The fraught status of race throughout the modernist period speaks to changing ideas about the nature of humanity. Modernism inherited various, often contradictory, meanings for race, while adding numerous new formulations of its own. The use of race to denote human race or “people” was still prominent in C20, but was accompanied by a confusing and proliferating array of applications to genetic or cultural groups. Concepts of distinct racial identity were employed for group solidarity or for critical self-examination but could also embody destructive assumptions concerning the superiority or inferiority of specific racial groups. The entrance of racist (1925) and racism (1932) into public discourse indicated growing concerns about “racial prejudice” (1859). The increasing appearance of alternative nomenclatures, such as “minority peoples” (1932) and “ethnic groups” (1935), reflects the search for a new vocabulary adequate to the increasing complexity of social, economic, political, and cultural relations. With the growing understanding that, as Jean Toomer put it, “words were the original germ carriers of the majority of our prejudices” (1993), race was examined, qualified, placed in quotation marks, and disclaimed.
The generalized use of race for humanity encountered new challenges for conceiving universals in light of human difference. As an inclusive term, human race appears in contexts concerning the life and survival of the human species. In celebrating poetry’s “Promethean” power, Edith Sitwell wrote that “the human race began/with but a single word” (1948), while W. H. Auden recalled how his boyhood self despairingly threw his poems into the school pond, on the grounds that “the human race would be saved by science” (Pudney, 1960). Inherited notions of the human race as a universal category, however, acquired conflicted associations as modernists debated whether one’s primary allegiance should be globally to the human race or locally to one’s own community. An editorial in the New Age, urging “a vigorous propaganda of internationalism and even of cosmopolitanism,” declared, “we are citizens of the world, or ought to be; and the future of the human race is vastly more important than the future of the Anglo-Saxon section” (“Imperial,” 1907). Conversely, a subsequent letter to the editor argued that “human race” is a meaningless “abstraction” and that Socialism must turn to the local community or the State for “economic salvation” (C. Chesterton, 1907). Other usages conceived human race as newly defined by pervasive intermixing. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that a modern world that was “shrinking together” spelled an “increased and increasing contact of groups and nations and races” that made “race or group separation” “not only impracticable” but “against the whole trend of the age” (1908). Ford Madox Ford found that the “vastness” of London as a “world town” “destroyed all race characteristics,” and he declared “the almost obsolete word ‘race’” to be an inaccurate definition for “a people so mixed already” (1905).
When used to denote distinct identity, racial categories were eclectically derived from ancestry, biology, cultural history, or geographical region, as in generalized references to the African, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, or Oriental races. Reflecting a heightened interest in self-ethnography, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus proclaims of his Irish heritage, “this race and this country and this life produced me,” and announces his goal to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (1916); one of John Galsworthy’s characters describes the English as “one of the plainest and most distorted races of the world,” adding, however, a slight commendation for their “good temper” and “guts” (1924). In other, still looser, usages, race identified linguistic community: English- and French-speaking populations were identified as “two races” whose political struggles represented the “racial trouble in Canada” (“The Canadian Elections,” 1900). In South Africa, indigenous peoples were described as “native races,” but discussion of “reconciliation” and “union” more likely referred to tensions between “the two white races” (Harmsworth, 1908). When Leonard Barnes writes of “racialistic emotion,” “racial hostility,” and “racial feeling” in South Africa, he refers to relations between “the Briton and the Dutchman” (1930). Race could also refer to class. Henry James’s Valentin de Bellegarde calls the French aristocracy his race (1907), while in James Oppenheim’s “Bread and Roses” – the poem that gave a slogan to the American labor movement – the line “the rising of the women means the rising of the race” implies the improvement of the human race through the efforts of the working class, especially the activist women in the trade union movement (1911). When Henry James writes of George Sand’s “duty of avenging on the unscrupulous race of men their immemorial selfish success with the plastic race of women” (1897), or William Faulkner’s Amstrid compares the “woman race” and “man race” (1932), race becomes a synonym for gender. A 1903 essay on romanticism – invoking a need for “comparative raciology” – even uses race as a literary category, arguing that the ancient folk consciousness of “a single racial mind” became channeled, through “spiritual and physical miscegenation,” into the various “race streams” of modern literature (Swiggett 1903).
As race became increasingly used to designate hereditary, ethnic, or national groups, it accrued evaluative elevations and denigrations. D. H. Lawrence singled out the Italians for praise as “almost the only race with the souls of artists” (1916), but Yoshio Markino, arriving in America, was horrified by the way the “savage people” in San Francisco treated the Japanese “as an inferior race,” a situation happily contrasted with the “cosmopolitan ideas” he later encountered in London (1910). At an official level, the notion of “the governing races” as the “guardians and trustees of the subject races” had provided the ideological foundation for British Imperialism and, despite increasing recognition of the abuses and fundamental wrongs of the system, arguments were still being made urging “responsibilities” to “peoples who are passing through the difficult transition period between barbarism and civilization” (Harmsworth, 1908). Concepts of a “superior” race were bolstered by the influence of eugenics, a school of thought whose founder, Sir Francis Galton, endorsed practices of “judicious mating [. . .] to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable” (1883). While Galton was concerned primarily with improving the human race by weeding out those deemed to be intellectually and physically feeble, his comparative assessments of different races provided a foundation for Hitler’s declaration of the superiority of the Nordic race and his identification of the “international” “Jewish race” as “a parasite living on the body and the productive work of other nations,” liable to incur its own “annihilation” in Europe (1942). From the 1920s on, anti-Semitism became the main target of protests against race prejudice in the UK. As reported in the TLS, a 1926 socialist book Are the Jews a Race? answered its rhetorical question with a “no,” arguing that Jews were a group of people characterized by the effects of forced urbanization, while The Jew and His Neighbour explained the causes of anti-Semitism as first economic, then racial, and, in contemporary Germany, a blend of the two, supported by the Hegelian ideal of a homogeneous nation-state (1931). In 1939, Wyndham Lewis provocatively entitled his protest against anti-Semitism The Jews: Are they Human? while numerous Jewish voices protested categorizations of Jews as a race. Max Margolis declared it “self-evident” that “we Jews are not a race in the sense of a black or yellow race” (1910), and Rabbi Milton Steinberg asserted that the term “race” was “altogether inapplicable to Jewry,” recommending the term “people” instead (1945). The first appearances of racist and racism were indictments of national ideologies in Europe based on belief in racial superiority. The OED records the combined use, in the Manchester Guardian (1926), of “the German Nationals and the Racists” and, in the Christian Science Monitor (1932), of “Fascism or Racism.”
The turn of C20 saw a resurgence of nativist movements in the US based on notions of the racial purity (and superiority) of the original settlers, mixing a reaction against US imperialist expansionism with resistance to foreign immigration at home. Bolstered by eugenicist theory, Madison Grant’s The Passing of a Great Race (1916) argued that “the intrusion of hordes of immigrants of inferior racial value” was threatening to destroy the Nordic-based “American aristocracy” who alone could offer government by the “wisest and best.” At the same time, fears of declining birth rates among the native-born American population spawned the hyperbolic term “race suicide.” On the opposite side, arguments arose for racial intermixing. Gustave Michaud’s “What Shall We Be? The Coming Race in America” (1903), while delineating specific characteristics for what he considered distinct racial groups, argued for the inclusion in America of the Baltic and the Alpine/Mediterranean, for “we need every one of the qualities of the two alien races.” A character in Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot (1909) speaks of America as the “crucible” in which “all the races ...