The overriding philosophical error made by those who jump on Lovecraft for his racism is the stolid expectation that all historical figures should conform to our own perfect moral, social, intellectual, and cultural stances—and if they don’t, they must be furiously denounced as aberrant. But one begins to wonder…might we ourselves be subject, in a hundred years, to just such criticism? Difficult as it may be to comprehend, the disturbing thought lingers.
Let us, for example, note how wildly inappropriate it might be to name a speech therapy award after the first president of the Anthropological Society of London (later the Royal Anthropological Institute), James Hunt (1833-1869). Hunt was a colleague of Richard Burton, a distinguished speech therapist who treated Lewis Carroll, and a virulent racist whose views were outrageous even by Victorian standards. Would his speech therapy work make him worthy of praise such that we could justify ignoring his racist views?
In 1865, Hunt published his most famous paper, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” in which he defended slavery and the idea that Black people were a separate species, closer to the apes than to Europeans.
Young Negro children are nearly as intelligent as European children; but the older they grow, the less intelligent they become. […] There is no doubt that the Negro brain bears a great resemblance to a European female or child’s brain, and thus approaches the ape far more than the European, while the Negress approaches the ape still nearer. […] Not only has the Negro race never civilized itself, but it has never accepted any other civilization. […] The many assumed cases of civilized Negroes are generally not those of pure Negro blood. […] It is simply the European blood in their veins which renders them fit for places of power, and they often use this power more cruelly than either of the pure blooded races.
The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists — eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness. … All told, I think the modern American is pretty well on his guard, at last, against racial and cultural mongrelism. There will be much deterioration, but the Nordic has a fighting chance of coming out on top in the end. (letter of January 1931)
Colonial and imperial politics would ensure that racist beliefs remained current and under semi-official (and often official) sanction, but by the 1920s, when Lovecraft wrote, Franz Boas was one of the leading lights opposing scientific racism, particularly in terms of the arguments for white supremacy. In 1925, while Lovecraft was living in New York City, Boas and his colleagues published a series of essays in The Nation arguing for the view that humans were of one race, that racism was not “instinctive” but the product of white (“Nordic”) colonial-imperial culture, and therefore humans were not the products of race but of culture:
The behavior of an individual is therefore not determined by his racial affiliation, but by the character of his ancestry and his cultural environment. We may judge of the mental characteristics of families and individuals, but not of races.
The American Nordics speak of assimilation. But what they mean by assimilation is other than what they want us to believe. The Nordic maniac considers a people civilized in the measure in which it has imitated his external way of life. Imitation of Anglo-Saxon life, masqueradery instead of cultural contributions, is what they want of all the peoples. They clamor that we bury our past, deny our present, and kill our future; and, bending our necks, promise henceforth to attempt to be as good as they are, that we may in a few thousand years reach their level of culture and accomplishment.
The most injurious and mendacious insult to the different populations of the United States are the tests of intelligence from which conclusions are drawn by those who want to legislate out of the country on the ground of unassimilability all non-Nordic elements.
Hundreds of thousands of Italians in this country were imported by contractors years ago, when pick-and-shovel men were needed to build the roads and lay the tracks from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from east to west and north to south. The contractors and the steamship agencies who induced these laborers to leave their land and home deliberately and purposely sought out only the lowest cultural element from Italy. Not only were they not anxious to get intelligent people, literate people, to come to this country; but the stupid and the illiterate were considered more valuable for the purpose. Then similar types were brought in from Poland and Hungary.
But let them be honest and let them explain that they are grinding their own little axes and that they are not engaged in furthering a scientific solution to the world’s manifold difficulties. […] I repeat, let them have the courage of their convictions and join the KKK. That excellent organization, with all its mummery, is entirely open and aboveboard. “We want all the business we can get,” so it proclaims, “and we don’t want to hustle in competition with Niggers and Jews and Catholics.” That, at least, is plain English.
“We are not perfect; and our schoolmasterly lecturing of dead people only reveals our own smugness and historical ignorance,” S. T. Joshi wrote yesterday. But Joshi seems to prefer that we not recognize that the 1920s and 1930s were not uniformly benighted by racism, that there were those who promoted more enlightened views, and that Lovecraft chose racism in the face of the arguments he would have been exposed to in the New York press and elsewhere. Lovecraft claimed that his views were based in scientific European biology, and yet Boas (German by birth) and his colleagues offered lessons from anthropology and history in direct opposition to Lovecraft’s stated reasons for holding racist views. There was a debate within anthropology in those days, to be sure, and Lovecraft chose the wrong side. It is not anti-historical to note this.
To conclude, briefly, with one final point: Joshi sees complaints about Lovecraft’s racism not as a principled view on racial opinion but as a political line of attack on Lovecraft himself by any means due to dislike of the author rather than disapproval of his views:
There is also the significant question as to whether racism should be regarded as so much more significant a moral, intellectual, and personal flaw than many other stances one could name. In my opinion, religious fanaticism can easily be shown to be a far more serious problem, both historically and currently, than racism, and many of the world’s most intractable problems today can be directly attributed to it. But Lovecraft’s detractors cannot attack him on the issue, since he was, as an atheist who condemned religious intolerance, on the “right” side of it; so they have to seize some other issue, and racism is conveniently presented to them on a silver platter.