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Fredrickson’s Racism: A Short History


This book covers the many aspects of racism, the history behind the phenomenon, and how the world now views racism, whether it takes it seriously or how it affected man’s activities and relationship with the world. It talks about the evolution of racism, religion, and how racism came to being. It also gives discussion o the rise of modern racism, and racism in the twentieth century.

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Fredrickson (2002, p. 1) says that racism is used “to describe the negative feelings of one ethnic group or ‘people’ toward another”. These negative feelings result in actions, attitudes, or antipathy on that particular ethnic group and are sometimes expressed with “single-mindedness and brutality” that go far beyond mere snobbery.

In the modern world, racism is the ‘negative feeling’ that seems to be a clue and which goes beyond it. These negative feelings are rooted in many roots, roots of feeling superiority. The most popular kind of racism is the white’s feeling of superiority over blacks or colored people.

The so-called ‘evolution of this feeling of superiority over colored people is one of the book’s objectives, which we try to tackle in this paper.

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During the rise of Nazism in Germany, Hitler and the Nazi Party expressed deep hatred and racist sentiments over the Jews. They had this German belief of blood purity; meaning if you belong to the German race, you belong to a superior race. Most popular racist sentiments were displayed by Hitler. Hitler justified his genocidal tendencies by invoking racist theories.

Biological racism was more felt and expounded during Hitler’s rise to power. The Germans believed that they were more superior to other races. The Jews had to be exterminated. The feeling of blood superiority continued up to many centuries, even up to today. The Germans, through the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, prohibited intermarriage or sexual relations between Jews and gentiles. There was the fear that the Jewish males could push a threat to German womanhood and hence the race. Widespread persecution and mob lynching occurred, but Hitler and the Nazis had to exterminate an entire ethnic group to fulfill their racist ideology.

However, with the defeat of the Nazis and the so-called majority rule of the present democracy ideologies, this is now past. What has evolved is cultural racism, prevalent in Europe and the United States. Asians, African Americans, and colored people are being discriminated against in work and common areas of life. In the United States, whites discriminate against migrants, especially those who live in ghettos and barrios.

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Racism is not only attitude or beliefs but is expressed in practices, institutions, and structures. It seeks to establish a racial order with some touches of religion. Racism is originally Western, established in the 14th and 15th centuries and its ideas come from religion itself. Fredrickson cites John Solomos and Les Back who argue that race is “coded as culture” [and] that “the central feature of these processes is that the qualities of social groups are fixed, made natural, confined within a pseudo-biologically defined culturalism” (Fredrickson, p. 8).

Tracing back history, Fredrickson says that the concept of race is not found in the thoughts of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians. However, the Greek thought says that “one was civilized if one was fortunate enough to live in a city-state and participate in political life, barbarous if one lived rustically under some form of despotic rule” (p. 8). They (the Greeks) believed that those who were living in a city-state and participate in political life were “fortunate”, but those who lived under some form of despotic rule were “barbarous”. Even then, in their definition of the way people lived, we can distinguish the Greek concept of the fortunate race from the not-fortunate ones. The Romans had slaves who represented the different colors and nationalities under their kingdom or empire.

On religion, the Jewish refusal to accept the religions of the empires where they had come to reside, is an example of ethnic prejudice. Christians on the other hand believed that the Jews were a problem because they believed that the News Testament superseded the Old Testament. On the contrary, the Jews do not recognize Christ as the Messiah. They believe that Christ or the Messiah is still to come. They are still waiting for their savior who will restore order in the world. Their concept of messiah is physical and not spiritual like Christianity.

The French historian Leon Poliakov wrote that “For the organization of Christianity, it was essential that the Jews be a criminally guilty people.” The Jews recognized this when they declared during Jesus’ trial in front of Pontius Pilate: “His blood be upon us and our children” (Matthew 17:25).

St. Agustine, according to Fredrickson (2002), taught that the responsibility of converting the Jews to Christianity lies on the shoulders of the Christians. Antisemitism became racism when it was fully believed that the Jews were “intrinsically and organically evil rather than merely having false beliefs and wrong dispositions” (Fredrickson, p. 19).

The Germans’ belief of blood purity and later on hostile European attitude towards the Jews laid the foundation for racism in Europe. Christian merchants were subsequently against the Jews. They would lend them money with high interest. Later on, violence erupted and increased against the Jews. There were then massacres and mobs associated with the campaign to claim the Holy Land from Muslims. Originally this motive was focused on the Muslims, but it turned on the Jews.

The Catholic Church viewed the Muslims as a political and military threat, but Jews were regarded as harmless. The Catholic believed that the Jews could be their witness to the divine revelation. And in the course of the Jewish persecution, many of them chose to be baptized rather than killed. Many Jews chose to die, a testament to the strength of their faith.

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Jews were then demonized in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, accused of the gravest of sins, and intrinsically evil. They were accused of having crucified a Christian child for ritual purposes, or using Christian blood for their sacred ceremonies. And the most bizarre charge was that they had stolen the consecrated host from Christian churches and tortured it to repeat their original crime of torturing and killing Jesus.

