How the rich invented racism
By Iggy Kim and Peter Boyle
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 bourgeoisies 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.