By Hajiali Sepahvand, Mehdi Sepahvand

Trump trapped in Orientalism, racism, and imperialist system

February 26, 2017

History is written by the winners and victors. Therefore, they always find an excuse to justify obscene and unjust behavior. Race has been one of the most preliminary concepts for that use, because some races have tapped their unquestionable superiority to justify all their abominable behavior as well as the ineptitude of other races. 

Imperialism was one of those systems which tapped the idea of race extensively. According to Bill Ashcroft, founder of post-colonial studies, “Perhaps one of the most catastrophic binary systems perpetuated by imperialism is the invention of the concept of race. The reduction of complex physical and cultural differences within and between colonized societies to the simple opposition of black/brown/yellow/white is in fact a strategy to establish a binarism of white/non-white, which asserts a relation of dominance.” 

This is why the idea of race and colonialism are interwoven. They have the same motivation to depict the civilized/primitive dualism; and they share some necessity to hierarchically categorize humans. According to this system, the civilized man has a mission to improve the uncivilized, barbarian, and inferior people to a higher living standard. Therefore he is entitled to behaving the uncivilized man in any way he deems right.

 The history and developments of ‘race’ 

The word “race” has always provided an effective tool for establishing the simplest of models for classifying man according to their color. Color has grown into a tool for distinguishing between groups of people and identifying their behavior. For example, the Indians are expected to be savage, the black to be inferior, and the white to be decent and dignified! But it is necessary to question such viewpoints. Therefore, historically reviewing the formation of the viewpoint is needed.

Although it was exactly in the late 19th century when race was used as a separate concept of humankind with characteristic inherited features, and although great thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and William Dunbar first introduced the word race into philosophy and literature, it was in the late 1600s that Europeans did categorize humans according to their physical features. This happened at the time when Francois Bernier postulated a number of distinctive categories based on facial characters and skin color.

Soon the hierarchy of groups (race had not been termed yet) was commonly accepted. In this hierarchy white Europeans were at the top. The Negro, or the black African, was usually relegated to the bottom. This viewpoint was to some extend due to the African black color and so-called primitive culture. But the underlying reason for it was that Europeans used to know from earlier the black as slaves.

In 1805, French naturalist Georges Cuvier talked about the three races white, yellow, and black. This structure could be read equally importantly across and down so that white was absolutely opposed to black and partially opposed to yellow. Yellow in its turn was partially opposed to black. At the same time, imperialism was also justifying its colonialism through the motto about having a mission to civilize and educate the inferior barbarians. Consequently, new ideas about race could well serve it.

With the formation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the discipline of social Darwinism was established. The discipline soon agreed with Cuvier’s race paradigm and the emperor’s act. The reason for this was the paradoxical dualism (debasement of the colonized subject and their idealization) that existed in the imperialist thought. On the other hand, the debasement of the primary races could provide a justification for the subjugation and, now and then, extinction of low races in social Darwinism. This was not only unavoidable, but the proper unfolding of natural law. On the other hand yet, the concept of racial improvement came into synchrony with the emperor’s ideology of civilization mission, which is what encouraged colonial powers to improve the status of debased races. Thus, the hypothesis of superiority was supported by the scientific hypothesis of race to fearlessly pursue its global dominance project.

In the next stage, the black were identified as desperate creatures worthy of care, support, and improvement. This identification was soon found in unison with the previous viewpoint of blacks being primitive creatures and crippled savages. This identification helped colonialism find low-cost labor for its projects. Thomas Carlyle vigorously propounded the “right to coerce the indolent black man into the service of colonial plantation agriculture.”

The usefulness of the concept of race in establishing the innate superiority of the imperialist culture can be discerned in how modern England treated British “races”, especially the Irish. In the first writing, although the Irish is first seen much as the English, the Irish culture was seen as alien and threatening. Rich (1986) traces the process from 1617 when Fynes Moryson found the language of the Irish crude, if indeed it was a language at all, their clothing almost animal-like, and their behavior shocking. Edmund Spenser refers to the “bestial Irishmen”, while William Camden in 1610 recounted the profanity, cannibalism, musicality, witchcraft, violence, incest and gluttony of the “wilde and very uncivill” Irish. In this description the Irish sound remarkably like Africans as described by nineteenth-century English commentators. 

