Examining the roots of racial discrimination

In his book ‘The Spectre of Race,’ Michael Hanchard explores xenophobia, racism, marginalization, and exclusionary policies dating back to ancient Greece.

Hanchard Michael 2018
  Photo: Eric Sucar, University Communications

Democracy has never been for all people, and the inequality started in classical Athens. That’s what Michael Hanchard, the incoming chair in the Department of Africana Studies, explains in his new book, “The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy.”

“The Spectre of Race” examines the ways in which democratic institutions have promoted undemocratic ideas, such as slavery, discrimination, and other exclusionary practices. In it, Hanchard illuminates the painful irony that democracy, a concept founded upon deliberation and citizen participation, was heavily influenced by slavery.

“Idealizations of the Greek polis as the cradle of democracy obscure how central slaves were to the practice of freedom, and how the omission of several categories of people from citizenship and the polis required exclusionary regimes,” explains Hanchard, who holds secondary appointments in the departments of English and political science in the School of Arts and Sciences. In addition, he serves as the director of the Marginalized Populations Project, a collaborative research initiative that explores political dynamics between populations with unequal, minimal, or non-existent state protections and national governments. 

As a scholar of comparative politics who specializes in racial hierarchy, citizenship, social movements, and nationalism, Hanchard traces an ugly history of racism and discrimination that has been a key part of democracies around the world starting with ancient Greece, where the stage for discriminatory practices was set by limiting access to citizenship for women, slaves, and foreigners. 

The reasoning was that if minorities had access to citizenship responsibilities and privileges, they could undermine the power of the elites and dominant-group members in both politics and society. And so, the exclusionary practices began.

After the Persian Wars, citizens could only be male descendants of original Athenian males who “sprang from the soil,” creating inaccessibility to political membership for those who could not prove their heritage. This practice also meant that Athenian women were no longer considered citizens, even if they had been born in Athens.

“Slavery was rationalized as a necessary institution that allowed citizens to fully participate in civic life without material constraints,” explains Hanchard. According to its proponents, he adds, slavery “made Athenian democracy practicable.” 

Hanchard Michael 2018 2
  Photo: Eric Sucar, University Communications

Hanchard says modern democracies, including the United States, Britain, and France, profited from slave labor, empire, and colonialism. He offers historical context on how democracy has generated political differences and inequality, tracing patterns from ancient Greece, through the 19th and 20th centuries, leading to contemporary society. 

He highlights the idea of “difference” as a form of political distinction in democracies, how the roots of social inequality are often tied to the economic sphere and how political inequality is the result of deliberate decisions to exclude specific groups from participation.

“Gendered disparities are perhaps the most obvious,” he writes, suggesting that there are no reasonable explanations “why women across the ages and spaces have been subordinated in economic, social, and material relations. The ability to own property and access to wealth, education, and suffrage have their origins in laws and customs that have privileged males in most societies.”

He contends that a discrimination-based hierarchy has influenced state formation and expansion, immigration, and citizenship law, as well as interstate relations in societies. 

In “The Spectre of Race,” Hanchard explains how political scientists like Woodrow Wilson believed that a requirement for a successful model of democracy is that the society must be homogenous, and established “racial regimes” to maintain the political and economic privilege of dominant groups at the expense of subordinate ones. 

“Racial and the ethno-national hierarchy,” Hanchard says, “provided the rationalization for the institutionalization of political inequality based on the premise that racially and ethno-nationally divergent groups could not share the same state.”

In America, this hierarchy has encompassed many marginalized groups throughout history.

Jewish people, African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and even Italian-Americans “have direct historical experience with both rhetorical and formal barriers to participation in the U.S. polity and full citizenship,” Hanchard says. 

In the book, Hanchard outlines changes within the discipline of comparative politics itself.

After reviewing the field from its genesis to new approaches following World War II through today, his core argument is that the contemporary version of comparative politics as a field in political science has largely ignored colonialism, racism, and imperialism.

The postscript to “The Spectre of Race” is entitled “From Athens to Charlottesville,” and links the book’s findings to contemporary tensions between demographic diversity and democracy in both Europe and the United States.


Hanchard’s other books include “Orpheus and Power: Afro-Brazilian Social Movements in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil, 1945-1988” (1994) and “Party/Politics: Horizons in Black Political Thought” (2006).