Racism is often presented as a deep-seated and "ancient" suspicion and hostility between people of different races - a "natural" if mistaken prejudice that is hard to eradicate but will eventually be banished through education.
But if this is true, why is racism increasing in wealthy countries, where the public has had greater access to education?
An understanding of racism has to begin by looking at its historical origins. Racism assumes that separate "races" of people exist with clearly definable sets of social and physical characteristics, and asserts that some of these races are superior to others.
But biology cannot provide coherent definitions of what are usually identified as "races". Isolated genetic pools are rare in reality and don't form the basis for racial categories in practice. Even if some generally consistent physical features are discernible, they bear no real significance, because social traits are not attached to skin or eye colour or the shape of the nose.
Wide cultural and historical variations exist within both "black" and "white" racial groups. For example, many Aborigines have objectively more in common with some "white" Australians than with Melanesians or African-Americans.
Races also cannot be distinguished on the basis of social attributes. It would be clearly unreasonable to categorise people into "races" by musical taste, hairstyle or mode of dress.
In the 19th century, considerable "research" was carried out in the west to give racial theories a pseudo-scientific legitimacy. Foreheads were analysed for shape and slope, noses measured, brains weighed, all in the cause of proving the superiority of the "white races".
Racial categories are socially founded. Arbitrarily selected physical traits are fetishised and artificially injected with social value.
A deeply ingrained eye for "race" has developed in all societies where there is systematic racial oppression, but the social nature of racial categories is starkly exposed when comparing the "white" and "black" racial categories. Those who qualify for the former must have no visible "non-white" features, while a person with visible signs of Aboriginal and European ancestry is still classed as "black".
Racism has its historical roots in the development of capitalism.
The new capitalist class in medieval Europe had to accumulate the necessary money capital to take over the means of production. Columbus' 1492 invasion of the Americas was decisive in this process. The Spanish and Portuguese aristocracies plundered the gold and silver of the native Americans and used this wealth to buy luxuries manufactured by the emerging bourgeoisie of England, France, Holland and Germany.
In order to plunder the gold and silver of the native Americans, and later to expropriate their tribal lands for plantations, the European colonists exterminated enormous numbers of native Americans.
In a period of 50 years from their arrival, the Spanish conquistadors exterminated 15 million people with the aid of introduced diseases like smallpox. Densely populated areas like Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua and the coast of Venezuela were completely depopulated. As a result, the European plantation owners faced an acute shortage of labour.
Some system was necessary to bring workers to the new lands and to force them to work for their masters. At first the landed proprietors relied upon indentured servants or serfs from the mother countries. However, indentured servants proved inadequate: if they ran away, they could not readily be distinguished from free colonists or their masters.
As production on the colonial plantations expanded to meet the needs of growing capitalist industries in Europe, it became increasingly urgent to find new, more abundant and more easily identifiable sources of forced labour. The African slave trade came to the planters' rescue. Slaves could be purchased cheaply and brought in unlimited numbers from Africa.
Moreover, the colour of their skins made them easily identifiable, stopping them from escaping and merging with the rest of the colonial population. The colour of their skins became the sign of servitude. This was the origin of racism.
The view that those with non-white skins were inferior to those with white skins was gradually elaborated to justify the particular form of slave labour that was introduced in the Americas by a rising capitalism.
Chattel slavery and the slave trade existed long before the European conquest of the Americas. The Spaniards in particular were accustomed to enslaving the peoples they conquered. Indeed, Columbus had African slaves in his crew on his first voyage across the Atlantic.
However, serfdom, not chattel slavery, was the basis of Spanish and Portuguese feudal society. Slavery coexisted in the crevices of feudal life.Nor was this slavery justified on racial lines. The differences between slaves and slave-owners were, at first, defined by religion - Christians versus "heathens".
As late as the middle of the 15th century, when the slave trade to Portugal first began, the ideological rationalisation was not that Africans were dark skinned but that they were not Christians.
But a religious distinction could not be frozen over generations. Moreover, the Portuguese and Spanish feudal rulers' social control of colonised peoples depended on their conversion to Christianity. Many Africans during the early slave trade in Portugal did convert, were subsequently freed and intermarried with the Portuguese.
