The Theory of Cultural Racism      

[Moderator's Note: Professor James M. Blount is recentlydeceased. This article is being posted posthumously to

honor his legacy. A big thank you goes out to Henry C K

Liu <> for making this available.]



Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography



Volume 23 (1992) [Pages 289-299]



The Theory of Cultural Racism



By James M. Blaut <>, Department of Geography,

   University of Illinois at Chicago


i. Theory and Practice



Very few academics these days consider themselves to be

racists, and calling someone a racist is deeply offensive.

Yet racism in the universities is just as pervasive, just as

dangerous, as it was a generation ago. Nowadays we seem to

have a lot of racism but very few racists. How do you

explain this paradox?



The place to begin is to notice the essential difference

between racist theory and racist practice. Racism most

fundamentally is practice: the practice of discrimination,

at all levels, from personal abuse to colonial oppression.

Racism is a form of practice which has been tremendously

important in European society for several hundred years,

important in the sense that it is an essential part of the

way the European capitalist system maintains itself.



Racist practice, like all practice, is cognized,

rationalized, justified, by a theory, a belief-system about

the nature of reality and the behavior which is appropriate

to this cognized reality. (The word "theory" is better in

this context than the word "ideology," because we are

talking about a system of empirical beliefs, not about the

cultural bindings of belief.) But theory and practice do not

have a one- to-one relationship. One form of practice can be

underlain by various different theories. Since

racism-as-practice, that is, discrimination, is an essential

part of the system, we should not be surprised to discover

that it has been supported by a historical sequence of

different theories, each consistent with the intellectual

environment of a given era. Nor should we be surprised to

find that the sequent theories are so different from one

another that the racist theory of one epoch is in part a

refutation of the racist theory of the preceding epoch.



Putting the matter in a somewhat over-simplified form, the

dominant racist theory of the early nineteenth century was a

biblical argument, grounded in religion; the dominant racist

theory of the period from about 1850 to 1950 was a

biological argument, grounded in natural science; the racist

theory of today is mainly a historical argument, grounded in

the idea of culture history or simply culture. Today's

racism is cultural racism.



I will try to show, in this paper, what cultural racism is

all about and how and why it has largely supplanted

biological racism (at least among academics). To start

things off, I'll explain the paradox that, today, in

universities, we have racism but few racists.



Generally, when we call a person a racist in the academic

world of today we are accusing this person of believing in

the hereditary, biological superiority of people of one

so-called race over people of another so-called race, with

the implication that discrimination is justified, explained,

rationalized, by the underlying biological theory. But

hardly anybody believes in this theory anymore. Most

academics believe that the typical members of what used to

be called inferior races have a capacity equal to that of

other so-called races, but they have not been able to

realize this capacity. They have not learned the things one

needs to know to be treated as an equal. They have not

learned how to think rationally, as mental adults. They have

not learned how to behave in appropriate ways, as social

adults. The problem is culture, not biology. And, naturally,

the inequality will disappear in the course of time. But in

the meantime, discrimination is perfectly justified. Of

course it is not called "discrimination" in this newer

theory. It is a matter of treating each person in a way that

is appropriate to his or her abilities. The people of one

race -- pardon me: one ethnic group -- demonstrate greater

abilities than those of other ethnic groups, abilities in

IQ, ACT, and SAT test-taking, in "need achievement

motivation," in avoidance of criminality, and so on. Given

that they have these higher realized abilities, they should

be given greater rewards. They should be admitted to

college, be granted Ph.D.s and tenure, and the rest. And so

racist practice persists under the guidance of a theory

which actually denies the relevance of race. The differences

between humans which justify discriminatory treatment are

differences in acquired characteristics: in culture.



Another way of putting this is to say that cultural racism

substitutes the cultural category "European" for the racial

category "white." We no longer have a superior race; we

have, instead, a superior culture. It is "European culture,"

or "Western culture," "the West" (see Amin 1989). What

counts is culture, not color.




