on 27 June 2009
This is an excellent introduction to racism as a concept; Ali Rattansi thoroughly explains how racism presents itself.
Starting with historical examples, Rattansi shows some of the anti-Semitic attitudes of Nazi Germans and past nations and the bad treatment of Jews, and also describes general past attitudes to black people, specifically British (and other nations') attitudes to the people in their colonies that they subjected.
Always delivering opinion on facts, Rattansi explains how race, religion, geographical location, nation, and colour of skin are often conflated, these classifications inadvertently leading to racist attitudes.
Rattansi points out that racism is all but simple to define, it is contradictory and complex, and that some people are ambivalent about racism which leads to an undecided view on it. Typical racism and 'new' racism are compared, the 'new' racism often using culture as an excuse for racist attitudes.
The very scientific basis of racism is also ill-founded, and lacks any credibility; Rattansi includes a critique of Herrnstein's and Murray's book 'The Bell Curve'. He shows us that race cannot be defined, no scientists can agree on what race categories there are (mainly an idea of the past), and that individual genetic make-up between individuals within a 'race' is indeed more varied than the genetic differences of supposed different 'races'!
One of the final chapters on 'institutional racism' show that unintentional but prevalent attitudes towards certain types of people are perpetuated in an almost vicious circle, with undetected bias in some cases.
Nationalism is briefly discussed, explaining how closely nation and race are related, Rattansi inferring that some (though not all) of the success of far-right parties is because of their racist policies associated with the preservation of the nation.
Finally Rattansi ends on a note which indicates that in conjunction with globalism and global co-operation, racism will hopefully die down. The book does a great job of helping you understand racism fully; knowing about racism is still entirely relevant today in a world where prejudices may still live on.
on 11 April 2008
Ali Rattansi's `Very Short Introduction to Racism' is an excellent overview and update on some of the latest social scientific understandings of racism, it's history and the evolution of racist ideas. Rattansi also tackles issues which many people will find difficult, such as why there isn't actually any such thing as race and, therefore, how can there be racism if there is no race? It's excellent, although I do have a few quibbles.
Rattansi starts with an understanding of what racism is rather than a precise definition of racism, which he regards as unhelpful in attempting to understand an ever evolving phenomenon. He also offers an overview of the history of racism, confirming that such notions are not present throughout most of human history and are the product of the modern era, beginning, according to Rattansi, with the age of discovery and the start of European colonialism in Africa and the New World.
Here's a quibble, Rattansi says; "The question of exactly how much slavery contributed to doctrines of race is a matter of dispute." True. But he could mention that the idea that it is not is very much a minority position. Rattansi does not deal, for example, with the change in slavery's `racial' practice in the period after Bacon's Rebellion.
The role of the Enlightenment is neatly dealt with by reference to Linnaeus' `scientific' categorisation of humanity and the further development of scientific racism in the nineteenth century.
The role of nationalism in the development of racist ideas is explored and the complexity and confusion of national and racial notions are shown in the coalescence of ideas of race, nation, people, citizen, culture and class. Rattansi shows the paradox of the British working class and the Irish being portrayed as `negroid' in the early part of the nineteenth century, only to be admitted to the ranks of the `white race' at the height of the imperial age and the scramble for Africa.
Rattansi then discusses the Holocaust and the consequent loss of credibility for scientific racism that occurred as a result. A second blow is delivered to scientific racism by science itself, by biology and genetics - the fact that, as individuals genetically vary more than the supposed racial groups into which they have been categorised - race does not, actually, exist.
We are thus left with the conundrum of racism without races. Rattansi tackles this well at the start of the book by pointing out that the Nazi definition of `Who is a Jew?' always contained a cultural as well as a supposed biological element. He goes on to demonstrate, through the speeches of people like Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, how the process of racialisation works; an acknowledgement of a wide spectrum and confusion of views with a myriad of taken for granted assumptions regarding race, nation, ethnicity and `way of life'.
Understanding this process enables Rattansi to see Islamophobia as racism. He, rightly, dislikes the term `Islamophobia' - it is not, after all, a psychological condition - but does not offer the obvious alternative of `anti-Muslim racism'. Rattansi also misses a chance to demonstrate the continuity between `Islamophobia' and previous racist ideas: the Powell/Thatcher notion that New Commonwealth (ie black) immigrants are culturally inferior due to their `race', the notions of the Eurabia conspiracy theory and how that borrows from traditional anti-semitism. Rattansi does give an excellent example in the opposition to Turkish membership of the EU on the basis that Turks can never be European because they are Muslim but, again, misses the continuity here from Enlightenment ideas that `Europe ended at the mind of the Turk'.
Interesting discussions follow on the notion of intention in racist ideas, illustrated by well known recent quotes from Robert Kilroy-Silk and Ron Atkinson.
The notion of scapegoating as a Freudian explanation for racism is, rightly, dismissed. Although, here, I feel, Rattansi missed an opportunity to make a point about power and powerlessness in class society and how this feeds racist scapegoating.
The book finishes with interesting discussions on notions of institutional racism, affirmative action, the increasing success of fascist parties such as the BNP and how notions of a Clash of Civilisations also can feed racist ideas.
So, recommended reading. I'd follow this up with Arun Kundnani's excellent `The End of Tolerance'.
on 27 November 2011
Ali Rattansi, Visiting Professor of Sociology at City University, London, gives a thorough introduction to the subject of matter.
Considering the brief space of Very Short Introductions series, he makes the most of it to provide the reader with a context of analysing and understanding Racism.
The first chapters, which are the most interesting for me, deal with the history and development of the concept of Racism.
A brief historical look delineates the development of the concept of Racism, from its rather doubtful existence in the ancient past, to the Scientific Racism following the Enlightnement in the West.
It is at this point that a more systematic approach to Racism augments previous identifications of colour, negative stereotyping of black people and proto-ethnic identities into a more coherent world view, that finds its most extreme expression in 'mperialism, Eugenics and the Holocaust.
The historical overview is very helpful in understanding how Race, class, gender and power seem all to get interwined into the creation of racism. Racism has been a useful way for people to classify their environment - a feature especially of the rationality of the Enlightnement - and justify their position of power and its extention upon others.
The author goes on to make a case against Scientific Racism, and provides a number of arguments refuting the claim that white people are inherently superior to others. Instead, he places the main reason for black people's and minorities' disadvantage into the abhorent, centuries-old socio-economic situation they found themselves in the Colonies and Europe. It is interesting to read that, in refuting claims that black people's IQ is lower than white's in the USA, black people in Northern States were found to have higher IQ than Southern whites, or that black people living in Bermuda achieved an IQ score similar to the US White.
The author goes on framing the debate of what constitutes Racism today. He identifies ambivalence and contradiction in racist behaviour and into identity itshelf. He makes a differentiation into what used to be a more obvious, 'Hard' Racism and what he calls Racialization. In an environment where racist behaviour is not acceptable, what makes for racist behaviour might be more difficult to identify. The identification of the quality of Essentialism (i.e. that there is an unchanging essence that goes beyond time and space) could be a helpful guide in that aspect.
In concluding the essay, it is worth his noting that, despite the condemnation of racism in public, the socio-economic forces of our time -e.g. globalisation, the decay of industrial sites in the West, populism - make for the strengthening of racist behaviour.
In short, a good, brief framing of the topic, and a platform upon which further reading could follow.