Jerry Woodruff, Race and the American Prospect, 2006
On the opening page of his influential Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud in 1913 supposed that the mental life of “those whom we describe as savages or half-savages” provides a “well preserved picture of an early stage of our own development.” The supposition prefaces his analysis of the taboo against incest among Australia’s aborigines. He described them as “a distinct race, showing neither physical nor linguistic relationship with their nearest neighbors. . .” But just whose development did Freud have in mind when he said “our,” and why did he think that the mental life of savages was comparable to theirs?
The questions are far from trivial, for the process of answering them reveals a tacit abstract prejudice favoring universalism that appears not just in Freud but throughout the main intellectual history of the Western world. It is ultimately a prejudice that unless exposed and overthrown may very well one day prove catastrophic for the white West. The prejudice has confused Western thinking about race and left the culture vulnerable to ideological assaults from non-white peoples seeking social, cultural, and political hegemony.
It is evident that Freud, like other intellectuals whose ideas profoundly influenced the West, was aware of racial differences. But it is equally evident that his perception of those differences did not significantly affect his newly developed psychoanalytic theory. Freud presumed implicitly that racial distinctions were merely physical, not psychical, and did not address the issue. Later in Taboo, Freud explained that he regarded the aborigines as being distinct from “the civilized races” (who are left unidentified but are who he no doubt meant by the word “our”). Nonetheless, he saw no impediment to applying the results of his analysis of the aborigines to all mankind, regardless of race.
That is odd. After all, the comparison he wished to make was between two sets of people whose differences are rather large. One group is industrial and civilized; the other, which has lived on the same planet for just as long, is not. Surely a keen observer might surmise that the difference indicates a major dissimilarity, not a correspondence, in the “mental life” of the groups under scrutiny. None of the people Freud described in 1913 as “savages or half savages” was white. All of the primitive peoples whose cultural habits and practices he discussed in Taboo are black or brown. Relying more on a tacit universalist prejudice than on evidence, Freud simply chose to believe that the “mental life” of black and brown primitives is scientifically parallel to “our” own.
He argued that the persistence of the taboo against incest through generations of aborigines (and the severe death penalty meted out to violators) indicates “that the original desire to do the prohibited thing must also still persist among the tribes.” Freud then baldly universalized his conclusion, asserting that incest “must be the oldest and most powerful of human desires.”
It is tempting to dismiss the universalist prejudice as simply a convenience of speech in which the universal serves as a conceptual shorthand for a more complicated particularism whose elucidation vitiates an economical statement. One might say, for example, “dogs are useful for hunting birds,” when the speaker knows full well that pointers and retrievers are useful while Chihuahuas and border collies are not. That would indeed be a conceptual shorthand. But the universalist prejudice is no casual convenience. It is a deep-seated and sometimes self-contradictory preference embedded in the West’s intellectual tradition, obscuring important truths and appearing persistently in documents and writings of the most precise social and philosophical intent, tainting Western institutions and leading to serious errors and contradictions vulnerable to political exploitation.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous formulation, “all men are created equal,” is perhaps the most salient American example of the universalist prejudice and its social and political effects. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, asserting that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Here a political principle became entangled in a universalist expression on which an entire nation was to be founded.
We know, of course, that neither Jefferson, a slave owner, nor many of the other signers of the Declaration (slave owners or not) believed the literal meaning of those words. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson made it clear that he suspected some men were not at all equal and not even entitled to liberty:
[The races of black and red men] have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstance, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. . . This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.
Jefferson’s phrase “all men are created equal” was no insight culled from natural history. Appearing in a political document used to justify political rebellion, it was designed to challenge aristocratic privilege and rule by royalty. The Declaration is an eloquent document, and the phrase is an elegant expression that defines a “self-evident” moral and legal condition that the Founders regarded as fundamental to self-government. There is no evidence it was intended as a universalist principle apart from its function as a legal abstraction. Though the phrase has been turned to dishonest account by those who claim it justifies imposition of an egalitarian political order, the Founders’ view of equality finds its political expression primarily in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which forbids the government from conferring any title of nobility and prohibits any officeholder from accepting one.
