It is hard for most people to accept that racial prejudice and antagonism, pervasive phenomena of modern life, have not been permanent features of human society. Yet the very concept of "race," and the ideology and practice of racism are relatively modern.
Racism as an ideology is a form of biological determinism, premised on the idea that different human populations ("races") have different capacities because of their genetic makeup. Inevitably such categorizations are aimed at rationalizing an existing social hierarchy.
The whole concept of "races" within the human species is not based on physical reality, but is rather a purely ideological construction. Over the past 50 years biologists have come to the conclusion that there is no scientific means of categorizing human beings by "race." What are taken as distinct "races" (European, African and Asian) are in reality arbitrary divisions of humanity on the basis of skin color and other secondary physical features.
Geneticists have concluded that some 75 percent of genes are identical in every human being. Of the remaining portion, which account for all genetic variation:
In this society xenophobia and racism seem to be natural phenomena, yet they are wholly social creations. "Genetics and racism are counterposed," writes D. Van Arkel:
Race: A Social Reality
The absence of any scientific basis for distinguishing one "race" from another makes the whole concept meaningless. Yet biological refutation does not affect the social reality. As Richard Fraser, a veteran American Trotskyist, pointed out in "The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution," a document written in the 1950s and recently republished, race remains "a reality in spite of the fact that science reveals that it does not exist." Fraser wrote that: "The concept of race has now been overthrown in biological science. But race as the keystone of exploitation remains. Race is a social relation and has only a social reality."
Racism is rooted in the historical development of capitalism as a world system. It has proved through several centuries to be a useful and flexible tool for the possessing classes. It justified the brutal wars of conquest and genocide, which established the European colonial empires. It rationalized the slave trade, which produced the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the industrial revolution.
Today racism in its various guises remains an important ideological mainstay for the capitalist elites, providing a rationale for the barbaric oppression of minorities. Racism "explains," for example, why black people in America fail to get a piece of the "American Dream" one generation after another. It can be used to "explain" why Japanese capitalism has been much more successful than its European and North American rivals. The arguments offered by racists, whether the psychotic ravings of a lumpenized skinhead or the "objective," pseudo-scientific scholarship of a Harvard professor, seek to direct popular anger away from the workings of an irrational and decaying capitalist system to some group of "outsiders."
Racism has proved integral and necessary for the proper functioning of capitalist society for a variety of reasons. In the first place, it provides one of the essential axes along which the working class can be divided against itself, encouraging one segment of the proletariat to identify with the exploiters. This impedes the development of class consciousness and undermines the unity necessary to challenge capitalist rule. The working class of every imperialist country has been so poisoned with chauvinism and racism (also promoted by pro-capitalist misleaderships within the workers' movement) that in "normal" periods, workers often identify their interests with those of their "own" oppressors and exploiters rather than with those of workers in other countries.
Secondly, racism, in common with other forms of biological determinism, has an essential ideological function. The bourgeoisie rose to ascendancy under the banner of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Yet for hundreds of millions of people daily reality in the world capitalist order is misery, oppression and poverty. Even in the so-called advanced capitalist countries there is a growing cynicism about the electoral process, with most adults recognizing that the "equality" of the ballot box is no different from the "equality of the market placeevery dollar is equal, and big money takes all. Racists are not burdened with the obligation to prove that capitalist society is egalitarian. Instead, they openly claim that the inequalities of class society are based on natural distinctions.
Racism in History
Racism did not originate from a single source, but rather from a combination of several strands of historical development that came together into an ideology with considerable persuasive power. Racialism drew upon existing cultural and national prejudices, and pre-capitalist notions about nature and hierarchies, which were gradually adapted to new economic and social developments.
It has been widely observed that the Mediterranean civilizations of antiquity were "color blind":
The slave societies of the ancients were oppressive and often xenophobic. Yet the entire concept of "race," as it is now commonly understood, was alien to them. Slavery in these societies was not defined by color, but chiefly by military fortune: conquered peoples were enslaved.
