William Graham Sumner on the racism which lies behind Imperialism (1898)

William Graham Sumner

The American classical liberal sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) pointed out the contradiction between the American ideal that “all men are equal” with its actual treatment of “Indians and negroes” and other so-called “uncivilized and half-civilized peoples”:

The Americans have been committed from the outset to the doctrine that all men are equal. We have elevated it into an absolute doctrine as a part of the theory of our social and political fabric. It has always been a domestic dogma in spite of its absolute form, and as a domestic dogma it has always stood in glaring contradiction to the facts about Indians and negroes and to our legislation about Chinamen. In its absolute form it must, of course, apply to Kanakas, Malays, Tagals, and Chinese just as much as to Yankees, Germans, and Irish. It is an astonishing event that we have lived to see American arms carry this domestic dogma out where it must be tested in its application to uncivilized and half-civilized peoples. At the first touch of the test we throw the doctrine away and adopt the Spanish doctrine.

Sumner wondered about the causes which led a nation, which had fought for its independence from an Empire in 1776, to attempt 120 years later to colonise the territories which it had seized from Spain in 1898. He believed he had found the reason in what he called an “attitude of mind” where many people believed that the “ideas and social arrangements of white men” cannot be applied to people of color. This in turn led to the belief that the white men had to decide what people or races were fit for liberty and self-government and who were not. In the case of the latter, it was the “civilising mission” of the whites to take control of their armies and navies, reorganise their governments, to “train” and “educate” their people in the ways and ideas of the white men, and to rationalise their trade and economic activities. Thus, in his mind, Sumner thought imperialism and foreign intervention were ultimately based upon racism. What had begun as domestic racism had morphed into foreign racism and imperialism, or what he called “the Spanish doctrine.”