Racism is a Western Value: On Europe, Whiteness and the West

“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” Revelations 6:8

In a previous post, I traced Christendom’s roots in antisemitism and Islamophobia. Now, I will discuss how Christendom became Europe, Europe and Europeans became White and Whites became Western, in order to unmask how the Western mythology has allowed bigots to rise and seek to remake the world in their image.

In the 16th century, as the Protestant Reformation tore Roman suzerainty asunder into competing holy alliances, non-Catholic thinkers sought a new name to mark the singularity they continued to feel with the Catholic peoples. Enter, Europe.

The ground was laid while the Crusades still raged. Christendom’s rediscovery of Aristotle gave Europe a common intellectual heritage in classical Greece. In constituting themselves a Europe, scholars looked to the Greco-Persian wars of antiquity, and imagined that it was not the Greeks and the Persians who fought, but Europe and Asia, and in them freedom and despotism. The new European imagination conceived East and West as eternally at odds, much as medieval theologians had seen in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations history’s ultimate contest. This new discourse was pure revisionism, which the Greeks would not have recognized, as Benjamin Isaacs has shown in “The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity.” Not that it mattered. The imagined East stood opposed to Europe’s alleged spirit of freedom. Edward Said writes of how the orient served as an emblematic “other” that allowed the “West” to constitute itself intellectually. In “Islam in Liberalism,” Joseph A. Massad shows how enlightenment liberalism conjured images of “Eastern despotism” to argue for the natural rights of Europeans.

The great Athenian mythology

In the 1400s, as Europeans scoured the globe for profit, opportunities to encounter and reflect on human variety multiplied. Europeans groping darkly through ignorance, looked again to Aristotle, who attributed human difference to climate. The invisible hand of latitude made certain peoples to be masters and certain others to be slaves. Simple as this was, it left questions: Was the stamp of climate permanent? Learned men earnestly asked if a Black African would bleach in the London fog or merely pass the climate’s effect on to his children. Would time prove that a change in latitude could “wash the Ethiopian White?”  Or, more frighteningly, blacken the European? As Europeans increasingly found themselves outside Europe, on land taken from indigenous Americans and worked by enslaved Africans, speculation intensified. Could one be a European without Europe? More broadly, as Winthrop Jordan observed, living near “savages,” and without the ancient fetters of home occasioned significant anxiety about what it meant to be civilized. Whiteness answered by making European fitness to master no more a matter of mercurial climate, nor of historical circumstances; their charter to rule was inscribed on flesh.

As 18th century gave way to 19th, the age of revolution made slavery peculiar in a world where Bostonians and Parisians presumed to tell heaven’s chosen monarchs that government stood upon consent. Which is not to say that the actual holders of chattel had even begun to tire of their own sloth. This wrangling between revolution and the divine right of Whiteness would give rise to scientific racism, as “natural law,” began to rely more on nature than philosophy, and Darwin’s evolutionary struggle for survival presented a metaphor too compelling not to exploit. Racialist and racist ideologies saw human history as a battle royale where races, like species, compete for the right to exist, where the strong must triumph over the weak by iron law. As culture and “blood,” were linked, so was miscegenation and cultural degradation. In the 1850s, French novelist, Arthur Gobineau published an influential treatise: “Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines,” “An essay on the inequality of human races,” in which he argued that all human history was driven by blood purity. In Gobineau’s story, superior races create civilizations and rule over lesser races. If the master race is not careful, the conquered race, through cultural assimilation, will gain enough social prestige to intermarry with its superiors, thus diluting the racial characteristics that gave rise to the civilization, causing it to degenerate and collapse or be conquered. Alongside this internal danger, Gobineau saw that the charms of urban civilization could attract waves of migrants of lesser stock to exacerbate this process. Gobineau was clear about who the master race was: “Such is the lesson of history. It shows that all civilizations derive from the white race, that none can exist without its help, and that a society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it, provided that this group itself belongs to the most illustrious branch of our species.” Gobineau placed White “Aryan colonies,” at the root of the Indian, Egyptian, Persian and Chinese civilizations. He even went so far as to attribute the Aztec and Incan empires to Aryans. Gobineau transcended the European idea by finding White civilization independent of Europe, just as Europe had superseded Christendom by finding the European spirit in pre-Christian antiquity. The basic story remained.  A people convinced that they are they light of humanity, be it the light of Christ, the light of freedom or the light of racial superiority and vigor, must always be on guard against the influence of dark, wretched, other, foreign breeds. Though Gobineau’s work would influence Adolf Hitler directly, his conviction that Jews were Aryans was a major defect from the Nazi perspective. More proximal influence came from two of Gobineau’s disciples, the Englishman Houston Chamberlain, referred to as Hitler’s “John the Baptist,” and the American Madison Grant whose “The Passing of the Great Race,” Hitler called “My bible.”