ii. Religious Racism



The notion of European cultural superiority is not a new

one. Early in the 19th century, Europeans considered

themselves to be superior because they are Christians and a

Christian god must naturally favor His own followers,

particularly those who worship Him according to the proper

sacrament. He will take care of such matters as hereditary

abilities, thus making it easier for His followers to

thrive, multiply, progress, conquer the world. He will even

make certain that the physical environment in which

Christians live is more favorable than the environment

surrounding heathens: hence Europe's climate is neither too

hot nor too cold, not "torrid" nor "frigid" but nicely

"temperate." In a word: it was believed that the people of

Europe, traditional Christendom, possess cultural

superiority, biological superiority, even environmental

superiority, but all of this flows from a supernatural

cause. This was the theory which, in the period up to

roughly the middle of the 19th century, underlay most racist




Note that the religious theory of racism was an empirical

argument. The cause was supernatural, but the effects were

straightforward facts. God had created white people, in a

region which Europeans considered to be their own cultural

hearth: the "Bible Lands." The Garden of Eden was thought by

many scholars to have been located somewhere around the

headwaters of the Tigris river, in the healthful, temperate,

mountains of Armenia, not far from Mt. Ararat, where Noah

landed, not far from the Caucasus Mountains which were known

to be the home of the Caucasian race, and (as was often

pointed out) in the same temperate latitude as Greece and

Rome (see, e.g., Lord 1869). There was no such thing as

early cultural evolution, since Man was given agriculture,

cities, and civilization in the days of Genesis. All of

pre-Christian history took place among white people in a

small piece of the earth's surface, roughly between Rome and

Mesopotamia. The rest of the world was uninhabited. People

migrated from this hearth to, and so populated, Asia and

Africa. During the course of this exodus they became

non-white, and they degenerated (Bowler 1989), and lost the

arts of civilization (although Asians retained some of these

arts).1 All of this was considered to be historical fact. It

followed, then, that the white race has always been superior

and still remains superior, and for very evident reasons. In

short: an empirical theory, giving scientific justification

for racist practice.




iii. Biological Racism



Toward the end of the 19th century, naturalistic arguments

had displaced biblical and theological arguments in most

scholarly discourse. But it should not be thought that

religious racism (as theory) had entirely disappeared. In

many contexts thereafter, this theory was (and still is)

used to justify racist practice in which people of one

religion oppress people of another on grounds of this, or

some very similar, theory. An obvious contemporary example

is Israeli expansionism. God gave all of Palestine (and

more) to the Jews long ago, so the Jews have overriding

rights to all of the God-given land, and can expel anyone

else from that land on the basis of this absolute principle.

It is quibbling to object that this is not racism because

Jews are not a race. It is religious racism.



The secularization of thought after about 1850 made it

necessary to rest racist practice in a new and different

theory. Religious racism had already established the

causality by which God gives better heredity to Christians,

and this argument could now be adapted to assert the genetic

superiority of the so-called white race, grounding this

argument now in the immensely influential biological

theories of the period, notably Darwinism and (later)

Mendelianism. The genetic superiority of the so-called white

race was now believed in axiomatically by nearly all social

theorists. The cultural superiority of Europeans (a category

vaguely identified with the white race) was also believed

in, also axiomatically. Cultural superiority was mainly,

though not entirely, considered to be an effect of racial

superiority. (I say not entirely because various other sorts

of naturalistic causality were also invoked: Europe's

environment is superior. Or Europe's cultural priority

originated in the mysterious and impenetrable mists of

prehistory. Or no causation was postulated because none was

thought to be needed. For some thinkers, among them Max

Weber, all of these arguments were heaped together in a

melange of race, culture, and geography.) But it is fair to

say that the hereditary superiority of the white race was

considered to be the single most important explanati

multipart fon for the white man's obvious superiority in

culture. This was the era of classical or biological racism.



After the First World War, the theory of white biological

superiority began to lose force in the scholarly communities

of most (not all) European countries. This reflected several

causes. Some were internal to intellectual progress, in, for

instance, culture theory (e.g., Boas, Radin), psychological

theory (e.g., Lewin), philosophies grounded in experience

rather than the Cartesian-Kantian a priori (e.g., Dewey,

Whitehead, Mead). One external causes was the rise of

egalitarian values, notably socialism, which militatated

against theories of innate superiority and inferiority. A

second external cause, a very powerful one, was opposition

to Nazism, which almost necessarily meant opposition to

doctrines of biological superiority and inferiority.




iv. Cultural Racism



All of this notwithstanding, biological racism remained

somewhat respectable until the 1950s and 1960s, the

classical era of national liberation and civil rights

struggles. Racist practice now needed a new theory. At this

time, mainstream scholarship was being assigned -- quite

literally: with funds and jobs provided -- the task of

formulating a theoretical structure which would rationalize

continued dominance of communities of color in the Third

World and at home. Such a theory would have to accept two

anti-biological-racist propositions which were axiomatic in

Non-European communities: that Europeans are not innately

superior, and that economic development can bring

non-Europeans to the same level as Europeans. The problem

was to show that non-Europeans, though equal to Europeans in

innate capacity, cannot develop economically to the European

level unless these societies voluntarily accept the

continued domination by European countries and corporations,

that is, neocolonialism.



