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Book Reviews   |    
Racism: A Short History
Reviewed by Joshua Miller, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 2004; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.55.4.459-a
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by George M. Fredrickson; Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2002, 216 pages, $22.95 softcover

George M. Fredrickson is a major figure among historians of race and racism. In this book he has written a short history of Western racism that is concise, intelligent, informative, and well written. In three chapters he traces the early seeds of racism, its rise during the modern era, and its "hideous fruition" and eventual rejection in the 20th century. He also includes an epilogue that ponders the contours of racism in the 21st century and an appendix that traces racism as a concept in historical discourse.

As a historian, Fredrickson paints his portrait of racism with bold strokes. He defines racism in his final sentence as occurring when "one ethnic group or historical collectivity dominates, excludes, or seeks to eliminate another on the basis of differences that it believes are hereditary and unalterable." Although viewing religious intolerance as a close cousin of racism, Fredrickson distinguishes it by virtue of its focus on beliefs rather than an essentialist notion of human difference.

Fredrickson considers the irony of how the ascendancy of science and reasoning in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and the collapse of theological and monarchical hierarchies both justified racism through a kind of "racial Darwinism," while also offering the vision and ethics to challenge racism through appeals to liberty and egalitarianism. The philosopher Charles Mills meditates on this idea in-depth in his excellent book, The Racial Contract (1).

The three case studies of modern racism that Frederickson concentrates on are the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, and institutionalized racism in the southern United States. Fredrickson is more cautious about applying the term "racism" than are many social scientists and psychologists. He is concerned with the most extreme and systematic forms of racism and does not consider racism's more subtle manifestations, such as "aversive racism" (2) or "racial microagressions" (3). It would have been interesting to read more about his impressions of the United States today and how Fredrickson would characterize the burgeoning prison population that has such disproportionately high numbers of African-American and Latino inmates, or the enduring patterns of residential and school segregation.

Racism: A Short History does not articulate the dynamics of racism in psychiatry today but does offer a useful, succinct description of racism's history in the Western world, which provides an important foundation for practitioners grappling to understand the impact of racism on our clients, on our work, and on ourselves.

Dr. Miller is a professor at Smith College School of Social Work and chair of the school's social policy sequence.

Mills CW: The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997
 
Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL, Kawakami K, et al: Why can't we all just get along? Interpersonal biases and interracial distrust. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 8(2):88—102,  2002
 
Solorazano D, Ceja M, Yosso T: Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: the experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education 69:60—73,  2000
 
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References

Mills CW: The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997
 
Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL, Kawakami K, et al: Why can't we all just get along? Interpersonal biases and interracial distrust. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology 8(2):88—102,  2002
 
Solorazano D, Ceja M, Yosso T: Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: the experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education 69:60—73,  2000
 
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