The universalist prejudice is evident throughout the Declaration and is tacitly understood to exist among its intended audience. Although written out of consideration for what it calls “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” the Declaration is aimed actually at American and European audiences. Here the leading minds of the New World proclaimed to the Old World their reasons for rebellion against England, the greatest power on earth. They wanted their cause understood sympathetically; but neither Jefferson nor, apparently, any of the other signers feared rebuke at home or abroad for a Declaration in which slave owners proclaimed explicitly that “all men” are endowed with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Their comfort as slave owners in proclaiming a belief in a universal right to liberty appears to a modern audience as error and contradiction, if not outright hypocrisy. It cannot be explained as the consequence of mere conceptual shorthand or expedient political rhetoric. The Founders were comfortable because of the operation of the universalist prejudice underlying much of the Western intellectual tradition in which the world’s most technologically advanced people identified themselves and their interests and achievements with no particular group but with mankind as a whole. That prejudice, unrecognized by them, facilitated the seeming contradiction.
Thus, perceptions of racial differences did not find explicit political expression in the nation’s founding, despite their careful and thoughtful consideration by leaders like Jefferson, who devoted several lengthy passages in his Notes on the State of Virginia to an exploration of the nature and meaning of those differences. Significantly, the Constitution’s compromise in Article I, Section 2 to count just three-fifths of slaves as persons for purposes of congressional apportionment relies not on racial differences for its impact but on only the legal status of “free” or “slave.” The Constitution treats free blacks no differently than free whites.
Jefferson’s knowledge of racial differences did not become manifest in his political philosophy, just as Freud’s perception of racial differences failed to influence his psychoanalytic theory. That failure of empirical racial knowledge to emerge politically as mature racial consciousness is also true of leading Western philosophers whose impact on the West’s intellectual history and politics has been lasting.
Few of those have had the influence of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His Phenomenology of Mind and Philosophy of Right helped propel the exertions of competing ideologies from Marxism to Fascism, stamping the entire twentieth century with their mark. In Hegel, the universalist prejudice is nearly explicit.
While knowledge of racial differences appears in Hegel, it disappears into the background, layered over with universalist principles despite — or perhaps because of — the often difficult and painstaking precision expressed in his works. In his Philosophy of History, a series of lectures published posthumously, Hegel ventured to show that world history followed a rational, purposeful course. History is the unfolding of Spirit, the subject of his masterwork, Phenomenology of Mind. Spirit — that part of the Divine that comprises the finite spirits (consciousness) of individual men — exhibits itself in the process of reaching self-consciousness, described by Hegel as knowledge of its self as self-consciousness. World history is Spirit acting in Time, actualizing what it is potentially, which is its own knowledge of self-consciousness. Hegel believed that the freedom of self-consciousness is the essence of Spirit. In Hegelian terms, Spirit is best understood in contrast to its opposite, Matter. The essence of Matter is gravity, having weight and being subject to natural forces. Its tendency is to be pulled toward a central point, to exist ideally in unity with other Matter. By contrast, the essence of Spirit is the opposite, which is freedom. Its freedom is existing for itself as self-contained being. It achieves self-consciousness when it realizes its essence, which is freedom. World history is the course of events set in motion by a multitude of men animated by Spirit (self-consciousness), seeking their self-interests through various stages that are to culminate in freedom and the self-consciousness of it.
In Hegel’s words, “The History of the world is none other than the progress of consciousness of freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate.”
But something curious happens during that investigation. It turns out that the unfolding history of the World Spirit works its progress only through certain “world-historical” peoples. They are the peoples of the Oriental World, the Greek World, and the Germanic (European) World. Progress of the Spirit is characterized by the degrees to which it knows of its freedom, reflecting various grades in the consciousness of freedom. For Hegel, freedom finds itself coming into realization only among the Europeans. (This phenomenon, Hegel weakly argues, is the result of Europe’s temperate climate. “In the Frigid and in the Torrid zone the locality of World-historical peoples cannot be found. . . In the extreme zones man cannot come to free movement; cold and heat are here too powerful. . . The true theatre of History is therefore the temperate zone; or rather, its northern half, because the earth there presents itself in a continental form, and has a broad breast, as the Greeks say.”)
Thus in Hegel, the identification of Europeans with the pinnacle achievements of mankind in general becomes explicit: “The History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning.” Hegel says the Oriental world knew only that the ruler was free. The Greek and Roman world knew that some people are free while others are not. But the Europeans know that all men (“man qua man”) are free.
The peoples of Africa, however, are not included in any stage of history. To Hegel, they are not historical people. For him, “Africa proper [distinct from history-producing regions of Africa, such as Egypt], as far as History goes back, has remained — for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World — shut up; it is. . . the land of childhood. . .”