The outcome of this truly massive theory- building effort

was the theory of "modernization." This theory argued, in

essence, that non-Europeans are not racially, but rather

culturally backward in comparison to Europeans because of

their history: their lesser cultural evolution. And it is

for this reason that they are poor. So they must follow,

under European guidance and "tutelage," the path already

trodden by Europeans as the only means of overcoming

backwardness. Non-Europeans were thereby defined as inferior

in attained level of achievement, not potential for

achievement. This was the real essence of cultural racism.



One of the most interesting and important aspects of this

theory-building campaign was the deification of Max Weber by

various groups of social scientists, among them the

Parsonian structural- functionalists (see Peet 1991) and

"traditional mind" theorists like McClelland, most of whom

were involved directly or indirectly in the

modernization-theory construction project. Weber himself, a

half-century before, had expressed the then-dominant

European views concerning non-Europeans, with some small

improvements. Weber's argument, though partially grounded in

biological racism (see, e.g., Weber 1958: 30; 1967: 387;

1981: 299, 379; 1951: 231-232), could easily be detached

from that grounding because most of what he wrote about

European superiority was axiomatic argumentation about the

uniqueness of the European mind -- its rationality, its

spiritual capacity -- and historical argumentation about the

unique rise within Europe, and Europe alone, of institutions

and structures which were the source of modernity. (See in

particular Weber 1951; 1958; 1981.) Neither rationality nor

structure was (in general) connected backward to race, as

effect of a prime cause. Thus the Weberian argument could

be, and was, detached from race and presented as a theory of

modernization grounded in the uniqueness of European

mentality and culture, permanent qualities which throughout

history gave Europeans a continuously more rapid course

toward modernity than non-Europeans.2 Those who think that

Weber became popular in the 1950s and 1960s because of his

well-known opposition to the Marxist theory of the rise of

capitalism are missing the bigger picture. Weber, and

Weberianism, became important at that time mainly because

Weber provided contemporary social scientists with a theory

of modernization, essentially an elegant and scholarly

restatement of colonial-era ideas about the uniqueness of

European rationality and the uniqueness of European culture

history. Weber was to neocolonialism what Marx was to

socialism. In a manner of speaking, Weber was the godfather

of cultural racism.



Cultural racism, as a theory, needs to prove the superiority

of Europeans, and needs to do so without recourse to the

older arguments from religion and from biology. How does it

do this? By recourse to history -- by constructing a

characteristic theory of cultural (and intellectual)

history. The claim is simply made that nearly all of the

important cultural innovations which historically generate

cultural progress occurred first in Europe, then, later,

diffused to the non-European peoples (Blaut forthcoming

1992). Therefore, at each moment in history Europeans are

more advanced than non- Europeans in overall cultural

development (though not necessarily in each particular

culture trait), and they are more progressive than

non-Europeans. This is asserted as a great bundle of

apparently empirical facts about invention and innovation,

not only of material and technological traits but of

political and social traits like the state, the market, the

family. The tellers of this tale saturate history with

European inventions, European progressiveness, European




This massive bundle of purportedly empirical, factual

statements was woven together by means of a modern form of

the 19th-century theory of Eurocentric diffusionism (Blaut

1987a; 1987b). This theory evolved as a justification and

rationalization for classical colonialism. It asserted, in

essence, the following propositions about the world as a

whole and throughout all of history. (1) The world has a

permanent center, or core, and a permanent periphery. The

center is Greater Europe, that is, the continent of Europe

plus, for ancient times, the Bible Lands and, for modern

times, the countries of European settlement overseas. The

core sector, Greater Europe, is naturally inventive,

innovative, progressive. (2) The periphery, the non-European

world, naturally remains traditional, culturally sluggish or

stagnant. (3) The basic reason why Europe is progressive,

innovative, etc., is some quality of mind or spirit, some

"rationality," peculiar to Europeans. (4) Progress occurs in

the periphery as a result of the diffusion, the outward

spread, of new and innovative traits from the core to the

periphery. The diffusion process itself is natural. It

consists of the spread of European ideas, European

colonialism, European settlers, and European commodities.

Notice that the basic theory can be driven by religious,

biological, or cultural motors. In the modern, post-1945

form of the theory, the motor was culture, or rather culture

history. The theory itself was softened in some ways, for

instance conceding that some progress takes place in

non-Europe (in spite of cultural "blockages"), but the

structure remained basically the same.



