This talk was prepared by our founder and CEO Judith S. Goldstein for our Berlin Forum “Populism, Nationalism and Right-Wing Movements on the Rise – Societies in Transition” in late March 2020.
I know that this Forum was going to be about nationalism and populism, but I need to insert racism into the subject line. I want to maintain—or even insist—that racism or conceptions based on racial attitudes and classifications are critical to understanding nationalism and populism from the 19th Century right into our bewildering and bewitched 21st Century. I come to this conclusion as a convert, fresh from moments of revelation.
I have been thinking and writing about immigration history for over 50 years—a subject that is very much a part of nationalistic and populist fervor. By training I am a historian. I like to think that I have been reasonably well read in the broad fields of American and European history. This, unfortunately, is too complimentary. I have authored a modest set of books and articles about immigration issues, starting with the doctoral dissertation focused on the history of a literacy test that the US Congress enacted in 1917. The law was part of an epic battle over who was worthy of becoming an American.
I examined the opposition of some American Jewish leaders to the decades-long battle to enact literacy legislation. Their opposition was well founded as the 1917 immigration law, including the literacy test, paved the way for Congress to bar almost all immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern and Southern Europe from entering the United States. For four decades, Chinese immigrants had already been formally excluded. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Japanese government unofficially agreed to prohibit Japanese emigration to the States. In 1924, the American self-proclaimed haven of immigration became a country only for prized and acceptable immigrants of the past—those with Anglo-Saxon lineage. The restrictive 1924 law prevailed until 1965. It now provides the model for what the current US President and his chief advisor on immigration wish to enact.
In 1924, the American self-proclaimed haven of immigration became a country only for prized and acceptable immigrants of the past—those with Anglo-Saxon lineage.
I have come to realize that I have worked within a deeply deficient historical understanding of these issues. In the first place, I didn’t place or think of historical narratives in the deepest context of narratives of existence. We create myths and beliefs that serve the needs of individuals and groups. Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, maintains that only we humans—in fact no other part of the natural world— can create and, I quote, “can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.” He further proclaimed that “Every social construct … is a kind of religion: a declaration of universal human rights is not a manifesto or a program, but the expressions of a benign delusion….” (Parker, Ian “Yuval Noah Harari’s History of Everyone, Ever.” The New Yorker, 17 Feb. 2020, p. 53). Following this line of thinking, nationalism, populism and racism—built on racial categories—constitute universal delusions. They, however, are hardly benign ones. The task of the historian, one might say, is to identify as accurately as possible the significant sequences of human events, actions and thoughts in pursuit of delusions of beliefs. We live through these delusions and memorialize them by recounting how they have determined our past and how they shape our lives and build for the future.
The task of the historian, one might say, is to identify as accurately as possible the significant sequences of human events, actions and thoughts in pursuit of delusions of beliefs. We live through these delusions and memorialize them by recounting how they have determined our past and how they shape our lives and build for the future.
That is the global or “ur” perspective part that I ignored. But let me return to the narrow life of a doctoral candidate delving into one sequence of historical events about the literacy test. This is what I missed: I never viewed the history of the literacy test, which would adversely affect European Jews seeking to escape lives of persecution, as part of the larger battleground of racism which held America’s black, native American and Asian populations in the maw of segregation and exclusion. The racist opposition to Jewish immigrants and others from non-Anglo-Saxon countries—which emerged in New England and the West Coast—drew its inspiration and strength from Southern practices. In fact, it might be said that the 1924 immigration law legalized racism on a national scale. It represented another victory in the Southern campaign to overcome the legacy of defeat in the Civil War and efforts at equity during Reconstruction.
Nor did I recognize that the history of American racism belongs to a global history lasting for over at least three centuries. I have come to this realization by recently reading a number of studies including Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds. The two Australian historians place immigration history in the larger contours of global history in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their purpose is clearly stated. “We trace,” they write, “the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries and their strategies of exclusion, deportation and segregation, in particular, the deployment of those state-based instruments of surveillance, the census, the passport and the literacy test. The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identifications but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, but nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty.” (Lake, Marilyn & Reynolds, Henry Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 4)
Focused on immigration issues the authors further stated: “In drawing the global colour line, immigration restriction became a version of racial segregation on an international scale….” The authors concluded that Southern laws that disenfranchised black voters provided the template for the literacy test passed in 1917. “Histories of immigration policy, like studies of whiteness, have usually been told as self-contained national stories, their dynamics located in distinctive local reactions against particular groups of foreign immigrants—whether Chinese, Indians, Islanders, Japanese, Jews or southern Europeans.” These racial attitudes, the authors wrote, created a “way of being in the world, in a process that shaped white men’s sense of collective belonging to a larger community….” That global Anglo-Saxon community was based on an “ur” story and an imperative narrative based on exclusion within America and Europe in imperialist conquests in colonies and conquered countries. (Lake and Reynolds, p. 5)
Racists, hoarding the benefits of democracy for themselves, were in battle against the perceived inferior, primitive world that had to be subdued and controlled before it overwhelmed the white world through sheer numbers and prowess.