Chamberlain repaired Gobineau’s defect in his own tale of race war: “Practically all branches of our life have become more or less willing slaves of the Jews, and drag the feudal fetter if not yet on two, at least on one leg.” “The Indo-European, moved by ideal motives, opened the gates in friendship: the Jew rushed in like an enemy, stormed all positions and planted the flag of his, to us, alien nature…on the breaches of our genuine individuality.”

Grant divided White Europeans into three “types.” The Mediterranean, the Alpine and the Nordic, corresponding roughly to southern, eastern and northern Europe. In response to the rising tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Grant brought true Whiteness to its narrowest extent by confining it to the English, German and French speaking northern Europeans as well as Scandinavia and the Baltic countries. In 1924, Grant advised the chief author of the Immigration Act of 1924, the primary purpose of which was to check immigration by southern and eastern Europeans, lest they degenerate America’s, allegedly, Nordic founding stock.

Whiteness gave way to the West as its own scientific underpinning and intellectual coherence began to fray. Improved genetic science by the 1930s would no longer entertain serious appeals to the metaphysics of “White blood.” Additionally, as class upheaval continued within Whiteness, elites sought a banner for their power besides skin. The death knell for racial hierarchies as an acceptable object of polite political discourse came with the terrible revelations out of Auschwitz and Dachau, leaving Western supreme.

Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” reflects this last transition. Spengler tells a Gobineau like story of a founding elite’s degradation portending collapse. He denies Whiteness; consistent with the best science then and now, he even denies biological race. “Europe,” he calls an empty sound and blames it for unjustifiably linking “the West” with Russia. Spengler’s races are environmental and when people move they do not carry their race with them or transmit it to their children. What Spengler refers to as “race,” is something like a national creed into which anyone, wherever their ancestors originated, can be indoctrinated. Spengler believed cultures inevitably rose and fell with only their last stage properly known as “civilization.” He recognizes classical Greece, Egypt, the Islamic golden age, as well as Mesoamerica’s pre-Columbian empires as examples. Western civilization is just the zenith of Western culture, signaling the beginning of its inevitable decline. There is no upward trajectory, cultures do not build toward an ultimate apotheosis, instead, like humans, they arise, wax, wane, die and are replaced.

The other great apostle of Occidentalism, Arthur Toynbee, published a 12 volume work called “The Study of History,” in which he too sought the code that would make all history legible. Unlike Spengler, Toynbee did not see the West as just another civilization going through its life cycle. Toynbee foresaw the triumph of Western material and intellectual culture all over the world.

The White man’s burden

In Spengler and Toynbee we have dueling apocalypses. Apocalyptic visions are often ambivalent, several major faiths predict the final triumph of good over evil in the end times, nevertheless, even among the faithful, the apocalypse is rarely popular. After all, who wants to live through the end of the world? The secularized version of this ambivalence feeds fears of White/Western decline, which is not to deny that many do not even bother with the secularization. Even if one fully accepts Spengler’s idea that all civilizations are to be replaced, why should the West, in its hard won self regard, be pleased to be eclipsed? Toynbee belongs to the proselytizing vision, the need to draw the entire earth beneath the cross that the harvest of years may be fulfilled. Toynbee is no leveler, however, the West cannot merely allow itself to recede. Converts whose ancestors did not originate the faith tend to revert to type, thus, even though race has no currency, it does matter who is in charge.

Though the elements are mixed, Spengler and Toynbee roughly correspond to the conservative and liberal occidental vision. I say roughly because I don’t mean that any significant portion of the population self consciously adheres either to Spengler or Toynbee. Over time, thinkers get abstracted from themselves as those they’ve influenced influence others. I’m concerned with general narratives for which these abstractions are what matter. Because Spengler and Toynbee fit into such deeply rooted traditions, they should be thought of as channels for a narrative pattern, rather than originators. Toynbee’s is the liberal vision with all its limitations. To the average liberal, Westernization and Western values are clear goods. Though this good news was born in a particular place among a particular people: all mankind is one and can partake of it. Whether they will or whether they can be trusted to do so in perpetuity are more open questions, and an international order dominated by Western countries seems to be their preference. Spenglerian decline sees Western civilization running out of steam and reflects the insecurity of power, the sense that a peak is only a peak because a decline follows it.