Modern diffusionism therefore depicts a world in which

Europeans have always been the most progressive people, and

non-Europeans are backward, and permanently the recipients

of progressive ideas, things, and people from Europe. It

follows that progress for the periphery, today as always in

the past, must consist of the continued diffusion of

European "rationality" and institutions, European culture

and control. The periphery, today, includes the Third World,

along with Third World minorities embedded in the

European-dominated countries like the United States, in

ghettos, reservations, prisons, migrant-labor camps.



The main proposition here is a kind of Eurocentric

historical tunnel-vision which can be called "tunnel

history." Historical causation occurs, basically, in Europe

and its self-proclaimed culture hearth, the ancient Near

East. (Examples: the origin of agriculture, cities, states,

science, democracy, feudalism, private property, discovery,

capitalism, industry...) Non-Europe participates in history

mainly as recipient of diffusions from Europe. The most

important part of tunnel history concerns the world before

1492. (And 1992 is a peculiarly appropriate year in which to

point this out.) The essential argument is this: Europe was

advancing more rapidly than the other civilizations of the

world, and was more advanced than these other civilizations,

at the very beginning of the modern era, prior to the rise

of capitalism and modernization, and prior to the beginnings

of colonialism. Therefore, the superiority of Europeans as

individuals and of European culture has very, very old roots

and, by inference, is natural and fundamental. This

proposition accomplishes everything that biological racism

accomplished and more; indeed, there is a structural as well

as functional parallelism between this doctrine and

biological racism. It argues, in essence, that a cultural,

not genetic, superiority appeared in the European cultural

pool very long ago and, just like genetic superiority, it

has led ever since to a greater rate of development for

Europe and to a level of development which, at each moment

in history, is higher than that of non-European cultures.

Something occurred long ago in European culture which pushed

it into rapid progress. This something then continued to

operate to generate progress throughout all of later

history. In effect: a cultural gene, or cultural mutation.

But cultural racism claims that a vast number of these

European cultural causes of progress, cultural mutations,

occurred, throughout history, one after another, each adding

further impetus to the progress of Europe, each pushing

Europe farther ahead of all other civilizations.




v. A Few Examples



Before I give a few illustrative examples of modern

cultural-racist theories, I have to offer two introductory

comments to avoid misunderstanding -- serious

misunderstanding. First: Precisely for the reason that we

have, these days, so much racism yet so few racists,

cultural racism is not, in most cases, propagated by people

whom we would want to label "racists." The doctrine is

theory, not prejudice. Those scholars who advocate one or

another form of it are people who believe that they are

dealing with facts, and with the policy implications of

these facts. Most of them reject prejudice and are not

prejudiced. They simply believe that there are

straightforward empirical reasons, grounded in cultural

differences, which explain why some groups and individuals

are backward.



Secondly, it is very important to distinguish between those

statements which merely assert that some culture traits

survive for long periods of time and those statements which

assert that some ancient, or at any rate tenacious, culture

traits explain the superiority of this culture and the

inferiority of that one. Change is the normal condition in

human cultures. If there is lack of change, it is either

because the members of a culture do not want to discard some

cherished traits or have no choice because of impinging

circumstances. No human group is so stupid as to cherish

misery, want, and death. Culture traits which generate or

worsen such things are discarded, and quite deliberately so.

(There are exceptions to this generalization, but they are

very rare, though much publicized, particularly in freshman

textbooks.) Cultural ecologists speak of a "culture core"

consisting of those traits and institutions which lie close

to the realm of human survival: matters of life and death

(see in particular Steward 1955). This part of culture is

very plastic, very adaptive. People resist change in other

parts of their culture (such as religion). But it is very

questionable to infer that human groups will retain any

traits if doing so is destructive to their livelihood and

survival. Therefore, whenever you hear a statement like

"this group is unprogressive because of its religious

values," or "that group is poor because its members are

tradition-minded and opposed to innovation," you should be

on the lookout for cultural racism. It is one thing to

respect culture, and to appreciate cultural differences, and

quite another thing to rank human groups on cultural

criteria, and to claim then that you have explained history.




Now some examples.



