e.g.) not as heirs to the Enlightenment, but as influenced by the counter-Enlightenment. In so doing he draws on work by David Levy, Sandra Peart, and Jennifer Pitts, all of whom usefully distinguish Adam Smith's stadial theories and his critique of imperialism from Mill's attitude.+
*I ignore here the peculiar claim about Foucault implied by the last quoted sentence; he seems to confuse Foucault with Adorno.
+He is rather critical of Christian evangelical imperialists, but ignores the role of evangelicals in attacking the institution of slavery. (This is also surprising for an alert reader of Levy/Peart.)
++the central figure missing here is Locke (mentioned not discussed), who did more than anybody to legitimate slave-holding colonial projects in the name of liberty. Now it is actually unclear what Locke's views are on racial hierarchy (as opposed to civilization-al hierarchy). This is not inconsequential if one is engaging (inter alia here) Mills' Racial Contract [In the background is Petty--clearly one of Smith's targets--who in many ways anticipates the kind of practices and beliefs that Koaoma projects onto 19th century.]
** Koyama also calls attention to Burke; but for present purposes I will not treat him as an Enlightenment thinker (despite his many insights).
***I am not a fan of Jonathan Israel's distinction between a radical and moderate Enlightenment, but the radical version remained underground for an extensive period of the Enlightenment even in his narrative.