The idea of race in early 20th Century South Africa: Some preliminary thoughts

Dubow, Saul
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In the first half of the twentieth century racist ideology - whether explicit or implicit - was a vital part of the ideological repetoire by which white supremacy legitimated itself to itself. At one level this contention should not surprise for South Africa is manifestly structured on racist principles. But, whereas noone could deny the existence of racism in South Africa, the extent to which racist ideology fashioned patterns of thought and the ways in which racist ideas articulated with similar trends overseas, is barely understood. I would suggest that this gap in our knowledge is not entirely an accident. In Europe and America the reality of Nazism alerted people in a terrifying way to the consequences of explicit racism. As a result there now exists a sort of collective amnesia about pre-war intellectual and political traditions of racist thought outside of Nazi Germany - traditions which were not only widely pervasive, but also attained a significant degree of respectability. So fundamental has the shift in intellectual attitudes to race been over the past three or four decades, we almost lack the categories by which to understand the pre-war racial mind-set. In recent years this problem has begun to be addressed in a number of important works dealing with the general topic of Social Darwinism. Yet, even heret a comforting and comfortable attempt to distance approved intellectual traditions from tainted ones is evident. For example, racist science is often referred to dismissively as 'pseudo science'. The difficulty with such an approach is that it begs fundamental questions about the very nature of science for, by implication, the suggestion is that pseudo science can be easily separated from true or objective science. Moreover, to dismiss racial science as bogus seems to suggest that it was peripheral to mainstream scientific investigation, thereby ignoring the extent to which respected scientists participated in its development. Many of the writers who devoted considerable research to the investigation of racial differences were prominent intellectuals who conformed to recognised standards of academic rigour; their arguments are logically constructed and copiously footnoted so that on formal grounds at least there is not always reason to dismiss them as charlatans - however wrong their premises or conclusions may be.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented April, 1989
Racism. South Africa. History. 20th century