Afua Hirsch in her book, Brit(ish) writes:

I was in my thirties when I learned that both Locke and Hume were also important proponents of racism, pouring that same intellect they used to such great effect in epistemology – the theory of knowledge – into crafting a theory of African inferiority. Locke argued that both Native Americans and African ‘negros’ were subhuman. Native Americans had existed in a state of nature, or savagery, he argued, which justified colonisation by the racially and culturally superior English. Yet while these Native Americans had at least the potential to be educated the negro did not.

Q. What is the philosophical genealogy of racism? It seems strange to think that it began with Hume and Locke. Were there earlier precursors that they drew upon?

  • The history of scientific racism is important here, because for a long time in Western philosophy what we call science now was considered part of natural philosophy. Hume and Locke had scientific racism type views, i.e. trying to appeal to some sort of empirical theory about the innate nature of different races, and that goes back a very long time in Western thought. You can find people like Aristotle making claims that the Greek people were more pure and rational and that other races around them were had the inherent nature to be slaves.
    – Not_Here
    Dec 9 '18 at 7:49
  • @Not_here: I've read that about Aristotle; I've also read that he freed his slaves when he was on his death-bed. I think one needs to take account of that when considering his notions on slavery. Dec 9 '18 at 8:02
  • I disagree, you're comparing what he thought during the majority of his life to what he thought on his deathbed. Which one is more likely to be his true thoughts and not the actions of a guilty conscious? There were also cases of founding fathers in the US who wrote about races being unequal and kept slavery in the constitution but freed slaves after their death. That doesn't mean they weren't racist. Either way, you're asking for the genealogy of thoughts of racism, and Aristotle wrote about racism in his works which have been lauded and parroted throughout Western philosophy.
    – Not_Here
    Dec 9 '18 at 8:07
  • Even if he had an epiphany on his death bed and changed his mind about slavery (which he didn't), he still wrote about it and justified it and left a corpus that contains it. That's what a genealogy would care about. It also doesn't even mean that he changed his mind about racism, at best it means he changed his mind about slavery, not racial superiority.
    – Not_Here
    Dec 9 '18 at 8:09
  • 1
    Those are literally the same thing and it's disgusting that you think they aren't.
    – Not_Here
    Dec 9 '18 at 8:16

Michael James provides a survey of the history of racism prior to Hume. He mentions that proto-racism may have been present among the ancients based on work by Benjamin Isaac and Denise McCoskey:

Thus, Benjamin Isaac (2004) and Denise McCoskey (2012) contend that the ancient Greeks and Romans did hold proto-racist views that applied to other groups which today might be considered white. Isaac persuasively argues that these views must be considered proto-racist: although they were formed without the aid of a modern race concept grounded in ideas of deterministic biology (2004, 5), they nevertheless resembled modern racism by attributing “to groups of people common characteristics considered to be unalterable because they are determined by external factors or heredity” (2004, 38). More importantly, both Isaac and McCoskey contend that ancient proto-racism influenced the development of modern racism.

However, it may be that the "first, unconscious stirrings of the concept of race arose within the Iberian peninsula". This originated with an attempt to remove Jewish and Muslim populations from the peninsula and then continued when even the conversos, those Jewish and Muslim populations who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution or deportation, were also targeted under the "idea of purity of blood":

Only those who could demonstrate their ancestry to those Christians who resisted the Moorish invasion were secure in their status in the realm. Thus was born the idea of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), not fully the biological concept of race but perhaps the first occidental use of blood heritage as a category of religio-political membership.

After this, "the concept of race, with its close links to ideas of deterministic biology, emerged with the rise of modern natural philosophy and its concern with taxonomy". In 1684 Francois Bernier's "A New Division of the Earth" divided humanity into "four or five species or races of men". The question then arose of how these groups related to each other. Were they the same species (monogenesis), as the Biblical account suggested, or different species (polygenesis).

After that James presents Hume's views.

James, Michael, "Race", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/race/.


Addressing this topic on any SE site has proven to be particularly interesting; this users' questions and answers relating to "race" have been deleted at both History SE and Politics SE; which should provide some context into the limited scope available to thoroughly address the subject matter at SE site.

