Revenge of the “Inferior Races”: Standing Race Theory on Its Head

Spurious racial theories go back a long ways

Published in OpeEdNews, Aug, 28, 2011, at

My college studies and first job (as a historian) had a lot to do with the study of race theory. And now I think we’re watching race theory being stood on its head.

It’s about time.

In the last three hundred years – at least – many nations had a way of looking upon race that glorified the majority or controlling national group – whoever that might be.

The English glorified the Anglo-Saxon. The German, the Teuton. Perhaps the French, the Gauls.

One common view among groups that hailed from Northern Europe was to say that the harsh Northern climes produced hardy, freedom-loving and industrious people whereas the Southern climes enervated people and produced soft, pliable, and laid-back citizens. I called this the “climatic theory of race development.” (1)

The national anthem of my own country, Canada, speaks of “the true North strong and free.” Among Northern people, we occupied the “true North,” the North of the North. We were the supreme of the superior.

And because we were a Northern lot, we were “strong and free” by nature.

One Canadian wag, Prof. Goldwin Smith, an impeccably-credentialed Anglo-Saxon, once said that stove fire enervates every bit as much as the sun’s heat. Good for him.

Fewer hardy, urban Northern folk spent as much time outdoors in winter in the late Nineteenth Century as their far-distant ancestors may have. Why would they be affected by the rugged Northern clime? But then such “racial characteristics” as industriousness and love of freedom were deemed, by the late Nineteenth Century, to be passed along by genetic factors, rather than through environmental interaction. So the race’s hardiness, which was originally achieved in the long distant past through environmental interplay, was now said to be passed along through genetic endowment.

How convenient. But then everything about race theory was self-serving and convenient.

Race theory was used to justify imperialism. The Southern races were said to be unable to organize themselves, to administer, to create. They needed the benevolent hand of the Northern races to whip them into order and induce them to work. We in turn bestowed on them democratic institutions, the rule of law, and group cohesiveness – or so the theory went.

We took their resources for our own use. And sometimes we sold their people into slavery. Freedom was really only for the white Northern races, not for Southern races of color.

This climatic theory of race development reached its high point … or perhaps its low point … in German racism, Teutonic theories of racial supremacy, as manifested under Hitler. It then descended into disrepute. But it took much backing and filling to have people forget that “Anglo-Saxons” shared some of the same views as Hitler. Nations like the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia had their versions of white supremacy, now forgotten.

When we pride ourselves on our “multiculturalism” and “tradition” of human rights, we forget where we’ve been.

Science was bent into the service of imperialism

Now the “effete” and “enervated” Southern races are throwing off the yoke and I watch this development with more than a touch of irony. The “Mediterranean March on Brussels” would have race theorists turning in their hardy Northern graves.

Don’t the Mediterranean people know that they owe everything good to the Northern races? The Arab Spring, in which the “inferior races” cast off their chains is the triumph of the people over the controlling group or elite. It looks like it’s against local despots but it’s also against what used to be “Northern” or white racial supremacy.

The world’s movement today is away from separation, divide and conquer, and rigged pyramids of “superior races” over “inferior races.” What’s happening in the world marks the real end of a period that started at least three centuries ago. And I’m glad to see it end.

Writing articles on race theory back in the 60s and 70s, I’d never have predicted the events we’re witnessing now in Tahrir Square or Tripoli. I’d never have guessed that the Southern or Mediterranean races would refuse to accept an economic order that’s weighted against them and towards Northern industrial nations. And I believe there’s much more to come.

For every twist and turn in the road, in the old days, someone could be found to amend race theory to take the new direction self-servingly into account. But now we’re seeing the fall of the paradigm itself that gives rise to self-serving theories of race. Our world is becoming strong and free, never mind just for the Northern “races.”

Goldwin Smith must be pleased, smiling down from heaven on us now, and raising a glass from those always-temperate climes he must find himself in, far, far away from cold weather and self-serving minds.

Having seen the way it works out, after fearing the worst in human nature, I have to say that I too am pleased. The human spirit has triumphed in the end and I hope we’ve all learned from the experience. Race theory was one of the depths we plumbed. Let’s now plumb the heights.


(1) Stephen M. Beckow, “‘Keeping British Columbia White’: Anti-Orientalism in the West, 1858-1949. Canada’s Visual History; series 1, v. 14. [Ottawa]: National Film Board of Canada with the National Museum of Man, 1974; Theories of Anglo-Saxondom. National Museum of Man, 1974; “From the Watchtowers of Patriotism” Journal of Canadian Studies, 1976.

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