In this paper I investigate a largely untold chapter in the history of race thinking in Northern Europe and North America: the transition from the form of racism that was used to justify a race-based system of slavery to the medicalising racism which called for segregation, apartheid, eugenics, and, eventually, sterilization and the holocaust. In constructing this history I will employ the notion of biopower introduced by Michel Foucault. Foucault’s account of biopower has received a great deal of attention recently, but because what he actually has to say about race tends to be vague and radically incomplete, many race theorists have been critical of his contribution. However, even if the account of the holocaust in terms of biopower is incomplete, there is still a great deal to be learned from Foucault’s identification of this biologizing, or medicalising racism.
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Sometimes very different discourses were employed away from North America and Northern Europe and a study of this would uncover different kinds of racism that had different kinds of effects, but the unprecedented racial violence of European nations in the twentieth century provides justification enough for my focus, especially given the fact that the link between North American and Northern European racisms, although recognized in some of the historical literature, still needs further examination.
Ann Stoler, the first person in the English language discussion to take seriously Foucault’s account of racism, already drew attention to his failure to address race-based slavery, colonialism, and imperialism in all but the most perfunctory terms (Stoler 1996, vii. See further Stoler 2002, 140-61). It is possible that at one point Foucault intended to make good this lack, insofar as the original plan for The History of Sexuality, the sixth and final volume was to have been called “Population and Races” (Davidson 1994, 117). Unfortunately McWhorter’s Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America (2009) appeared after my essay had already been completed. A quick reading suggests that she defends more forcefully than I would the value of Foucault’s reflections on racism and in particular she seems less interested than I am in differentiating the varieties of racism, but we agree on much else.
Buchez wrote: “No one [until Morel] had affirmed that certain diseases, certain forms of poisoning, certain habits of the parents, have the power to create, in the children, a truly consecutive state, indefinitely transmissible, unto the extinction of the stock—unless some intervention arrests it.” Cited Friedlander 1973, 396−7. See also Pick 1989, 50−67.
Many people have contributed to the discussions that have led to this paper, most notably Mary Beth Mader, Kristie Dotson, and David Gougelet, whose Ph.D. dissertation, “‘Life Invested’ Biopower’s Taming of Chance and Difference,” submitted to the University of Memphis in the summer of 2007, helped clarify my ideas. I am also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers.
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Bernasconi, R. The Policing of Race Mixing: The Place of Biopower within the History of Racisms. Bioethical Inquiry 7, 205–216 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-010-9224-8