For over four centuries the ideological currents of racial superiority powered imperialism, colonial conquests, slavery, the destruction of indigenous peoples, segregation, vast economic and social exploitation, inequality and ultimately genocide. By the late 19th Century, white nations regarded themselves as progressive, scientifically-based societies built on a Darwinian survival of the fittest and a hierarchical ordained order of races. Racism gave itself a scientific name—eugenics—and provided a robust body of bogus thought built on prejudice. Racism, prized in Anglo-Saxon white cultures, was frequently mixed with prevailing Christian religious beliefs and wrapped, in many countries, in the cloak of new democratic ideals and practices. Racists, hoarding the benefits of democracy for themselves, were in battle against the perceived inferior, primitive world that had to be subdued and controlled before it overwhelmed the white world through sheer numbers and prowess.
The fearful US President Theodore Roosevelt gave warning at the beginning of the 20th Century: “There are grave signs of deterioration in the English speaking peoples.” Those racial distinctions were essential to Roosevelt’s policies and his fraternity of white leaders. They were so evident that historian Michael L. Krenn simply divided his book, The Color of Empire: Race and American Foreign Relations, into four chapters. Each has a one-word title: white, black, brown and yellow. That is the way the world was seen—the dynamic of international and domestic relations and power dynamics—for much of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. (Krenn, Michael L. The Color of Empire Race and American Foreign Relations. Potomac Books, 2006, p. 43)
Obviously, there is a vast literature—historical and fictional—that encompasses colonialism and anti-colonial studies. They constitute critical global attempts at education and rectification. They acknowledge that racism, born centuries ago, sustains nationalism and populism as toxic fuels for dissatisfied, disillusioned and xenophobic populations in the western world. But there was also a belief among many historians that, with Germany’s surrender and the end of European colonial empires in the 1960s, racism had lost its deep appeal and legitimacy on a global scale. The assumption was wrong. That apparent moral victory—the battle against genocide based on race—looks more like a limited chapter of renunciation. In fact, one can now conclude that the ideology of racism is an ideology that is more long lasting than either communism—which was not deeply invested in racism—or German fascism. The latter invented nothing new in terms of the basic requirements of hierarchical, even apocalyptic beliefs and brutal practices based on race. With a singular aim at Europe’s Jewish population, the Nazis simply perfected a cannon of European and American ideas to empower Aryan and German superiority and power.
But there was also a belief among many historians that, with Germany’s surrender and the end of European colonial empires in the 1960s, racism had lost its deep appeal and legitimacy on a global scale. The assumption was wrong.
Furthermore, in the post-war years while we acknowledged that Nazism and Communism were not democratic, we were loath to recognize that our democracies in the US, Canada, Australia and post-war Europe were also cleaving to or covering up racism. We engaged, under pressure, to accept decolonization especially in the 1960s in Africa and the emergence of numerous new states. We tried to outlaw racism. But doing that did not mean that we could reconcile democratic aspirations with building pluralistic societies. The reckoning in Europe, especially under the umbrella of human rights, is now one of confrontation with its 20th Century past. But not only the past.
We tried to outlaw racism. But doing that did not mean that we could reconcile democratic aspirations with building pluralistic societies.
The tensions derive in recent years from increasing migration to the western world from the Middle East and Africa—and fears of its continuation. Thus, we are back to rigid border controls and reading tests to reduce opportunities for entering a country and claiming the rights of citizenship. The American reckoning, especially through the power of the Civil Rights movement, has sought to reconfigure American political, cultural and historical understandings and narratives. We have rapidly moved, however, from the euphoria of an Obama presidency to the backlash of the white nationalistic regime.
Today the word race no longer holds any valid meaning—biologically there is no such thing as race. But racism endures as a vital source for expressions of fear and suspicions of others who differ in regard to skin color, religion and national origin. Racism today infuses contemporary variations of nationalism—of national belonging and identification—and populism that may be understood as fostering the bonds of the people in opposition to the elites who actually have power and those who are imagined to be elites. Nationalism in its best expression is pride and engagement in the history, culture and life of one’s country. Nationalism, for at least three centuries in the West, has provided a rich bond for people who seek to belong to an entity beyond family and local community. But both nationalism and populism contain dangerous seeds engendered by the extreme right and extreme left. World War I and World War II provide sufficient proof of the carnage that nationalism can create. Populism, flaunting the will of the people in opposition to liberal democracy, can eventually turn on its own people and take away restraints on political power, undermining the rule of just law in favor of autocrats.
The infatuation with extreme forms of nationalism tied to populism has emerged throughout Europe and the US. The tensions are focused in cities and regions reconfiguring urban and rural cultures. If we turn to Amsterdam today, for example, we find a case study of a surge of nationalism and populism in response to complexities of dealing with race and racism, history and our contemporary world, individual identity and societies at large. “Amsterdam is a beautiful city,” a city council member, whose parents came from Surinam and Ghana, said “but when you look at some of its most beautiful parts, it is hard to deny that they were financed with income that came from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Speaking to a New York Times reporter, the council member added: “What we want,” he said, “is for the city to own up to its history, to accept it and to apologize.” Such words and efforts have caused a backlash and the increased popularity of the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD), a professed right-wing, nationalist, populist and xenophobic party which is gaining significant electoral strength. (Stack, Liam “Amsterdam Considers Apology for Slavery in Former Colony.” The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2020).
