- a talk given by Trish on October 19, 1994
Any discussion of Racism needs to examine the roots of Racism in order to understand it and to struggle against it effectively. There are basically 3 explanations for the existence of racism.
The dominant view which is rarely expressed as a worked out theory but rather operates at the level of assumptions is that racism is an irrational response to difference which cause some people with white skin to have hateful attitudes to people with black skin which sometimes leads to violent and evil actions. People who have this understanding of racism advocate awareness and education as a way of preventing the practice of racism.
The second view is that racism is endemic in white society and that the only solution is for black people to organise "Themselves separately from whites " in order to defend themselves and to protect their interests.
The third view and the one which I am advocating is an explanation of racism based on a materialist perspective, which views racism as a historically specific and materially caused phenomenon. Racism is a product of capitalism. It grew out of early capitalisms' use of slaves for the plantations of the new world, it was consolidated in order to justify western and white domination of the rest of the world and it flourishes today as a means of dividing the working class between insiders and outsiders, native and immigrants and settled and Travellor in the Irish context.
It is necessary to examine the underlying assumptions about racism in more detail in order to arrive at the materialist analysis of it. Racism is commonly assumed to be as old as society itself. However this does not stand up to historical examination. Racism is a particular form of oppression: discrimination against people on the grounds that some inherited characteristic, for example, colour, makes them inferior to their oppressors.
However, historical references indicate that class society before capitalism was able, on the whole, to do without this particular form of oppression. Bad as the society of classical Greece and Rome were it is historically pretty well proven that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. Slaves were both black and white and in fact the majority of slaves were white. The first clear evidence of racism occurred at the end of the 16th century with the start of the slave trade from Africa to Britain and to America.
CLR James Modern Politics writes that 'the conception of dividing people by race begins with its slave trade. Thus this (the slave trade) was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religious and philosophers had . . .the only justifications by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that Africans were an inferior race"
So racism was formed as an attempt to justify the most appalling and inhuman treatment of black people in the time of the greatest accumulation of material wealth the world had seen until then.
By the end of the 17th century, racism had become an established, systematic and conscious justification for the most degrading forms of slavery.
The justification of slavery by an ideology of racism started to fade under attack by abolotionists and with the decline of the slave trade. Racism, however took on a new form as a justification for the ideology of imperialism. This racism of empire was dominant for over a century from the 1840's on. Concepts such as the "white man's burden" became fashionable especially in England where British Colonialists liked to cast themselves as father and mother with a clear duty to take responsibility for the material and spiritual well-being of their 'colonial' children. Racism became the ideological justification of capitalism's expansion into conquering countries, plundering their wealth and exploiting the natives.
When white imperialism was at its height, a new expression of racism was taking shape - that is anti-immigrant racism which was typified in England by racist opposition to new immigrants from Ireland. The expansion of capitalism required the importation of foreign workers, a trend which continued in industrialised European countries and in America and Australia up to the 1980's. The long boom of British capitalism after the 2nd world war, for example, encouraged the immigration of West Indians and Asians to Britain. These so called foreign workers provided the employers with the basis for encouraging a split within the workforce.
The same happened in Germany with the immigration of Turkish workers, and the same kind of anti-immigrant agitation emerged in many other European countries and is the main focus of racism in these countries today. Racial attacks on non-white immigrants and on Gypsies have become almost commonplace in parts of Germany and in England. This form of racism has been fueled by economic crisis and by capitalism's need to find a convenient scapegoat for unemployment, housing shortages and every other problem which the current crisis of capitalism has thrown up. Immigration controls, and racist anti-immigration laws have grown up in response to this expression of racism.
On this point, people should be aware that Ireland has the worst immigrant laws in Europe and that they are specifically racist and have been used to exclude non-whites and Jews from this country on many occasions.
Racism and anti semitism
Anti semitism is generally considered to be a variety of racism. It has taken different forms over the centuries, being justified on religious grounds during the middle ages, for example. Ruth Benedict argues "during the middle ages persecutions of the Jews, like all medieval persecutions were religious rather than racial. As racist persecutions replaced religious persecutions in Europe, however, the inferiority of the Jew became that of race".
