Did racism exist in the West before the late 15th century?

Did Ancient and Medieval people in the ‘West’ (Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, Medieval Christianity, Islamate) have any real concept of ‘race’ or act in a racist way ever?

It seems that racism really doesn’t appear in any context until the ‘discovery’ of the America’s in the late 15th century, the subsequent emergence of the transatlantic African slave trade, and the persecutions and expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Iberia at the same time - when even ‘coverted’ Jews and Muslims become suspect because of their ‘unclean’ blood.

Were these events the catalysts of racism? Were there any ‘racists’ before this period in history? I know some groups such as the Hellenic era Greeks and the Ancient Israelites come across as xenophobic in some writings - but they don’t seem to have the same racialistic views as modern peoples (Ruth was a non-Jewish woman who converted and became a Hebrew heroine, King Solomon married a Ethiopian queen, etc). Romans and early Christians also didn’t seem to discriminate on any ‘racial’ basis. Essentially, was ‘racism’ invented at the beginning of the modern era?

I’d be prepared to bet that the Cro-Magnon’s told racist jokes about the Nethanderals. Of course, find a cite for that might be difficult.

Saxons were treated as second class people following the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. Does that count?

The concept of “race” as a “biological subdivision” of the human species–a kind of sub-species of Homo sapiens–does indeed date back only to the early modern period; therefore, the concept of “inferior” and “superior” “races” did not exist before then. People certainly persecuted each other based on a variety of distinctions, real and imagined–Greek vs. barbarian, Jew vs. gentile, lord vs. commoner, True Believer vs. infidel, orthodox vs. heretic, etc., etc.–but the specific kind of stupidity called “racism” is a fairly recent innovation. (I don’t know if skin color per se was ever a basis for bigotry before the early modern era.) One effect of the European long-range voyages of discovery was that you suddenly got guys from say, England, coming into contact with people from Nigeria or China. If you travel overland, then as soon as you cross the English Channel, you’re in a foreign land, full of people with outlandish customs who don’t talk right and eat strange foods and may (depending on what era you’re in) be heretics who follow a “false religion” (or at least an erroneous version of the true religion), but they don’t look that different from the good, normal people back home. (Naturally, the Frenchmen are thinking all the same things about our English traveler in return.) Travelling south, people’s languages and customs gradually change; so do their physical appearance–by the time you get to southern Italy, people are noticeably darker than they are in Leeds or Normandy. But there’s no sharp cut off–people in northern Italy can be quite fair-skinned; people to the south tend to be a bit darker skinned; travelling around the Mediterranean, people are apt to be fairly swarthy. On the other side of the Mediterranean, people are still “Mediterranean”, but now you begin to encounter more darkly-featured people from deeper in the African continent–if you join a caravan crossing the Sahara, you’ll reach lands where everyone is a quite dark shade of brown. But looking back on your journey, it’s clear that humans belong to a smooth spectrum of physical types, not several distinct “races”. Similar results will obtain for a journey across Eurasia to China.

Getting on a ship and sailing directly from Northern Europe to Africa or China, though, is like walking into a hotel where there happens to be a convention of the North American Professional Jockeys Association and a re-union of the past players of the Harlem Globetrotters–you walk from one meeting hall to the next, and you’d be tempted to say humans belong to two “races”, the “shorts” and the “talls”. But of course, if you look around on an ordinary street, humans come in a variety of heights, and can’t possibly be divided into distinct groups based on that.

I don’t know. I have always wondered how long the ‘Saxon-Norman’ division really lasted after 1066, and whether much of it in the popular imagination came from sources like Sir Walter Scott and other 19th century accounts. And weren’t the Saxons only one tribe among several in England? We never hear about the Normans and Jutes, Angles, or Danes. Anyway, I suppose the barriers between them were mainly cultural, and perhaps rooted in competing feudal loyalties.

Did the Normans really believe - at least for a time - that the Saxons were of inferior “blood” or anything resembling a “Race”?
I am not an expert in British history, but I know for instance when the Germanic peoples invaded parts of the Roman Empire they remained ethnically separate for some time, due to religious beliefs (which Roman Christians found heretical), and differences in law (Germanic personal law versus Roman civil law). But after the initial friction, intermarriage and absorption rapidly occured.