In Germany the issues are even more troubling. In February 2020 New York Times reporters Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Edy published a front page article: “‘Politics of Hate’ Takes a Toll in Germany Well Beyond Immigrants. As the far-right gains traction, harassment and intimidation of local officials are growing, threatening democracy at the grass roots.” The reporters stated that local officials who oppose the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) are under severe threats. One candidate declared: “Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level … This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” Another, a pastor and mayor, sought to bring 40 immigrants into his town. The response: “He immediately became the target of graphic far-right threats … First the hateful messages were directed to him, then they were also written to his wife … “We will come for you and nail you to the cross, then you will burn,” it read, “you are an embarrassment to the white race.” The AfD is, in part, responsible for the rise in Antisemitism as well as the belief that Germans, not Jews, are victims burdened unjustly with guilt and stigmatization by means of Holocaust memorialization and restitution. (Bennhold, Katrin, & Melissa Eddy “’Politics of Hate’ Takes a Toll in Germany Well Beyond Immigrants.” The New York Times, 21 Feb. 2020).
The outbreaks of xenophobia, nationalism and populism are hard to ignore. Efforts to reconcile past racism are obligatory to sustain our liberal democracies and oppose extreme nationalism and populism. But reworking historical narratives, built on the nationalism of white rule, is a monumentally disruptive and daunting intellectual, cultural and political task. Consumed with the task there is the possibility that racism can morph into another type of racism when some people view the history as one long atrocity. As a historian coming to terms with past inadequacies and ignorance—my own and the profession as a whole—I often find that critical efforts to account for the inequities of the past in the United States, through anti-colonial, anti-racist discourse, are perplexing and disconcerting.
The outbreaks of xenophobia, nationalism and populism are hard to ignore. Efforts to reconcile past racism are obligatory to sustain our liberal democracies and oppose extreme nationalism and populism. But reworking historical narratives, built on the nationalism of white rule, is a monumentally disruptive and daunting intellectual, cultural and political task.
One such example involves the concept that whiteness, ipso facto, is a noxious form of racism that can be shed or discarded. A key figure in developing the concept was Noel Ignatiev, the author of How the Irish Became White. He was a revolutionary and iconoclastic thinker who became a guru of the white privilege academy. Ignatiev “believed that whiteness was a fiction, and that true stories could dispel it.” He was co-publisher of a journal with the motto: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” He spent years in industrial factories observing cleavages along racial lines that undermined the basic interests of his co-workers. “The existence of the white race,” he wrote, “depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any other interests they hold.”
Ignatiev believed that “The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.” (Kang, Jay C. “Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness.” The New Yorker, 15 Nov. 2019). People could become “unwhite” and shed their privileges. “There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture.” “Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.” (Genzlinger, Neil “Noel Ignatiev, 78, Persistent Voice Against White Privilege, Dies.” The New York Times, 14 Nov. 2019). Big Feet! Humorous but not funny at all given the deep hold that racial thinking has on the human mind and lived experiences.
We humans have constructed race—a global ur-narrative—and used it to endow some with power, wealth and prestige and others with little or none. The combined currents of white nationalism and populism—grounded in the willingness to employ violence, especially on the right but on the left as well— exacerbate the task of building new narratives of inclusion and equity to build sustainable democratic systems. Is it possible, I wonder, that some attempts to eviscerate whiteness—not just its privileges and nefarious past histories—contain their own forms of fury, confusion and delusions. Ignatiev, at heart, was a passionate revolutionary thinker who à la Karl Marx thought it was possible to renounce and overturn the cultural, economic and social order and dispense with a deep “ur” story or narrative. For Ignatiev, it was whites who needed to abandon their power based on being white. For Marx it was workers against capitalists.
The fervent quests to invent new narratives are engaged on both personal and societal levels. The brilliant black British writer Zadie Smith addressed both when she wrote recently about the brilliant black artist Kara Walker. The Tate Modern in London featured a major exhibition of Walker’s provocative, racially incendiary bold art that depicts the traumas of racism. Smith’s essay is about many things: the artist’s imagination, skill, passion, place in the public sphere and history. Inspired by Walker’s works Smith questioned the personal/historical imperative: “What might I want history to do to me? Might I want history to reduce my historical antagonist—and increase me….I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not….Or ask it to promise me that my future will be revenge upon my past. Or warn me that my past is not erased by this revenge.” (Smith, Zadie “What Do We Want History to Do to Us?” The New York Review of Books, 27 Feb. 2020)
Finally, and these really are final thoughts, I doubt that revenge—all consuming revenge—can be an effective tool of reversing a deeply painful and defective historical narrative. But I do not doubt that we can build a more liberal, pluralistic democracy against the formidable forces of nationalism, populism and racism.