The rulers of medieval Europe were also largely "color blind." Religion provided the touchstone for the medieval world: the crusades were launched against unbelievers, not against Arabs. Similar wars against "heathens" and heretics were conducted throughout Europe, for example, the campaigns of the Teutonic Knights from the 13th to 15th centuries to crush the Prussians (non-Christian Baltic Slavs), or Pope Innocent III's crusade against the Albigensians.
Anti-Semitism: Pioneer of Racism
Anti-Semitism, an ideological expression of the economic interests of the nascent capitalist class within medieval society, was the pioneer of racism. In early feudal Europe international trade was largely carried on by Jews who maintained commercial connections with the Near East. By the twelfth century the Jewish merchants were being displaced by Christians and were forced into moneylending ("usury"something that in theory Christian merchants could not indulge in) and other more marginal activities. Abram Leon (a young Belgian Trotskyist militant who perished in the Holocaust) noted that anti-Semitism developed in tandem with the growth of capitalist activity within feudal society:
"The definitive expulsion of the Jews took place at the end of the Thirteenth Century in England; at the end of the Fourteenth Century in France; at the end of the Fifteenth Century in Spain. These dates reflect the difference in the speed of economic development within these countries....
Anti-Semitism has proved a persistent form of racism, one that has nurtured (and been nurtured by) almost all subsequent forms. It developed a way of looking at the world which was generalized in the era of European colonial expansion.
In Elizabethan England the ideas and images of racism were only partially developed. This is reflected in Shakespeare's rather ambivalent attitude toward race. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the Jewish usurer, is treated as a villain. Othello, a black Moor, is portrayed sympathetically as an articulate, intelligent and introspective human being. There is a suggestion that Othello's downfall may be rooted in his passionate and temperamental Moorish nature, but this tendency is balanced by a presentation of other, more complex aspects of his character:
It is difficult to imagine a Victorian writer creating as complex a black character as Othello. Stereotypes could be vehemently derogatory or relatively, if patronisingly, sympathetic, but they all presumed that biology determined destiny, for individuals as for "races."
Capitalism and Slavery
By the mid-19th century overt racism was mainstream academic orthodoxy. The growth of racialist consciousness in Europe was a direct result of colonial expansion and the resultant demand for cheap labor for the plantations. Chattel slavery, resurrected to exploit the resources of the new world, persisted far into the 19th century in the U.S. The few Europeans who ended up as semi-slaves in the New World had usually lost their citizenship because of convictions for petty crime. The demand for slave labor was not met in the homelands of the colonial powers, largely because the ruling classes feared the resulting social turmoil. The surplus population of European peasants was eventually utilized for wage slavery, whereas the aboriginal peoples of Africa and South America, whose darker skin color was an indelible identifying mark, provided the solution to labor shortages in the New World.
Slavery clearly required an ideological justification, for it was contrary both to the formal teachings of Christian charity and the notions of the inalienable "rights of man" propounded by the ideologues of the market and the Enlightenment:
While it is difficult to date the beginning of this new racial ideology precisely, it is clear that there was an explosion of such notions beginning in the 16th century. Ashley Montagu made the following observation in his book Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race:
The influence, clarity and sophistication of these "reasons" increased over the next several centuries, until by the 19th century, "race" was widely seen as the key determinant of human history. By explaining the success of European colonialism by divine sanction (or, after Darwin, "natural selection"), the ideologues of empire infused the colonialists with confidence and moral conviction. At the same time, missionaries undermined the victim's will to resist with the gospel of "turning the other cheek" to the conquistadors and slave-drivers.
While it would hardly have occurred to a feudal lord to differentiate among his serfs on the basis of their skin color or type of hair, in the age of vast international empires, racial categorization helped make sense of the world. The belief in racial identity, racial purity and racial mission was a vital part of the "laager mentality" among the isolated and outnumbered colonials. In 1890, for example, 300 million Indians were ruled by a mere 6,000 British administrators, backed by only 70,000 soldiers.