1. Many historians, today as in the past, claim to find a

uniqueness in the culture of very early Europe, something

which they connect with the early Indo-Europeans (e.g.,

Lelekov 1985; Baechler 1988) or the Germans (e.g.,

Macfarlane 1978; 1986; Crone 1989) or the Iron-Age peasants

(Mann 1986; 1988), and quite regularly attach to the ancient

Greeks as contradistinct from their non-Indo-European

neighbors (see the analysis of this matter in Bernal 1987).

In Marx's Germany, the conventional wisdom was that ancient

Germans were uniquely freedom-loving, innovative,

individualistic, aggressive, and rational; the modern form

of the doctrine does not depart much from this formulation

except as it admits Celts and Greeks to membership; no

modern evidence adds support. Here, now, are some of the

historical theories built upon the doctrine. (i) Ancient

Europeans were uniquely inventive and technologically

innovative, and thereafter remained so (Jones 1981). (ii)

Ancient Europeans acquired a unique love of freedom, which

matured then into a democratic state (Mann 1986; Hall,

1985). (iii) Ancient Europeans, because of or in close

association with their individualism, adopted a unique

family type which then acted to favor progressiveness,

innovativeness, and, incipiently, capitalism (Jones 1981;

Macfarlane 1986; Todd 1985).



2. Many theories begin Europe's uniqueness with Roman times,

or slightly earlier, often focusing on the Church, or the

partly pre-Christian "Judeo- Christian tradition," or the

later Western Church. Different theories find different

causes for the emergence of the new, and unique, and

uniquely progressive culture. The effects also are manifold.

For instance: (i) Lynn White, Jr,. argues that the

Judeo-Christian teleology explains Western technological

inventiveness and innovativeness (see Blaut forthcoming

1992); (ii) Anderson (1974) sees something uniquely

scientific and intellectual in the cultural heirs to the

Greeks and Romans; (iii) Werner (1988) believes that

European s became uniquely progressive because Christianity

alone gave prominence to the individual.



3. A great many present-day historians believe that

Europeans long ago acquired an ability to resist the

Malthusian disasters which supposedly blocked development in

every other culture, some of the arguments starting with the

ancient Iron Age folk, some with an amalgam of Germanic and

Christian elements, some with medieval Northwest-Europeans

(see Mann 1986; Macfarlane 1986; Jones 1981; Stone 1977;

Crone 1989 and many others). This then becomes a general

theory explaining what some call the "European miracle," by

arguing that the (mythically unique) European family,

nuclear, late-marrying, companionate, led to population

control (Hall [1985: 131] speaks of "the relative continence

of the European family"); led also to a capitalist mentality

(Macfarlane 1986; Laslett 1988); even led unmarried European

men to go forth and conquer the world because of their

sexual frustration (Stone 1977: 54).



4. Paralleling all of these arguments is a set of arguments

to the effect that non-Europeans, long ago, acquired

cultural qualities which blocked development, or -- this is

perhaps the more common formulation -- such qualities are

"traditional," and therefore have always been present in

non-European cultures. Todd (1985: 192) thinks that Africans

and African-Americans do not progress because the African

family has always lacked the father-figure. Many other

scholars point either to specific old traits in specific

cultures as causes of non-change, or else depict a

world-wide zone of "traditional cultures" -- including

almost all non-European cultures -- which "traditionally"

lacked rationality, or achievement motivation, or sexual

continence, or some other quality necessary to forward

historical motion. It must be added that this argument is

also used very routinely to explain the poverty of minority

people in countries like the United States. When, for

instance, lack of progress among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans

in this country is attributed to the "traditional culture,"

its supposed "fatalistic attitudes," "docility," etc., etc.,

this is still cultural racism even though the source of the

cultural argument is not ancient but rather a kind of

undated "traditional society."



Cultural racism is rooted most fundamentally in historical

mythology about the priority of Europe and thus the

supposedly more mature, evolved, rational character of

Europeans, today, at home and abroad. By way of closing this

short paper I will simply note that, even if all of the

roots are torn out, the vine will not wither: it will grow

other roots, a new theory of racism, unless racism is

attacked, not as theory but as practice.







1 A minority of scholars accepted the theory of polygenesis,

according to which non-white people are not descendants of

Adam and Eve, and did not migrate to Africa and Asia but

were placed there by God along with the beasts. See Bowler




2 Weber also, here and there, invoked the natural

environment. He argued, for instance, the already

traditional contrast, aridity-irrigation-Oriental- despotism

versus "rainfed farming"-European- democracy-rationality:

see Weber 1976: 84, 131, 157; 1951: 16, 21, 25; 1981: 56-57.







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Copyright (c) 1992-2001 James M. Blaut. All Rights Reserved.