New Internationalist

Racism Then And Now

Issue 145

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[image, unknown] Racism then
and now

Racism first arose out of the white desire to exploit black people economically - and it is maintained today for much the same reasons.

We cannot understand racism without looking back into history.

Paul Gordon and Chris Brazier are our guides.

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1
There were of course black or indigenous peoples in Australasia and North America long before there were whites. But few people realise that there were black people in Britain before the English (or Anglo-Saxons) arrived - black soldiers in the Roman army helped to pacify and ‘civilise’ the ‘barbaric’ natives. And there was a continuous black presence in Britain from the sixteenth century onwards - Sir Walter Raleigh’s wife started a trend by having an imported African servant and this became highly fashionable in the course of the next hundred years. Certainly there was racial prejudice at this time - wild notions about people who looked so obviously different and came from a world away. But racism - an ideology which bundled up prejudices into a package to ‘prove’ that black people were inferior - didn’t come about until it became economicallyuseful forwhite people to believe such a thing. That time came with slavery.
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2
Racism emerged out of the rise in the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Black people could be bought and sold like property and treated - or maltreated - as their owners wished, because they were regarded as something less than human. The basis for this idea already existed in European culture in general and in Catholicism in particular, which held that those who were not believers in the ‘one, true church’ were inferior beings. Around this in the era of slavery a whole system of beliefs was erected which attempted to prove that blacks were less intelligent than whites, with smaller brains and a capacity only for manual labour. They were seen, moreover, as uncivilised and barbaric. The existence of the great black civilisations has been hidden from history - right down to the present day.
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The abolition of slavery didn’t come about because people like William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln were liberal and philanthropic. It was rather because it ceased to be profitable and stood in the way of economic development. Slaves were expensive to control, and developing capitalist economies needed a free market in labour and a population which could afford to buy the goods now being produced in factories. Slaves, who were not a mobile workforce and had no wages with which to buy commodities, obviously didn’t fit this bill and thus stood in the way of ‘economic progress’. This is what was behind the American Civil War - not the North’s humanitarianism but instead their wish to industrialise and challengethe power of the Southern plantation-owners. Slavery was replaced with wage labour - and the US Constitution continued to regard black people as only three-fifths human.
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From peace to slaughter. Three pictures that hint at the tragic story of Australia’s aborigines: a quiet rural settlement in Queensland; the first contact with British settlers; and Truganini, last female left in Tasmania after the black population had been wiped out by whites (she died in 1876).
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In the colonial empires of the British, French, Belgian, German and Dutch, racism continued unabated to justify the ruthless exploitation of millions of people throughout the world. This plunder of natural and human resources financed industrial growth in Europe - and the notion that black people needed a firm white hand to guide them even allowed the Europeans to feel good about the theft.

Colonialism is now over - but it is no longer necessary to rule others in order to exploit them. It is partly our racism, our enduring sense of black people as somehow inferior and uncivilised, which allows the rich world to go on exploiting the poor.

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In the years after the Second World War, racism really came home to Europe. In North America and Australasia there had always been a large black population suffering alongside the white, but it was only when mass labour was needed for the post-war reconstruction that black immigration to Europe took off. Britain had a ready source of cheap labour in the colonies, and the new immigrants were given the jobs white people refused - dirty, ill-paid work, night shifts and dead-end jobs. The country had not paid to raise, educate or house these people yet everybody made money out of them - landlords, employers, and the Government through taxes.
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7

Racism is not a historical relic thatwe have outgrown. In Australia and Britain, Canada and the US, racism continues to leave black people more likely to be unemployed and for longer, eaming less money in lower-status jobs, living in worse housing and more liable to physical attack. And in Europe the terms of the discussion have shifted from immigration control (keeping black people out) to repatriation (getting rid of those already there).

We cannot understand racism without looking into history, but we should realise that future generations will look back on the Eighties as a time when racism was alive - and kicking viciously.

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