First, we would need to locate the origin of the concept of "race" historically. For example, according to statistics, no "black" people currently exist in Germany.

For that we can examine the invasion of Alexander into Ancient Egypt. Thereafter the creature "Serapis" was created. "Serapis" then became "Jesus the Christ", with the later accompanying image of a "white" man as "God". How this is the origin of "racism" began from an historical perspective. Ptolemy wanted to be worshiped as a deity within the pantheon of Ancient African Egyptians, though was rejected by the temple societies, until finally allying with a temple society which ultimately became the religion Christianity. The details are far too complicated to attempt to post in this answer, as SE users have frequently commented about the length of questions and answers, will instead refer to The Historical Origins of Christianity by Walter Williams.

It must be noted here that such alliances between so-called non-"white" people and "western" powers still exists, and is as challenging to precisely document the origins of how such alliances came into being as the concept of "race" itself, see How is Phi Beta Kappa and Skull and Bones historically connected to Sigma Pi Phi fraternity also known as the Boulé?; meaning, just because an individual appears to be "black" does not mean that their culture is "African"; their allegiance can be to the current Ptolemy. Similarly, it would be an grievous error to omit John Brown and his sons from consideration as to the issues with attempting to assign a blanket system of "race" values to any group of individual; where their actual culture and politics could very well be more adversarial or common than expected based on some arbitrary pre-conceived notion of the political classifications. Just because an individual self-identifies as "black" or "white" or any other political classification does not mean that they share an ideological, philosophical or political perspective and will act according to what the other individual "believes" is the proper and understood collective mode of operation.

There exist alternative theories of the origin of "race", from the intentional creation of the "tamahu" by "Yacub" to Darwin grappling with various non-human traits in some of mankind.

The fact is that there is no universally accepted definition of "race", though some in academia have come close to, from perspective here, providing a valid definition, including

AAA (American Anthropological Association) Statement on Race

How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The "racial" worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent. Given what we know about the capacity of normal humans to achieve and function within any culture, we conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called "racial" groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.

and; in Working DefinitionsRace, Ethnic Studies, and Early American Literature by Joanna Brooks

First, a few working definitions: race, as I understand it, is an effect of racism. The idea of race came into being as a means of organizing social relations in order to establish and maintain political and economic domination. Racial categories assume meaning over time through ongoing interplays of political, economic, cultural, and social forces. Likewise, through collective intellectual, political, cultural, and spiritual action, racialized groups can redetermine the meaning of the identities imposed on them.1

I have also been influenced by the definition of whiteness propounded by Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, and other scholars affiliated with the Race Traitor project. The first paragraph of their charter statement reads: "The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all those who partake of the privileges of white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them" (9). In exchange for their complicity with a system that compromises the life chances of people of [End Page 313] color, "white" people gain privileged access to resources. "Whiteness" is experienced as a form of property, as social, political, economic, and cultural capital.2 Racialization into dominance degrades the humanity of so-called white people, while racialization into exploitation endangers the life chances of people of color. Consequently, race is never just a neutral social fact or an inert historical condition. Academic discussions of race are always embedded in and shaped by the broad array of historical forces and movements that give race its meanings. Thinking, talking, and writing about race in America means transacting in matters of life and death, confronting the human capacity for profound creativity and visionless abandonment. It is an enterprise I find both sobering and emancipatory.

Some of this users' questions and answers do survive at SE sites, for the time being, which will list below for further review. The first use of "white people" that was able to locate in literature is in The Triumphs of Truth by Thomas Middleton (1613). The first usage of "white race" that could locate was in the 17th century in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races by Arthur de Gobineau (1853-1855)

The white races are, further, distinguished by an extraordinary attachment to life. They know better how to use it, and so, as it would seem, set a greater price on it; both in their own persons and those of others, they are more sparing of life. When they are cruel, they are conscious of their cruelty; it is very doubtful whether such a consciousness exists in the negro. At the same time, they have discovered reasons why they should surrender this busy life of theirs, that is so precious to them. The principal motive is honour, which under various names has played an enormous part in the ideas of the race from the beginning. I need hardly add that the word honour, together with all the civilizing influences connoted by it, is unknown to both the yellow and the black man.

see Who is the first person in the 17th century to describe themselves as a “white” person and who invented the term “white race”?.

