Saturday, December 22, 2012

George Fredrickson on Race and South Africa and Why Francine Hirsch is Wrong

The literature on racism is vast. But, despite the large amount of writing on the subject, the definition of racism is more often assumed rather than actually articulated. One of the best definitions of racism that I have found is that proposed by George Fredrickson. He succinctly summarizes his position with the statement, "we might say that racism exists when one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable." (Fredrickson, p. 170). This is a much more accurate and useful definition than the one given by Francine Hirsch. She defines "race" in purely biological rather than social or legal terms as most scholars understand it. Echoing Stalinist era Soviet anthropologists she claims race is "a physiological or biological type, whereas nationalities were sociological and historical forms." (Hirsch, p. 35). Given her narrow definition of "race" she defines "racial politics" in an equally narrow manner as the persecution of groups based upon "suspected 'biological weakness' or 'deficient inner constitutions.'" (Hirsch, p. 37). She completely ignores the scholarly consensus of people like Fredrickson, Rex, Malik, Balibar, and others that "race" is a constructed category and that it can be constructed and justified along lines other than biology. It is in fact often constructed along sociological and historical lines such as nationality. That is nationality can be racialized.

George Fredrickson has noted many times in contrast to Francine Hirsch that "race" does not have to be based upon biology and genetics like the Nazi conception, but can be based upon essentializing the culture of particular ethnic groups. That is the distinction between ethnicity and race is often blurred and that ethnic groups can become "racialized" under the right circumstances. He notes, "Unlike some sociologists, I do not believe that one can regard race and ethnicity as clearly distinct and unrelated phenomena." (Fredrickson, p. 154). He goes on to note that one way of looking at "race" is in fact as ethnicity that has been essentialized. Or as he puts it, "Race can therefore be described as what happens when ethnicity is deemed essential or indelible and made hierarchical." (Fredrickson, pp. 154-155). It should be noted that natsional'nost in the USSR was at least since 1938 treated by the Soviet government as essential and indelible as well as hierarchical. The fact that this treatment was based upon justifications regarding essentialized culture rather than biology does not make it less racist. Culture has often served as a substitute for biology in justifying racial discrimination. Or as Fredrickson puts it, "Culture and even religion can become essentialized to the point where they can serve as a functional equivalent of biological racism..." (Fredrickson, p. 145). The use of cultural rather than biological justifications to deny certain groups defined by their ancestry equal rights with other citizens of a given society is no less racist than using genetic rationalizations.

Fredrickson's definition is not merely theoretical. The Nazi Holocaust against the Jews completely destroyed the credibility of justifications of racial discrimination based upon biology and genetics. As a result cultural justifications for systems of racial exclusion became much more prevalent. Nowhere was this more apparent than in South Africa. After the imposition of apartheid in 1948, the official rationalization for the differential treatment of blacks and whites relied upon justifications of culture and not biology. Rather than appealing to theories of genetic inferiority, "the defenders of apartheid who responded to international criticism between the 1950s and 1970s eschewed biological arguments in favor of what historian Saul Dubnow has aptly described as 'cultural essentialism.'" (Fredrickson, p. 135). This 'cultural essentialism" attached to Afrikaners, Zulus, Xhosas, and other ethnic groups or in Soviet terminology nationalities did not differ significantly from the Soviet practice of categorizing its population according to immutable groups based upon ancestry and establishing a hierarchy of rights for these groups. At the top of the Soviet hierarchy were the Russians and at the bottom were the various deported peoples placed under special settlement restrictions. Even after the abolition of the special settlement regime this hierarchy persisted in the continuing ban placed upon Russian-Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks from returning to their homelands and their lack of national territories complete with the various political and cultural institutions guaranteed to other Soviet nationalities. 

Yet using Hirsch's definitions there were no "racial politics" in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. The South Africans officially conceived of the various ethnic groups or nationalities in South Africa not as biological groups, but as social and historical groups. This is quite evident from the literature of not only the South African government itself, but also the volkekundiges who played the same role in South Africa as did ethnographers in the USSR. Indeed the concept of apartheid in theory sounds remarkably similar to korenizatsiia. 

For Afrikaners , "Christian Nationalism" meant schools and universities , separate from those attended by the English, in which the language and and values of the Afrikaner Volk could flower. In theory , it meant the same thing for Zulus and Xhosa, whose homelands would be the cradles of growth of their own unique national cultures. (Fredrickson, p. 135).

The white apartheid regime in South Africa and its scholarly supporter did not speak in terms of biology or genetics. They like the Soviet Union justified their policies in terms of ethnicity, Volk (Narod), culture, and history. Since the discrimination under apartheid was officially against groups defined on the basis of their social and historical development and justified on that rather than any biological reasoning then one would have to conclude using Hirsch's definitions that no "racial politics" existed in South Africa. This is of course a patently absurd conclusion. As Fredrickson points out, "the essence of racism is not biological determinism per se but the positing, on whatever basis, of unbridgeable differences between ethnic or descent groups - distinctions that are then used to justify their differential treatment." (Fredrickson, p. 137). Practicing discrimination against groups on the basis of their ethnicity (natsional'nost) falls under the category of racism if ethnicity is defined in such a way as to make assimilation impossible. In both the case of the USSR and South Africa ethnicity was permanent, immutable, essentialized, and based upon ancestry. They were also both justified on the basis of cultural, historical, and social factors not biological or genetic ones.

Fortunately, outside of scholars of the USSR nobody uses Hirsch's definition of "race" today. Even the volkekundiges have abandoned attempts to historically justify apartheid on the basis that it was founded upon the differential treatment of social and historical and not biologically defined groups. Only in the case of the Soviet Union does Hirsch's outmoded and inaccurate definition of race still dominate. Unfortunately, she seems to completely dominate the historical study of Soviet nationalities in the US. The words "race", racism, racialization, and racial discrimination remain almost completely absent from scholarly works on Soviet nationality policy written by US based scholars. This absence is not due to a lack of official racism in the USSR, but rather to adoption of Soviet definitions by scholars in the US to defend the regime from the charge of racial discrimination. One could just as easily use the same definition of "race" to deny that there were ever any "racial politics" in South Africa during the era of apartheid and it would be just as ridiculous. 


George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002).

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

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