Racism is regarded as “natural” or a result of ignorance but, writes Antony Hamilton, the notion of a hierarchy of races has material roots in the birth of capitalism.
Racism is one of the most favoured weapons in the arsenal of the ruling class. Whenever there is economic or political crisis, instead of pointing the finger at a banker, a scapegoat is created, a minority to blame. Donald Trump wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out and ban Muslims from travelling to the US; Theresa May has blamed migrants for falling wages and “displacement of jobs”, and has prioritised the Tory promise to reduce immigration in her election campaign to the “tens of thousands”.
The ruling class would have us believe that racism is the natural way of things, but this is far from the truth. Racism has a material base in history, which can be traced back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The creation of “race” and racism goes hand in hand with the growth and dominance of a new capitalist class.
Before the advent of capitalism there were prejudice and division, of course, but there wasn’t systematic oppression of whole groups of people based on the colour of their skin. For example, in ancient Rome people were viewed as “barbarians” or “civilised” but these categories were permeable and depended on whether your empire’s lands were conquered by another, or if you were an active member of the dominant empire. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus was African, and the fact that he was black was rarely if ever mentioned because it was not seen as significant.
These brutal societies justified slavery on the basis that freedom was seen as a privilege and that it was fair to enslave those captured in wars — but it wasn’t connected to any notion of race or racial hierarchy. That idea arose much later, with the slave trade that provided the initial wealth for capitalism to expand.
The Spanish and Portuguese were the first Europeans to exploit the people and resources of the Americas, from the late 15th century onwards. They enslaved the indigenous population — those who hadn’t died from contact with diseases the Europeans brought with them — and began to cultivate dyes, gum and rubber to be sent back to their homeland and sold at enormous profits.
For a while they were the dominant power in the region, but interest quickly grew in the raw materials on offer, and soon other Europeans, in particular the British, established their own roots.
These new interests quickly became dominant because, unlike the feudal Spanish and Portuguese traders who had to give over large chunks of their wealth to the crown, they were capitalist enterprises, free to reinvest their profits in expanding the business.
As well as enslaving indigenous people the Europeans brought over indentured servants from Europe — that is, workers who were “owned” by their boss for a set period of time to pay off a debt or prison sentence, or as a way of making a new life in the new world. The traders also began to enslave Africans, though numbers were small at first.
From the beginning slavery required justification. Until the mid-16th century religious reasons were found. In 1550 Juan Gines de Sepulveda articulated a new, proto-racist line. He said that on account of the Indians’ “natural rudeness and inferiority” it was philosophically justifiable to enslave them. This was the beginning of an argument that there are inherent traits carried by certain groups of people which make them inferior.
This was met with resistance from clerics and missionaries who wanted to convert the natives, thereby rendering them equal in the eyes of god. The traders didn’t appreciate this interference — some missionaries were thrown overboard or murdered on their journey to the Americas by traders and plantation owners who didn’t want to see their profit jeopardised.
Indentured Irish and other poor European labour became a major resource for the plantation owners; however these workers were usually only tied to their owners for three to five years and then would move on, perhaps even becoming competitors.
The turn towards African slave labour on a big scale in the mid-17th century was a breakthrough for the plantation owners who needed to source new labour without the complexities of indentured workers. The great Caribbean historian Eric Williams put it very clearly:
“Here then is the origin of negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had not to do with the colour of the labourer but the cheapness of the labour. As compared with the Indian and white labour, Negro slavery was eminently superior… This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labour. Africa was closer than the moon.”
Those capitalist thinkers who held the belief that “all men are born equal” found themselves in a contradiction — if that were true how could they justify the enslavement of millions of people? They could hardly claim they were all captured in “just wars”. The simple solution was to argue that Africans were not men.
Trinidadian Marxist C L R James summed this up: “The conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers had…that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race.”
Defining black people as an inferior race meant that plantation owners could not only justify the enslavement of the black Africans they captured, but also of their children and their children’s children.
This ideology quickly hardened into a new “science” which claimed to prove Europeans’ natural superiority. In 1760, when the slave trade was at its height, a 23 volume “universal history” was published. It described Africans as being “proud, lazy, treacherous, thievish, hot and addicted to all kinds of lusts… It is hardly possible to find in any African any quality but what is of the bad kind… If we look at those few manufactures and handicrafts that are amongst them, we shall find them carried out with the same rude and tedious stupidity.”