In fact, by 1885, John Beddoe, president of the Anthropological Institute, had developed the “index of Nigrescence” to show that people of Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Ireland were essentially different than the people of Britain. More specifically, he argued that those from western Ireland and Wales were “Africanoid in their jutting jaws” and “long, slitty nostrils”, and thus originally immigrants from Africa (Szwed 1975: 20–1). 

Although such view is likely to seem strange, it is a good interpretation of the monopolistic motivation of imperialism which is energetically implemented through the concept of race.

Linking the Irish, Welsh, and Africans together is very noteworthy, since it clearly shows the strategy adopted by the imperialist ideology to be able to separate and marginalize the colonized, whether in Britain or the Empire. Such racial hierarchy was integral to the expansion of the empire. By 1886, anthropologists in Britain reached a general consensus on the “cephalic index”, that is, discrimination of racial identity in terms of skull. Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, measured the heads of 9,000 people at the International Health Exhibition in London in 1884.

In 1887, a conference on native races in the British territories heightened the anthropological-imperial interest in race. The conference was held at the same time as Queen Victoria Golden Jubilee. By the late 1890s, many famous works were out. The works would thoroughly depict the multitudinous nature of human races and the obvious superiority of the Anglo-Saxon races. The description of Negroid, despite such scientific, hair-splitting scrutiny, offered no improvement over Carlyle’s stereotypical definition. 

The 20th century witnessed great oscillations in theoretical approaches to race. But the term continued its path to a realistic position in the world’s public opinion. In the early decades of the 20th century “race” would tread its path to a legal stance through a “scientific” study of race diversity. But the horror of World War II and the massacre of millions of Jews, slaves, Polish, and gypsies for race issues led to the 1951 UNESCO Statement on Race. The statement underlined that race, even from the biological point of view, can in the end count for a group with a distinct density of the genome. According to the statement, mental indices should never be counted in such classification, and that the role of environment in shaping behavior is much greater than that of genetic factors.

In 1960 once again a great change occurred in the biological view of human behavior. This was a contribution of authors such as Lorenz, Ardry, and Morris who claimed that a person’s behavior is largely under control of ancient instincts which culture can modify in the best way. Through such outlook, the West and its educational foundations were the pioneers and soon came to be known as the educated or civilized society, while the non-Western societies were known as uncivilized. Those whose behavior resembled the West’s more were superior. Such recognition was based on the Western view. Its absoluteness and unquestionability were the source of concern for many critics and were thus questioned, because the race paradigm had only been replaced by the education paradigm.

 Sociology/anthropology and modern racism 

Barker (1981) was one of the first to study the relationship between sociology and modern racism. Obviously sociology is considered as a Western science which studies the urban and social issues of the West. But anthropology also is a Western science, developed to study the urban and social issues of non-Western societies. Hence, sociology deals with “us” and anthropology with “them”. 

These two sciences have created the bipolarity, duality, and binary opposition of us/them. Scientists in these two fields believe that a Western society is an urban society in the true sense of the word, because it is past ethnicity and has initiated into the urban society, where ethnic structure is broken and a kind of dispersion is the case, a society in which all live under the rule of law, law that is the same for all and kids nobody. Therefore, such society enjoys a high level of orderliness. On the other hand, they argue that the non-Western society has not yet been initiated into this stage, because ethnic groups and clans_ while continuing their tribal and ethical conflicts in a new form_ settle down and coexist. The people in such society are still dependent on majority, just the same way in the past when the biggest clan had the biggest role in deciding things. Therefore the biggest clan has the biggest role in elections. Such views have helped recreate modern racism, since these two disciplines, as was mentioned earlier, have created the us/them binary, a binary in which the primary sign has been axiomatically and unquestionably preferred and privileged, while the secondary signifier deserves improvement, education, development, and control by the first one. By creating this binary opposition, the West once again found a replacement for Cuvier’s typology and race classification and Carlyle’s outlook.

