A very brief history of racism - Workers Solidarity Movement

A quick look at the origins of racism in modern society from its roots in the justification of slavery.

Submitted by Steven. on September 11, 2006

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 three 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 usually 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 libertarian communists and social anarchists advocate 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 capitalism’s 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 white and Muslim or black, and native and immigrants or asylum seekers.

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, skin 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However, historical references indicate that class society before capitalism was able, on the whole, to do without this particular form of oppression.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 reasonably well documented 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 in his Modern Politics[1] 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 by the rich and powerful 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 slave-trade abolitionists, and with the decline of the trade itself. 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 continues in industrialised European countries and in America and Australia today. The long boom of British capitalism after the World War 2, 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 the past in England. This form of racism has been fuelled 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 often racist anti-immigration laws (which concentrate on non-white-westerner immigration) are a manifestation of this institutional racism.

In many industrialised countries, bosses used workers of different nationalities and races against each other as scabs to undermine strikes, and attack wages and conditions of all workers, while at the same time aggravating racism in those who blamed their fellow workers rather than the manipulative bosses.[2]

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 usurers 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. 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.

This article has been heavily edited and altered by libcom. It was originally taken from a talk by Trish of the Workers Solidarity Movement. As such it represents the authors opinion alone and may be deliberately provocative in order to start discussion.

1. CLR James archive on the libcom.org library
2. The Industrial Workers of the World union had successes organising workers of all races. A more modern example would be the Dahl Jenson Strike of 1999 in London



16 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by baboon on January 22, 2008

Eight thousand B.C. is ten thousand years ago. Where is racism ten thousand years ago?

Kaze no Kae

15 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Kaze no Kae on December 18, 2008

Actually, what we know of tribal history seems to me to suggest that racism has, in fact, been around for as long as society. In tribal times, people were raised to fear and suspect those from 'rival' tribes (each of which, since it was taboo for members of different tribes to even have contact, quickly developed hereditary physical characteristics unique to the tribe), because it suited the interests of the chieftains to conquer and enslave those tribes and take their land. The primitive oligarchism of tribal society was therefore not only the source of the more advanced oligarchism of feudalism and modern oligarchism in the form of capitalism, but also of racism and of nationalism (which is, in effect, a form of racism, and certainly an evolution of tribalism in the same way that racism is).

So yes, capitalism and racism are heavily interlinked, but not so much in a father-son relationship as more like...cousins. Overthrowing capitalism will of course play a large part in ending racism, just as it will solve or partially solve most of the other problems present in today's society as well, but ultimately to attack racism at its root is not necessarily to fight capitalism, but to emphasize that the characteristic which makes us people and which makes us equal is not a physical one, or a social one, or even a mental one, but the most fundamental characteristic of all - the awareness of one's own existence, and the consequent ability to experience suffering, to experience joy.


12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by notrivia on February 19, 2012

According to some historians roman citizens both in the republic and in the empire, were known for their complex of superiority over 'non-romans'.
This was a major public support for ruthless invasions and exploitation of non-romans.
They nurtured many preconceptions about asians, which don´t differ from the ones nurtured by invading europeans about africans and non-whites in general, during colonization and to some extent (some may say to a great extent), even today.
The mentioned majority of white slaves in greco/roman periods may do with further research, but it can eventually be confirmed by the fact that those civilizations operated mainly in the mediterranean basin, where differences were probably not that substantial (and the romans conquered gaul as well, which was around the corner and acessible by land).
The presence of 'too much' foreigners after the unveiling of the conquering talent was apparently a concern among roman citizens.


12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by petey on February 19, 2012

all nations in the mediterranean (whose records we can get) had robustly bigoted attitudes to the others, the romans were not at all alone in this. that didn't prevent the greek poseidon from spending his spare time at banquets with the ethiopians. slavery was not race-based but was the consequence, mostly, of needing to do something with prisoners of war, or of debt.

just a few other points: gaul is around the corner from italy only on a map and the alps make it quite difficult of access by land. it was not conquered by the romans, it was invaded by caesar with the tiny roman ruling class (never mind anyone else) under threat of killing if they stood in his way. and, the roman colonization scheme was first worked out on other italians before elements of it were used on anyone else.


12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by notrivia on February 19, 2012

In my comment, I didn't suggest romans were more or less than this or that...

I specifically mentioned them, because the article hinted a bit about them in the slavery section, because they were the most ruthless and proeminent empire in the mediterranean saga, with interesting similarities to western societys of today. But about that, I'll let you do your own research.

By the way, the romans considered what is now northern italy as gaul, hence the term 'gallia cisalpina' or 'gallia togata' attributed to that region.
And, 'invading' or 'conquering' a territory (maybe it's a problem of mine, but) is pretty much the same shite.
You can´t really say any of this actions are something like 'just passing by, to say I' do you?
More over, the romans did stay in gaul (including Britain) 'something like, about 500 years'. Well, just call it whatever you want... plus blah, bla, bl, b...


