( 1999) University of Minnesota Press
(Original review from 14 June, 2013)
A brilliant, short and deceptively simple exposition on the nature of racism and what anti-racist struggle should look like. It was written by Albert Memmi, a novelist and intellectual who participated in the Tunisian struggle for independence from France but was forced to leave his home country in 1956 after their victory, suspect due to his studies in France and his Jewish heritage. An outsider, neither Arab nor French, he yet remains committed to struggle and thus I think, to a reduction of complexity, a focus on essence and concrete ideas about how change can happen. This is a treasure really, and a book I wish I had read long ago, during my first attempt to look at race and racism intellectually rather than a few years down the line.
It makes me want to re-read everything in its light as there is so much I love about it but I worry about this very absence of complexity. But I think its structure is sound, and so much else I’ve read simply fills in details and particularities, gives it nuance and shading.
A common core to everything of course, is that racism is not based on any fundamental characteristics of the group discriminated against, it is not rational in that way, it is culturally constructed but it is a practical construction, and thus often contradictory. Memmi writes:
The thinkers and militants rely on logic and reasoning because they believe they are dealing with an opposing logic and reasoning. But racism is not simply of the order of reason; its real meaning does not reside in its apparent coherence. It is a discourse, at once both functional and naïve, that is called forth and maintained, in its essence and its goals, by something other that itself.
What is that other reason? ‘Whatever its little detours may be, ultimately, the goal of racism is dominance’. 
I like his distinction between his own line of thought and Marxism – recognising the great (and increasing) diversity in Marxist thinking
An objection that Marxism might raise, should perhaps be addressed. For most Marxists, the diversity of racism’s social advantages is a deception, in the strong sense of the term. “Man” is, essentially, an economic animal, driven principally by economic needs. The rest is diversion, ruse, and ideology. In these terms, racism is fundamentally an economic weapon. Racist discourse becomes an alibi disguising an interminable appropriation of natural resources and, more to the point, the “exploitation of man by man.” According to the familiar formula “economics is the ultimate motor of history.”
I am in partial agreement with the Marxists here. They are right to suspect that racism seeks another end, behind all its disparagements and attacks. I am quite convinced that there are usually two levels to a discourse — an explicit content and a hidden meaning. …
The Marxists are not wrong, either, in suspecting contemporary racism of economic motivation. …
My agreement with Marxists ends there. I think they are wrong to think that privilege always reduces itself to economic advantage–even as “ultimate determinant,” according to their customary expression. only  … Human reality is more complex; pne could not know for certain what unique factor governs all the rest, nor could one know even if such a thing exists. Human needs are multiple, even if they are not endlessly multiplied. Priorities are variable and fluid. The need for security or the need for love, is often as important as the need for nourishment. In short, one might adopt a racist stance for many different reasons, and not simply for calculable economic return — even though, for all, the mechanism whereby those gains are achieved may be the same. 
Thus Memmi demands that we always look for the work that racism does. This is one way it can work:
To exteriorize evil by incarnating it in another separates it from society and renders it less threatening. It can be manipulated, managed, destroyed by fire. The common denominator must be understood: fire purifies all, including ourselves … but only by burning the other. That is where it is most economical. 
And of course, one of its foundations: colonialism:
The boundary between colonization and premeditated murder is created and sustained by the needs of the colonizer. Without that, it reduces to death and genocide. For example, the first European settlers in the Americas decimated the Indians because they did not have a way of using them …
This is why, to understand any given form of racism, one must inquire into what benefit a particular racist group gains over the particular group they have picked as a target, as their prey. That is, beyond general mechanisms, what does the anti-Semite seek in anti-Semitism, the masculinist man through masculinism, the colonialist through colonization? And what is each of them looking for at any particular historical moment? 
This is the key social and structural foundation of racism. But Memmi also looks at how it works and functions on an individual level, and how this interacts with the larger collective feeling. He recognises within human beings an innate fear and distrust of difference, and sees racism as only one aspect of this larger heterophobia, one based on some kind of visible difference such as skin colour or something such as the shape of the nose. It is not intellectual, but lived, and he argues:
It is easier to contest an argument than an emotion; it is much easier to refute a discourse than an experience. That racism finds its genesis and its nourishment in ordinary experience should not be reassuring. On the contrary, its opacity and tenacity are enhanced by the banality of its sources. 
Thus, it is natural to notice difference, people then assign values to these differences, ‘Ultimately, one becomes racist only with the inclusion of the third point: the deployment of a difference to denigrate the other, to the end of gaining  privilege or benefit through stigmatization.’ This is a tricky point for me, this point of where exactly racism starts. This is where I need to think more about it. But it seems that this might be a good start towards being able to think through how difference works, and how differences can work together. We need to become a society that can thrive in difference, can celebrate it, while also eradicating racism. It reminded me of an essay by Stuart Hall contrasting the essentialisms of the 1960s and 70s struggles and Black Power, which really needed to embrace difference, yet through embracing difference have seemed to lose something of their strength and power for resistance against racism that we need to find and build in another way.
