The East can teach the West a thing or two about racism

March 1, 2002

Thinking in racial categories is still a dominant form of social cognition across the globe. This collection of readings provides a set of material written during the 20th century that has sought to understand the power and durability of racial ideas.

The bulk of the material examines aspects of race and racism in modern American society, focusing on concrete situations, such as episodes in the civil rights movement. The concentration on the United States is a strength of the collection in that it builds a depth of thematic continuity, but at the same time it is a weakness because it detracts from the book's claim to represent the story of racism.

Although the editors, Ellis Cashmore and James Jennings, acknowledge that racism is not unique to the West and not solely identified with colonial situations, the West and its colonial empires are their essential focus. The relative lack of emphasis they place on non-western racism needs to be weighed against recent evidence of the origins and strength of racist discourse outside the West. Frank Dikotter, in The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan (1997), and other contributors to this collection have established the independent development of racial theories and race ideas in the East, particularly in China and Japan.

The tendency to restrict the definition of racism to western cultures has had worrying effects in the political arena. For it has provided certain non-western countries with a rhetorical strategy with which to resist attempts by the United Nations to promote elimination of racial discrimination. For example, Japan dragged its feet and signed the UN convention on racial discrimination only in 1996. This is why it is disturbing to find sociologists developing a canon of key texts in this way.

Nevertheless, the reader does more or less fulfil its stated aim, which is to provide a student textbook showing the long and complex history of the power of racist ideas. There are valuable extracts from William Du Bois, Gunnar Myrdal, Oliver Cox, Theodore Adorno, Ashley Montagu, James Boggs, Michael Banton, Elazar Barkan and others. Excellent writing that addresses whiteness and its many linkages to racism is particularly well represented, in extracts from the work of Joel Kovel, David Wellman and Theodore Allen. Less attention is given to the linkages between racism and forms of social division other than class. For example, analysis of the experiences and the issues relating to women of colour are specifically addressed in only two of the collection's over 400 pages, and race/disability links do not warrant even a mention.

The readings are not grouped, which would help students, but the editors'

introductions for each reading are helpful and incisive.

However, the message that racism is an invention of the West and the book's American focus may serve to reinforce insularity among US readers. The building of a curriculum for the study of race and racism that is polycentric rather than Americocentric is still in its early stages. This text does not take us far enough down that path.

Ian Law is director, Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies, University of Leeds.

Racism: Essential Readings. First edition

Editor - Ellis Cashmore and James Jennings
ISBN - 0 7619 7196 3 and 7197 1
Publisher - Sage
Price - £75.00 and £20.99
Pages - 422

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