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Racism: The importance of history Professor James Renton

Professor of History, James Renton is also Director of the International Centre for Racism at Edge Hill University. His research interests and specialisms are in the global intellectual history of family origin, particularly antisemitism and Islamophobia. Most recently, James has been exploring the historical relationship between Europe and the Middle East.

Professor James Renton

My inspiration

As a PhD student in London in the 1990s, my teacher and mentor, Michael Berkowitz, opened up a whole world of knowledge to me. With Michael, I learned about the ways in which our understanding of the world around us is shaped by a complex history of ideas, values, and myth: what some call ‘culture’. Michael taught an amazing class on the Holocaust, for which each of us had to read and review a book each week. Really, the history of the Holocaust, is the history of modern Europe. In other words, racism, which includes antisemitism, is central to the European past. It’s not a fringe issue – that’s perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned from Michael.

The importance of studying historical racism

Anyone who analyses racism without engaging with history will only ever end up with a limited and superficial set of answers. Why do people believe in the idea of a Jewish conspiracy, that Muslims are inherently violent, or that minorities are potential subversives or just dangerous? All of these notions were evident over five centuries ago. Racism is an integral part of modernity. It is incumbent upon us to learn about that terrible fact and share it far and wide. Only then is some sort of change possible.

My current research

Europe’s fraught historical relationship with the Middle East is the focus of my research. I’m interested in the intellectual foundations of Europe’s engagement with the Middle East, the complicated ways that this foundation affects political history, and the consequences for both parts of the world. This research takes me to Europe’s bloody religious civil wars in the 16th century all the way up to the War on Terror in the 21st century. In particular, I work on Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Get involved

As a history student at Edge Hill, you can explore and engage in British imperial history, antisemitism and Islamophobia, violence and the idea of the Middle East, and the colonial origins of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’m also the Director of Edge Hill’s International Centre on Racism. We’re busy with all sorts of activities, such as our annual international conference (recent themes include social media and antisemitism, family origin in history, and race and the persecution of women). We’ve also run an online series on how to make antiracism a success.

We’re always looking for students to help us – we want to hear the voices of our students about the concrete steps all of us need to take, from what they study in their classes to student activism. If you’re interested in exploring this topic further before starting at Edge Hill, I’d recommend that you start by looking at our Centre’s amazing partner, MONITORacism magazine. It’s free to access, and publishes video, podcasts, and short articles by global experts on racism.

An image of a memorial at the end of the railway track at auschwitz.

July 1, 2022