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Academia and the primitive
Even after intellectuals abandoned the idea of a hierarchy of races, it continued to manifest in academia in benign forms. The distinction between the disciplines of sociology and anthropology is an example. Sociology is essentially the study of Western societies, and anthropology is the study of non-Western people. That is, the study of the customs, lifestyles, values, and relational issues in Western societies is sociology. The study of the same topics in non-Western societies is anthropology.
Accordingly, sociologists study Europe, North America, and a few other societies with comparable levels of advancement. Anthropologists study Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, much of Asia, and even Native American reservations in the United States. When applied to Africa in particular, the distinction is very much that of the study of the civilized and the primitive.
The distinction is increasingly being abandoned. Ironically, it was anthropologists—at least the liberal ones—who ultimately discredited the notion of the primitive, and with that, the sociology/anthropol-ogy distinction. Physical anthropologists now look for fossils everywhere, and sociologists and cultural anthropologist study values and lifestyles in London, New York, and Uppsala the same as they do in Lagos, Lima, and Delhi.
But if the terminological distinction has been discredited, the idea it represented endures. Recall the case of the American tourist in Gambia who wrote in March 2014 that to see the real Africa tourists have to travel upriver to where life is untouched by modernity. Certain notions die hard.
Race hierarchy in contemporary times
Indeed, discredited or not, the notion of a race hierarchy was official policy in places up to the late 20th century. The two most consequential were readily Nazism in Germany and apartheid in South Africa.
In the early 20th century, Adolph Hitler rose to power by extolling the notion that Germans were a superior people over all others. In effect, they were a superior subset of the superior race. It was the notion that underpinned Nazi politics and atrocities in Germany before and during World War IL
Hitler and his followers’ belief in German superiority went beyond the intellectual. They were also staunch believers in Gobenau’s yardstick for Aryan superiority: “energetic ... perseverance (and) physical strength.” So, when the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens won multiple gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936, it was an assault on Hitler’s essence. He couldn’t bear to shake his hands, as was the custom. So, he stormed out of the stadium.
But the worst was yet to come. Apparently, Jews in Germany were disproving other aspects of the Nazi superiority complex. They were excelling in the professions, in academia, in commerce, and so forth. That was too much for Nazis to bear. And so came another of the worst atrocities in human history: the holocaust. During World War II, Jews in Germany and adjourning countries were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. There, they were treated even worse than the slaves in the trans-Atlantic voyage. By the end of the war, an estimated six million had been put to death in gas chambers.
Even as the world grappled with the scope of that horror, a government in another part of the world was instituting a regime of race hierarchy. The locale this time was South Africa, and the implementers were Dutch settlers, specifically the Afrikaner Nationalist Party.
The discriminatory structure predated the party’s ascendance to power in 1948. Their legacy was that they formalized the system. First,
Dark history of distinctions 85 they christened it apartheid and then they enacted laws that gave it statutory standing. Foremost among the laws was the euphemistically titled “Population Registration Act” of 1950. Among other things, it classified the races by a hierarchy of superiority and with corresponding civil rights. Whites were the superior race; so, they had all the rights and privileges and they exercised dominion over other races. Coloreds (Asians and people of mixed race) were second in the hierarchy and had limited rights. Blacks, who constituted (and still constitute) the vast majority, were at the bottom rung. They had minimal rights, not even the right to vote or choose where to live.
The system lasted until 1994, when Nelson Mandela was released from a 27-year imprisonment for fighting it. He was subsequently elected president that year. And that brought an end to the last political system formally based on a hierarchy of racial superiority.
Yet, the idea endures, albeit with different hues. Nationalist politics is on the rise in Europe, spurred by opposition to a surge of nonEuropean immigrants. Anti-immigrant political parties are surging in the polls and gaining in parliaments. Even those that used to be in the political margins are suddenly making inroads in parliamentary elections by flailing against immigrants.
UK’s Brexit decision (52-48) in 2016 was largely driven by a similar sentiment. A large percentage of pro-Brexit voters were primarily motivated by the fear of being overwhelmed by “alien” cultures. That was not so much a reference to Africans, Asians, and Muslims, as it was to people from Eastern Europe. Thus, the fear stems from cultural chauvinism, rather than racism as such. But the thinking is along the same line.
Even the world of academia is not exempt from racialist views that Gobineau would applaud. For example, Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, has openly advocated racial preference in the acceptance of immigrants. “Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism means in effect taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites,” Wax said at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C. in July 2019. “Well, that is the result, anyway.”18
As though to elaborate on her notion of “cultural distance,” Wax said also that non-white immigrants tend to trash their surroundings. “I think we are going to sink back significantly into third-worldism,” she said at a panel discussion at the conference.
We are going to go Venezuela. You can just see it happening. One of my pet peeves, one of my obsessions, is litter. If you go up to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, or Yankee territory, versus other places that are quote-unquote more diverse, you are going to see an enormous difference, I’m sorry to report. Generalizations are not very pleasant. But little things like that aren’t little. They really affect our environment.