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23 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

The long roots of racial prejudice and American colonialism

Francisco Bethencourt’s book Racisms explores the blood on the leaves left behind by centuries of racial discrimination, including the enduring spectre of Guantánamo Bay.

By Joanna Bourke

Racisms: From the Crusades to the 20th Century 
Francisco Bethencourt
Princeton University Press, 444pp, £27.95

It must have been some time in the 1990s when I first heard a Haitian band protesting about having been incarcerated in the US detention centre at Guantánamo Bay. Translated from Haitian Creole into English, the song went something like this:

We sold our pigs, we sold our goats
To go to Miami;
Where we landed, we were returned [to Haiti].
We sold our pigs, we sold our goats;
At Guantánamo they sent us back . . .
Guantánamo is no good, Oh.

Haitian asylum-seekers are the forgotten victims of the racism that thrives at Guantánamo. Between 1991 and 1995, tens of thousands of Haitians fled their country in kanntès, or rickety boats, after the military overthrew the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They were intercepted at sea by the US Coast Guard and taken to Guantánamo, where they awaited “processing” to discover if they truly faced persecution in their home country. Some remained there for years and most were sent back to Haiti. Conditions in the camp were appalling; the inmates were fenced in with razor barbed wire and heavily guarded, and hysterical fears about “contaminated blood” were used to justify testing everyone for the HIV virus. At the peak of operations in those years, the Guantánamo base held over 45,000 Haitians. Aristide condemned the US policy as racist.

The last incarcerated Haitian left Guantá­namo in 1995. Seven years later, their place was taken by other highly racialised detainees – those captured in the “war on terror”. The links between Haitian refugees and these allegedly unlawful combatants are closer than one might imagine. As early as 1933, John Houston Craige (the then director of public relations for the marines, who were stationed in Haiti during the US occu­pation of the territory between 1915 and 1934) designated Haiti a “Black Bagdad” (sic). In Port-au-Prince a gunrunner tells Craige:

This is black Bagdad. These people are still living in the days of the Arabian Nights . . . You may hear tales as amazing as a Scheherezade ever told. You may see woolly-headed cannibals and silk-hatted savants side by side.

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Rampant racism against Haitians, Arabs and Muslims has created an image of Guantánamo as an imperial outpost for slaves, refugees, revolutionaries and terrorists.

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To understand what fuelled such racist ideologies and practices, I can think of no better book than Francisco Bethencourt’s Racisms. It is an ambitious, bold project: Bethencourt seeks to chart the history of racial bias in the western world from the Crusades to the 20th century. He is critical of studies that extrapolate from a limited number of case studies or from individual nations; he dismisses abstract theorising; he revels in the particular, the concrete and the verifiable. The result is a complex yet confident account of one of the most important concepts in history: racism. Or, as he insists, racisms-in-the-plural – that is, in all their varied and complex forms.

Crucial to his perspective is his definition of racism. This sounds simple, but in order to encompass such a long time frame and geographical sweep he needs to define the phenomenon broadly enough to include its many permutations, yet precisely enough to ensure that his comparisons are valid. For Bethencourt, racism is any “prejudice concerning ethnic descent coupled with discriminatory action”. In other words, it is concerned with both classification systems and everyday practices. As such, it is fundamentally a political project, concerned as much with “culture” as with “blood”.

There is nothing radical about the way Bethencourt has structured his book: he starts with the Crusades and ends in the 20th century. The advantages of this approach are immediately obvious, however; it enables him to plot the subtle shifts over time and geographical space in the meaning, significance and impact of racist ideologies. In the Middle Ages, he argues, racist practices were driven primarily by war, political competition (of the Germans against the Slavs or the English against the Irish, for instance), religious hatred (Christians v Jews and Muslims, or Latin Christians v Greek Christians) and ideas about the purity of blood (prominent in Iberia).

Bethencourt then turns to oceanic and colonial explorations and invasions where hierarchies of peoples and places were drawn up and classification systems proliferated. He shows how, in the medieval and early-modern periods, Christians became worried about ethnic purity. Might Jews be contaminating water or food? What could be done to prevent such a calamity? Not only Jews; what about other heretics? The Catholic kings decreed that the children and grandchildren of those convicted during the Inquisition should be barred from holding high office. Hostility against Roma peoples, who were initially welcomed when they arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages, also developed; they were expelled for being carriers of diseases such as the plague and accused of kidnapping children.

“Blood”, skin colour and physical appearance were not the only relevant “signs” that attracted racist attention. Even seemingly minor factors such as hairstyle and clothing could be important. In 1692, a major riot in Mexico City was blamed on tensions between Native American and mixed-race residents. Priests complained that the indigenous women were wearing Spanish skirts instead of the traditional huipil dress. Native men who wore overcoats were accused of acting in a haughty way, an attitude made worse when they spoke Spanish.

Bethencourt believes that the American colonial experience had a decisive impact on the development of a different kind of racism. He notes that slavery increasingly came to be identified with blackness. In every colonial encounter, mixed marriages generated revisions of the social taxonomy. In many parts of the world, complex vocabularies were invented. European commentators in the 16th and 17th centuries used animal metaphors, such as “mulatto” (meaning “mule”), to denigrate interethnic children and to suggest that such children would be incapable of reproducing.

Before concluding with the history of nationalism and the horrors of the Holocaust, Bethencourt addresses the “scientific” turn in racial classification systems. There is a vast literaure on the ideas of influential men such as Carl Linnaeus, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Immanuel Kant, Robert Knox, Charles Darwin and many others. However, Bethencourt’s summary is the clearest and most sophisticated to date.

These final chapters are also some of the most important in the book, given the recent rise of xenophobic parties such as Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) in Greece and the Freedom Party in Austria, the disturbing record of law courts in the US – which resulted in the acquittal last year of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman – concerns in South Africa following the death of Nelson Mandela about what is called “quiet racism” and debates here in the UK about Romanian and Bulgarian immigration. Bethencourt is dismissive of arguments that racism is primarily an issue of pseudo-science. Reading racism through the lens of the Holocaust is deeply problematic: cultural stereotypes were always central to the numerous forms of prejudice, and ideas about ethnic difference did not always result in racism. For that to happen, there needs to be concerted political action, often by the ruling elite but sometimes also emerging from the underclasses who feel abandoned by the elite and seek to apportion blame.

As political projects, racisms have always been contested. This was nowhere more evident than in the French colony of Saint-Domingue when, in 1791, the slaves revolted, destroying 2,000 plantations and killing a thousand masters. On 1 January 1804, Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence of the colony, renaming it Haiti. It was the first black republic. As Bethencourt stresses throughout this impressive book, victims of racist practices “contributed to their own liberation” through resistance, protest, reasoning and shaming practices and by developing alternative discourses. Ironically, the slaves of Saint-Domingue had fought their French masters with the songs and slogans of the French Revolution on their lips. In the words of Frederick Douglass, the American former slave and reformer who – like his contemporary Solomon Northup, the narrator of 12 Years of Slave  – was deeply involved in the abolitionist struggle:

Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery . . . The Negro was in its estimation a sheep-like creature, having no rights which white men were bound to respect, a docile animal, a kind of ass, capable of bearing burdens and receiving stripes from a white master without resentment, and without resistance.

Haitian slaves set out to “dispel this degradation and dangerous delusion” and to teach the world “the value of liberty”. Bethencourt shows how people throughout history have attempted to dispel similar racisms. We can continue to do so today.

Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of “What It Means To Be Human” (Virago, £10.99)