Some quick comments on the latest 'shit Dawkins says on Twitter' row.
Some of you may have noticed the row over Richard Dawkins' latest comments on Twitter, where he took an arbitrary swipe at the achievements of muslims (all of them):
All the world's Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) August 8, 2013
His comments, and subsequent defence of them, have been hammered by everyone from The Telegraph to the New Statesman to the post-nihilist ultra-left. I don't have much to add in terms of debunking his comments. Rather, I want to pick up on Dawkins' claim racism is limited to claims of an "innate inferiority of intellect" of some group.
By coincidence, I've been reading David Theo Goldberg's 'The Racial State'. I'm only part way through, but there's an excellent historical account of the emergence of racial thought which illustrates the current example well. Goldberg argues that in the history of racial thought, which emerges more or less with modernity in general, and the modern state in particular, there have been two main currents: naturalism and historicism.
Naturalism refers to the idea of inherent biological differences between 'races'. Typically these would be hierarchical, with 'whites' at the top, though there are some dubious variants of 'different but equal' knocking around parts of the far right. This is what Dawkins, and pretty much everybody, recognises as racism. When people say 'I'm not racist, but', this is usually what they're disavowing.
Historicism refers to the idea of cultural superiority, of more advanced civilisations. In principle, backwards, uncivilised people could attain civilisation if they abandon their backwards culture and adopt the civilised standards of the West. No claim to innate superiority/inferiority is made here.
Goldberg illustrates this with an argument between Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, in essays - originally published anonymously - on 'the negro question'. Written in the mid-19th century, Carlyle typifies the naturalist position, while JS Mill critiques him from the historicist one.
The point here is that there's a long history of enlightened, paternalistic, liberal racism, to which Dawkins' comments are endogenous. His bluster about 'sociologists' arrogantly defying the dictionary1 therefore only reveals his ignorance of the history of 'race', which has always been a social category bound up with state formation and colonialism, in both its historicist form and when it's had scientific, naturalist pretensions.2