How the word "racism" was born, and why it's important

James Myburgh examines the common belief that 'privileged' racial minorities can never be victims of this type of evil

On the origins of (the word) "racism"


In the recent debates on the race question in South Africa a claim has been persistently made that ‘blacks can’t be racist’. This is a statement often, though not always, made by intellectuals who could be regarded as embodying the negation of this claim. This view does have a wider currency though, including amongst some liberals, and it is worth examining some of the reasoning behind it.

The argument is, in essence, that ‘racism’ is the doctrine that some groups are racially superior to others. In the South African context the white minority, as a class, remains hugely advantaged - educationally, socially and materially - relative to the still (largely) deprived black majority. Given this lived reality there is no material basis for any credible claim of innate black racial superiority. Without this key element it is not possible for black South Africans to be ‘racist’ towards whites.

Thus, when Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi, President of Progressive Professionals Forum, was asked on social media whether Velaphi Khumalo’s statement that “white people in south Africa deserve to be hacked and killed like Jews” was ‘racist’ or not, he replied: “This is an expression of extreme anger and criminality. Nothing about racial superiority.”

The basic underlying belief is that highly productive and successful – or so-called ‘economically dominant’ - ethnic or racial minorities cannot, by definition, be the victims of ‘racism’ at the hands of relatively disadvantaged majorities, or the nationalist movements claiming to represent them.

This highlights a broader problem in our public debate. While every person and their dog claims to be utterly opposed to ‘racism’, the word often tends is used in an entirely self-serving manner. There is little consensus about what constitutes ‘racism’ beyond crass anti-black examples of it.

As has been noted before, debates around what is ‘racism’, and who is ‘racist’, are generally decided by how these words are defined; by who gets to be the ‘master’ of them in the first place. One alternative to an interminable tug-of-war however between modern-day race thinkers and classical liberals over the meaning of these words is to try and locate their origins in the English language.


The etymology of ‘racism’

The Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines racism “the theory that distinctive human characteristics are determined by race” or “belief in the superiority of a particular race leading to prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those in close proximity who may be felt as a threat to one’s cultural integrity or economic well-being.”

The first recorded use of the term “racialism” – which the OED regards as synonymous with “racism” – is given as being in the first decade of the 20th Century. Interestingly, the word was commonly used then in relation to the fraught relations between the Dutch and British ‘races’ in what later became the Union of South Africa. The first recorded use of “racism” meanwhile is listed as 1936 when it was used by Lawrence Dennis in The Coming American Fascism, and then again in 1938.

In Safire’s Political Dictionary William Safire notes that the term “racism” (a “shortening of racialism”) was originally used to describe policies defining, and directed against, Jews as a ‘race’ (rather than a religion). Safire also cites Dennis’ 1936 work as the earliest known usage of the term. It was only somewhat later however - from 1938 onwards - that the word began to be widely used. In this regard he quotes Harvard Professor J. Anton de Haas as writing in November 1938 “This word [racism], has come into use the last six months, both in Europe and this country.”

Safire does not explain how and why the terms “racism” and “racist” came into widespread use in the late 1930s. It is possible however to trace the emergence of these words through the comprehensive online archive of the New York Times.

First usages 

In the New York Times’ archive there are, in fact, two pre-1936 references to “racism”, both from James G McDonald, League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (Jewish and other) coming from Germany.

The first is from a brief news report on 17 June 1935 quoting McDonald as using the term “racism” in relation to Adolf Hitler’s “contagious” anti-Jewish doctrines in a speech to the annual convention of Brith Sholom in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the day before.

The second is from a report on a speech by McDonald to the Anglo-Palestinian Club in London on the responsibility of Christians to aid exiles from Nazi Germany. The article quoted him as saying:

“Have we Christians no duty while 100,000 Jews and those related to them are degraded, treated as outcasts and threatened with pauperization? It is no answer to say that these are domestic policies, for their effects reach far beyond the State that imposes them. The poison of unreasoning racism is beginning to supply a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-philosophic basis for bitter intolerance even in remote parts of the world.” (New York Times 22 October 1935. My italics.)

In his resignation letter to the League of Nations at the end of December that year McDonald refers to the “exclusive racialism” of the Nazis which targeted not only those of the Jewish faith but also those Christians descended from Jewish stock; the Nuremberg laws, adopted by the Nazi party congress in September 1935, having stripped Jews of their formal right to citizenship, and also forbad marriages and sexual relations between Jews and those “of German or related blood.”