I’d be shocked if it didn’t. As MEBuckner correctly pointed out, the concepts of race and racism, as we understand them today, are fairly recent in origin.
But grouping people according to appearance is not - indeed, I’ve read of recent studies (sorry, no cite) where this behavior appears to be ingrained. It doesn’t have to be done on the basis of skin color or other attributes normally associated with ethnicity, but they are plainly apparent distinctions upon which grouping of person can, and almost definitely were, made in the past.

Part of the issue is that, until quite recently, there wasn’t much interaction between notably distinct racial groupings. The Roman empire may be a bit of an exception, but even there, the overwhelming majority of Romans probably never saw a Nubian, except perhaps in the gladiator arena.


My guess would be that the West deserves credit for creating the concept that racism is a bad thing – something to be eradicated. The use of the pejorative word “racism” is one way that the West fights against racism.

Also, I’m fairly certain that the West deserves credit for initiating and promoting worldwide the concept that slavery is evil. AFAIK certain Christian groups in the US and England were the first ever in the world to take this moral stand.

True - and in fact the British were the first to outlaw slavery, which was banned throughout the Empire in 1833 (and had been banned in England since 1722!).

Or 1772, even.

Though they were still trading until 1807, mind you.

I have to disagree with MEBuckner. I think the conept of race, and the evils of racism have been around for a looooong time.

Check out this Biblical passage, from Numbers chapter 12, verse 1:

And then there’s this passage from Jeremiah chapter 13, verse 23:

Well, that was nice of them–as they created the concept to begin with.

As MEBuckner mentioned, humans have always had an “us vs them” attitude in the world. This is actually liable to have stemmed from pre-human “attitudes.” As SuaSponte pointed out, it appears that there are some innate reactions to “others”–and similar reactions have been observed among the great apes.

Certainly, throughout history, we have example after example of groups expressing the idea that they are “better” than their neighbors or that they have some natural superiority to all other peoples. The Chinese, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, all left writings to that effect. When the Portuguese first began exploring and trading on the West Coast of Africa, they reported with dismay that the kingdoms with whom they were trading looked down on them as barbaric.

However, the Chinese, the Egyptians and the Romans each suffered “barbarian” invasions and each eventually embraced and absorbed the invaders. There is also ample evidence throughout history that “foreign” or “alien” individuals could be accepted into a society based on personal merit.

There are numerous examples in Europe, from the period at the very cusp of the advent of racism, of black Africans marrying into white groups without any shame or stigma. (It may have been a novelty effect overwhelming general xenophobia, but it definitely happened.)

It was not until Linnaeus began putting all life into boxes that people began to write philosophical and proto-scientific texts explaining that specific groups throughout the entire world were “higher” or “lower”. That was a Western European invention.

The Chinese had texts detailing the superiority of the Chinese, but they had no texts rating other peoples by imagined qualities. The same is true of the Romans.

Only in the Western European-controlled Americas did the notion arise that a person could be singled out for slavery simply by their appearance. Prior to the Atlantic slave trade, slaves were simply war captives. Once the Atlantic slave trade got going, laws were passed to inhibit the freeing of slaves because of their “low” status and, in some places, laws were passed that permitted the re-enslavement of persons based on their appearance.

Xenophobia? The world is filled with it.
Racism? That is a European invention.

hate to contradict you, Tom, but the Asians were way ahead of the europeans in this respect.

In China, the Han racial majority has always discriminated against the ethnic minorities of the West and South.

Moreover, Chinese records dating back to the Tang dynasty refer to the Japanese as “barbarian dwarves.” The Tang also called the Silla Kingdom (modern-day Korea) “stinking garlic-eaters.”

Now you could make a case that scientific racism was invented by the Europeans, but onl;y because they made the first formal ethnographic studies of alien peoples, not because they invented the racial slur.

Regarding Aaron, Miriam, and Moses, their complaint against the Cushite woman appears to be that Moses had married outside the chosen people, not that he had married into any particular “lower” group.

