I once interviewed Bob Marley. My editor’s idea was to send someone who wasn’t a fan, who wouldn’t write in hushed tones about the latest insights of the man who put Third World music on the popular map. And I obliged with a piece that poured incredulous scorn on Marley’s head for his faith in Rastafarianism and even slightly ridiculed the way he talked - he was spicing his speech with Jamaican patois and I found it quite difficult to understand. The editor loved it, naturally -- but it was shot through with racism. Yet at the time I would have considered myself a passionate opponent of racism, campaigning against it both in print and on the streets.
There’s nothing unusual in this - white people often think they’re ‘against’ racism without understanding it or their own contribution to it. And this issue of the New Internationalist may well be making the same mistake, hard though we may try to avoid it. It is an issue written by white people for white people - none of the contributors is black. This is not to deny the black perspective - on the contrary, black voices should be heard and acknowledged much more than they are now. But this magazine is a conscious attempt to acknowledge that racism is a white problem - our problem, and I apologise here to any black readers for addressing the magazine throughout to the white people who make up virtually all of the New Internationalist’s subscribers.
We tend to think of racism as something perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan or the National Front - by ’another kind of person’. crop-headed, red-necked and aggressive in their pathetic notions of white superiority. That’s a very comfortable view. Certainly no one should play down the pernicious effects of the extreme Right. But it is not the small fascist organizations which cause black people to die 20 years earlier than whites in Australia; which leave them twice as likely to be unemployed in Britain; which make their income two-thirds that of whites in Canada. The racism that does this damage, that hems black people in on all sides, is woven into the fabric of our societies. And if we are silent about this we are condoning it. It’s time we woke up to what racism really means.
For a start there is no such thing as a ‘race’. The human family. is not split up into different, self-contained racial types - caucasian, mongoloid and negroid. That was a piece of pseudo-scientific racism which helped whites to persuade themselves that black people were fundamentally different.
Racism is discrimination based neither on ethnic type nor geographical origin but on colour. This makes it, along with sex, the most basic form of discrimination because it is so immediately visible. As one college lecturer put it: ‘inside the college I am respected as a teacher, recognised for my individual qualities and responsibilities. But as soon as I walk out to the bus stop I’m just another wog, just another coon.’ And throughout this magazine the word ‘black’ is used to refer to any non-white group, whether it be Africans in Britain, native Indians in Canada or Vietnamese in Australia - ‘black’ has become a political term rather than a description of skin colour.
In the second place, racism is not the same as ‘racial prejudice’. People have always had wild ideas about other humans who looked and talked differently. As long ago as AD70 the Roman writer Pliny the Elder was retailing weird and wonderful tales about Ethiopians with no noses and other Africans with eyes in the middle of their foreheads or mouths in their breasts. Prejudice emerges out of ignorance, and it thrived in a geographically isolated place like seventeenth-century England, which had no real contact with black people. But racial prejudice on its own shouldn’t have lasted any longer than other irrational oral traditions and should have been dispelled by more frequent contact with Africans. Racism, on the other hand, which wove those prejudices into a pseudo-science, has been going strong for 200 years and is still a ruling force in a world of mass communications, where geographical isolation is now almost impossible.
Racism came into being in eighteenth-century Britain because it was economically useful. The first merchants who entered the slave trade weren’t doing so because they were prejudiced against Africans - they did it to make money. But once that foundation of economic profit had been laid it became very useful to think of black people as inferior, as not altogether human. So all those ignorant rumours about black people’s savagery and stupidity coagulated into a set of beliefs, an ideology that justified slavery and, later on, colonial empires. As the historian Peter Fryer has written, in his important book Staying Power: ‘Racism is to race prejudice as dogma is to superstition ... The primary functions of race prejudice are cultural and psychological. The primary functions of racism are economic and political.’
Just as racism was born out of slavery, so it was the cornerstone of colonial expansion. Fundamental to British imperialism was the notion that it was a noble cause, that white supremacy was synonymous with human progress. And once Darwin’s ideas about evolution had been published they were seen as proof of the scientific truth of racism - white people had evolved to the highest, even the ideal, state. Black people had to be oppressed or even destroyed for humanity to ~ stride onward into the ever-brighter, ever-whiter future. This was also the idea that ~ American settlers had about native Indians - extermination was nature’s way of making room for a higher race. And it was the same idea that justified the genocide of aboriginal people in Tasmania. Charles Kingsley, revered Victorian author of Westward Ho! and The Water Babies, wrote that ‘the welfare of the Teutonic (white) race is the welfare of the world’ while ‘degenerate races’ were better off dead. ‘Prove that it is human life,’ he wrote. ‘It is beast- life.’ He was rewarded for his views by being made chaplain to Queen Victoria and professor of modern history at Cambridge.