As recent anti semitism took hold in Europe in the 1890's, Jews started to be attacked not for what they did but for what their forefathers were. This is what racial anti-semitism means. This kind of anti-semitism found an echo in some parts of the working class where Jews were identified as capitalist parasites and userors even though the reality in Britain, anyway, was that most Jews were in fact workers. Racial anti-semitism was a useful way to deflect attacks for the real problems created by capitalism in general.
Anti semitism and racism are not an essential component of fascism which is essentially a mass movement of the middle class and petit bourgeois built in periods of defeat for the working class when even the most basic trade union organisation is a threat to profits of capital.
In Italy, for example, Jews were encouraged to join the fascist party in its early days.
In Germany, however, the economic condition were ripe for the growth of anti semitism. Leon argues that "the economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty bourgeois masses into a hopless situation . . . the petty bourgeois regarded their Jewish competitors with growing hostility." Jewish capital was attacked by the Nazis which appealed to the anti-capitalist instinct of German workers and support for Hitler's Nazi Party rocketed. Anti Semitism was also an important part of a Nazi racial philosophy which justified 'Aryan' supremacy and the need to develop 'Aryan' racial purity.
The Nazi holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered alongside an equal number condemned either as political opponents of Hitler or as members of other 'inferior' groups such as Slavs, gays, Gypsies and the mentally ill represented racism and capitalism in their most extreme and barbarous form.
Race and Culture The concept of race or racial difference is essentially an artificial one as all of humanity is actually the one race. In recent times, the concept of culture has been used to discriminate against groups of people when racial discrimination was officially outlawed.
Culture is essentially the way that different group of people acquire a particular world view, a way of making sense of the world from particular social, economic, environmental and demographic conditions. Cultures are not static, they change all the time in response to a wide variety of factors.
Racists sometimes argue "I have nothing against Asians or Blacks as people, it's just that their culture is incompatible with the British/German/French way of life." This is a nonsense argument as all groups of people have a culture and their culture is an essential part of what they are as is their skin colour. Likewise, some anti-racist work especially in schools adopts a "colour blind" approach to the issue and introduce pupils to the more exotic and acceptable aspects of non-white culture while ignoring the materialist nature of racism. This is known as the "saris and samosas" style of anti-racist work and is obviously of very limited use.
Racism which is focussed on a hatred of another groups culture, as it is in the case of Travellors and Gypsies, is sometimes harder to identify clearly as racism because the victims are sometimes white. However, the power relationship which is one of domination and oppression is the key to identifying the reality of racism in these situations.
Response and strategies for fighting racism
The strategies adopted to fight racism depend on the analysis. They basically break down into reformist strategies and revolutionary ones.
The American experience illustrates some of the strategies that have been used. Militant civil rights campaigns such as those which took place in the 1960's in America with leaders such as Martin Luther King succeeded in gaining basic civil rights for black and in forcing the dismantling of the worst forms of institutional racism. It involved mass civil disobedience and voter registration campaigns.
However, the leaders of the movement were middle class with no concept of the need for working class unity. Although many very worthwhile reforms were won, racism remained very mush part of American society. Another more radical strategy associated with Malcolm X was that of black nationalism and black separatism. Racism is defined as endemic to white so like that of the unemployed in the fifties. The Irish National Organisiation of the Unemployed is entirely dominated by Union hacks, poverty pimps, CV tripers and time servers.
We should not be entirely pessemistic. We know that things can change quick, fast and in a hurry. The massive mobilisiation in the case of the autorney general Versus the X case and the climbdown it caused is ample proof of this. We can't afford to throw up our hands and give up on activism. We must not retreat into the realmhe roots of racism in this strategy.
As revolutionaries, we recognise the material basis of racism and its use under capitalism to divide workers, set foreign workers against natives and to provide convenient scapegoats for all the problems capitalism produces. It can only be defeated by a class based strategy which aims to unite non-white and white workers in a struggle for anarchism.
Finally, it is important for us to be aware of the devastating effects of racism at a personal and at a community level. To be black, Asian, a Travellor or a member of an ethnic or cultural minority in most Western countries is a debilitating experience.
Racism shatters individuals self confidence and self image and leads to poor mental and physical health. It can destroy communities subjected to it as it almost has done in the case of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, for example.
For this reason, it is important to challenge individual acts of racism when we come across them as well as campaigning politically against it.