In this document McDonald documented in great detail the steadily escalating persecution of the Jews in Germany. He wrote: “Relentlessly the Jews and ‘non-Aryans’ are excluded from all public offices, from the exercise of the liberal professions, and from any part in the cultural and intellectual life of Germany…It is being made increasingly difficult for Jews and ‘non-Aryans’ to sustain life…. In no field of economic activity is there any security whatsoever.”

The attitude of the German government, he wrote, was based on the “theory of ‘Nordic race’ supremacy”, a “desire to eliminate ‘foreign racial elements’ from the life of the country”, and the conception of the “absolute subordination of the individual to the state.” The Jews were continually “blamed for all the misery and dejection” the German people had suffered in recent history, with ‘Aryan’ children being stirred to hate them and incite their parents to “extirpate” them altogether.

The following year there was a single reference to “Nazi racism”, in the New York Times, in a report dated 7 July 1936. Then in 1937 an article by the paper’s Berlin correspondent Otto D Tolischus on Nazi “racialism” in the New York Times Magazine was flagged in the main section of the newspaper in an article headed “Menace of Nazi ‘racism’.” (21 November 1937)

A search of 1938 throws up six examples of the word being used, in various contexts, up until the 13th of July 1938 (and two of “racist”). Up until the middle of 1938 then “racism” was a rarely-used word, in English, used to describe the racial policies of Nazi Germany, as directed against the Jews. It was a truncation of “racialism”, which very much remained the preferred and more widely accepted and understood word. The term “racist” meanwhile, though not unknown, was even rarer still.

From 14th of July 1938 until the end of the year however there are around thirty articles using the words “racism” and/or “racist”. The impetus for this dramatic increase in usage – and the move of these words from the margins to the mainstream of the English-language - did not come from within the English-speaking world, or Germany for that matter, but from Italy.


Up until 1937 the Italian Fascist dictator Benedicto Mussolini had opposed Nazi racism. The historian Renzo de Felice noted that for a good fifteen years after the Fascists had come to power “the Jews in Italy were not discriminated against and were able to reach the ranks and positions they sought and aspired to.” Mussolini had also spoken against Nazi racism and anti-Semitism many times in private and public.

By late 1937, as Italy was drawn ever closer into the German political orbit, Mussolini too fell victim to the anti-Semitic contagion emanating from Nazi Germany. This shift was first signalled on 16 February 1938 in a communique issued by the Fascist regime ostensibly rejecting rumours that it was contemplating “taking political, economic or moral measures against the Jews as such, except, obviously, for those elements hostile to the Regime.”

It concluded, however, by noting ominously: “The Fascist government plans to watch over the activities of the Jews who have recently entered our country and make sure that the role of the Jews in the collective national life is not disproportionate to the personal merits nor the numerical importance of their community.”

As Felici notes, while apparently conciliatory, the last paragraph in particular was saying, in effect, that Mussolini “was preparing measures against foreign Jews who were refugees in Italy and wished to introduce proportional representation for Italian Jews.” Given that the Jews, according to the statement, made up less than 50 000 of a total Italian population of 44 million this proportion was minuscule.

At the time the ambiguity of the statement was reflected in the New York Times report which was headed: “Italy reassuring on status of Jews: But Fascist Regime reserves right to control ratio in high public offices.”(17 February 1938). The newspaper’s correspondent, Arnaldo Cortesi, noted that the interpretation of the final paragraph was not clear. “What it seems to mean is that Jews occupying high positions are gradually to be weeded out until the ratio of Jews to Christians in prominent posts about equals the ratio of Jews to Christians in total population.”

Many Italian Jews, Cortesi wrote, do not appear greatly disturbed “by the possibility that some of their number occupying high positions may lose their jobs. They believe this sentence has been added merely as salve to those who have been carrying on an anti-Jewish campaign in the Italian press and as an act of deference to the Nazi end of the Rome-Berlin axis.”

The next formal escalation in this campaign came with the publication of an anonymous 10 point document in Il giornale d’Italia, followed by the entire press, on 14 July 1938 with the title “Manifesto degli scienziati razzisti” or “Manifesto of the racist scientists”.

