By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post on June 6 that provided evidence for a racist and white supremacist line of thinking in the work of Hannah Arendt. It was not merely a “product of the time she lived in.” Her notion of all of Africa as a “dark continent,” full of savages, who should be colonized and exterminated was no longer a normative view by the 1950s when she held these view. When she defended segregation in 1957 it was no longer an unquestionable concept, in fact she was standing with the racists against a tide of de-segregation in America. At every juncture Arendt stood with nationalists, in 1920s and early 1930s Germany, with colonialism when there was de-colonization, and then with segregation when there was de-segregation. She was a racist, a white supremacist, a Eurocentric imperialist, and a believer that white European people, by virtue of simply being born white, were not only superior but entitled to their own “pure” vacation areas and hotels. When she spoke of people of color, she described them as the “Negroes among us.”
Those subjected to Arendt in university and those told they should respect her and who do, are either not reading her work, or are reading it and are themselves racists. Claiming that a racist work of academic research is a “product of its time” is as ridiculous as claiming that we should respect Mein Kampf simply because it is a “product” of its time. The fact is that Arendt’s work was pseudo-scholarship. You can’t claim whole continents are full of “savages”, and be considered a reputable academic, not in the 1960s and not today.
It is important to provide sources and evidence for all the racism that appears in her work. Here is a partial list.
Some authors have already dealt with Arendt’s racism, but they have of course excused it as a being due to the “assumptions of their time.” Ira Katznelson quotes Arendt fully on Africa in Desolation and Enlightenment, page 69-71.
The Arendt center itself wrestles with the obvious racism, stereotypes and bigoted ignorance of Arendt on a webpage devoted to her use of the term “savages.” It notes “While many scholars of race and imperialism have found inspiration in Arendt’s account, a major stumbling block for readers of Part 2 of The Origins of Totalitarianism is Arendt’s repeated use of the terms ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages.'” Michiel refuses to fully condemn Arendt, “The first sentence in this quote raises the question of why Arendt refers to Africa as ‘the Dark Continent,’ a cliché she keeps repeating in the pages that follow.” Why indeed? He uncritcally reads: “According to Arendt, the ‘black tribes’ that Europeans encountered in Africa had no political life: they were ‘without the future of a purpose and the past of an accomplishment,’ that is, without history and without a ‘common world.'” Instead of confronting white supremacism, it is allowed to remain. Instead he heralds Arendt’s ignorance, claiming it “could then become a crucial occasion for developing the project of political thinking that she outlines, rather than an embarrassment that would simply make us wish she had chosen some more ‘politically correct’ images to ‘illustrate’ her theory.” Hitler also had race theories and so did the Apartheid founder H. Verwoerd. Should they have just had more “politically correct” terms? It isn’t that Arendt was not “politically correct”, it is that she was racist and ignorant. It’s not about being “politically correct” to not call all black people “savages.” If someone called all Germans “savages” or all white people or all Jews, would it just be “not politically correct”, or bigoted racism? Apparently only when all Africans are called “savage” it is simply “not politically correct,” but the same ignorance directed at all Jews or all Europeans would never be accepted among intellectuals and academics. Donald Trump also says we should do away with political correctness. Perhaps readers of Arendt have found their candidate?
In Origins of Totalitarianism numerous racist and anti-African stereotypes can be found. This link provides references to “dark continent” in the book. In the index it even appears as a synonym for “Africa” and “South Africa.” The word “savages” appears nine times in the book. On page 191 under “race and bureaucracy” she claims the “savages were numerous enough” in Africa to be a “world of their own.” A world of “folly.” On page 185 she asserts Africa was “populated and overpopulated by savages.” She claims on page 193, without any evidence, that the “natives” saw the Afrikaner Boers as a kind of “deity.” On page 190 she claims that the African language and behavior was like a “madhouse” and that they lived outside “civilization” without a past or a future. Afrikaner racism against Africans had “authenticity” and “innocence” she claims on page 196. Apartheid had begun fully in 1948, so Arendt was in fact supporting Apartheid. On page 186 she claims that “colonial enterprises of seafaring Europeans produced two outstanding forms of achievement.” She approved of genocide, claiming the continent of Africa was overpopulated on page 191 and that “nothing much had happened as long as savage tribes had been exterminated.” She complained that “no one had taken the trouble” to change Africa into a “human landscape”, but which she meant more genocide of black people so her fellow Europeans could colonize it. Arendt was not so different than the Nazis in her views. If we change the word “African” to “Jewish”, it could be Mein Kampf. She speaks acceptingly of “extermination of hostile tribes,” on page 192.
The best critique on Arendt’s views of black people and the “Negro question” in the US can be found in Kathryn Gines 2014 book on this topic. A review of the book by Grayson Hunt notes “Beyond the Unites States, Arendt’s racist descriptions of African people and her inability to see the connection between imperialism and Nazism have been called out by several theorists, including Anne Norton and Dana Villa, whom Gines engages at length.” Another review can be found here.