12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by petey on February 20, 2012


Well, just call it whatever you want... plus blah, bla, bl, b...

you made a post, which is full of scattershot claims and generalizations with no specific examples (what preconceptions did the roman nurture of asiatics similar to the ones used today about africans and nonwhites in general?), and when responded to, you avoid the topics challenged and act like you don't take the discussion seriously. that's trolling.
just a few:
britain was never gaul.
the area of gallia cisalpina was incorporated administratively into italy in 41, which reflected its geographical situation. the bulk of what was gaul wasn't 'around the corner' from anything.

they were the most ruthless and proeminent empire

they weren't any more ruthless than anyone else (athenians: melians), and they were most prominent after the carthaginian wars, not before. speaking of ruthlessness, the carthaginians might take the prize.

The mentioned majority of white slaves in greco/roman periods may do with further research

there's been gobs of research on it. the first thing you have to do is show that the greeks/romans thought in terms of "white." for propagandistic purposes greek writers certainly made distinctions between greeks (virile, freedom-loving) and persians (effeminate, subservient). then aeschylus scandalized everyone with his sympathetic portrayal of the persian bereaved. how we're supposed to get a majority greek opinion on aliens, free or slave, out of that, i don't know.

the entire subject of ancient mediterranean slavery in fact lends support to the claims made at the start of the article.


12 years 3 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by notrivia on February 20, 2012

You have great fondness for roman culture which obviously makes you sensitive to related criticism...
You come up with controversy about stuff like terminology (invasion vs conquest).

The romans did consider current north italy and britain as part of gaul (but you didn't even care to check the links made available in my previous comment, so it kind of renders any attempt to display additional info, useless.).

I didn't said romans thought in terms of 'white' but did made distinctons about asians and non-romans, and the italians they conquered did had to wait and fight hard until they were granted citizenship with equal rights.

I'll give you one more reference (which, taking in account your displayed lazyness for checking small articles on wikipedia, I´m sure you'll not give it a go.): Rubicon by Tom Holland. A compreensive exposition of how nazi the goddamn romans were during the republic. And if you follow the thread you may find your way through to disclose the imperial dids.

Oh, I think I got it now...

You need attention.

Well, mine expired, just about now.

jef costello

12 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by jef costello on February 26, 2012

The one thing I noticed about the article is that, certainly at the start, it seems to describe racism as something white people do to others, especially blacks.
Racism may not have existed int he forms that we understand it now, but Greeks and Romans both had cultural ideas of what constituted their civilisations and excluded others from them. Using catch-all terms like barbarians. But then the Roman state was fairly inclusive (in an elitist sense) as it integrated people from captured lands and gave them citizenship, or at least to some, if they 'behaved'. The idea of creating a society and using an external 'other' to reinforce it is fairly basic psychology and pretty widespread. For example with all the palaver about the British Citizenship test, actually defining Britishness was unsurprisingly difficult and ended up failing to exclude large numbers of people that weren't suppose dto make the grade and failing to include large numbers who should have made it in.
In terms of slavery in Ancient Rome I remember reading that at one point a uniform or symbol was proposed to distinguish slaves, but the fear was that slaves would then realise that they were 1/3 of the population. Which certainly suggests that it wasn't visually obvious who slaves were in a fair number of cases. There was a relative amount of movement in the Roman Empire, certainly in the larger cities, which does make me think of the hanging of the monkey in HArtlepool during the napoleonic wars (assuming it ever hapened) as an example of demonisation of enemies. Slavery was done on a wide scale in Ancient Rome, it developed it from the slave taking of tribal wars to the level of tributes and was commercialised. Much as the europeans commercialised the practise in Africa long after it had disappeared in their own countries.
For what it's worth Mediaeval French stuff contains racism but it's largely based around concepts of Frenchness that are mostly limited to the fighting aristocracy. In the context of the wars against muslims in Spain and southern France it is largely the religion that is mentioned although the enemy often takes monstrous forms the darkness of the skin is mentioned but not necessarily a bad thing. Incidentally at this point white skin is not lauded. A man should be red cheeked, a 'clear' (white) face is a bad thing.


12 years 2 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by ssgatkinson on March 4, 2012

Can any one explain the movie or vido of Racism: A history the colour of money: How does the film discuss the historical trajevtory of racism? Specifically,what religious, scientific, and econmic rational was used to justify racism?


9 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by freemind on August 5, 2014

I feel not enough has been stated about the crystallisation of Racism as an ideology especially in the last few hundred years in order to justify slavery.We look at Race as a false division and rightly so but when did this view become ideology and consciously used by the Ruling class to divide us?