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Author: Francisco Bethencourt
Publisher: Princeton University Press
The widespread scope of Racisms over both time and place renders it a comprehensive study of the different forms of racism that have evolved over the centuries in relation to a vast range of people. Professor Francisco Bethencourt, the Charles Boxer Professor of History at King’s College London, adopts a long-term, cross-continental approach to unpacking the history of prejudice concerning ethnic descent, which has been made manifest in a variety of forms of discriminatory action. A key contention of the author’s is that the (pseudo-)scientific classification of races did not precede the taking of negative actions by some races or ethnic groups against others that they regarded as inferior, but that the underlying prejudice was present at a far earlier stage, as can be seen in the behaviour and output of the societies concerned. While his main focus is on the Western world, from the Middle Ages to the modern day, Bethencourt also debates at some length the nature of racism in widely diverse parts of Africa, including Rwanda, Namibia and Angola, spending some time on discussing the apartheid regime in South Africa. Neither is the western hemisphere the sole zone of his detailed analysis of racisms and their multiple forms, as he relates how the topographical structure of settlements in China also exemplified a form of ethnic segregation and discrimination.
Bethencourt’s interrogation of his subject is well signposted throughout Racisms, which is clearly divided into five main sections, centring on the following main topics: the Crusades; oceanic exploration; colonial societies; the theories of race; and nationalism and beyond. At key points in the text, he asks the questions that motivated his research into that particular part of his study, which not only clarifies the direction that he takes, but also enables the reader to assess whether he does, indeed, satisfy his own intentions. Although Bethencourt’s writings are grounded in academia, Racisms is a highly accessible and lively account that should appeal to a wide audience—a work that, while not being too sophisticated for the average person to read and appreciate for the multiple insights that it provides, makes for just as worthy an undergraduate text.
Racisms is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs and numerous maps that clearly indicate the geographical areas covered in the text, including Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. The work should be of interest to those concerned with cultural, social and political history, as well as to all human rights advocates and supporters who wish to see their central concern in historical perspective. In providing invaluable insights into movements pivotal to the evolution of human society, Bethencourt pays a great deal of attention to how certain cultural objects, ranging from book illustrations to paintings and sculptures, have reflected the stereotyping of other races that has helped lead to them being regarded as worthy of contempt and disparagement. Art historians are, therefore, also likely to find this monograph of value.
Bethencourt ends Racisms on a salutary note: “In sum, there is still a considerable way to go to realize the dream of human dignity and the real implementation of human rights.” Indeed, such might still be a dream, but one that is made a great deal more tangible and practicable through this incisive volume.