Most European thinkers of earlier centuries thought that “savages” lived more primitive lives than Europeans. At the very least, they thought that “savage” culture was less highly developed than European culture, and many believed that “savages” themselves were racially “inferior”, so that they were more like children than adults. For example, JS Mill opposed paternalism in general, but made exceptions of children and “those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage”.
Were these earlier thinkers racists? I don’t think so. The word ‘racism’ is often applied to the belief that one race is “inferior” to another race, and by that criterion some or all of the above-mentioned thinkers would count as racists. But I think the word ‘racism’ should be strictly reserved for a moral failing: refusing or neglecting to give due consideration to some individuals’ interests because they belong to a particular race.
Racism is motivated by malice rather than incorrect information. Our attention should not be focused on beliefs, which are “afferent” states of mind in being normally shaped by states of the world outside the head via perception. Instead, we should focus our attention on volitional states such as desires, which are “efferent” states of mind in that they normally shape states of the world outside the head via action. Racism is primary caused by bad attitudes and unjust sentiments – it’s a culpable willingness to disregard interests through action or inaction. This is different from sincerely believing something to be a fact. Having a mere belief might be an epistemic failing, especially if the belief is false, but it can’t really be a moral failing.
Why not? Let’s accept that as a matter of fact, in the real world, no human race is “inferior” to any other race. Please be absolutely clear that I do not mean to question that fact. But now let us imagine an alternative world, in which we discover a long-lost race of humans who, alas, really are “inferior” to us in some respect or other. This is a wholly imaginary world, but it should be quite easy to imagine, because we already believe something akin to this about dogs. Statistically, Chihuahuas are “inferior” to Great Danes in respect of size, and Red Setters are “inferior” to mongrels in respect of intelligence. The “inferiority” of one canine race compared to another in no way justifies ill-treatment of members of the “lesser” race, in fact if anything it helps to justify special care and concern for the less able ones to protect their own interests.
In this imaginary world, a rational, well-informed person would adopt the belief that our long-lost race are “inferior” to other human races, in whichever respect we were imagining them as being statistically “inferior”. Note that in this imaginary world the adopted belief is true. But in rationally adopting such a belief, well-informed people become “racists”, according to the criterion used above to deem Hume, Kant, Mill, Darwin et al to be “racists”.
Therefore, that criterion must be wrong. No external fact about the world could possibly turn a rational, well-informed person into a racist. The mistaken criterion is counting a mere belief that one race is “inferior” to another as the mark of racism.
As far as I know, the alternative criterion (suggested already above) was first proposed by Peter Singer in his book Practical Ethics. It does not depend on belief: instead, racism is understood as failure to give equal consideration to some individuals’ interests because they belong to a particular race. From what I know of their lives, Singer’s alternative criterion exonerates Hume, Kant, Mill and Darwin of the charge of racism. As far as I know, none of them did anything to mistreat members of other races. But it does not exonerate Heidegger of that charge: Heidegger was instrumental in getting Husserl removed from his professorship at the University of Freiberg on the grounds that he was Jewish.
It isn’t all that surprising that thinkers of earlier centuries assumed “savages” were “inferior” in some ways to Europeans. At the time, little was known of the sophistication of their cultures. We now know that there is no such thing as a “primitive” human language, and that technological advance is a poor indicator of cultural richness. But thinkers of earlier centuries had fewer opportunities to find out about other cultures.
It strikes me as especially unfair to use the mistaken criterion of racism against Hume. More than anyone, Hume helped to clarify the difference between “is” and “ought”, and the relation between belief and desire as the component mental states that explain action. To accuse him of racism on the grounds that he had a “bad belief” is not only to use a mistaken criterion of racism, but also to overlook the insights Hume himself contributed to our understanding of action and morality.
The mistaken criterion judges belief in moral terms instead of epistemic terms. That is typical of a recent wave of intolerance, which I call intolerance of creed. I have written a little more about it here.