During the Black Death, many Jews were killed, accused of having poisoned the wells, as part of their evil and diabolical plot to exterminate the followers of Christ. They were used as scapegoats by antisemites, as having in league with the devil Racism again reared its ugly head in the middle ages, using what is called ethnic exclusion. In Anglo-Irish cities, guild membership was being denied to those of “Irish blood or birth”. Intermarriages were strictly banned. Discrimination on religious grounds was justified. Medieval Europe was however a “persecuting society” intolerant not only of Jews but of lepers and anyone whose beliefs smacked of heresy or deviance.

By the middle of the fifteenth century, Europeans had little contact with sub-Saharan Africans. However, there were representations on blacks in art and literature. Black or dark skin was associated with evil and death, while whiteness with goodness and purity.

But Blacks began to emerge as “members” of the church, glorified, and even sanctified. The first non-Jewish convert to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch proving the universality of the religion. While Jews were being demonized, blacks were being sanctified. And blackness was identified with servitude. Sub-Saharan Africans were associated with lifetime servitude.

Arabs and Moors had white and black slaves but they generally assigned blacks the most menial and degrading tasks. Blacks were conceived as “hewers of wood and carriers of water”.

Modern racism, in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spain, treated Jewish converts as having impure blood incapable of having a true conversion. Before this, Spain was, by medieval standards, tolerant plural society in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted side by side. In the fifteenth century, many of the Jews in Spain chose baptism than death or expatriation. Intermarriage with Christians diminished discrimination a bit.

At the founding of America by Columbus, he described the natives as Canary Islanders, inkling to the European perceptions of Indians. Other Indians in the islands were written off as “cannibals” who must be subdued by force or exterminated. There was debate as to whether Indians possessed reason. One argument was that Indians were nonrational beings who could be subjugated by force.

Spain and subsequent European colonizers discouraged enslavement of indigenous peoples, but permitted force labor, which was close to slavery. The Spanish system of encomienda or “the granting to a Spaniard of the right to conscript the labor of an Indian community” is one example of force labor.

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There were discussions of black ugliness and stupidity at a time of the white’s handsomeness and more intelligent than other ethnic groups. Crossbreeding was advocated to improve other races, but North American phobias existed of such intermarriage with anyone from African ancestry.

Scientific racism flowered in parts of Europe and the United States. This kind of thought expressed biological unfitness for an ethnic group for full citizenship. This precedes excluding women, children, and the insane from the electorate and denying them equality under the law. In the United States, “the right to vote was extended to all white males and denied to virtually all blacks” (Fredrickson 69).


There were so many beliefs as pertain the color of the skin. It was believed at first that the color of the African’s skin was the direct effect of a tropical or equatorial environment. But then the natives of Brazil who lived in a similar climate to that of West Africa had tawny rather than black skin. With this, notions about the origin of the African pigmentation changed. There was now the speculation that the blackness of Africans was permanent, or that it was physiological, or a result of the biblical Curse of Ham or Canaan, or that blackness was seen “as a curse signifying that Africans were designated by God himself to be a race of slaves” (Fredrickson 39). The theory or legend was that Ham drew the wrath of God and his son Canaan and all his descendants were condemned to servitude, or “servants unto servants” (43). Ham is believed to be “the ancestor of all Africans, and the physical result of the curse became a blackening of the skin” (Fredrickson 43). The legend later perceived as curse explained black slavery.

In the twentieth century, the absolutist religion has retained its appeal. In fact, it has become militant and politicized with the potential to become the century’s principal source of conflict and aggression.

Fredrickson says that the present connotations of racism are quite vague, saying that the word has evolved through time, and as a matter of fact, there seems to be no connection at all. Racism in the past tells of the races’ segregation, of mob lynching, and other violence against a particular ethnic group. But now it has been used with some touches of politics. Historical facts are seemed out of context. However, Fredrickson says that we can draw lessons from the past so that we can know where to go from here.

But a lasting and fascinating comment from the author states that racism has drawn several meanings that “historians and social scientists, including myself, have been tempted at times to exclude the word from our vocabularies” (Fredrickson 152). This leads us to think that since racism is too loaded a term, why not change it? Then we can treat all the negativity the loaded term has created all through history.


I would like to express my own critique on Fredrickson’s book. Although writing such a historical and rather scholarly book requires a lot of time and skill, I don’t think there was enough consultations on present day opinions from, shall we say, Church people and other experts in the field. What Fredrickson merely has done are narratives of past events. There is little discussion in the book except a few researches and more narratives.

Racism nowadays is termed as “color-coded, white-over-black variety” which does not have medieval roots. It has become an ambiguous term because it has been used vaguely. Before, it was an ideology or belief, now it is expressed in institutional patterns or social practices with adverse effects on its members even if there is no belief that these members are inferior or unworthy. These beliefs are different from the descriptions of racism in the early part of Fredrickson’s book that connote “the segregation of African Americans in the South during the Jim Crow era; the Nazis’ demonization and extermination of European Jewry; and the noncitizenship and economic servitude of South African blacks under apartheid” (Fredrickson 152).


Fredrickson, G. M. (2002). Racism: A Short History. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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