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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 anti-Semitism and islamophobia. Recently, James has been exploring the historical relationship between Europe and the Middle East. Let’s hear more from James.

Professor James Renton

My inspiration to specialise in racism

As a PhD student in London in the 1990’s, 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 anti-Semitism, is central to the European past. It’s not a fringe issue—that is perhaps the most powerful lesson I learned from Michael.

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

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 am 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 anti-Semitism.

July 1, 2022