2000s >> 2007 >> no-1230-february-2007

Racists can’t define race

Most people are aware of the treatment meted out to Jews by the Nazis, the discrimination and violence, the forced emigration, leading up to the obscenity of the extermination camps in the so-called Final Solution. Anti-semitic propaganda had prepared the way for these policies, with Jews being blamed for almost all the ills suffered by German workers in the twenties and thirties.

But it was one thing to rant about Jewish conspiracies and other nonsense, and it was quite another to legislate and implement specific instances of discrimination. For, once there were laws forbidding Jews from holding certain jobs or attending certain schools, the question inevitably arose of how ‘Jew’ was defined. How could law-abiding German officials know who to discriminate against? Jews did not resemble the lurid caricatures of Nazi posters, so it was hard to tell who counted as a Jew. It was not a matter of religion, since conversion to Christianity was not enough to save anyone who had been categorised as Jewish, so how couldthe demonised group be defined?

The same problem has haunted every attempt at race-based politics. For though racists see race as the driving force of human history, as being behind what makes people behave in certain ways, in practice it is a difficult, if not impossible, concept to define. Human beings have wandered over the Earth for thousands of years, fighting and cooperating and mating, so that we are all mixtures in various ways, with different inheritances, resulting in a myriad permutations of skull shape, hair type, skin colour, build, and so on. Any attempt to draw firm distinctions within the human family is doomed to failure.

Governments often have to set up arbitrary criteria for nationality, with regard to such matters as  entitlement to a passport or eligibility for conscription. Sporting organisations may well have regulations along similar lines, for instance that to play for a country you must have a parent or grandparent from there – a mere great-grandparent will not do. Or you can play for the country if you’ve lived there for so many years. Now, nationality is something that can be changed, but race is a supposed integral part of a person, not to be altered by the mere act of filling in a form and providing satisfactory answers in an interview.

The racist, however, needs to have a definition of race, or at least of a particular racial group, in order to put their vile ideas into practice. The problem that racists encounter is described well by Richard Evans (The Third Reich in Power): “An insoluble ideological dilemma faced Nazi legislators: was the poison they thought Jewish blood carried with it into the bloodstream of the German race so virulent that only a small admixture would be enough to turn a person into a Jew, or was German blood so strong and healthy that it would overcome all but the most powerful admixture of Jewishness in a person’s hereditary constitution? To such questions there was no rational answer, because there was from the beginning no rational basis to the assumptions on which they rested.”

In the absence of a rational answer, racists have adopted different responses in different times and places. The Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws of 1935 made ‘mixed marriages’, and indeed extramarital relationships, between Jews and Aryans illegal. The Reich Citizenship Law defined an Aryan as anyone who lacked ‘Jewish blood’, and a ‘full Jew’ had to have at least three grandparents who professed Judaism (so there was a religious dimension after all). Various ‘half-breeds’ with one or two Jewish grandparents, were also defined. In one 1937 case, a man escaped being found guilty of ‘race defilement’ on the grounds that he was only half-Jewish, his biological father being an Aryan rather than his mother’s husband. Or someone’s racial classification might be based on the gossip and prejudices of neighbours. Many people needed help from experts in deciding how others should be characterised: one judge had to point out that a woman’s blue eyes and blonde hair ‘obscure her Jewish racial characteristics’.

It was eventually decided that half- Jews would not be counted as fully Jewish and thus subject to the harshest discrimination, unless they practised Judaism or were married to a full Jew (neither of which criteria of course relates to their ethnic origins). And even then Hitler had to be given the final word and the power to grant exemptions as he wished. In practice, to quote Richard Evans again, “all the authorities had to go on in establishing Jewish ancestry was whether or not someone’s grandparents had practised the Judaic religion, a fact which rather made a nonsense of scientific claims about the importance of race and blood in determining Jewish or German identity.”

But Jews were not the only group persecuted by the Nazis on racial grounds. Gypsies were also subject to vicious discrimination, but the basis for their treatment was slightly different from that of Jews. Pure Gypsies were seen as an inferior race but not as a threat to Aryan purity. It was those who had a mix of Gypsy and Aryan ancestry that were problematic, as the supposed inherent criminality of Gypsies had thereby infiltrated and begun to undermine the Aryan race. The distinct attitudes to Jews and Gypsies again reveals the arbitrary basis of racist policies.

Apartheid-era South Africa also faced the problem of classifying people as white, black (referred to as ‘Bantu’), coloured or Indian. Some felt that god had ordained the existence of different races; unfortunately the almighty had failed tomake the distinctions clearly enough. The ‘coloured’ group was acknowledged to be a mixture, originating in the use of slave labour in the 17th century. The Population Registration Act of 1950 contained such definitions as: ‘A White person is one who is in appearance obviously white – and not generally accepted as Coloured – or who is generally accepted as White – and is not obviously Non-White, provided that a person shall not be classified as a White person if one of his natural parents has been classified as a Coloured person or a Bantu’. So appearance and general acceptance were the main criteria used, but with family membership introduced in order to avoid too many embarrassing inconsistencies (you couldn’t count as white if you had a black or coloured parent). Equally, ‘A Bantu is a person who is, or is generally accepted as, a member of any aboriginal race or tribe of Africa.’

In practice, people were often classified on the basis of how flat their noses were or whether a comb could be run through their hair. The references to ‘generally accepted’ give the game away, of course: race is a subjective and arbitrary matter of how people are labelled by others, not a matter of biological inheritance. Slavery in the American South was, in theory, confined to black people only. ‘Black’ here meant having no European ancestry at all – anyone who could show they were of European descent even partially was assumed to be free (i.e. free to work as a wage slave rather than as the legal property of another). The ending of slavery led to an effective reversal of this position: anyone with just ‘one drop’ of non-white blood could not be regarded as white. In other words, you could not be part-black, just black or not. This was partly intended to limit mixed marriages and so keep the white blood line ‘pure’, since in the racist view anyone with one black and one white parent was black. It’s been pointed out that this means that ‘a white mother can have a black child but a black mother cannot have a white child.’ The one-drop criterion was made illegal in 1967, and the US census of 2000 allowed respondents to choose more than one racial identity, so people could describe themselves as both black and white – but they would then count as black for the purposes of equal employment legislation.

The American examples show again that notions like ‘black’ and ‘white’ are not given in nature but are socially defined, dependent on the attitudes adopted by particular societies at particular periods. The British National  Party, in striving for a form of respectability, tries to downplay emphasis on race (in public, at least). Its website refers to ‘the indigenous peoples of these islands’, which it defines as “the people whose ancestors were the earliest settlers here after the last great Ice Age and which have been complemented by the historic migrations from mainland Europe”. This is pretty woolly language, though we can assume that to be regarded as having a black or brown skin would disqualify a person from counting as indigenous. But how far back would a BNP government trace people’s ancestry, and what would they do with those who have just one indigenous parent or grandparent? Like the Nazis and the National Party in South Africa, the BNP would be forced back on arbitrary distinctions and subjective rulings to decide who would be allowed to stay in their racial utopia.

Race, then, is not a scientific concept. Even those who see it as the linchpin of their politics cannot offer manageable definitions of it or workable guidelines as to how particular people should be categorised. The fact is that we are all human beings, with broadly similar abilities and characteristics, distinguished in various superficial ways such as eye colour and blood group, and divided now along the destructive lines of class and nationality. In the future Socialist commonwealth, questions of race and ancestry will be a thing of the past, like money, passports and national anthems.


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