The first use of "White-woman" law in the colonies of Btitain in the western hemisphere can be traced to 1681 in Maryland Colony, and largely dealt with "white-women" having sexual relation with and marrying non-"white" men, see Was race really unimportant in the 1660's?; Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today by Jacqueline Battalora; see also What are the legal requirements in the United States for being recognized under federal law as “white” or a “white” person?; Is the term “race” defined by Public Law enacted by Congress of the United States.

"race" in the United States is based on self-identification. No individual is born being a member of any fictitious "race"; further, individuals can decide to self-identify with any "race" they choose; including the once official "some other race"; see Rachel Dolezal: 'I don't identify as African-American, I identify as black' (Source: today.com); Black teen stuns TV host Dr Phil by claiming she's a 'white person' and identifies with the KKK (Source: indy100.com).

Essentially, the modern concept of "race" is a relatively recent phenomenon, with an origin in the 19th century, the primary purpose being the establishment of the criminal enterprise "white supremacy". Given that "white supremacy", as an institution, is the most powerful government currently in existence, the act of thoroughly investigating the etymology, meaning and application of "race" is one of the most challenging endeavors an individual can undertake.

To openly state that "race" is a purely political construct designed to confuse and control various classes of individuals requires close examination of the core of the term "race" itself, and for individuals to ask themselves why they self-identify with any fictitious "race"; which few are want to do; as they are challenging the status quo, with little expectation of individuals or groups at large abandoning the practice of self-identifying with any "race", including when asked by the state to assign oneself into a fictional political class.

From perspective here, the invention of "race" is the biggest fraud ever to be perpetuated.

Must read: The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1 Racial Oppression and Social Control and The Invention of the White Race, Volume 2 The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America by Theodore Allen.

  • ‘For example, according to statistics, no "black" people currently exist in Germany.’ I take this to mean that in Germany currently there is no official category of “black”. Is that correct? Jan 11 '19 at 3:19
  • @MarkAndrews Yes, that is one way to interpret that fact. Statistically speaking, black people in Germany don’t exist. See also France replaced the word “race” with “sex” in its constitution. There is no universally agreed upon definition of either "race" or the term "black". E.g., the U.S. Census Bureau defines "black" as "A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as "Haitian" or "Negro" can be used in addition to "Black or African American."" which has several issues; one emphasized above. Jan 11 '19 at 3:44

Racism conceptualised

Racism rests on two basic assumptions: that a correlation exists between physical characteristics and moral qualities; that mankind is divisible into superior and inferior stocks. Racism, thus defined, is a modern conception, for prior to the XVIth century there was virtually nothing in the life and thought of the West that can be described as racism. (Dante A. Puzzo, 'Racism and the Western Tradition', Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1964), pp. 579-586: 579.)

That's a strong claim. How can it be justified ?

Racism vs ethnocentrism

To prevent misunderstanding a clear distinction must be made between racism and ethnocentrism. The term ethnocentrism-of comparatively recent coinage-is derived from the Greek. While ethnos meaning race or nation and ethos meaning character or tradition are related words, ethnocentrism serves to describe the identification of oneself with one's own people as against the rest of man- kind, indiscriminately. The ancient Hebrews, in referring to all who were not Hebrews as Gentiles, were indulging in ethnocentrism, not in racism. For there was nothing in their attitude to suggest that they believed that a relationship existed between physical characteristics and moral qualities. So it was with the Hellenes who denominated all non-Hellenes-whether the wild Scythians or the Egyptians whom they acknowledged as their mentors in the arts of civilization-Barbarians, the term denoting that which was strange or foreign. (Puzzo: 580.)

