Workers' Liberty #54


The roots of racism

By Jenni Bailey

Modern anti-black British racism has relatively recent roots, in the history of slavery and colonialism.

Racism did not start as a divideand-rule trick imposed by the ruling class. The racist practice of slavery and colonialism came first; racist ideas came later.

When the modern slave trade started in the 16th century the British capitalists took slaves and sold them like cattle, bullied them and beat them. Then, they began thinking of them as subhuman.

That is the natural way of things for slave owners. When Britain conquered territories and peoples and assumed the right to rule and make decisions for them, then British people began to believe those peoples were inferior.

The roots of modern racism can be traced back to the planter class of slave owners. Although fear and suspicion of the stranger and the outsider had existed before, it had not been fear on the basis of skin colour.

In the ancient world there were many societies based on slavery. But there was no idea comparable to "race".

The ancient Egyptians looked down on the black peoples to their south, but they were just as scornful of other, lighter skinned, neighbours. Egyptian artists caricatured the captives taken in war - but the peculiar dress of the Libyans or Hebrews was held up for ridicule as much as the features of the black southerners.

In Greek society the slaves were frequently of the same colour as their owners. There were many white slaves from the north and the east.

In Rome any citizen might become a slave and any slave a citizen. Slaves came from every province and every skin colour - so did the Emperors, of whom some were black.

There is nothing "natural" about antiblack racism in the psychological biological make-up of whites. This can be seen today by watching young children of different skin colours play together.

Racism was a product of the beginnings of capitalism. In the beginning there were Indian slaves and white indentured labourers too as well as Africans. Black slaves were taken from Africa as a simple commercial decision: it was cheaper than going elsewhere. The reasons were economic, not racist.

Racist ideas squared an ideological circle for the capitalists. Their anti-feudal revolutions took place under the banner of liberty. Yet there was no liberty for the slaves.

Paradoxically, it was because capitalism had developed the ideas of universal human rights and equality - the same ideas that would later inspire the revolts of the colonial and enslaved peoples-that it also developed the ideologies of racism. Previous societies had had slavery and conquest, but their rulers had no need for general theories of racial superiority to justify the slavery and conquest. The poor had no rights, whatever their skin colour and whatever their ethnic origin. There was no need for special theories to cancel the human rights of a special category of poor people.

Under the pressure of economic interests writers and thinkers developed the gut reactions of the planters into fleshed-out theories.

Black people were called sub-human, allowing the bourgeoisie to have their "liberty" and their slaves too.

Pseudoscience said black peoples were inferior-because of head shape, or some other rubbish.

Colonialism and the slave trade wrecked societies and civilisations. Much of the African past was destroyed.

Imperialism in India reduced a fabulous treasure-house, the world's leading industrial nation, to backward poverty. Europe then built a whole racist ideology that the peoples of Africa and Asia were naturally "backward". In Ireland the British state brutalised the people and then blamed them for their own condition. They were described as "unstable, childish, violent, lazy, feckless, feminine and primitive".

In the heyday of the British Empire racism and nationalism penetrated every part of intellectual life as never before. Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky in 1882: "You ask what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as the bourgeois think. There is no workers' party here, you see, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies".

Many labour movement leaders campaigned to restrict the entry of Jews fleeing Eastern European pogroms at the end of the last century. The first modern immigration act was passed against the Jews - the Aliens Act of 1905.

Immigration laws have been one of the major mechanisms of state racism over the last 40 years. After the Second World War, capitalism expanded, and the British bosses toured Africa, the Caribbean and India looking for workers to work in British industry.

As the boom slowed the racist right mobilised. It was led by Winston Churchill, the supposedly great leader of British democracy in World War 2 . In 1955 Churchill proposed "Keep Britain White" as a Tory election slogan. The Metropolitan Police described "coloured people" as work-shy and content to live on National Assistance and immoral "earnings".

Black workers found "colour bars" in clubs and housing. Black community organisations began life as selfhelp groups in response to this racism.

Racist attacks became more common, and in 1958 there was a riot led by organised racists in Notting Hill, West London. "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour" was a Tory by-election slogan in 1964. Margaret Thatcher said that "this country might be swamped by people from a different culture" before her election victory in 1979, taking some of the political ground from under the fascist National Front who, during the 1970s, organised some thousands of white British people.

The Immigration Act of April 1962 began the current process of formal racism - laws which discriminate against black people. Immigration Acts of 1968 and 1971 completed the process, barring almost all immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and India except those joining close family here.

The latest phase in state racism is the successive changes in the law and government regulations on asylum, treating asylum-seekers not as human beings with rights but as an unmanageable "problem".

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