The blacks of Africa present Hegel’s philosophy with a serious problem, even though he tries to attribute their absence from history partly to climate. The problem arises from Hegel’s exploration of the nature of consciousness in his Phenomenology of Mind as a universal phenomenon. Africans are conscious men, and as we shall see, the essential nature of their Spirit must logically present the same essential reality as the consciousness of others. In an apparent effort to convince readers — or perhaps himself — that excluding Africans from history is justified, Hegel goes to considerable lengths to describe his understanding of blacks, based on empirical observations by others. His recounting of those observations is clearly designed to highlight and emphasize the tremendous difference between Africans and the history-making civilized peoples of the world:
The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality — all that we call feeling — if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mohammedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings the Negroes within the range of culture. . . The grade of culture which the Negroes occupy may be more nearly appreciated by considering the aspect which Religion presents among them. . . Although they are necessarily conscious of dependence upon nature — for they need the beneficial influence of storm, rain, cessation of the rainy period, and so on — yet this does not conduct them to the consciousness of a Higher Power: it is they who command the elements, and this they call “magic.” The Kings have a class of ministers through whom they command elemental changes, and every place possesses such magicians, who perform special ceremonies, with all sorts of gesticulations, dances, uproar, and shouting, and in the midst of this confusion commence their incantations. . .
[F]rom the fact that man is regarded as the Highest, it follows that he has no respect for himself; for only with the consciousness of a Higher Being does he reach a point of view which inspires him with reverence. . . The Negroes indulge, therefore, that perfect contempt for humanity, which in its bearing on Justice and Morality is the fundamental characteristic of the race. They have moreover no knowledge of the immortality of the soul, although specters are supposed to appear. The undervaluing of humanity among them reaches an incredible degree of intensity. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race; to the sensual Negro, human flesh is but an object of sense — mere flesh. At the death of a King hundreds are killed and eaten; prisoners are butchered and their flesh sold in the markets; the victor is accustomed to eat the heart of his slain foe. When magical rites are performed, it frequently happens that the sorcerer kills the first that comes in his way and divides his body among the bystanders. Another characteristic fact in reference to the Negroes is Slavery. Negroes are enslaved by Europeans and sold in America. Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere thing — an object of no value. Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely, children their parents, as either has the opportunity. . . The polygamy of the Negroes has frequently for its object the having many children, to be sold, every one of them, into slavery; and very often naive complaints on this score are heard, as for instance in the case of a Negro in London, who lamented that he was now quite a poor man because he had already sold all his relations. In the contempt of humanity displayed by the Negroes, it is not so much a despising of death as a want of regard for life that forms the characteristic feature. . .
Turning our attention in the next place to the category of political constitution, we shall see that the entire nature of this race is such as to preclude the existence of any such arrangement. The standpoint of humanity at this grade is mere sensuous volition with energy of will; since universal spiritual laws (for example, that of the Family) cannot be recognized here. Universality exists only as arbitrary choice. The political bond can therefore not possess such a character as that free laws should unite the community. There is absolutely no bond, no restraint upon that arbitrary volition. Nothing but external force can hold the State together for a moment. A ruler stands at the head, for sensuous barbarism can only be restrained by despotic power. But since the subjects are of equally violent temper with their master, they keep him on the other hand within limits. . .
[I]t is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them at this day, such have they always been. The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and Europeans is that of slavery. In this the Negroes see nothing unbecoming them, and the English who have done most for abolishing the slave-trade and slavery, are treated by the Negroes themselves as enemies.
Hegel’s summary is based on these observations:
The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas — the category of Universality. In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to realization of substantial objective existence — as for example, God, or Law — in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being.
The foregoing passages are remarkable for several reasons, the most important of which reveals that Hegel’s a priori phenomenology stumbles profoundly when confronted with empirical observations about race. He is forced to admit that his own principle of universality is no longer relevant, yet he continues in the lectures on history to invoke it. It is as if Karl Marx had proclaimed that dialectical materialism explained all history — except for Japan’s.