The ideology of empire painted a picture of humane, brave, industrious and intelligent colonialists bringing the benefits of modern civilization to peoples who, for the most part, were portrayed as vicious, cowardly, lazy and stupid. Even when non-Europeans were given some positive characteristics, these were inevitably coupled with fatal flaws and organic weaknesses. Rudyard Kipling's famous poem of 1899 saluting the American rape of the Philippines called on Uncle Sam to join with John Bull and:
'Scientific' Racism in the 1800s...
By the end of the 19th century, the proposition, "biology determines destiny" was scientific orthodoxy, and prominent scientists such as Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, Robert Knox, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel were busy devising hierarchies of the races in which the "European," or often more specifically "Anglo-Saxon" (for the English, Germans and Americans), were placed at the top, with the other "inferior" races ranked beneath them. For example, Agassiz, a Harvard professor who was America's foremost zoologist of the 19th century, claimed that "the brain of the negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seven months infant in the womb of the white." A whole range of quack sciences such as phrenology and craniometry arose to measure and quantify the differences among individuals as well as races.
Numerous debates about the origin and genesis of humankind raged throughout the 19th century. In the early-mid century, a debate raged between partisans of monogenism and polygenism (i.e., between those who held that all humanity has a common root and those who argued that the different "races" were created separately). The learned associations of the world discussed whether some groups could be classified as human at all, such as the Australian aborigines, who, as late as 1926, were treated as rural pests to be exterminated. By the end of the century, attention had shifted to social-Darwinist theorizing about how the dog-eat-dog ethos of capitalist society ("survival of the fittest") was beneficial for the species.
The following description of the Hottentots was typical of "science" circa 1862:
The layering of prejudice is interesting in the above quotationan Irishwoman, generally considered "white," is the standard for laziness against which the Hottentot is measured. While there was a definite ordering of "races" among whites, in general the "fairer races" were destined to conquer and supersede the "darker races": "Before the go-ahead Dutchmen it was easy to see that this puny, pygmy, miserable race [the Hottentot] must retire...." To Knox and his contemporaries it was axiomatic that race was a determining force in history.
The debates that raged in the scientific community a few generations ago about the hierarchy of "racial superiority" and the destiny of "inferior" racesextinction, extermination, servitude or assimilationwere not the province of a lunatic fringe. They represented the mainstream of scientific thinking. Overtly racist ideas pervaded every aspect of intellectual life: literature, the arts, philosophy and history. Even the most militant sectors of the workers' movement were polluted.
Racism, like other forms of capitalist ideology, reflects the reality of social oppression and exploitation, but it inverts cause and effect. It is bourgeois not only in its historic origins, but also in its social functionproviding a rationale for the misery, suffering and injustice which are an inevitable part of the free-market package. Peoples that were enslaved, conquered or dispossessed, are not victims of an irrational social order, but rather doomed by biological predetermination.
Racism is one of the key means by which the economic and social hierarchies of the capitalist world are ideologically "naturalized." At the top of the pyramid, because of their fitness to rule, sit white, bourgeois men. The rest of the worldwhether female, black, Asian or even the white male working classare to the ruling class as children to parents. There has always been a close connection between racism and male supremacist ideology. "According to the anthropologist McGrigor Allan in 1869, 'The type of the female skull approaches in many respects that of the infant, and still more that of the lower races."' As an example of the pervasiveness of such attitudes the authors of Not In Our Genes quote Charles Darwin, the greatest scientist of the 19th century, as remarking: "some at least of those mental traits in which women may excel are traits characteristic of the lower races." Liberals, who dismiss such absurdities as evidence of the scientific backwardness of that age, and comfort themselves with the thought that such vicious ignorance has been transcended, fail to see how, at every stage, science is conditioned by the prejudices of the existing social order.
