Scientific racism and social stratification

Hannah Arendt wrote,

Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

Arendt, Hannah (1948/68). The Origins of Totalitarianism. HMH Books. Kindle Edition.

The rise of scientific racism can be seen as a reaction to the decline of premodern European social stratification. The classification of people by race supplanted the feudal classification system. With the aid of new systems of scientific classification (Linnaeus), European “thinkers” set out to classify humans based on race. Improvements in sea travel (and imperialism) offered exposure to people of different continents. A number of factors came together to contribute to scientific racism, which had become mainstream science by the late 19th century.

The ideology of the nationalism was closely connected, and the culmination of this trend was 20th-century fascism and genocide.

All systems of classification represent attempts to reduce complexity.

Len Platt, in Joyce, Race and Finnegans Wake, argues that scientific racism served to justify continued (or even worsening) social inequality after the Enlightenment (Platt references the historian Leon Poliakov). I think there is some truth in that–and racism is used for that purpose today–but the more fundamental issue is the reaction against the erosion of the feudal system of stratification. Racial classification offered a new form of stratification. Ultimately, however, functional differentiation should be more powerful, and functional differentiation is blind to race. It’s also blind to nationalism.

Origin stories, including racial and national origin stories, are also attempts to reduce complexity.

Arendt writes that racism is often associated with nationalism or patriotism but that racism actually works against nationalism, ultimately destroying the body politic.

The fact that racism is the main ideological weapon of imperialistic politics is so obvious that it seems as though many students prefer to avoid the beaten track of truism. Instead, an old misconception of racism as a kind of exaggerated nationalism is still given currency. Valuable works of students, especially in France, who have proved that racism is not only a quite different phenomenon but tends to destroy the body politic of the nation, are generally overlooked. Witnessing the gigantic competition between race-thinking and class-thinking for dominion over the minds of modern men, some have been inclined to see in the one the expression of national and in the other the expression of international trends, to believe the one to be the mental preparation for national wars and the other to be the ideology for civil wars. This has been possible because of the first World War’s curious mixture of old national and new imperialistic conflicts, a mixture in which old national slogans proved still to possess a far greater appeal to the masses of all countries involved than any imperialistic aims. The last war, however, with its Quislings and collaborationists everywhere, should have proved that racism can stir up civil conflicts in every country, and is one of the most ingenious devices ever invented for preparing civil war.

For the truth is that race-thinking entered the scene of active politics the moment the European peoples had prepared, and to a certain extent realized, the new body politic of the nation. From the very beginning, racism deliberately cut across all national boundaries, whether defined by geographical, linguistic, traditional, or any other standards, and denied national-political existence as such. Race-thinking, rather than class-thinking, was the ever-present shadow accompanying the development of the comity of European nations, until it finally grew to be the powerful weapon for the destruction of those nations. Historically speaking, racists have a worse record of patriotism than the representatives of all other international ideologies together, and they were the only ones who consistently denied the great principle upon which national organizations of peoples are built, the principle of equality and solidarity of all peoples guaranteed by the idea of mankind.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. HMH Books. Kindle Edition.


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