Hegel is clearly baffled by the reported observations of Africans. He freely admits their character is “difficult to comprehend.” In one instance he appears to regard Africans — as Freud regarded the aborigines — as simply in an early stage of human development, as when he refers to Africa as “a land of childhood.” Traces of this view recur when he says that among Africans, “consciousness has not yet attained to realization of substantial objective existence,” as if a higher stage of development will some time follow. But that view is contradicted by his stated conviction that the condition of the Negroes “is capable of no development,” and that “as we see them at this day, such have they always been.” Hegel’s problem is that the clash of his a priori phenomenology with his a posteriori racial observations cannot be resolved by categorically asserting that Negro consciousness has not yet come into “objective existence.”
According to the argument of his own phenomenology, African consciousness cannot avoid realizing objective existence. His entire Phenomenology of Mind, on which his view of history is based, requires universality for its truth and consistency. For Hegel, history develops from the nature of man’s consciousness, and that consciousness leads inexorably through interaction with other men pursuing their passions and interests, to knowledge, society, culture, and history. Consciousness — as Mind or Spirit — has a nature as consciousness alone, and it is as consciousness in itself that development occurs.
Hegel proposed that history advances through stages in the development of consciousness. One new stage of consciousness emerges in the universal experience of an individual consciousness coming into consciousness of another self-consciousness. He illustrated the development of the stage by describing the encounter of a master and slave (“bondsman”). It is through labor for others — as slave or subservient worker — that individual consciousness apprehends its being through the externalization of itself in work. Labor in servitude:
giving shape and form, is at the same time the individual existence, the pure self-existence of that consciousness, which now in the work it does is externalized and passes into the condition of permanence. The consciousness that toils and serves accordingly attains by this means the direct apprehension of that independent being as its self. . . [By] shaping and forming the object. . . the bondsman becomes thereby aware of himself as factually and objectively self-existent. . . Thus precisely in labor where there seemed to be merely some outsider’s mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware, through this rediscovery of himself by himself, of having and being a “mind of his own.”
Through the very slavery reported by Hegel in his survey of Africa, Negro slaves must necessarily have achieved awareness of objective self-existence, which is precisely the objective self-consciousness that Hegel claimed the Negroes of Africa did not possess.
For this reflexion of self into self the two moments, fear and service in general, as also that of formative activity, are necessary: and at the same time both must exist in a universal manner. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear remains formal and does not spread over the whole known reality of existence. Without the formative activity shaping the thing, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness does not become objective for itself.
For if the Negroes of Africa and the slaves there are not aware of themselves as “factually and objectively self-existent,” then their consciousness and their experience in the master/slave encounter is not universal and general, but particular and specific as exceptions. Their consciousness would necessarily be different from the consciousness of Europeans. If so, then Spirit is dependent on the biology of the Africans and Europeans for the differences in the nature of their consciousnesses. That calls into question Hegel’s entire phenomenology. If the essential nature of mind is phenomenologically manifold, Hegel’s unitary Phenomenology is inadequate to its task.
In the lectures in Philosophy of History, Hegel continued to speak confidently of “humanity” reaching this or that stage. In the Middle Ages, for example, humanity attains “the consciousness of a real internal harmonization of Spirit, and a good conscience in regard to actuality — to secular existence. The Human Spirit has come to stand on its own basis. In the self-consciousness to which man has thus advanced, there is no revolt against the Divine. . .” But as we know, Hegel does not believe it is “man” that has advanced, but only particular men of a particular world-historical people. Thus the universalist prejudice persists, leaving Hegel’s Phenomenology to stand as a major testament in the annals of universalist philosophy.
Just as Jefferson’s knowledge of racial differences never entered the Declaration of Independence or shaded the proclamation that “all men” have the right to liberty, Hegel’s explicit, self-conscious exclusion of Africa from history does not intrude on his universalist insistence that it is mankind that arrives at particular stages in history. The same impulse to ignore particular truths in favor of more grandiose universality also finds expression in the works of Immanuel Kant.
In recent decades, Kant has become the target of moral finger-pointing from the academic left despite his cosmopolitanism and opposition to European colonialism. The reason is Kant’s apparent “racism.”
According to Eric Voegelin, “Kant offered the first systematic justification for the use of the word race in connection with the description of man.” While others had used race intermittently in the sense of a “variety” or “type,” Kant is responsible for implanting the word as a classification of groups of men with distinguishing inheritable traits for purposes of natural history.
In Kant’s system, four major races emerge: whites (Europeans), blacks (Africans), Mongolians (Asian), and Hindustanis (Indian). While Kant’s division is based mostly on skin color, he described in various essays from time to time what he believed were other sorts of racial differences. In Physical Geography, he wrote, “Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites. The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them and at the lowest point are a part of the American peoples.”
