When the suggestion was first brought up that Hannah Arendt might have been racist, I was skeptical to say the least. After all, Arendt was a German Jew who escaped to America during the political turmoil of the 1930’s and 40’s. She witnessed the mistreatment of her own people at the hands of Anti-Semites. The idea that someone from such a background could be racist seemed contradictory, even absurd.
Having read Professor Johnson’s essay, “'A barely conscious reaction': Arendt, South Africa, and Colonial Hearts of Darkness,” critiquing Arendt’s theory on the emergence of racism in South Africa, I have been thoroughly swayed. It seems obvious that Arendt’s theory is colored by her natural assumption that native Africans were incapable of being anything more than “laborers”. To me, the intriguing question now is not whether Hannah Arendt was racist, but how someone with her history could hold racist views.
To change tracks for a moment: as we’ve been studying Arendt in Philosophy, my English class has been reading The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson. The narrator, a mixed-race individual, deals with the discrimination of both blacks and whites in the early twentieth century. Despite this, he himself appears to be prejudiced against American Indians. He even comments that the African Americans’ abilities to create art, such as ragtime music, and their use of humor to lighten the burden of their struggles, have kept them from “going the way of the Indian.”
This is the same sort of irony as Arendt’s beliefs about Africans. But is it contradictory after all? To hold racist ideologies, one must believe their own race to be superior and another’s to be inferior. Arendt can suffer the bigotry of Anti-Semites, believing it to be unjustified because Jews are just as capable of “action” as other white Europeans. By her standards, black Africans are innately incapable of excelling past “labor.” Therefore, she can consider prejudice against her own people unjustified because they are capable of higher (superior) action, while holding racist views of another culture because it is has not advanced past the natural (inferior) state. The same sort of thinking can be followed among other oppressed groups, such as black Americans in the early to mid twentieth century. In The Autobiography, the narrator believes that “colored” people are proven by their accomplishments to be completely equal to whites, while Indians, because of various inferiorities, are beneath both groups.