Churchill as Racist: A Hard Sell

Churchill as Racist: A Hard Sell

Racist still? 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.

“Generational Chauvinism”

The Churchills with Nehru, 1949 (

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.

But sim­ply to declare that Churchill was a man of his time is to miss a fea­ture that dis­tin­guish­es him. For exam­ple, 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, In 1906, as Under­sec­re­tary for the Colonies, he endeared him­self to Gand­hi by defend­ing the rights of Indi­ans in South Africa. The same Churchill endorsed the con­cept of a Jew­ish nation­al home, and praised the con­tri­bu­tions of Jews to civ­i­liza­tion in 1920. Churchill 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.

He Can’t be Pigeonholed

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 pigeon­hole. We must take 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.

2 thoughts on “Churchill as Racist: A Hard Sell

  1. Gee. It took more than three words to con­demn George Wallace.

    The argu­ment in 1955 was over unre­strict­ed Com­mon­wealth immi­gra­tion, both sides had points. Look at Churchill’s over­all record from a 50 year career–and what every­body else in his par­ty was say­ing at the time.


    Prime Min­is­ter Churchill’s sug­ges­tion to his Cab­i­net, for a slo­gan of a the pro­posed anti-immi­gra­tion pro­pa­gan­da campaign. 

    source: MacMillan’s diary, 20 Jan­u­ary 1955.

    Churchill = racist.

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