It is clear from both his published works and from reports on his unpublished notes unearthed by his critics that Kant saw the racial division of man as hierarchical. In his Essay on the Different Races of Man, he wrote that American Indians are incapable of culture:
That their natural disposition has not yet reached a complete fitness for any climate provides a test that can hardly offer another explanation why this race, too weak for hard labor, too phlegmatic for diligence, and unfit for any culture, still stands — despite the proximity of example and ample encouragement — far below the Negro, who undoubtedly holds the lowest of all remaining levels by which we designate the different races.
Kant believed blacks were incapable of mastering art or science:
The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. [David] Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have even been set free, still not a single one was ever found who presented anything great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality, even though among the whites some continually rise aloft from the lowest rabble, and through superior gifts earn respect in the world. So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color. . . The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.
In one passage, Kant declares blacks stupid:
In the lands of the black, what better can one expect than what is found prevailing, namely the feminine sex in the deepest slavery? A despairing man is always a strict master over anyone weaker, just as with us that man is always a tyrant in the kitchen who outside his own house hardly dares to look anyone in the face. Of course, Father Labat reports that a Negro carpenter, whom he reproached for haughty treatment toward his wives, answered: “You whites are indeed fools, for first you make great concessions to your wives, and afterwards you complain when they drive you mad.” And it might be that there were something in this which perhaps deserved to be considered; but in short, this fellow was quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.
And Kant doubted blacks could be civilized: “The Negro can be disciplined and cultivated, but is never genuinely civilized. He falls of his own accord into savagery.” Based on his empirical knowledge of race, then, Kant was a hereditarian who thought that although the different races stemmed from common ancestors, the differences were inheritable, permanent characteristics.
Those views have triggered strong condemnation from modern academics. One of them, Robert Bernasconi, who is Moss Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis and coeditor of Race and Racism in Continental Philosophy, charges that Kant deserves “a place in the history of racism” for those views. In his essay, “Kant As an Unfamiliar Source of Racism,” Bernasconi chastises Kant for his failure to denounce black slavery, for ideas that “may have lent themselves to a colonialist ideology” (even though Kant denounced European imperialism), and for his opposition to race mixing, in which “Kant’s main contribution to racism can be seen.”
Bernasconi’s critical technique, like many of the assaults launched against the white West in general by the dominant academic left, consists of little more than gathering scattered quotes that reveal Kant’s often casual empirical observations about racial differences. Bernasconi makes no effort in his essay to show how they are — or even if they are — integrated into Kant’s philosophy.
Bernasconi’s complaints hardly seem justified in light of the clear evidence that despite Kant’s observation of racial differences and strong opinions about them, his racial views did not emerge in his moral or political philosophies, or in his monumental epistemological studies, including The Critique of Pure Reason, for which he is most remembered. On the contrary, it is in those works that we see the universalist prejudice in operation, and not his alleged “racism.”
In his Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, Kant’s understanding of the differences between races of men vanishes. Kant believed that through applying reason to history, one might discover the ultimate aim of human endeavors. He expressed the hope that if history “examines the free exercise of the human will on a large scale, it will be able to discover a regular progression among freely willed actions. In the same way, we may hope that what strikes us in the actions of individuals as confused and fortuitous may be recognized, in the history of the entire species, as a steadily advancing but slow development of man’s original capacities.” No race of men is excluded from the purpose in history he hopes men will one day discover.
In his “Second Proposition” for the groundwork of a universal history, Kant asserts that the complete development of man’s natural capacities cannot occur in an individual alone, but only “in the species,” because each generation would be dependent for its stage of development on the insights and gains of the preceding generation.
Kant’s philosophical interest in man’s development as a species occurs repeatedly throughout the work. In the “Eighth Proposition” he asserts, “The history of the human race as a whole can be regarded as the realization of a hidden plan of nature to bring about an internally — and for this purpose also externally — perfect political constitution as the only possible state within which all natural capacities of mankind can be developed completely.”
In his essay Perpetual Peace Kant refers to the “community of man” and the “right of strangers” to hospitality in foreign lands. He denounces the “inhospitable” conduct of the “civilized states of our continent” for the “injustice which they display in visiting foreign countries and peoples (which in their case is the same as conquering them). . .” He asserts that the “peoples of the earth” are part of a “universal community” where “a violation of rights in one part of the world is felt everywhere.” He argues that “a cosmopolitan right. . . is a necessary complement to the unwritten code of political and international right, transforming it into a universal right of humanity. Only under this condition can we flatter ourselves that we are continually advancing towards a perpetual peace.”
