Books: Was racial equality born of a fear of revenge?

The Silent War by Frank Furedi, Pluto pounds 14.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The idea of racial equality is so much part of the contemporary intellectual outlook that it is easy to forget how recently, and how suddenly, Western politicians and intellectuals became converts to an egalitarian viewpoint. When, after the First World War, Japan attempted to include in the founding charter of the League of Nations a statement in support of racial equality, its efforts were brusquely dismissed by European and American delegations. Western diplomats, wrote one contemporary observer, "had neither time nor thought" for such matters.

It was a very different story three decades later. The ideas of racial equality, national sovereignty and self-determination were at the heart of the project of the United Nations. The very idea of race, which had been so central to Western society for a century and more, was now officially consigned to being a "myth".

What caused this astonishing change of heart? Most conventional histories see the key issue as that of Nazism and the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, they argue, it simply became impossible for mainstream politicians and academics to profess a belief in racial superiority. Frank Furedi disagrees. He acknowledges the importance of the Holocaust in recasting the Western intellectual landscape. But, he insists in this provocatively argued and superbly researched work, the experience of the Holocaust is insufficient to explain the emergence of egalitarian ideas in the postwar world. After all, Furedi points out, "revulsion at the Holocaust did not lead to the transformation of white attitudes towards, say, blacks in America or South Africa, or towards Asians".

Furedi suggests that the real reasons for a more pragmatic attitude to race lay much deeper in the Western psyche. Having racialised world affairs in the 19th century, Western politicians and intellectuals came to worry that reaction to Western domination would take a racial form. Through an impressive grasp of archival material, Furedi shows how deep and widespread was the fear of "racial revenge". Virtually every expression of anti- Western sentiment was viewed as "envy and hatred of the white man", as one contemporary observer put it in a report on the independence struggle in the Solomon Islands. Western politicians and diplomats found it hard to accept that Africans and Asians might be motivated by nationalism, anti-colonialism or a simple thirst for freedom. Having established a racial view of the world, Furedi suggests, the Western elite was constrained to view all political and social action in racial terms.

Indeed, the very ideas of "racism" and of "race consciousness" were initially used to describe, not Western oppression of non-white peoples, but the reaction of colonial subjects to Western domination. For instance, the American sociologist William O Brown described "emerging among South African natives an immature racialism which will ultimately grow into a matured race consciousness".

The consequence of this fear of racial revenge was the emergence of what Furedi calls "racial pragmatism". Increasingly, politicians and academics came to see that public displays of white racial superiority were dangerous since they invited an explosion of racial resentment. The problem of race could only be solved, they believed, by the elimination of "racial arrogance" on the part of Europeans.

This did not mean a belief in equality. Indeed, as Furedi points out, such pragmatists viewed campaigns for equality as inflaming "good race relations". They suggested, rather, that whites should not boast about their superiority and must follow a certain "etiquette" when dealing with different races.

It was such pragmatism, fuelled by fear of racial revenge, Furedi argues, that, as much as revulsion against the Holocaust, underlay the postwar acceptance by Western politicians of racial equality. Fearful that newly independent nations of Africa and Asia would turn their backs on it, the West tried to clean up its act, to introduce legislation of equality at home and to crusade for equal rights abroad.

The Silent War is an important work that asks important questions about the struggle for racial equality today, and adds new insights into the history of racial thinking.

Readers of the IoS can buy 'The Silent War' for pounds 14.99 (free UK p&p). To order, call Pluto Press on 0181-324 5570 (24 hrs)