Arnold J. Toynbee on race (1934)

Whatever the explanation of our sensitiveness to Physical Race may be, its undoubted existence as an element in our consciousness is apt to produce two intellectual consequences which are fertile in errors. It makes us assume that a phenomenon of which our perceptions are so acute must be proportionately plain to our understandings, whereas our scientific knowledge about Race in its physical aspect is really not appreciably greater than our knowledge about Race in its psychic aspect. In the second place, we are led into taking for granted—without proof and even without presumptive evidence—the postulate of a correlation between Physical Race and Psychical Race which we have mentioned just above. Before making these hazardous intellectual leaps in the dark, we seldom pause to reflect that we are setting out to explain one unknown quantity in terms of another. 

In the Western World of our day, ‘racial’ explanations of social phenomena are much in vogue. Racial differences of human physique, regarded as immutable in themselves and as bearing witness to likewise immutable racial differences in the human psyche, are supposed to account for the differences which we observe empirically between the fortunes and achievements of different human societies. These ‘racial theories’, which always start from the two assumptions to which we have drawn attention, are striking examples of one social phenomenon which we have now learnt to discount: to wit, the influence of social environment on historical study.

The belief that differences of Physical Race are immutable is not peculiar to our age or our society. The rhetorical question ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?’ anticipates, in poetic imagery, the modern Western racialist’s travesty of the modern Western biologist’s proposition that acquired characteristics are not transmissible—and the doctrine is not the more securely established for being formulated in prose. The present vogue of racialism in the West, however, has really little to do with current scientific hypotheses. A prejudice so strong as this cannot be accounted for by a cause so rational. Modern Western racial prejudice is not so much a distortion of Western scientific thought as a pseudo-intellectual reflection of Western race-feeling; and this feeling, as we see it in our time, is a consequence of the expansion of our Western Civilization over the face of the Earth since the last quarter of the fifteenth century of our era. 

The feeling has been aroused by contact, often under untoward conditions, between societies whose members happen to stand at opposite extremes of the range of variety in Physical Race which is to be found in the Genus Homo. Our Western Civilization happens to have emerged and developed among peoples in Western Europe who belong, in their physique, to certain varieties of ‘the White Race’ which our ethnologists have labelled ‘Caucasian’. In exploring the whole surface of the planet these White Westerners have come across representatives of all the other physical races of mankind; and in most of the permanent settlements which they have made, beyond the narrow borders of Western Europe, overseas, they have come to live intermingled geographically with members of one or more of these other races: in America, South Africa, and East Africa with African negroes; in the two latter regions with representatives of the dark-skinned races of India, as well; in Australia with the altogether primitive ‘Blackfellows”; in New Zealand with the Polynesian Maoris; and in all parts of Australasia, as well as along the Pacific coast of North America, with representatives of the so-called Yellow Race from China and Japan. 

In all these countries overseas where White people from Western Europe have settled cheek by jowl with representatives of other races, there are three elements in the situation which between them go far towards accounting for the strength and virulence of Western race-feeling in our time. First, the White people have established an ascendancy over the people of other races with whom they have come to share their new homes. Secondly, these White masters have almost everywhere abused their power in some way and in some degree. Thirdly, they are haunted by a perpetual fear that some day the positions may be reversed; that by weight of superior numbers or by more successful adaptation to the local climate or by ability to survive on a lower level of subsistence or by readiness to do harder physical or intellectual work, the Man of Colour may eventually bring the White Man’s ascendancy to an end and perhaps even establish an ascendancy of his own over the White Man. The ‘first shall be last, and the last first’; and, if ever this comes to pass, the White Man’s children must expect to have the sins of their fathers visited on their heads, for, in the consciousness of ‘under-dog’, the past is ever present. These considerations enter into the race-feeling of Western settlers overseas; and it is the feeling of these frontiersmen on the subject of Race that determines the feeling of our Western Society as a whole.

The Protestant Background of our Modern Western Race-feeling

The race-feeling which is thus aroused in our Western Society by the present situation and temper of our settlers overseas all springs naturally from the religious background of those Western people who are of the Protestant persuasion.

In our Western history, the Protestant movement started immediately before the movement of overseas settlement; and, in the eighteenth century of our era, the competition between the peoples of Western Europe for the command of the overseas world ended in the victory of the English-speaking Protestants, who secured for themselves the lion’s share of those overseas countries, inhabited by primitive peoples, that were suitable for settlement by Europeans, as well as the lion’s share of the countries inhabited by adherents of the living non-Western civilizations who were incapable at the time of resisting Western conquest and domination. The outcome of the Seven Years’ War decided that the whole of North America, from the Arctic Circle to the Rio Grande, should be populated by new nations of European origin whose cultural background was the Western Civilization in its English Protestant version, and that a Government instituted by English Protestants and informed with their ideas should become paramount over the whole of Continental India. Thus the race-feeling engendered by the English Protestant version of our Western culture became the determining factor in the development of race-feeling in our Western Society as a whole. 

This has been a misfortune for Mankind, for the Protestant temper and attitude and conduct in regard to Race, as in many other vital issues, is inspired largely by the Old Testament; and in matters of Race the promptings of this old-fashioned Syriac oracle are very clear and very savage. The ‘Bible Christian’ of European origin and race who has settled among peoples of non-European race overseas has inevitably identified himself with Israel obeying the will of Jehovah and doing the Lord’s work by taking possession of the Promised Land, while he has identified the non-Europeans who have crossed his path with the Canaanites whom the Lord has delivered into the hand of his Chosen People to be destroyed or subjugated. . . .

From the first volume of A Study of History, Toynbee’s 12-volume opus that he worked on for nearly thirty years.

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