Friday, October 26, 2012

George Fredrickson on Race and why Francine Hirsch is wrong

George Fredrickson was before his death probably the foremost historian in the world on the comparative history of systems of racial exclusion. His comparative historical work on racism in the US, South Africa, and Brazil still stands out as some of the best comparative history ever written. I am currently rereading Fredrickson's writings on race and I am even more struck now by how much his views are diametrically opposed to Hirsch's. Yet Fredrickson is the orthodox and mainstream view when it comes to race in the US and South Africa and Hirsch is the orthodox and mainstream view on race in the USSR. How is it that only the study of Soviet nationalities remains chained to definitions of race and racism that had already been discarded with regards to the study of the rest of the world by the end of the 1960s? (Fredrickson, pp. 79-80). I have some ideas at the end of this essay. But Hirsch is the dominant figure in the US today on the study of the history of Soviet nationality policies under Stalin. She unlike Fredrickson explicitly denies that race can be constructed along cultural rather than biological lines.  Hirsch is unable to conceive of racism as anything except the narrow biologically based racism practiced by Nazi Germany.

But to call Soviet population politics "racial"  - to insist that a state sees its population through a "racial" lens if it ascribes cultural or behavioral traits to its population groups (that is, if it stereotypes)  - is to obscure important differences between the Soviet and Nazi regimes and their projects. If we call all politics of categorical exclusion and discrimination "racial politics," then what do we call politics actually based on the category "race"? (Hirsch, p. 37).

Fredrickson makes it clear as does John Rex that there is no real distinction between ethnicity and race such as posited by Hirsch.  Fredrickson in point of fact defined racism in terms of ethnicity.

Racism, then, can be defined as an ethnic group's assertion or maintenance of a privileged and protected status vis a vis members of another group or groups who are thought, because of defective ancestry, to possess a set of relevant characteristics that disqualify them from full membership in a community or citizenship in a nation state. (Fredrickson, p. 85).

This would certainly apply to the Russian dominated Soviet state's treatment of ethnic Germans in the USSR who were deemed by virtue of their ancestry to be potential traitors and therefore subjected to special settlement restrictions which made them second class citizens in the USSR.

Instead Hirsch claims that nationalities as defined by social and historical criteria are radically different from racial groups defined by biology.

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: it is imperative to understand Soviet conceptions of "race" and "nationality" before we can undertake a truly comparative analysis. (Hirsch, p. 30).

The distinctions made between culture and biology and ethnicity and race by Hirsch to deny the existence of racial discrimination in the USSR by the Stalin regime against the deported peoples are in point of fact trivial in practice. Something she might have figured out if she had done any real comparative work instead of confining herself to Nazi Germany as the only example of racism in world history. She instead conflates biology with race and denies that culture can also be the basis for racial discrimination.

But Soviet nationality politics (with its focus on group consciousness transmitted through culture), unlike Nazi racial politics (with its focus on racial type transmitted through biology), did not require murder. (Hirsch, p. 40).

Not only does culture perform the exact same function as biology in the Soviet case, but it is as Fredrickson points out the basis for one of the most blatantly racist systems in modern history, South African apartheid.

Stereotyping and stigmatizing a racialized group on the basis of cultural rather than biological inferiority provides a new rationale for discrimination rather than a basis for combating it. This "new racism" is not really unprecedented. Cultural rather than biological determinism was the official justification for apartheid in South Africa. (Fredrickson, p. 81).

The distinction between primordial ethnicity determined by ancestral culture and genetically determined racial categories is in reality extremely trivial. Fredrickson in fact calls the entire debate "unprofitable." (p. 84).  As already noted he defines racism in terms of ethnic status not the articulation of an explicit doctrine of biological superiority like Hirsch does.

Since race is a constructed category it can be formed on the basis of things other than biology such as culture. In practice culturally based racial discrimination such as existed in the USSR against the deported peoples and in South Africa during apartheid is no different from the denial of rights justified by claims of biological inferiority or difference.

[T]he designation of people by skin color and the mistreatment of them on that basis has no special features that would distinguish it from group domination based on religion, culture, or the simple belief that some people have defective ancestry. It is only because modern Western liberalism often assumes that it is relatively easy for people to change their religion or culture and be assimilated into a group other than the one in which they were born that the distinction has become important. (Fredrickson, p. 84).

In the case of the USSR it was not easy at all for stigmatized groups like the ethnic Germans to change their legal nationality as recorded on line five of their identification documents. Instead the NKVD decreed that this status was automatically inherited from your parents and could not be legally changed on 2 April 1938 (Petrov and Roginskii, p. 167).  Henceforth nationality in the USSR could not be functionally distinguished from race. Racism is not about biology despite the claims of people like Francine Hirsch.

Passport nationality did become inheritable - insofar as the regime maintained that an individual's nationality derived from the nationality of one or both of his parents, and insofar as passport registers circumscribed the registration process accordingly. But, more fundamentally, nationality was not biological or racial. For the NKVD and the party the issue was not an individual's biological (genetic or blood) membership in one or another group, but his or her cultural heritage and possible ties to other states. NKVD and party officials saw these latter factors as predictors of an individual's loyalty to the regime - predictors of "Soviet" consciousness. (Hirsch, p. 39).

