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Short notes: racial naturalism and racial historicism

David Goldberg (2002) distinguishes between naturalist and historicist racism. The distinction helps us to more clearly see how racism becomes politically articulated within the context of the nation-state. Naturalist racism was predominant from the 17th to the 19th century. It refers to the pseudo-scientific belief in the immutable division of humanity into biological ‘races’. While naturalism persists into modernity, it is accompanied by the nineteenth century, by a second, more ambivalent and entirely political form of racism. Goldberg calls this historicist or progressivist racism. It emerges mainly out of the conditions of colonial rule and proposes that inferior ‘races’ may be civilised through assimilation.

The historicist approach to the government of Others – both in the colonies and in the metropole – is based on a supposed need for ‘racial realism’: i.e. the possibility of being able to civilise ‘inferiors’ by exposing them to the ‘superior’ culture of the dominant group. Historicist racism treats non-Europeans as lesser-developed humans that may, through exposure to European culture (e.g. through education or bureaucratic systems), eventually attain the level of progress that Europeans were presumed to have already achieved.

The success of historicism is in its ability to outlive the public condemnation of naturalist racism. Many of the assumptions behind historicist racism persist. It is the basis for contemporary notions of colour-blindness – or ‘racelessness’ – that perpetuate racial domination by literally refusing to see ‘race’ or, in other words, denying the oppression caused by systemic racialisation. This means that it is impossible to point out racially based discrimination because we are assumed to live in a post-racial age of meritocracy. However, the refusal to see ‘race’ and acknowledge racism means recreating the invisibility that – to follow Frantz Fanon – racialisation creates in the first place.

Goldberg, David Theo. 2002. The Racial State. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell.

For a longer explanation, please refer to Chapter 2 of my short book, Racism (2008).


Alana Lentin