For the full text of ‘Reflections on Little Rock’, the PDF can be found here. On page 46 she describes being a European. On page 47 she writes of the “Negroes living in our midst,” a clear attempt to other them and make them seem foreign and outsiders. This is because Arendt, as a white European, considers herself actually “belonging” to the whites in America, the dominant group, and the “Negroes” are a sort of foreign, almost unwelcome, guest. The reality, had she not been a racist, is the other way around. The black people are from America, Arendt is a Jewish immigrant. She is actually in our midst. Writing of black people on page 47 she notes “they somewhat resemble new immigrants who invariably constitute the most ‘audible’ of all minorities.”
She writes of the danger of having black people be equal on page 48:
“It is therefore quite possible that the achievement of social, economic, and educational equality for the Negro may sharpen the color problem in this country instead of assuaging it…More than fifteen years now has been greatly in favor of the Negroes. But it does commit one to advocating that government intervention be guided by caution and moderation rather than by impatience and ill-advised measures.”
On the same page she notes that most whites oppose de-segregation, and she sides with them. “The results of a public opinion poll in Virginia showing that 92% of the citizens were totally op posed to school integration.”
She was dismayed to see black children going to a white school; “However, the most startling part of the whole business was the Federal decision to start integration in, of all places, the public schools. It certainly did not require too ·much imagination to see that this .was to burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve…Have we now come to the point where it is the children who are being asked to change or improve the world?” And do we intend to have our political battles fought in the school yards?” As a white supremacist and apartheid believer, Arendt didn’t want schools to be integrated. Where should integration begin?
On page 52 Arendt clearly states her support for segregated hotels and “resorts”:
“It is common knowledge that vacation resorts in this country are frequently ‘restricted’ according to ethnic origin. There are many people who object to this practice; nevertheless it is only an extension of the right to free association. I~ as a Jew I wish to spend my vacations only in the company of Jews, I cannot see how anyone can reasonably prevent my doing so; just as I see no reason why other resorts should not cater to a clientele that wishes not to see Jews while on a holiday. There cannot be a ‘right to go into any hotel or recreation area or place of amusement,’ because many of these are in the realm of the purely social where the right to free association, and therefore to discrimination, has greater validity than the principle of equality.”
Thus Arendt lays out her belief that private businesses should be allowed to discriminate based on race, in 1957. Arendt argues that black people might be allowed to go into theaters and museums though.
Arendt argues on page 55 that it is wrong for society to “force” children to go to schools with different races or religions. “To force parents to send their children to an integrated school ) against their will means to deprive them of rights which clearly belong to them in all free societies-the private right over their children and the social right to free association.” One wonders if it were the other way around and it was the black people who ran everything and kept white people in ghettos and out of their schools and would Jews could not attend good schools, if suddenly Arendt would scream discrimination? Or is it only acceptable when the white people decide they don’t want to be around “the Negroes”?
Princeton has hosted a discussion of Arendt’s racism in a lecture that noted, “Although Arendt’s text appeared only two years later, published in Dissent, it ignited a storm of controversy. How could one of the world’s leading critics of antisemitism seem to advocate racial segregation in the American South? Should scholars include or disregard ‘Reflections on Little Rock’ in their presentations of Arendt’s political thinking? Does eminent political thought in one context qualify its enunciator to speak on other contexts as well?” The link to this discussion can be found here.
Yehouda Shenhav critiqued Arendt in The Arab Jews page 6-7 and provides a full block quote of her infamous letter to Karl Jaspers where she accused police of “looking Arab” and being “brutes” and claimed Jerusalem of having an “Oriental mob, like one were in Istanbul or some half-Asiatic country.” The source for this quote can also be found in Arendt and Jaspers (1992), page 434-35.
Arendt’s troubling relationship with Martin Heidegger is the key to understanding her infatuation with Eurosupremacism, white supremacism and reveals her to probably have been a Nazi, albeit one who was forcibly distanced from the ideology once it became clear that they would not accept her as an assimilated Jew who identified wholeheartedly as a German. This link provides evidence of her testifying on behalf of Heidegger at his de-nazification hearing after the war. Heidegger’s “self-assertion of the German University“, his address as rector in 1933, is a must read to get inside the worldview that Arendt was exposed to and which she supported. In his speech Heidegger noted that “academic freedom” was “banished” from the university. He sought to place the University at the disposal of the new Nazi state. He spoke of the bonds of the “people to the destiny of the state” and the “german essence” and the need for “labor service” and armed service. This is not a liberal view, a progressive view, but a radical, right wing, fascist, chauvinist view. And Arendt supported it. Unsurprisingly Heidegger is loved by racists today on the web.