Churchill as Racist: A Hard Sell

by Richard M. Langworth on 27 February 2012

In “To See Humans’ Progress, Zoom Out”  (The New York Times, 26 Feb­ru­ary 2012), Pro­fes­sor Steven Pinker asserts that for all their faults, edu­cated peo­ple today are get­ting better:

Ideals that today’s edu­cated peo­ple take for granted — equal rights, free speech, and the pri­macy of human life over tra­di­tion, tribal loy­alty and intu­itions about purity — are rad­i­cal breaks with the sen­si­bil­i­ties of the past. These too are gifts of a widen­ing appli­ca­tion of reason.

Fair enough, but to con­trast what edu­cated peo­ple were like in the bad old days, Prof. Pinker offers this:

Heroes like Theodore Roo­sevelt, Win­ston Churchill and Woodrow Wil­son avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl.

Theodore Roo­sevelt and Woodrow Wil­son may have defend­ers to speak for them, but I’ll take this up on behalf of Churchill. Pro­fes­sor Pinker is exhibit­ing what William Man­ches­ter called “Gen­er­a­tional Chauvinism”—judging peo­ple of the past by the accepted bet­ter stan­dards of today.

If he means that Churchill used words like “black­amoors” and said that cer­tain non-white races have “a high rate of repro­duc­tion,” nolo con­tendere. Of course, when Churchill grew up—in the late Vic­to­rian and Edwar­dian era—every Briton from the Sov­er­eign to a Covent Gar­den gro­cer said the same things about other races, and nobody’s skin crawled because all of them believed it. That may be shock­ing to today’s ears—but that’s the way it was.

Yet this is the same Win­ston Churchill who in 1899 argued for equal rights for black South Africans in a debate with his Boer jailer in Pre­to­ria; the Churchill who as Assis­tant Colo­nial Sec­re­tary in 1906 endeared him­self to Gandhi by defend­ing the rights of the Indian minor­ity in South Africa; who endorsed the con­cept of a Jew­ish national home, and praised the con­tri­bu­tions of Jews to civ­i­liza­tion in 1920; who opposed Indian self-government in the 1930s and, when he lost, sent encour­age­ment to Gandhi; who admired Nehru; who would admire the Indian democ­racy today.

Win­ston Churchill was by no means a saint, and it does him a dis­ser­vice to pre­tend he was with­out faults. But he is too com­plex a fig­ure to be pigeon­holed by writ­ers anx­ious to dis­play his feet of clay with­out tak­ing into account the full pic­ture. As Man­ches­ter wrote in the first vol­ume of his biog­ra­phy, The Last Lion (p. 844):

Churchill, how­ever, always had sec­ond and third thoughts, and they usu­ally improved as he went along. It was part of his pat­tern of response to any polit­i­cal issue that while his early reac­tions were often emo­tional, and even unwor­thy of him, they were usu­ally suc­ceeded by rea­son and generosity.

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