Kant believed that perpetual peace is possible in part because commerce requires stable, peaceable relations between men, and “the spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war.”
Those ideas from a man who believed that Negroes and Indians were incapable of culture and civilization (even though the “spirit of commerce” apparently will seize them eventually) are possible only because of the operation of the universalist prejudice by which casually observed differences among races are suppressed in favor of a more rigorously expressed abstract universalist sentiment.
Except for Kant’s classification of races, which as a contribution to natural science he carefully defended with rigorous argument and analysis, a large part of Kant’s racial views was based not on extensive scientific investigation or thorough logical analysis but on hearsay and the reports of others. As a result, some of the views he expressed are not merely wrong but sometimes ludicrously so. In Physical Geography, he reports on what he calls “a few curiosities about the blacks”:
- The Negroes are born white apart from their genitals and a ring around the navel, which are black. During the first months of life the black color spreads out from these parts over the whole body.
- When a Negro burns himself the spot turns white. Long illnesses also turn the Negroes quite white; but a body that has become white through illness turns blacker in death than it ever was before.
Those views make it difficult to take Kant’s “racism” seriously, or to grant him, in Bernasconi’s phrase, “a place in the history of racism.”
Bernasconi claims that Kant opposed racial mixture, having found a note in which Kant writes, “Should one propose that the races be fused or not? They do not fuse and it is also not desirable that they should. The whites would be degraded. For not every race adopts the morals and customs of the Europeans.”
But it is Kant’s published works that have influenced the West, not his unpublished notes. And Kant’s published political writings show not even the slightest advocacy of racial particularism, nor any recommendations about how white or European societies should be organized to take racial differences into account in any way.
On the contrary, in “The Metaphysics of Morals,” Kant’s philosophy precludes any racial exclusiveness in political and legislative arrangements. First he argues that only moral laws arrived at a priori can have metaphysical necessity, and then that determining whether any laws passed by duly constituted legislative bodies are morally right depends on “whether they constitute a universal criterion by which we may recognize in general what is right and what is unjust.” Answers to such questions “will remain concealed” unless we abandon “empirical principles for a time” and look “for the sources of those judgements in the realm of pure reason.” For Kant, what is “right” is “the sum total of those conditions within which the will of one person can be reconciled with the will of another in accordance with a universal law of freedom.”
Kant described what he calls the universal principle of right as follows:
Every action which itself or by its maxim enables the freedom of each individual’s will to co-exist with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law is right. Thus if my action or my situation in general can co-exist with the freedom of everyone in accordance with a universal law, anyone who hinders me in either does me an injustice; for this hindrance or resistance cannot co-exist with freedom in accordance with universal laws.
Equality of action is the essential operating principle for Kant; there is no room for a racially based right or privilege. The same holds true for Kant’s theory of public right, in which he maintained that public right — the sum total of laws which are universally required to produce a state of right in civil society — is based, among other principles, on “civil equality in recognizing no-one among the people as superior. . .”
Nowhere does Kant suggest that blacks, who he believes will “fall into savagery” of their own accord, ought to be excluded from the civilized societies which they are supposedly incapable of creating. As in the case of Jefferson and Hegel, Kant’s racial awareness never achieved political and philosophical maturity.
The same can be said of the political views of many other Enlightenment thinkers. In 1748 British skeptic David Hume, in a footnote in an essay, “Of National Characters,” displays the universalist prejudice in pristine form:
[I]ndeed there is some reason to think, that all the nations, which live beyond the polar circles or between the tropics, are inferior to the rest of the species, and are incapable of all the higher attainments of the human mind. . . I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.
Thus Hume saw the achievements of whites as examples of the attainments of “the human mind” while unconsciously regarding the abilities of the other races as the attributes of deviations from the “human” norm. Like Hegel, who rarely referred to Africa’s blacks as “mankind” (that universal reference was nearly always reserved for white Europeans), Hume did not develop a politically sophisticated, racially particularist outlook because he saw the attributes of whites as the attainment of humans in general, but the characteristics of other races as specific attributes of only themselves. “Man” or “the human mind” was used as a reference for whites, while non-whites were simply “all other species of men.”