The experience of Nazism discredited the notions of racial superiority in the eyes of millions around the world. Today mainstream science tends to reject race as anything other than a social construct. Those members of the intellectual community who advance "scientific" racist arguments are usually pretty thoroughly rebutted by their colleagues. Yet while crudely racist academics have been pushed to the periphery for several decades, the same groundless "theories" are regularly revived.
In 1969 the Harvard Educational Review published an article by Prof. Arthur Jensen entitled "How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?" Jensen argued that the lower scores of American blacks on IQ tests are evidence of their genetic inferiority. Shortly after this, Richard Hernstein, a Harvard psychology professor, "discovered" that the whole working class was genetically predisposed to low IQs. Hernstein's conclusions were no doubt gratifying to the assortment of corporate bigwigs and millionaires sitting on Harvard's governing body:
Hans Eysenek, a British psychologist whose work ran along the same lines as Jensen and Hernstein, asserted that Asians and blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Eysenek's arguments were embraced by the fascists of the National Front in Britain as "scientific" evidence for their campaign against non-white immigration.
In recent years "socio-biology," which recycles much of the same reductionist mythology, although with a more carefully constructed "objective" cover, has gained wide respectability in the academic community.
The resilience of racism as an ideology stems primarily from its function in preserving and rationalizing the capitalist order. It legitimizes the glaring disparity between the democratic ideology of equal opportunity and the reality of systemic discrimination, prejudice and oppression. Individual capitalists benefit in a direct and immediate fashion by paying some categories of workers (typically non-white, immigrant and female) substandard wages. Such discriminatory practices, in the eyes of the biological determinists, are, if not equitable, evidently "natural" and thus must be accepted.
By splitting the workforce along racial and gender lines, the capitalists create the illusion of privileges for white male workers. Yet even in the short term the cost of these "privileges" far outweighs their minimal benefits for white workers; for by dividing the working class, the price of labor is forced down across the board.
The racism that pervades capitalist society and infects the working class is not a "natural" thing, nor is it simply the product of ignorance or lack of education. Racist attitudes (like homophobia, sexism and nationalism) are fostered within the working class by the myriad educational and ideological processes of bourgeois society, and are passively accepted (when not enthusiastically promoted) by the class-collaborationist parasites who dominate the unions, and other mass organizations of the working class.
Karl Marx once observed that labor in a white skin would never be free while labor in a black skin was branded. For the working class to advance its own interests, it must champion the cause of all the oppressed. Workers who imagine that they benefit from the relatively greater oppression faced by other sectors (blacks, women, immigrants, etc.) forge their own chains.
Racism and nationalism are also used to prepare the working class for new military adventures and slaughters. Racist sentiments are being stirred as the pressure of international inter-imperialist competition heats up. Xenophobia is on the upsurge across the globe, as the supposed leaders of the working class in every nation throw in their lot with "their own" rulers against foreign competitors. The treatment of Japan in the capitalist mass media in both Europe and America is crudely and transparently racist. Japanese workers are dismissed as mindless robotsoblivious to the finer things in life and pathetically loyal to their companies. The Japanese capitalists are no better with their depiction of North American workers as lazy and indigent, and their tendency to attribute the decline of U.S. capitalism to race mixing.
Exposing the idiocy and vileness of racist ideas is both important and necessary. But ultimately racism cannot be eradicated simply through debate or education. The ideology of race is an inextricable component of the historical development of this exploitative economic system. The fight against racism is therefore organically connected to the revolutionary struggle to up root the capitalist social system, which has created and perpetuated it, and to create an egalitarian socialist world order in which cooperation, not competition, is the norm. Only in such a society, based on the rational planned organization of production sufficient to meet the essential needs of all, will every human being, regardless of color, gender, or nationality have the opportunity to develop themselves to the fullest. Only under socialism will racial prejudice and discrimination be eliminated once and for all.