I was taught that racism developed out of Johannes Blumenbach’s Anthropological Treatises in the late eighteenth century, specifically his doctoral thesis On the Natural Variety of Mankind, University of Göttingen, which was first published in 1775. In this work he outlined five races of humanity: Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopean, American. These later became Caucasian, East Asiatic, Southeast Asiatic, Negro and American Indian.
Recently, however, an edition of Zygon has discussed the notion that the origins of racialism are not to be found in scientific anthropology, but in the general ideas that preceded it. To wit, in Christian thought. The symposium, entitled “Terence Keel’s Divine Variations: A Symposium”, includes pro- and con- views of Keel’s thesis that “the formation of the race concept in the minds of Western European and American scientists grew out of and remained indebted to Christian intellectual history”.
I haven’t seen Keel’s book yet, and the articles are critical of his use of Blumenbach (particularly Hamm, whose comments strike me as germane and measured). But I do think there is something in it. Racism did not develop out of the classical era. The dividing characters there were more to do with language, cultural practices and morés, and religion than anything close to what we would call race. And the influence of the Genesis narrative on racial typification (sons of Cain, sons of Noah, etc.), particularly in the period from the reformation on, cannot be underestimated.
But the primary source, as argued by Geraldine Heng, first in a couple of papers, and more recently in a book, The invention of race in the middle ages, was the racialisation of Jews, Romani and Muslims. By “othering” (an annoying but useful neologism) these ethnicities in an essentialist fashion, by stereotyping the group. It allows us to do something that is fundamental to prejudicial treatment of out-groups: to dismiss others as less worthy than ourselves.
Of course, not only Christian cultures do this, but the choice of biosocial “properties” as the discriminata is uniquely medieval western Christian. Greeks denigrated “barbarians” but because they didn’t speak the right way (“bar bar bar”) or eat the right way, not because they had the wrong skin colour or physiognomy.
Tie this in with the Aristotelian logic that was the later medieval heritage that Aquinas eventually folded into the foundations of western Christianity, which is based upon dividing general concepts (genera) into specific concepts (species) and you have a taxonomic approach to people and practices that almost inevitably will result in dividing humans into distinct and ranked groups.
So racism is Christian in the following sense: as Keel says, Christians saw themselves as the successors to the Jews as God’s chosen people (supersessionism), and were heir to the Tanakh talk of “peoples” or “nations”, especially in the Torah. Of course at first this had a very different meaning; and it applied to cultures and political entities rather than anything biosocial. As Heng notes, race was invented (not under that name) to deal with out-groups within Europe, and in particular the Jews and Romani. And as the story I was taught goes, a Christian, Johannes Blumenbach, divided humanity up into races for the purposes of scientific anthropology, although he did not rank them according to intelligence or capabilities. That came later, and it was tied up with the behaviours of Christians: slave traders to the Americas.
Fehige, Yiftach. “In What Sense Exactly Did Christianity Give Us Racial Science?” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 230–36.
Hamm, Ernie. “Christian Thought, Race, Blumenbach, and Historicizing.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 237–45.
Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
———. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (2011): 315–31.
———. “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages II: Locations of Medieval Race1.” Literature Compass 8, no. 5 (May 1, 2011): 332–50.
Keel, Terence. Divine Variations: How Christian Thought Became Racial Science. Stanford University Press, 2018.
———. “Response to My Critics: The Life of Christian Racial Forms in Modern Science.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 261–79.
———. “The Religious Preconditions for the Race Concept in Modern Science.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 225–29.
Marks, Jonathan. “The Coevolution of Human Origins, Human Variation, and Their Meaning in the Nineteenth Century.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 246–51.
Neswald, Elizabeth. “Racial Science and ‘Absolute Questions’: Reoccupations and Repositions.” Zygon 54, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 252–60.