Racism, however, is about differential and inferior treatment of people based upon ancestry which includes "cultural heritage", not biology as Hirsch falsely claims. Nationality in the USSR was certainly based upon descent from specific cultural groups. The Stalin regime then targeted specific nationalities such as the ethnic Koreans, Germans, Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and others for persecution and the deprivation of civil rights guaranteed to all other Soviet citizens. Under the definition of racism given above by Fredrickson the Soviet treatment of the deported peoples would certainly qualify as racial discrimination.

Hirsch strongly opposes this line of thinking and instead adheres to a notion that racism only exists if it is a replica of Nazi Germany's genetically based categorization of people into biological classes. That is she believes what defines racism is the justification for the creation of different categories of people and their unequal treatment rather than the unequal treatment itself (Hirsch, pp. 40-41). As Fredrickson notes the belief in different groups defined by descent and the unequal treatment of individuals because of their membership in those groups is what distinguishes racism from other forms of discrimination. Not whether that discrimination is based upon biology or culture. In fact how racism is justified is immaterial to determining whether it actually exists.

One might conclude, therefore, that racism, or something virtually indistinguishable from it, has no essential relation to skin color or other obvious physical characteristics and need not even be based on significant cultural differences. The essential element is the belief, however, justified or rationalized, in the critical importance of differing lines of descent and the use of that belief to establish or validate social inequality. (Fredrickson, pp. 84-85).

The fact that nationality in the Soviet Union was defined culturally rather than genetically is therefore immaterial in determining whether it functioned at times as a racial category. In the case of the deported peoples all the empirical evidence in fact points to nationality functioning as a racial category or something so close as to be almost identical.

The constant refrain by Hirsch that race has to be based upon a concept of biological inferiority is clearly rejected by Fredrickson. She claims that groups have to be explicitly defined as biologically inferior for racism to exist. Her denial of racial discrimination against the deported peoples is based entirely upon a biological definition of race. One she notes did not motivate Soviet treatment of the deported peoples.

The Soviet regime did not persecute nationalities because of suspected "biological weakness" or "deficient inner constitutions." It did not brand particular nationalities as biological inferiors or degenerate races. It did not praise Russians as representatives of a superior race, but an advanced "Soviet" nation (which was advanced in part, because "Russian kulaks" and other "Russian class enemies" had been reformed or removed). The Soviet regime had a scientific and political concept of race, but race did not guide its nationality polices. (Hirsch, p. 37).

Fredrickson notes that the beliefs and reasons for the unequal treatment of ethnic groups by a state is not what determines whether that treatment is racist. He also specifically repudiates the notion that there must be a belief in the inferiority of the stigmatized group for racism to exist.

Racism as a general phenomenon is not therefore defined by any specific beliefs about what makes a given minority undeserving of equal treatment. We know from the history of anti-Semitism and anti-Japanese discrimination in the United States that racism of a virulent sort can be directed at groups believed to be superior, at least in their competitive efficiency to an in-group seeking to protect its position. (Fredrickson, p. 86).

The position taken by Fredrickson is basically the mainstream orthodox view of historians of race relations in the US, Europe, and other regions of the world outside the Soviet Union. It is, however, only held by a tiny handful of people dealing with the history of the USSR. I suspect that this is because the study of Soviet history is extremely backwards in almost all aspects compared to other regions of the world. Most historians of the USSR still for instance completely reject the use of oral sources and cling dogmatically to a completely archive based model. This is despite the fact that until 1989 access to Soviet archives was extremely limited. In the 1990s there was a partial opening of the archives, but as my experience this summer in Kyrgyzstan shows many of these files have been reclassified as secret or top secret. In the TsGAKR everything dealing with Stalinist repression has been reclassified and is no longer accessible. The impoverished theoretical framework of Soviet history as represented by the dogmatic and outdated views of Hirsch on race, however, is an even greater impediment to understanding than the lack of archival documentation.


George M. Fredrickson, The Comparative Imagination: On the History of Racism, Nationalism, and Social Movements (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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

N. Petrov and A. Roginskii, "The 'Polish Operation' of the NKVD, 1937-8" in B. McLoughlin and K. McDermott, Stalin's Terror: High Politics and Mass Repression in the Soviet Union (Houndsmill: Palgrave, 2003).


Leo Tolstoy said...

"NKVD and party officials saw these latter factors as predictors of an individual' loyalty to the regime - predictors of "Soviet" consciousness." (Hirsch, p. 39).

Interesting that she seems to know what NKVD officials were thinking. Does she have some documentation to support this?

J. Otto Pohl said...

Not that I have seen.

Leo Tolstoy said...

I didn't think so. NKVD officials generally didn't think, period.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but this is just silly.

Racism is irrational, while statistical classification based on the cultural environment is perfectly rational: one does expect the Amish, on average, to think and act differently from the guys in south central LA. And if this assertion is racist, that would make racism perfectly rational and acceptable.