So here lies the basis and creation of racism, but it by no means ends there; the complexity and reach of racism increased by the decade. Despite the eventual end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, racism continued, morphing into new forms.
Capitalism as a system, even though it had no more use for slavery on the scale of the trans-Atlantic trade, still required racism as a powerful tool to divide the working class. And even though most of the slaves were working in the Americas, the ideology which justified the system permeated the growing capitalist world. The notion of a hierarchy of races suited the British ruling class, for example, as its empire expanded across the globe, violently subjugating whole peoples.
In the US the end of slavery — the defeat of the South in the Civil War in 1865 — was mitigated for the Southern planters by the imposition of segregation. The white plantation owners were able to feel they had held onto their higher social status, even if they could no longer own black people as property.
And so the concept of race continued to be refined and used to set worker against worker. Segregation required more and more specific, legal definitions of who was “white” and who was “black”. Such cases led by 1921 to the following definition being written into federal law:
“A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.”
It sounds absurd and exposes how ridiculous the concept of race is. However, while it was completely made up it had a monumental effect on the lives of millions of people every day.
Similar notions about “race” have bled into the debates about migration. People have always moved around seeking a better or different life, and capitalism absolutely requires labour to be mobile in order to meet its needs. But it also wants to be able to use racism to keep the working class divided and to turn people against migrant workers.
While the ruling class needs to divide in order to rule, the working class holds its strength in the ability to organise collectively. So our rulers recreate and reinvent racism in order to distract, divide and confuse the working class about who is the enemy and who isn’t — but they have always faced resistance in this.
Segregation was defeated by the Civil Rights Movement, which united black and white against the racists and their laws. In Britain the anti-slavery movement was strong among workers in the very industries, such as cotton, which benefitted from the trade. Slave revolts in the Caribbean shook the system to its core. And throughout the 20th century different forms of racism have been challenged, from anti-migrant racism to Islamophobia.
Racism is made real by people accepting the ideas rained down on them from above. Racist attacks and abuse are committed by individuals. Even when it is a state institution which acts, such as the racist police, an individual is picked out and called a rotten apple. In reality it is a rotten system.
Racism is not natural; it is not an inevitable outcome of human nature — it needs to be taught and regularly reinforced and the state uses every weapon in its arsenal to do just that. From the classrooms to the courtrooms racism filters through, whether it is being taught “British values” in primary school or black people being given disproportionate sentences. What the ruling class aims to achieve is an acceptance that there is a natural order to capitalism and there are some who are deserving of their position and others who need to be put in their place.
However, people are not sponges; these ideas come into conflict with people’s experience of multicultural life. The overbearing conditions which capitalism forces workers to endure mean that people are forced to struggle together, regardless of where they come from.
The fight against racism is absolutely central to the fight against capitalism. They were born from blood and they maintain each other. Racism pulls us all down; we become weaker and easier to exploit when we are divided.
How we fight it today is fundamental and constantly under scrutiny. To resist is the first step, and socialists should encourage whatever forms of resistance emerge as a response to racism. The Black Lives Matter movement has been an inspiration to a whole new generation of young activists.
But we should not simply be cheerleaders of the movement. Socialist politics is about connecting together the struggles against the different symptoms of the sickness that is capitalism. That means uniting people across divides and putting anti-racism at the heart of every campaign we are involved in.
Racism is being used from the NHS to the housing sector to pit workers against each other or against service users. We need to stand alongside these workers to fight for a fully funded public sector while flushing out reactionary ideas. That’s why campaigns such as Stand Up to Racism are so important at the moment — its “Keep racism out of the election” campaign has provided materials for health workers, teachers and others to put anti-racist arguments and challenge the Tories’ and Ukip’s lies.
Understanding that it is those at the top who are driving racism will help us to avoid the trap of blaming each other or simply seeing “ignorance” as the root. True liberation from any and all oppression can only come about by fundamentally transforming the society we live in, from one which relies upon oppression to one which can provide the basis for the liberation of all people.