The document endorsed the concept of race as a biological construct and proclaimed that the Italian ‘race’ was both ‘pure’ and ‘Aryan’. Point 7 of the document stated that “The time has come for Italians to openly proclaim themselves racists (razzisti). All the work the Regime has carried out in Italy until now is, after all, racism (razzismo)”. Point 9 meanwhile declared that “Jews do not belong to the Italian race” being the only population “which has never assimilated in Italy because it is made up of racial elements which are not European, differing absolutely from the elements that make up Italians.” Point 10 called for an end to miscegenation between Italian ‘Aryans’ and others.

In its numerous reports on the manifesto and subsequent Fascist anti-Jewish policies - as well as Pope Pius IX’s criticisms in response - the New York Times translated razzista / razzisti as “racist” and razzismo as “racism”. (The Manchester Guardian kept to more traditional usage translating razzismo as “racialism”.) It was these reports on Italian “racism” that explained the dramatic upsurge in the usage of the word in the New York Times in the second half of 1938.

The ‘scientific’ basis of the manifesto was, Felice notes, practically non-existent. Its claims were difficult to take seriously given that Mussolini himself had previously ridiculed the idea that such a thing as a pure race could exist. It was clear however from the start, Felice writes, that the “purpose of the manifesto was to create an ideological and scientific platform for state- sponsored anti-Semitism.”

On the 25 July Achille Starace, the Secretary General of the Fascist Party, held a meeting with the ten university professors who had been rounded up to put their names to the manifesto. (Felice states that, in reality, it had probably been drafted by Fascist party functionaries and edited by Mussolini.) Starace announced a “vigorous racist campaign aimed at safeguarding the ‘Italian race’ from ‘non-Aryan’ infiltrations.” (New York Times, 25 July 1938).

A Fascist party bulletin issued after the meeting stated that the “Italian race” had to protect itself from hybridisation and contamination from the other races it was coming into contact with. “As far as the Jews are concerned, they have thought of themselves for thousands of years, the world over, as well as in Italy, as a different race superior to others, and it is notorious that, notwithstanding the tolerant politics of the Regime, the Jews have made up, in every nation, with their men and with their means, the general staff of anti-Fascism.” (My italics)

A government statement on 5th August sought to give backwards legitimacy to government’s new policy, claiming that “Italian racism dates back to 1919.” The communique argued that in order to prevent racial miscegenation in Italy’s recently acquired African colonies “a strong feeling, a strong sense of pride, a clear and ever-present consciousness of race are required.”

Turning to the issue of the Jews in Italy the communique stated: “…the Fascist Government has no special plan to persecute the Jews themselves. It deals with another matter. There are 44,000 Jews in the metropolitan territory of Italy, according to Jewish statistical data, which must, though, be confirmed by a special census in the near future; the proportion therefore is supposedly one Jew for every thousand inhabitants. It is clear that, from now on, the participation of the Jews in the overall life of the State should be, and will be, adapted to such a ratio.” (My italics)

The expulsion of Jews from public positions began almost immediately. The Fascist Ground Council in early October 1938 adopted a declaration forbidding mixed marriages between Italians and Jews or black Africans and restricted marriages with foreigners even if Aryan. It also set out criteria for establishing whether a person belonged to the Jewish race.

With various exceptions Italian citizens of the Jewish race were to be prohibited from belonging to the Fascist Party; from owning or managing companies of any kind employing more than a hundred persons; owning more than fifty hectares of land; or, serving in the armed forces.

This declaration was given legal effect through the Royal Legal Decree of 17th November 1938. This stated that Italian Jews “may not be owners or managers, with whatever title, of businesses declared as being of interest to the defence of the Nation… nor of a business of any nature which employs one hundred or more persons, nor have, or take the position of administrator or auditor of the said businesses; be owners of land which, in total, has an estimated value of more than five thousand lire; be owners of urban buildings which, in total, have an assessable tax of more than twenty thousand lire.”

The employment of such Jews – with some exemptions - was also prohibited in the military, civil administration, municipalities, provincial administrations, state-controlled institutes, banks of national interest and private insurance firms. The Italian citizenship granted to foreign Jews after 1919 was revoked, and foreign Jews (with some exceptions) were required to leave Italian territory by March 1939.

By mid-1939 Jewish Italians had been expelled from all state jobs as well as the teaching profession. In June 1939 a law was passed severely restricting the participation of such Jews in all the other professions – and banning them outright from being notaries or journalists (if not belonging to an exempted category in the latter case).