Nor was he the only racist among the great British philosophers and writers - Locke, Hume and Carlyle all insisted that black people were inferior, while Dickens, Arnold, Tennyson, Ruskin and Trollope banded together to defend Governor Eyre of Jamaica. Eyre had taken revenge after a slave rebellion by killing 439 black people, flogging 600 others and burning 1000 homes. Dickens and the others claimed Eyre as the saviour of the West Indies and campaigned to get him a seat in the House of Lords.
I mention this not so that we can pat ourselves on the back and think how far we’ve progressed since those grim Victorian days but rather to give some idea of how deeply racism is ingrained in our culture. We still call these men geniuses, acclaim their insights into the human condition. Yet they were thorough-going racists who justified murder.
Like them, we are racist because we benefit economically from being so. Racism has always been at the service of economic exploitation. When Britain needed all the labour it could get to start anew after World War Two, Tory minister Enoch Powell invited thousands of black people over from the Caribbean colonies. Yet as soon as there was no longer any economic need for their labour he became the country’s most famous racist, campaigning for ‘repatriation’. And far from being dismissed his ideas have become common currency - immigration restrictions have become so accepted that they have ceased to be a debateable issue. The question is no longer ‘should we keep black people out?’ but rather ‘how many black people should we keep out?’ And repatriation is no longer just the daydream of the far Right - it is already in action in West Germany and France, in the latter under a government supposedly of the Left.
Racism always becomes more virulent when times are hard - in declining inner city areas when jobs become scarce and money tight, frustration is vented on the most available scapegoats, the black population. My next-door neighbours in London, people of Indian origin from Mauritius, never answer the door unless there is a man in the house. Their fear of attack, their sense of being under siege, is permanent and all-pervasive - and it is a story being repeated in all the West’s cities.
Accepting that racism is our responsibility means dispensing with the old idea that ‘the race problem’ is black people’s refusal to assimilate’ or ‘integrate’. According to this notion, black people should do all they can to fit in, accept white values and not cause the status quo any trouble. But integration with a white majority that holds all the economic and institutional power can only be on white terms. And how can a black person be expected to take on the attitudes of a white society which believes that she is inferior?
Too many people still believe in assimilation, but it has at least been discredited in liberal circles. What has succeeded it is ‘multiculturalism’, the belief that the way to combat racism is to acknowledge the traditions of the black community, to offer them pride in their cultural heritage. In Australia, for instance, there has been a burgeoning interest in traditional aboriginal rituals, a readiness to accept that these shouldn’t be squashed by the juggernaut of European culture.
But this isn’t enough. If ‘racial prejudice’ still existed in isolation then this kind of approach might work wonders. But stopping the offence to black people’s dignity is not going to reduce the material damage done to their lives. Only political and economic change can do that. And anti-racism is an unashamedly political cause which seeks that change.
Later in this issue we offer a few suggestions for anti-racist action. This doesn’t just mean challenging ourselves and the other people we meet - it also involves doing all we can to change the places where we work or have some power. And that means putting forward practical proposals for advancing the black cause, not just pious acceptance of the principle of ’equal opportunities’. Simply getting more black people into positions of power, whether in your workplace or in your political party, will make some difference.
To be genuinely anti-racist we have to take action ourselves - but we must also understand that it is necessary for black people to organise themselves independently. White people often find this hard to accept - and the British Labour Party is a classic current example. There has never been a black Labour Member of Parliament, and the Party’s record on immigration is appalling.
Frustrated by this impasse, black people are now agitating for their own section within the Party, and for politicians in some areas to stand down in favour of black candidates. It is not such an extraordinary demand - black caucuses are an accepted fact of American political life, for instance. Yet all the usual conservative arguments are wheeled out - the same ones put by those same white men to women. ‘You should work for change from within’. ‘You’ll create a ghetto for yourselves’. The reality is that black protest at the moment can be contained, whereas change would threaten people’s power. People with power never change unless pressurised into it - divine light will not descend from heaven to change their minds. Separate black organisations provide that pressure. I am only writing this now. I only care enough about it because of the way black people have challenged racism.
In short, we have to make racism matter to us, to put it much farther up our personal agendas, instead of just thinking ‘I’m against it’ and doing nothing. The cause of anti-racism is not just the cause of the black minorities in our own countries or of the black majority in South Africa; it is the cause of the millions in Africa, Asia and Latin America still suffering from the legacy of the exploitation that produced our wealth as well as our racism. It’s up to us. Not to fly down from the sky in our chariot, making things right, reaching out our hands to the poor, helpless blacks - that’s just the other, paternalist side of the same old racist coin. But to listen to what black people have to say, to respond to their initiatives and to work with them for social change.
The great Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James once said ‘The blacks will know as friends only those whites who are fighting in the ranks beside them. And whites will be there’. We have yet to prove him right.
This special report appeared in the black or white - the origins of racism issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.