The ancients

This is not to imply that the Ancients were unaware of or uninterested in the physical differences which distinguish the varieties of man. On the contrary, many of the ancient authors reflect a keen appreciation of the dif- ferences, both physical and cultural, which separate and group mankind. Xenophanes, for example, in a passage concerning the gods declared that if animals, like men, had hands and could paint and produce works of art they would represent their gods as animals, oxen as oxen, horses as horses, etc., adding that the Ethiopians made their gods black and snub-nosed, the Thracians gave theirs red hair and blue eyes.2 Herodotus filled his pages with rich descriptions of the physical appearance, the dress, manners, and customs of the peoples of whom he had a direct or indirect knowledge, declaring that Ethiopia produced the most handsome, tallest, and longest-lived men. Caesar and Tacitus provided excellent descriptions of the Gauls and Germans. Caesar held the Belgae to be the bravest of the Gauls, ascribing their war-like qualities to their proximity to the Germans with whom they were in constant conflict and to their greater distance than other Gauls from the enervating influences which emanated from the Roman Province. Tacitus expressed admiration for the height and strength and chaste ways of the Germans, while he saw the facial features of the Sarmatians (a people living to the east of the Germans) as ugly.5 Tacitus, too, believed the Germans to be a pure stock, "untainted by intermarriage with other peoples." ' At first blush it would seem that in Tacitus we encounter an ancient author who was extremely "race-conscious" and much taken with the Germans. However, a closer reading reveals that Tacitus was something of a moralist. In his concern to reflect the laxity and corruption of Roman society in the mirror of German virtue he was, perhaps, rather lavish with the quicksilver. Be that as it may, his "race-consciousness" never became racism and it is fallacious to see in his discussion of the Germans-as it was once fashion- able to do-an anticipation of the theories of the Count de Gobineau. (Puzzo: 580.)

It was Aristotle who made what was probably the most racist statement to come out of the ancient world. Depicting the Orientals as quick-witted but weak of spirit and the northern barbarians as strong of spirit but dull- witted, Aristotle held that the Hellenes, inhabiting a middle region and combining quickness of mind with strength of spirit, were superior to both. It is of interest that Houston Stewart Chamberlain, despite many references to Aristotle, ignores him on this score but extracts full measure from Tacitus' observations. (Puzzo: 580.)

Aristotle backtracks

However, Tacitus' moral zeal and Aristotle's penchant for the golden mean notwithstanding, it remains true that the ancient world was free of racist dogma. Allusions to color and other physical characteristics were usually made within an ethnocentric frame of reference and did not imply the "scientific" relationships which are integral to modem racism. Even Aristotle proved himself a poor racist in the end by amending his observation to the effect that only some Hellenic peoples possessed both intelligence and spirit, other Hellenic peoples tending to approximate in their attributes either northern barbarians or Orientals. It is one thing, then, to describe a people as long-headed and brave or as round-headed and philosophical; it is quite another to aver that because a people is long-headed it is brave or because it is round-headed it is given to philosophy. (Puzzo: 580-1.)

Rise of the nation state

The Thirty Years' War (1618-48) and the following Treaty of Westphalia (1648) provided a great impetus to the emergence of the nation state in Europe.

The moral self-sufficiency of the nation-state proved of salient importance. For, in the circumstances engendered by the struggle for empire, it gave powerful impetus to the natural tendency of nationalism to become chauvinism. And chauvinism, perverting to its uses the new sciences, could become and, where conditions were propitious, did become racism. The inter- action between colonialism and this nationalism provided the necessary milieu for the emergence and development of racism. Racism, then, resulted from the conjunction of certain historical developments, ranging from the end of Europe's isolation through the emergence of the secular, national state to the struggle for empire. It is this unique set of circumstances which serves not only to account for the rise of racism but to set it off from earlier ethnocentric notions and simple patriotism. (Puzzo: 583.)

Nothing is totally neat and simple in history. The experience of the Crusades probably also played a part in the genesis of racism. But I believe that the racism that interests you and informs the work of Locke and Hume had its principal origin in the rise of the nation state.

Racism, Locke and Hume

It is probably in the light of this historical background and current of ideas that the racism of Locke and Hume is best explained. It did not have specific philosophical sources but philosophers, no less than others, absorb ideas from the culture around them.

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