However, anthropology criticism is another contemporary field that has questioned ethnographical studies. This discipline argues that none of the activities of ethnography_ observation, listening, questioning, collecting_ are unbiased and pure, because what is known depends upon how it is known, that is, cultural knowledge is “constructed” rather than “discovered” by ethnography.

Therefore, the us/them opposition lacks objective support and foundation and is rather a creation of the minds and words of sociologists and ethnographers, that is, it is a structure that has re-classified humans and recreated racism through the process of othering.

 The false objectivity of racist ideas and Trump’s recent decision

Racism can be seen as a mode of thought which considers the unchangeable, physical characteristics of a group and tries to link them somehow directly and commonly to psychological or rational characteristics; and based on such criteria, distinguish between “superior” and “inferior” races. But the fundamental ideas of racism (such as blackness) lack objective reality. Nonetheless, the goal of the psychological forces that made blacks’ self was to acquire an objective existence in their behavior, just like ethnography which, instead of discovering cultural knowledge, created it. This was the most important truth about race. Fanon was the first to notice that, however lacking in objective reality racist ideas such as “blackness” were, the psychological force of their construction of self meant that they acquired an objective existence in and through the behavior of people. The self-images and self-construction that such social pressure exerted might be transmitted from generation to generation, and thus the “fact of blackness” came to have an objective determination not only in racist behavior and institutional practices, but more insidiously in the psychological behavior of the peoples so constructed. 

Now the U.S., or Trump, has found a new replacement for race and racism. Trump has dissected the world according to a new criterion: People who hail from certain lands are much more barbarian than Cuvier’s black, more savage than Carlyle’s Negroid, and more animal and uncivilized than Spenser’s Irish. These people, whose nationality is the only cause for their savageness, cannot enter the United States, even for service occupations. They are, therefore, more inferior than the black, Irish, or Negro. Can one say that man has grown more civilized? These people do not earn the title of terrorist. Today terror, assassination, and espionage are part and parcel of the politics of all countries. The interesting point is that there are noteworthy rumors and gossips about the American ways of terror and assassination. Many microbiologists believe that the U.S. attacks other peoples using bioterrorism methods, that is, highly advanced terror methods the use of which is beyond the ability of all the countries the U.S. calls terrorist, just the same way no country could respond to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

The U.S., or Trump, have in fact created such identity for the people of these lands, or are trying to promote such an identity or image. This method is reminiscent of the ethnographic studies which created instead of discovering a cultural knowledge of non-Western people, by which it interpellated the others of Europe. It is also reminiscent of the ideology or discourse which, according to Fanon, created the subjects. It is also reminiscent of the colonialism which, according to him, fought to maintain the identity of the image it had of Algerians and the depreciated image that people had of themselves. Now the U.S. is impeaching, threatening, and using for the public fun these people in many ways. For example, a fun TV program on international channels is one where a man in Arab, Muslim, or Iranian garb throws a backpack in the middle of a crowd in the subway, a supermarket, or a park, and then everybody takes to flight. It is not so unlikely that in the future these people are identified through genetic tests and then expelled from the U.S. People from these countries should know they are accomplices and in complicity with the U.S. It is a simple equation: An Iranian national lives in the U.S. The Iranian national pays taxes to the government of Trump. The U.S. government is against Iranian people. The Iranian is one with the U.S.: The U.S.-based Iranian is against the Iranian-based Iranian. There may be some justification to call the U.S.-Iran war an Iranian vs. Iranian war.

The crisis of “race” still remains in the center of the stage. Thus, one cannot expect the dangling, indefensible concept of race to be eliminated. Race in the contemporary era is as dangling and reactionary as it used to be during Europe’s imperialism. According to what was said, the direction of the development of the issue of race may appear to have changed, but it still remains as the best tool to classify people and justify inequality. Trump has recreated it in a different embodiment.


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