The conservative conception, taken to its extreme, is a keystone of the present crisis. One way White supremacists/Western chauvinists attract followers is through presenting a moderated face. In the civil rights era, southern White terrorists put a respectable veneer on the KKK’s ideology by calling themselves “White citizens councils,” when that mask fell away, they became the “Council of Conservative Citizens.” Klan leader David Duke famously spread hate in a suit and tie. Today, Richard Spencer, Identity Europa, Steve Bannon and others make a similar effort. To attract young Whites who are trained to see overt racism as unacceptable, they lead them by degrees into extremism. This is chillingly illustrated by the transcript of a conference call in which Eli Mosely, one of the organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia instructed followers:

“Going up to, like, MSNBC and them interviewing you and you saying like, ‘Yeah, I actually think we should kill every non-white on the planet’ like, again, I don’t necessarily like have an issue with listening to that on a podcast or whatever, but if you are gonna do something like that, even if it’s your true belief, that’s not the objective of this rally.”

Wanting to murder 86% of the human race is acceptable, just not in front of the cameras: Not yet.

Before these extremists approach their quarry, the educational and intellectual establishment of Western countries has done much of their work for them. By keeping the basics of Eurocentric discourses untouched in the vernacular, we keep them available for exploitation by bigots. American exceptionalism presents a related analogy. If you ask the average American liberal about history, they readily acknowledge that Native American genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment etc. were atrocities. If a few hours later, this same liberal comments on Donald Trump making a racist comment that reflects America’s racist history, the liberal intones: “This is not who we are,” though history says clearly otherwise. In general, the Western liberal acknowledges past atrocities and may even get around to acknowledging some contemporary horrors, yet, “The West,” keeps its place at the pinnacle of history. Consider these opening lines from a mainstream liberal magazine in 2016: “If you’ve ever voted, served on a jury, watched a movie, read a novel, spoken English, had a rational thought, or gazed at the night sky in silent wonder, then you can thank the Ancient Greeks. They brought us democracy, science, philosophy, written contracts, taxes, writing, and schools.” This is a spectacularly absurd sentence, yet 90% of people would see it as perfectly reasonable. Even the better informed implicitly accept this shorthand and deploy it.

I do not suggest that one can never talk about the world between Turkey and the Hebrides, or any part of the world occupied by White Europeans, without listing their crimes, a gargantuan labor. Rather, I call for us to make west a cardinal direction and Europe a landmass, to recognize that you cannot take “Europe,” and leave Whiteness or cling to “the West,” and not bring Christendom with you. The whole discourse is irrational and manufactures its own reason, it is a story whose basic characters and their relations remain largely consistent, while only the names have changed.

“How easy, then, by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul; that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought; that every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed; that every great dream the world ever sang was a white man’s dream. In fine, that if from the world were dropped everything that could not fairly be attributed to White Folk, the world would, if anything, be even greater, truer, better than now. And if all this be a lie, is it not a lie in a great cause?”- W.E.B. Du Bois


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10 thoughts on “Racism is a Western Value: On Europe, Whiteness and the West

  1. First slave owner in the United States (colonies at the time) was Anthony Johnson a Black farmer in Virginia and developed a successful farm. In 1651 he owned 250 acres, and the services of five indentured servants (four white and one black). In 1653, John Casor, a black indentured servant whose contract Johnson appeared to have bought in the early 1640s, approached local authorities, claiming his indenture had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held illegally by Johnson. A neighbor, Robert Parker, intervened and persuaded Johnson to free Casor.

    Parker offered Casor work, and he signed a term of indenture to the planter. Johnson sued Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654 for the return of Casor. The court initially found in favor of Parker, but Johnson appealed. In 1655, the court reversed its ruling. Finding that Anthony Johnson still “owned” John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker. This was the FIRST record of slavery in the United States.

    There were over 3500 Black slave owners in the United States at the time of the Civil War. There were also numerous Native American tribes who also own slaves. The estimates at that time were that 50% of slaves in the US were owned by Blacks or Native Americans.

    So lets not try to blur history. Just as the Black tribal leaders in Africa rounded up and sold their tribe members to the slave trade, there was complicity by Blacks in the slave trade worldwide.


  2. Some of the comments that were left in response to this excellent article reveal a deep seated fragility that some people possess when faced with the truth about white supremacy. Some of the responses were ludicrous in their lunacy. The notion that speaking truths about the West constitutes a bashing of the West indicates the possession of an infantile need to be fed fairy tales and an intolerance for a mature engagement with the actual historical record. As for the woman who responded with stupid fabrications about slavery, it is clear that she never picked up a history book and gets all of her information from either 8kun or 4chan. Starting in 1705 the colonies enacted slave codes. These laws prohibited Blacks from owning anything, let alone owning other blacks. And the idea that 50% of Native Americans owned slaves also outrageous.

    Liked by 1 person

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