Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Racism is not...merely "xenophobia"

Having finished up Kathryn Stockett's The Help I was planning on sticking with the topic of race and was going to read Octavia E. Butler's Kindred. I assumed I could get it on my Kindle and was surprised to find that I could not. Bummer. I considered going with a different Butler book but then I got cheap and just went with a book I already had on my shelf. So instead I read Racism: A Short History by George M. Fredrickson. The book is leftover from a class I took in college, The History of Race. Though I bought it for the class, I never read it for the class, though I'll have you know I had the highest grade in the class so win for me. My English/bullshitting degree was doing its job before it was even fully earned.

Fredrickson looks briefly at the ideology of racism in the Western world from Middle Ages to present, though he focuses on antisemitism in Nazi Germany, Jim Crowe era Southern American history and apartheid in South Africa. It's an interesting topic and Fredrickson should be commended for taking on a potentially controversial topic and remaining objective about it. However, that objectivity could be its downfall. The book is very dry and very academic. Observe the opening lines:
"The term 'racism' is often used in a loose and unreflective way to describe the hostile or negative feelings of one ethnic group or 'people' toward another and the actions resulting from such attitudes. But sometimes the antipathy of one group toward another is expressed and acted upon with a single-mindedness and brutality that go far beyond group-centered prejudice and snobbery that seem to constitute an almost universal human failing." 
Are you falling asleep yet? Because to be honest, this book put me to sleep a couple times. Not the most ringing endorsement of a book, I know. But there is a lot of good stuff in here and a lot of good points. It's just a little hidden. Or not hidden, just not immediately obvious.

One thing in particular that has stuck with me is how all connected things are. You can't look at racism in different countries as separate entities from one another. He argues the Nazi occupation in Germany and the Holocaust played an important part in the civil rights movement in the US. Change isn't immediate but the atrocities perpetrated during the Holocaust and Jim Crowe era South were the beginning of the end of state sanctioned racism. Fredrickson says "What the Nazis had done was so indefensible that later neo-Nazis would deny that the Holocaust had taken place rather than try to justify it." (128).

Would I recommend the book? Only if you want an objective, academic look at the history of racism in the Western world. Otherwise, well, just know what you're getting into.

Title quote from page 6

Fredrickson, George M. Racism: A Short History. Princeton, 2003.