M. G. Hanchard: The Spectre of Race

The Spectre of Race. How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy

Hanchard, Michael George
Anzahl Seiten
272 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Manfred Berg, Historisches Seminar, Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg

Book titles and blurbs serve the important purpose to provide potential readers with information on the topic, content, and argument of a book. According to the dust jacket of this book, the author, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, “identifies continuities of discriminatory citizenship from classical Athens to the present and looks at how democratic institutions have promoted undemocratic ideas and practices. […] Hanchard follows these patterns through the Enlightenment and to the states and political thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and he examines how early political scientists, including Woodrow Wilson and his contemporaries, devised what Hanchard has characterized as ‘racial regimes’ to maintain the political and economic privileges of dominant groups at the expense of subordinated ones. Exploring how democracies reconcile political inequality and equality, Hanchard debates the thorny question of the conditions under which democracies have created and maintained barriers to political membership."

In light of such sweeping claims, readers may be forgiven for expecting a historical synthesis or, alternatively, a systematic theoretical treatment of the complex relationship between racism and democracy. Alas, after reading a few pages of the introduction, it becomes clear that the title and the blurb are seriously misleading. The Spectre of Race is not at all a book for “a broader audience interested in understanding the interrelationship of racism, institutions, and modern politics” (1), but a highly specialized study that combines inquiries into the history and methodology of political science (chapters 1 and 2) with an analysis of democratic polities with racial regimes (chapters 3 and 4). The book requires much expert knowledge, especially in the field of comparative politics, and it is not easily accessible for general readers, who should brace themselves for a heavy dose of social science jargon and for a line of argumentation that is often highly abstract, meandering, and redundant. Many readers will find the plethora of topics that the author tries to bring together under the umbrella of race and democracy simply confusing.

This is unfortunate because The Spectre of Race addresses a key problem of democracy, namely the fact that many democratic nation-states have incorporated political inequality based on racial and ethnic hierarchies. Hanchard traces the tension between what he calls the ethos and the ethnos of democracy (14) to the citizenship laws of classical Athens passed after the Persian Wars. When Athens, in the fifth century BCE, made autochthony the basis for citizenship – only male descendants of Athenian men who were originally from Athens could be citizens – it created "the prototypical form of differentiation intended to rationalize limitations upon citizenship of formal membership in the political community” (3), according to the author. By excluding foreigners, women, and, of course, slaves, Athens set the standard for “contemporary nation-states founded upon democratic principles, [where] democratic institutions and practices coexist with antidemocratic ones” (4). Race then “became the modern equivalent of the Athenian myth of autochthony” (6), and “traces of the Athenian practice of combining ethnos […] with democracy can be found in the laws of the most prominent societies” (8).

Classicists would perhaps point out that ancient Athens was unique not in its exclusionary but in its democratic practices. They might also object that race is a modern category that cannot be applied to the ancient world. Hanchard, however, insists that the Athenian “myth that fused ancestry, gender, and territory with civic membership” presaged modern practices to “naturalize citizenship through an emphasis on bloodlines and origins rather than rights and responsibilities” (73). Yet, demonstrating historical continuity is not the author’s objective (66). Instead he treats classical Athens as a paradigm of political theory, which supposedly lives on in the writings and thought of modern political scientists.

In the first two chapters, Hanchard looks at how scholars working in comparative politics have conceptualized, neglected, and often distorted issues of race and thus contributed to constructing and legitimizing racial and ethnic hierarchies. In the late nineteenth century, historians, most importantly Edward Augustus Freeman of Oxford University, Henry Baxter Adams of Johns Hopkins University, and his student Woodrow Wilson, later to become president of the United States, approached the study of comparative politics with a strong racial bias in favor of “Euro-Aryan” nations as being uniquely fit for democratic self-government (chapter 1). In the wake of the Second World War, when comparative politics emerged as a vibrant discipline under the leadership of Gabriel Almond, Sidney Verba, and others, race was discredited as an analytical category and supplanted by the ostensibly less suspect concept of culture (56). Still, terms such as “developing nations,” “modernization,” etc. echoed older notions of racial and ethnic hierarchies (chapter 2).

In the subsequent two chapters, the author shifts the focus to a survey of democratic polities with racial regimes. Chapter 3 addresses the relationship between slavery and democracy based on case studies of Haiti, Columbia, Brazil, and the United States, while chapter 4 compares the racial and ethno-national regimes of France and Britain with the United States. In the final chapter, Hanchard returns to the question how recent scholars of comparative politics have conceptualized the problems of race and democracy and discusses possible implications for future research. The book ends with a Postscript entitled “From Athens to Charlottesville,” in which Hanchard argues that current racist and nationalist movements in the West also have their roots in the Athenian concept of citizenship based on “common cultural and territorial origins” (208). In the last resort, the author contends, present problems of race and democracy are related to “a dream that refuses to die: a dream of unity, if not uniformity, of peoples and nation-states organized under the banner of the West” (210). The challenge then is “to make societies less ethnocentric and more ethos-centric” (18).

If and how this noble dream might be achieved, is an open question on which Hanchard remains quite vague. On the one hand, he often creates the impression that barriers to citizenship are per se incompatible with democracy. On the other hand, he concedes that “citizenship is ultimately a selective and exclusionary cluster of rights and responsibilities” (106). Moreover, he cautions that “diversity on its own will not produce democracy, no more than homogeneous societies will” (214). If Hanchard is right that the tensions between the ethnos and ethos of democracy have existed for 2500 years, there is little reason to expect they will go away any time soon. Political communities will continue to define criteria for membership, and in democracies these criteria will inevitably be influenced by voters who prefer ethnocentric ideas of citizenship.

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