Popular Culture Review 29.1 (Spring 2018) - Page 70

Racial essentialism proffers that there is an unchanging essence to any given race, and, as with gender essentialism, this core is often reduced to biology. The origin of racial essentialism, while traceable to the Aristotelian concept of biological essences, is found in the early modern period of European philosophy, anthropology, ethnology, and the p ractice of racial classification. Its heyday coincided with the pseudo-science of phrenology, the eugenics movement, and a resulting ideology of Social Darwinism. Racial essentialism can be defined as follows: There are human races; each race is distinct from all other races in important ways; members of each distinct race have either a general trait that causes all of their other racial characteristics or a set of racial traits that is the “essence” of their racial identities. Racial essences may be limited to physical traits, or, as prevalent over much of modern western intellectual history, include cultural, moral, and aesthetic traits. Furthermore, racial essentialism can be understood as a type of thinking about human difference that labels people in ways that apply to whole persons. For instance, while shortness or thinness are traits understood to co-exist alongside other traits, an essentialist view of a white, black, or Asian person categorizes the entire human being. The culmination of the early modern expression of racial essentialism comes from Immanuel Kant, who wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents […] So fundamental is the difference [between Negroes and Whites] and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” Social Darwinism built on essentialist notions by proposing a biological explanation of fitness for the social and economic success of some races and the unfitness of others. Social Darwinism dismissed governmental intervention into the economy in the form of wealth redistribution and economic regulation as unjustified meddling with the laws of nature. The eugenics movement promoted the advancement of racial purity and the active elimination of heritable unfit traits among unfit races. Gregor Mendel’s work on genetics found renewed interest in the early twentieth century, and inferences were made by scientists that psychological traits, such as imbecility, feeble- mindedness, or criminality, were heritable. Sterilization laws, including a Virginia statute for the sterilization of inmates of state institutions deemed to have heritable insanity or imbecility, made manifest this program, wherein Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. cast his infamous Supreme Court dictum, “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Eugenics made its most devastating mark in the Nazi Final Solution and the Holocaust. 70