Between 1870 and 1914, ‘race’ remained a contested territory, ambiguous in meaning and subject to dispute. A regressive change occurred under the new imperialism when scientists established their authority as producers of ‘real’ knowledge. In popular science, the common culture had established racial stereotypes long before the 1890s, when state education, mass consumerism and the omnipresence of empire facilitated the dissemination of scientific racism. Unequal and oppressive relationships between peoples and cultures, contrary to the claims of science, were not a product of nature, but a result of human agency. To address this disordered human world, abolitionists and colonial officials invented the language of race relations. Maturing under the new imperialism, the innovations of democratic America, and post-war reconstruction in South Africa, this language strengthened the legitimacy of racial inequality. In response, a dissenting minority initiated a critique of the global pattern of racial oppression. In 1911, the Universal Races Congress met to cultivate racial harmony but could only repeat the century-old pieties of the abolitionists. By then, the abolitionists favoured imperial trusteeship over human rights, and colonial nationalists, marginalised by political failure and war, needed to reconstitute resistance to the imperial state and the hegemonic racism of its culture.
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