That is something that needs building collectively I think, but I like this line of initial thought:
In effect, the real stakes against racism, which must also inform anti-racism, do not concern difference itself but the use of difference as a weapon against its victim, to the advantage of the victimizer. 
At the end, after iteration and iteration, he comes to his clear definition of racism:
Racism is a generalizing definition and valuation of differences, whether real or imaginary, to the advantage of the one defining and deploying them, and to the detriment of the on subjected to that act of definition, whose purpose is to justify (social or physical) hostility and assault. 
He also manages to see this as a pyramid, not black and white but multicultural – he uses the phrase of ‘pyramid of tyrannies’  where groups jostle for position always setting themselves above the group beneath them.
So in a nutshell slightly larger than the definition (the way this book always seems to circle around and expand upon the essences of the thing):
Though racism has some roots in a person’s emotional structure and sensibilities, its basic formulation is social. Racism is a cultural discourse that surrounds each person from childhood on, in the air one breathes, in parental advice and thinking, in one’s cultural rituals. One is exposed to it in school, in the streets and the newspapers, even in the writings of people one is supposed to admire and who might otherwise be admirable… 
Thus, racism is always both a discourse and an action; it is a discourse that prepares an action, and an action that legitimates itself through a discourse. 
Racism is a form of war. And there we glimpse its real face behind all of its shadowy disguises. Up to now, we have disregarded the innateness of agressivity. We can no longer afford to do that if we wish to look to the future. 
And even better, it contains some thinking of what must be done in a beautiful section so lacking in so many academic works — Practical lessons:
1. First and foremost, we must be conscious of racism, not just in others but in ourselves, individually and collectively. 
What is needed is an exercise of empathy, which means training ourselves in the difficult task of participating in the other. 
2. The struggle against racism requires a continual pedagogy, from infancy to death. 
Since the apprehension on real or imagined evil is one of the ingredients of aggressiveness, anything that diminishes fear will have a beneficial effect.
3. The core of all teaching is an individual relation to the student, even when the teaching occurs in large groups. But teaching must also address itself to the social, to the collective, and that is the role of politics. Politics is a collective form of behaviour in the name of certain values and in view of greater efficacy. 
The struggle against racism coincides, at least in part, with the struggle against all oppressions. There will always be the necessity for struggle. Racism is a perverted sentiment that is the result, the expression, and the matrix of real situations that must be changed if it is to be brought to an end. In order for racism to disappear, it will be necessary that the oppressed cease to be oppressed, that is, recognised as the convenient victim, as the incarnation of an image the  oppressor had invented. But it will also be necessary that the oppressor cease to be an oppressor, cease to require that others be under his thumb… 
The political fight must be planned around a separate analysis of each context. Who benefits from the arguments justifying racism? What privilege or act of aggression does it prepare for or conceal? Then, if we really want to get at racism, we must tackle this concrete relationship, this implicit or explicit oppression 
Is this how I understand politics? I’m not sure? But I think this is a good way to start looking at racism in any given society with an aim to eradicate it.
The final paragraph of this short book I found surprisingly provocative. It summarises much of what has come before, but is perhaps at Memmi’s most clear in terms of human nature and what we are really up against. He writes
How is one to struggle effectively against racism? Moral indignation and attempts at persuasion have shown themselves to be clearly insufficient. One must take full account of racism’s roots in fear, in financial insecurity, in economic avarice, which are in humans the sources of aggressivity and a tendency toward domination. One must struggle against such aggressions and dominations, and prevent them. It is racism that is natural and anti-racism that is not; anti-racism can only be something that is acquired, as all that is cultural is acquired, at the end of long and arduous struggles, which are never free from the possibility of being reversed. 
Is racism natural, anti-racism unnatural? I’ve been thinking about that, I’m still not sure of where I stand. But unquestionably, the way in which our society has developed and is structured, particularly in the United States which is where I grew up, and Britain where I live, racism is in the very air we breathe. But like Gilroy in his work on Post-Colonial Melancholia, I see great hope also – in London much more than anywhere I have lived. Just walking around the street you can see the lines of race breaking down in beautiful ways, the rise of a working class conviviality where mixed race couples almost seem to be the rule and so much daily life is shared. The splits are still there and racism is still there, but what I see makes me believe we can actually get past it in the future, a different world is possible. This seems a most organic thing the way it is happening, one that seems to show racism is perhaps not so natural a thing. But I wonder if it could be reversed, if one group could suddenly be rejected the way a new Tunisia rejected some of its freedom fighters…
This is a book to come back to more than once, I feel this is something of a jumble of thoughts that need a lot more going through, particularly in application. But I love that intellectually I can see where to apply them in my work, I can see how, and I can see that it will improve what I do…
3 thoughts on “Albert Memmi on Racism”
Thank you so much for this review. I was considering this book among several other ones on the topic, and your review has not only convinced me to read it, but it has also made me eager to do it.
Yay, I am glad! It’s a great book.