The word “racism” was thus first used as an adaptation of “racialism”, to describe Nazi racial policies towards the Jews of Germany. It was however only really popularised through Mussolini’s public embrace of razzismo (racism) in the second half of 1938 and the implementation of severe anti-Jewish race discrimination that followed.

In the imaginations of both German and Italian racists the Jews - though a small minority - wielded huge power and “influence” over the national life of those countries. In March 1933 Joseph Goebbels, newly appointed Reich Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, complained:

“The Jews living in Germany, in view of the small percentage they represent of the entire population, have held such an enormously large number of powerful posts in the life of the nation that the Germanic element seemed almost completely excluded from the leading positions.”

Similarly, the leading Italian anti-Semitic theorist of the time, Giovanni Preziosi, stated:

“The Jews control the biggest banks in Italy; they occupy a high percentage of the boards of directors of our corporations; they are very numerous within the Senate and in the Chamber of Deputies; they occupy the highest and most important positions within the state administration. They are innumerable in the teaching profession, and some university departments have been effectively closed to anyone else. They own almost all the publishing companies in Italy. Many daily newspaper are under their control… And we should not forget that all business deals, even those having a patriotic theme, are directed by a Jew.”

Though such claims of Jewish “influence” and “domination” were grossly exaggerated the Jewish minorities of Italy and Germany were certainly, as a class, very well-off compared to the rest of the population, and economically influential. As in Germany the Jews of Italy, Felice notes, “were for the most part middle- and upper-middle class.”

It was precisely the desirability of the positions held by the Jews in the state, business and the professions - and their relative prosperity - that made them such a tempting target for racial demagoguery. In both countries the most fanatical drivers of anti-Semitic racial policies were members of the party and emerging middle class who stood to immediately profit from the removal of more successful individual Jewish rivals and competitors.

As US Consul General in Germany, George Messersmith, noted in a dispatch on 21 March 1933, in the early days of the campaign to drive the Jews out of state employment and the professions in Germany:

“… the members of [of the Nazi Party] had been told [for years] not only publicly, but in private assembly that when the Party came into power the members would have practically a free hand with the Jews. This meant that not only were they to be given an opportunity to harry the Jews and through fear drive them out of the country, but also that the many places in the professions, business, the theatres and practically all walks of life occupied by Jews were to be cleared so as to make way for the adherents of the Party.”

In his analysis of these same early events, Horace Rumbold, the British Ambassador to Berlin also noted:

“Wherever imagination, financial acumen or even business flair comes into play, the Jew tends to outdistance his German rival, and in every domain of intellectual effort the achievements of the Jews are entirely out of proportion to their numbers…. It is only natural that the academic youth of this country should bitterly resent the success of the Jews, especially at a moment when the learned professions in Germany are hopelessly overcrowded. The dismissal of doctors, lawyers and teachers, which is now taking place on a wholesale scale, will reopen these professions to the National Socialist candidates, and the anti-Semitic Nazi party comprises in its ranks most of the academic youth of this country for that very reason." (My italics)

Arnoldo Cortesi saw similar motives at play in Italy with the adoption of racist measures there in 1938. As he observed:

“… there are vast sections of the population that will derive, or hope to derive, tangible personal benefits from a vigorous new [racist] policy. Clerks in the government, party and private offices, as well as officers in all armed forces, look forward to promotion; professional men dream of a notable increase in clients; shopkeepers, traders and others of that class are overjoyed at the prospect of seeing competitors forced out of business. Between them they are the most convinced propagandists of the anti-Jewish campaign. Whether or not they believe in the new Fascist racist theories they will see to it that the elimination of the Jews, now that it has begun, continues without interruption.” (New York Times 11 September 1938).

In both countries the anti-Jewish measures were initially justified - and local and international opposition to them effectively neutralised - by the invocation of the principle that the Jews should be limited, in all fields, to their negligible percentage of the total population. Continued Jewish ‘over-representation’ was regarded as suggesting the ‘superiority’ of this ‘alien race’, and this could and would no longer be countenanced.

As a matter of historical fact then it is simply not true that racial minorities perceived as ‘privileged’ and ‘powerful’ cannot be the victims of racism. Indeed, as documented above, the word was first commonly used in the English-language to describe precisely this type of racial persecution. 


Renzo De Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy, enigma books, New York 2001. This book's annexures contain translations from the Italian of a number of the key documents cited above. 

William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2006

New York Times online archive

Other primary sources