Sunday, April 01, 2012

John Rex on Race and Why Francine Hirsch is Wrong

John Rex is one of the world's  foremost scholars on race relations.  In a 1986 essay he notes contrary to Hirsch that ethnicity and cultural rather than phenological characteristics can be the basis of racism.  The scholarship of people like Rex which later influenced people like Kenan Malik is pretty mainstream regarding every region in the world except the USSR. It is only in Soviet history due to the distorting influence of people like Francine Hirsch that there is a complete denial of the existence of official racism because of the claim that ethnicity is not race and culture is not biology.

Hirsch states, "The mass deportation of targeted nationalities, along with other Soviet nationality policies, was premised on the conviction that nationalities (like classes) were sociohistorical groups with a shared consciousness and not racial-biological groups. This is not a trivial distinction." (Hirsch p. 30). In point of fact it is a trivial distinction because the "sociohistorical groups" perform the exact same role as "racial-biological groups" and both are primordial, essentialized, immutable, and based solely upon ancestry. As noted in earlier posts the South Africans used the "sociohistorical group" definition to define race in South Africa rather than the "racial-biological group" definition Hirsch believes is necessary for racism to exist (Ross, p. 116).  On the basis of Hirsch's logic there were thus never any "racial politics" in apartheid South Africa. But, since Hirsch has never examined racism in a comparative context outside of Nazi Germany and the USSR she fails to see the absurdity of her position. Rex notes  that ethnicity as a "sociohistorical group" to use Hirsch's terms or groups marked by "cultural characteristics" to use his term rather than  phenotypical ones can serve as the basis for racial oppression or exploitation (Rex, p. 72). What is important is not whether the justification of racial discrimination is in "terms of biological ideas." (Rex, p. 71). But, rather that the ethnic identity of a stigmatized group is "imposed upon them to restrict their mobility and to facilitate their exploitation and oppression." (Rex, p. 71). Rex states quite clearly, "I am quite happy to divert attention away from phenotype as such to that group of situations which, whether it rest upon phenotypical or upon cultural differences, actually involves exploitation and oppression."  (Rex, p. 72).  As an example he notes, "the essentially ethnic relations of Northern Ireland actually have much in common with black-white relations in other countries." (Rex, p. 72). That is the discrimination against Catholics by the dominant Protestants in Northern Ireland during the 20th century was racial discrimination even though the groups involved are "sociohistorical" ones rather than "racial-biological" ones.

I know that other than Eric Weitz and Walt Richmond I am the only US scholar who believes that Rex's definition of racism is applicable to the USSR and that everybody else follows the idiocy of Hirsch in believing that there must be some actual "biological" component defining the categories involved for "race relations situations" (Rex, p. 72) to exist. But, why is the USSR of all societies in world history exempt from the same sociological analysis that applies to the rest of the world? Nobody has ever been able to answer this question to my satisfaction. I do, however, encourage to people to try in the comments.


Francine Hirsch, "Race without the Practice of Racial Politics," Slavic Review, vol. 61, no. 1, Spring 2002, pp. 30-43.

John Rex, "The Role of Class Analysis in the Study of Race Relations - A Weberian Perspective," in John Rex and David Mason, (eds.), Theories of Race and Ethnic Relations,Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 64-83.

Robert Ross, A Concise History of South Africa, Cambridge University Press, 1999.  


Leo Tolstoy said...

"The mass deportation of targeted nationalities, was premised on the conviction that nationalities (like classes) were social-historical groups with a shared consciousness and not racial-biological groups. This is not a trivial distinction." This is ludicrous. But then, the article appears in Slavic Review, which I found to be a rather pathetic journal.

J. Otto Pohl said...


I agree it is ludicrous. But, as I noted in the original post there are only three of us who hold this position. Hirsch has tenure at the University of Wisconsin and I am just a starting lecturer at the University of Ghana. So everybody in the US studying the issue accepts her definitions which are identical to the Soviet ones and ignores me. But, that is okay. I have been told that one of the conditions of working in Africa is that you have to get used to being ignored by people in the US.

Paul Smecker said...


I am new to your blog, and I agree with walt that the position of this hirch person is ludicrous. But I am a little puzzled about why people care to even make this distinction. Is it all politics -- i.e. to show that commies are better than racists? I assure you that no one in the former Soviet Union who dreamt of somehow getting the dreaded Jew or Circassian or Kalmyk off their passport cared one whit about whether they were being persecuted for "biological" or "historical group attributes" reasons. Why do westerners care which it is?

J. Otto Pohl said...

The argument is that it makes the Soviets less evil than Nazi Germany and even the US which did practice racial discrimination.

Leo Tolstoy said...

It's not the way you view people that makes you "evil," it's what you do to them. In that sense, Stalin was every bit as evil as Hitler.

Her whole argument doesn't really seem to have a point. But then, I've been reading a book, "Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide," that seems to dwell on such irrelevant points.

Dick Gregory said...

"Racism is changing. It no longer focuses so explicitly on biology and skin colour. The major focus is on culture, and religion."
Someone from the tradition that says that the Soviet Union was state capitalist has something similar to say.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Thanks for commenting Richard. Actually scholars of every society in the world other than the USSR have recognized that culture rather than biology has been a justification for racism for some time. Work regarding the cultural basis of the 'new racism' (new meaning from the 1970s) by people like Gilroy is not really new anymore. The South African Volkekundiges of course seeing the total discrediting of biologically based racism in the wake of the defeat of Nazi Germany also chose to theoretically justify apartheid on cultural rather than biological grounds.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Walt I am just glad to have you on my side. Three people is a lot more than one.