restricted access Who Do We Think We Are?: Race and Nation in the Modern World (review)
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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 216-218

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Book Review

Who Do We Think We Are?:
Race and Nation in the Modern World

Who Do We Think We Are?: Race and Nation in the Modern World. By PHILIP YALE NICHOLSON. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1999 . Pp. 248 . $34 .95 (cloth).

Those who teach, study, read, and write on the fascinating subject of world history are afforded a number of remarkable opportunities to view the human condition from a global perspective as well as being confronted by several difficult challenges. Among the latter is the issue of how to address a seemingly overwhelming amount of information about so many diverse peoples, places, and times, and yet do so in a meaningful and thoughtful way. Nicholson's book, Who Do We Think We Are?, offers a stimulating and imaginative solution to this challenge by suggesting that we focus upon two major and powerful themes that have shaped the modern world: race and nation.

Ranging broadly through historical experience and geographical [End Page 216] scope, Nicholson argues that concepts of race and nation were born and raised together, inseparably linked and interdependent like the two strands of a double helix, and are necessary to understand the history of the world. He begins in time with early human societies in Asia, Africa, and Europe as they searched for premodern formations of authority and cultural identity, trying to determine who they were. Here he contends that there were no nations and no conceptions of race. This changed, he believes, with the emergence of modern nation-states and the emerging concept of race as Europeans defined their national borders and themselves as distinct from one another. War and coercion enhanced these differences, as did economic expansion and expropriation, and the resulting national and racial laws within the global-reaching empires of the Spanish, Portuguese, British, French, and Dutch separated conqueror from the conquered even more. These developments and the legitimacy of nation and race escalated further during the nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries to the point of extremes. Clear and often explicit examples are provided with the emergence of "scientific racism," Manifest Destiny, segregation within the United States, two world wars, the Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, the Cold War between the Americans and the Soviets, and the fate of Palestinians within the nation-state of Israel.

Within this chronological framework that covers most of the world as a whole, Nicholson makes his greatest contribution by rising above mere description and boldly weaving an analysis based upon secondary works of how the concepts of nation and race have been intertwined with some of the most significant issues and forces in all of human history. These include religion, racism, slavery, nationalism, imperialism, mercantilism and capitalism, liberty, science and technology, warfare and the use of force in coercion, law, decolonization, and modern globalism. He argues, for example, that racism has been used by national governments to legitimize both external and internal wars of conquest, confiscation, and expropriation. This, in turn, begins a process of vilification of the victims that easily leads to prejudice, discrimination, and segregation, and sometimes to slavery and even genocide, all the while enhancing the power of the nation and its patriotism as well as the strength of racism as a category to define and divide human beings from each other.

The last chapter ventures beyond history, discussing current developments and speculating about the future. Here, Nicholson maintains that race and nation remain enigmatic and analytically underserved, but at the end of five hundred years as functional and interrelated mythologies, are powerful forces in the ordinary political life and cultural [End Page 217] identity of the nation and the world. To support his contention, he uses contemporary examples ranging from the United States, Israel, and China to the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Burundi, observing that racists invariably identify themselves as the truest patriots.

His broad strokes of historical examples, expansive geographical scope, explicit identification of powerful issues and forces, opinions about the...