However, once skin colour became a social category implying enslavement, it seemed "natural" for dark-skinned peoples to occupy a subordinate social status. In the racist mode of reasoning, the next logical step was to conclude that, somehow, blacks must have been "naturally" inferior to whites.
Such a view was particularly necessary for justifying slave labour on the capitalist plantations in the southern states of the USA. The existence of white slavery was in contradiction to the bourgeois-democratic ideology enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence ("...all men are created equal... ").
But the enslavement of blacks could be reconciled with bourgeois-democratic ideology through the racist idea that people of African descent were not "men", but "childlike" sub-humans. (A similar argument was used to deny white women equal rights with white adult males.)
Even after the abolition of slavery, racism served the interests of capitalism by justifying the maintenance of a layer of super-exploited wage labourers. In fact, the propagation of racist ideas became more pronounced after the abolition of slavery. The transformation of blacks into a super-exploited layer of wage workers required a system of legalised subjugation (segregation) that would nullify their status as "free" labourers.
Two other factors assisted the advance of racist ideas in the 19th century: the expansion of European capitalism to include huge colonial empires in Asia and Africa, and the development of early theories of human evolution. Gross manipulation of the latter helped justify the new global oppressive relations of imperialism.
In Australia, racism was also used to justify the expropriation of the land from the indigenous inhabitants and the genocidal attacks on these people. This brutal history has left a horrible social legacy to the surviving indigenous Australians.
Today racism lives on as an ideology which justifies continuing racial oppression — institutionalised inequality based on racial categorisation. Some of the contemporary forms of racial oppression are:
- discriminatory employment, channelling certain groups
- into the lowest paid, least secure jobs;
- scapegoating for the capitalist crisis;
- black deaths in custody;
- ghettoisation in housing, schooling and so on.
Racial oppression should be distinguished from national oppression. The latter is not based on the elevation of physical characteristics into social categories, but is institutionalised social inequality based on national origin.
A nation is not a racial group, since it is not formed on the basis of the fetishising of physical features. It is a stable community historically constituted on the basis of a common capitalist economic life, common territory, language and culture.
However, since the rise of western colonialism in the 19th century, the nationalism of imperialist countries has been systematically racialised.
Europeans, North Americans or Australians of "British stock" were presented as superior to Africans, Arabs and Asians because this justified colonial rule and exploitation. Racism was and is used to justify colonial wars: during the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese were labelled "gooks" and "slopes".
Racialisation has been applied by reactionaries to a range of groups to justify their persecution. For example, in Europe the persecution of Jews, a religious group, was racialised by falsely identifying European Jews as members of a Semite racial group (with stereotyped physical characteristics).
The propaganda of the white armies in the Russian Civil War attempted to racialise their Communist opponents by portraying the Bolsheviks as members of the Jewish-Semitic "race", and European fascism justified its reactionary rule with racist theories of Aryan superiority.
Because racism has a material base in social relations, it cannot be combated effectively simply through education or appeals for tolerance. Effective anti-racist campaigns must oppose the actual racist policies being carried out: denial of land rights to Aborigines, racist law enforcement, discrimination in employment, restrictions on the rights of migrants, immigration cuts.
Racism is used as a weapon of divide and rule; this can be thwarted by enlisting the broadest forces in independent mass mobilisations against racist policies.
Racism cannot be completely eliminated until the capitalist system is replaced, because capitalism is built on the oppressive social relations that underlie racism. Capitalism is the rule of an ever shrinking but increasingly wealthy minority. It needs to divide the majority in order to continue its rule, and to do this has to perpetuate racism, sexism and national chauvinism.
After more than two centuries of "democratic" capitalism, the USA has not been able to eliminate racism, yet Cuba, a small and poor Third World country, has eliminated racial oppression. The Cuban Revolution got rid of its capitalist ruling class and in a few years abolished racial discrimination.
However, racist ideas and prejudice cannot be totally abolished through changes in a single country. As long as the world is divided into a few wealthy, predominantly white, exploiter nations and a majority of non-white exploited Third World nations, there will remain a material basis for racism.
Until this exploitative world order is replaced by one based on human solidarity and the priority of making a better world over making corporate profits, the battle against racism will not be over.