To the racially conscious, references to mankind in any but a zoological or religious context are poetry and metaphor, not philosophy.
So while the intellectual history of the West includes explicit and varying knowledge and acknowledgement of racial differences, that knowledge did not translate into explicit political philosophy as racial particularism. The West’s intellectuals may be said to have been racially aware, but they were certainly not racially conscious in a modern or mature political sense as advocates of racial particularism. It is arguable that the entire ideational framework of Western political institutions is universalist. The architects provided no political philosophy with which the white European world could relate to the non-white, non-European world as a specific people relating to and confronting other peoples.
Seen from that perspective, the alleged “racism” of the white West that provokes the left’s incessant complaints appears philosophically impotent. After all, as we have seen, some of the very Western “racists” about whom the left complains are themselves eloquent advocates of universalism. Nonetheless, the effect of the left’s complaints about the West’s “racist” past, focused into political action throughout the culture, has been alarmingly effective, achieving for the left and its non-white constituencies nearly unchallenged ideological hegemony in virtually all of the West’s institutions.
The left has attacked on a broad front, demanding that the West’s whites hand over economic, political, social, and cultural power to nonwhites in a grand scale of venues ranging from local urban neighborhoods to national capitals and global platforms like the U.N. and the World Bank. To launch that attack, the left, since the decolonization of the non-white world in the post — World War II era, has often disguised its claims as universalism, even invoking the slogans of the dreaded “racists” themselves — that is, “all men are created equal.” The influence of Hegel’s view of “man qua man” in history can be seen in the brazen claims of Freudian-Marxist Third World advocate Frantz Fanon, in whose rhetoric universalism becomes a justification for racial and cultural expropriation: “I am a man, and in this sense the Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass.”
To the West’s whites, universalism is a deeply rooted intellectual tradition; to non-white racial advocates, it is simply a tool to employ or discard as needed. Under the universalist umbrella, Fanon warned the world that Europe’s capitalists “will not manage to divide the progressive forces which mean to lead mankind toward happiness by brandishing the threat of a Third World which is rising like the tide to swallow up all Europe. . . What [the Third World] expects from those who for centuries have kept it in slavery is that they will help it to rehabilitate mankind. . .” But the “mankind” that needs rehabilitation consists only of the kind of men who are white Europeans. The rehabilitation is to take place through the non-whites’ expropriation of the white world.
[T]he imperialist states would make a great mistake and commit an unspeakable injustice if they contented themselves with withdrawing from our soil. . . The wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too. . . For in a very concrete way, Europe has stuffed herself inordinately with the gold and raw materials of the colonial countries: Latin America, China, and Africa. From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries toward that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The wealth which smothers her is that which was stolen from the underdeveloped peoples. . . So when we hear the head of a European state declare with his hand on his heart that he must come to the aid of the poor undeveloped peoples, we do not tremble with gratitude. Quite the contrary, we say to ourselves: “It’s a just reparation which will be paid to us.” Nor will we acquiesce in the help for underdeveloped countries being a program of “sisters of charity.” This help should be the ratification of a double realization: the realization by the colonized peoples that it is their due, and the realization by the capitalist powers that in fact they must pay.
Although Fanon’s resentment is dressed in universalist Marxist vocabulary, the masked reality is objectively racial. Europe is not the bourgeoisie but white civilization. And Latin America, China, and Africa are not an economic class but the whole non-white world and its cultures. The objective material reality driving the overthrow of Europe is not the birth of a new stage of economic development but the biology of demography: In 1960, whites were one-fourth of the world’s population, but in 2000 they were just one-sixth. By 2050 — if not earlier — they will be just one-tenth, a minority in many if not all of their own countries, including the U.S. That racial dynamic will drive the course of world history for at least the next several decades, no matter whose ideological propaganda or what universalist euphemisms are used to describe it.
While the modern left has advanced its claims for non-white power in a variety of contexts, including psychological, historical, social, economic, cultural, and political, those who would defend the white West have for the most part ignored race altogether and relied hitherto on what Samuel Francis called “an older rhetoric.” That rhetoric tried to deflect the left’s attack on white society not by explicit defense of whites themselves, or even by identifying the racial character of the attack, but by invoking traditional political and cultural symbols merely associated with whites, such as the flag, the Constitution, liberty, anti-communism, etc.