As to the passage in Jeremiah, certainly people have long recognized that there are different colors among peoples. The Greek story of Phaeton notes that when he allowed the sun chariot to get out of control, the Egyptians were toasted dark. However, there is no general statement among the Greeks that Ethiopians are of a lesser “race” of men than any other–they were simply noticeably darker. Jeremiah does not speak against the Cushites, only noting that they cannot change their skin color.

Doesn’t the very idea of a “chosen” people imply that other groups are lower?

No. In the Jewish tradition, the Jews are chosen to hold forth God’s rules to the world. It is an obligation, not an honor.

And if anyone insists on viewing “chosen” as an elevating term, it merely corroborates what I had originally explained: all groups see themselves as the best. It took Western European “Enlightenment” thought to express a new idea that people could be rated on some scale other than “us vs them.”

Quick note as I’m buried.

I disagree.

(a) North Africa – Roman settled as you recall during the Empire – had indigenous ‘Eithiopian’ – meaning black/really dark skinned pops which had no relation with slave trade. Apparently of neolithic origin.
(b) Trade with North East Africa and Yemen was fairly intense.

While there certainly weren’t millions of people moving about, especially on the North African sector there is an opportunity.

The problem really is a matter of organizing theories.

In this manner gobear missed the point on the Han: to my understanding the issue in China is as elsewhere, ethnocentrism but no fixed barriers. Assimilation to the ethnicity was possible, and no hard barriers were extent. However, this is very 2nd hand so I am pretending no expertise here in re China.

You have to make a distinction between racism as mere ethnocentric prejudice and racism as an explicit political ideology. Ethnic prejudice is a common human trait and shows up just about everywhere. Racism as a political ideology evolved in the wake of Western imperialism as a moral rationalization for the West’s global domination and as a means of keeping the lower classes divided and blind to their common interests.

Another thing you have to consider is that the Left believes “racism” to be the most horrid sin anyone could possibly commit and so believes that the West is somehow the most horrible civilization which ever existed. Anyone with common sense can see that conquering and/or enslaving someone because they belong to another religion or tribe can hardly be better than enslaving them because they belong to another race. Still another problem is that most discussions of slavery are only about legally or socially recognized forms of slavery and generally ignore informal or de facto forms of bondage such as child labor or debt slavery. This has the effect of making it seem that only blacks have ever been slaves in the modern West when in fact many whites have been exploited and brutalized as badly as any black slave.

I would argue that it is rather more complicated than that, having its origins instead in the interaction of rise of scientific thinking tied to some issues you raise. However, I haven’t the time.

There are those in the academic left who write that way. They are simple minded fools. Or axe grinders.


The greater problem and the nastiness arise from the consequences, not the initial act.

Most slave systems (See Patternson’s global survey) tended to integrative, that is the slave, or his or her immediate descendants eventually were integrated into the “new” society. The Americas’ system was a stark departure. Once in, no exit – with very few exceptions, and those declined with time.

Contrast this with the Islamic system where freeng slaves was considered a ‘good work’ and the ideology of Umm Walid, mother of my child ensured a relatively high first generation rate of freeing for women. (Specific injunction actually, but the ideology which supported the legal principle is important.

Are vastly different, see once more the majesterial analysis of Patterson, Slavery and Social Death examining such issues.

The social meaning, the avenues closed off are quite important. Lack of punishment, actual legal sanctioning of killing a slave by its proper owner, for example, versus the ‘bonded laborers’ retention of basic social rights. Abused to be sure, but the basic social contract and thus ability to aspire to improved place was there.

That is a key difference, one which a pure single generation economic analysis misses. Multi-generation, especially in re the Americas system reveals the starkly different aggregate difference. I note aggregate because one can always find exceptions to the rule.

On an individual basis, surely, however this verges on gross dishonesty when one considers the macro-level differences.

There is no legitimate reason to make this argument, to counter the West is evil rubbish one need not use an alternate form of distortion.

Collounsbury, I knew that someone would make that objection to my comment about the Roman empire, but I stand by it. Trade and settlement connections with nations of different races did not cause large-scale interaction between the average Roman and the average Yemeni, Ethiopian, etc. That was the point I was trying to make.

One way of addressing this question is to look at what the Romans wrote about Ethiopians and the like. Anyone know?