The older rhetoric of race among racially conscious whites assumed that the political and cultural dominance of whites was secure or at least intact, and that non-white racial consciousness was weak, non-existent, and not a serious political or cultural force. Hence, the older rhetoric could rely on a broad base of agreement among whites — about such matters as the importance and meaning of the U.S. Constitution, the danger of communism, the heroic stature of such figures as Washington and Jefferson, and a whole universe of assumptions about human nature, human society, science, religion, ethics, and cultural values — assumptions that can no longer be taken for granted. So secure was this cultural consensus among almost all whites that racial consciousness really did not need to appeal to race itself very much or very directly.
Underlying the “whole universe of assumptions” is the universalist prejudice itself, including the tacit belief that non-white peoples within the white cultural realm feel — or ought to feel — the same attachment to white symbols felt by the whites.
Francis’s analysis likely explains the prominence of the universalist prejudice among earlier racially aware Western thinkers. There were no racially conscious non-white forces seriously contending with whites for political and cultural hegemony within the realm of European power. Nor was there any external impetus to drive the development of a mature, politically expressed white racial consciousness. Technologically advanced far beyond the other peoples of the globe, the West was externally secure and internally confident. It was easy for the West’s whites to see themselves as “mankind” and others as merely aspirants trying to catch up.
Conditions today are radically different.
For whites, the danger is great. From the Caribbean and Latin America to Africa, the Mideast, and Asia, non-white leaders are riding — and encouraging — a rising tide of resentment against whites for centuries of global domination and perceived oppression. All over the world, from Mexican irredentists in the American southwest and Muslim radicals in Karachi and Khartoum to saber-rattling Chinese communists in Beijing, hatred for the white West is erupting in organized political movements and armed hostility. From calls for reparations in Chicago and Durban to bombs in Baghdad and anti-Christian riots in Jakarta, the flames of revenge are being fanned not just by non-white leaders like Sharpton, Mugabe, Aristide, Mbeki, and bin Laden, but by their left-wing white allies inside the home countries.
Unlike the challenge faced by an earlier white civilization, the West today faces problems of defense that do not involve a physical frontier, as Oswald Spengler noted in The Hour of Decision:
[T]he orbis terrarum of the Roman Empire was an enclosed area with frontiers that could be guarded. The position of the present Imperium of the white nations, which embraces the whole globe and includes the colored races, is far more difficult. White humanity has scattered itself to all quarters in the ungovernable urge to infinite distance: over both Americas, South Africa, Australia, and innumerable strategic points between. The Yellow-Brown-Black-Red menace lurks within the field of white power. It penetrates into and participates in the military and revolutionary agreements and disagreements of the white powers and threatens one day to take matters into its own hands.
Blame for the West’s predicament can be attributed to the failure of the white populations to develop and assert an awareness of their own racial and cultural self-interests. In the face of increasingly strident and sometimes violent challenges from the non-white world, the West has responded with financial aid, food, medical assistance, and apologies for the past. Under the sway of multiculturalist ideologies imposed by a modern ruling class that seeks to extend its dominance over many different peoples and cultures, the whites of the West appear blind to the gathering storm.
The failure to achieve awareness of racial self interest — mature racial consciousness — can be traced at least in part to the remarkable paucity of explicit racial advocacy in the West’s intellectual history, and to the dependence of that tradition on a universalist conceptual framework. In spite of the extensive awareness of racial differences — sometimes carefully considered, sometimes not — among some of the West’s most important and influential intellectuals, that awareness repeatedly failed to translate into meaningful philosophical or political manifestations. Knowledge of racial differences and discussion and analysis of them among the leading minds of the West was in itself not enough to create a culturally and politically potent, mature racial consciousness.
Knowledge of racial differences is certainly a prerequisite, but it is not the same as advocacy of racial particularism. Advocacy and its rhetoric can only be based on that knowledge when combined with an analysis of objective political and demographic conditions and the conscious development of a strategic response to those conditions.
If whites are to maintain their culture and survive outnumbered in the increasingly hostile non-white world of the twenty-first century, they will need to look beyond mere racial differences by incorporating that knowledge into a philosophy that addresses not only the nature of the society they seek to create but the principles of how that society should be maintained and organized and how they intend to manage relations with the non-white world. In short, they must face and answer the questions their forebears neglected.
Though long out of print, a limited number of copies of Race and the American Prospect are available for purchase through the American Identity Movement website.