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The Source of Racism

IN RECENT YEARS a number of theories have been advanced to explain racism in Britain. Many of these concentrate on the post-war period alleging for example that what is called 'British society' erected barriers of discrimination to prevent newly arrived immigrants competing for scarce resources. They therefore claim that racism is an inevitable consequence of competition for housing, jobs, etc.. Other theories openly blame ordinary people by alleging that white people are to blame, that only whites are racist and the issue is simply a need to change behaviour. This view is often linked to the idea that only black people can deal with the problem of racism.

Problem of ethnicity

Some other theories suggest that minorities are the problem, that our cultures are not compatible with British life, that we must become assimilated and integrated, that we are not really British. Or it is claimed that we have inherently unstable families and that this is the problem. Some say that the problem is one of the 'ethnicity' of those born in Britain being 'between two cultures'. Or that we 'feel discriminated against' by the police etc.

All of these theories have certain characteristics in common; they blame ordinary people for racism and they ignore the actions of the state and Britain's entire modern history.

[Modern racism, both as an ideology and a practice in Britain, developed long before the period of mass post-war immigration]

Modern racism, both as an ideology and a practice in Britain, developed long before the period of mass post-war immigration. It emerged as part of the development of the modern state, and the rule of the capitalist class as a necessary justification and consequence of the conquest and enslavement of other nations and peoples including the Irish, Welsh and Scots, as well as the peoples of Africa and Asia. Racism was an integral part of Britain's acquisition of an empire, an ideology developed by the pseudo-scientists, theologians and philosophers of the bourgeoisie.

Bourgeois philosophy

By the 17th century the idea of the innate inferiority of non-Europeans was, for example, prominent in the philosopher John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.(1690) Similar views were expressed by the philosopher David Hume in 1753 in his essay Of National Character. Hume wrote amongst other things, 'I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all the other species of men, for there are 4 or 5 different kinds, to be naturally inferior to the whites'. Naturally such ideas were reproduced even more zealously by those engaged in slavery, the slave trade and colonial conquest.

Survival of the fittest

By the 19th century, phrenology (the study of skulls) and anthropology produced hierarchies of so-called races. The qualities of the inferior ones including the Irish were their inability to rule themselves. The Anthropological Society in London were active developing such theories in defence of repression in Jamaica after the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. The notion of the survival of the fittest 'races' and of the 'white man's burden' to 'civilise' the rest of the world were developed to justify colonial conquest and the annihilation of whole peoples such as the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Support for Empire

A group of Lascar seamen probably at East India Dock, 1908.
In this sense the origin and nature of racism seems fairly clear and the British Empire was ruled on this basis. Racism was clearly developed and utilised by the British ruling class not just in the empire but in Britain itself. It is clear that one way in which it was used was to promote widespread chauvinism and support for the empire amongst sections of the population. During the colonial period, the colonial status of those from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean was maintained in Britain by a widespread colour bar in accommodation and public places and by openly racist laws such as the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, which prohibited Indian seamen from becoming British subjects and allowed for their deportation. Most importantly this meant that Lascars (the name given to such seamen) could be paid discriminatory wages and employed as cheap labour. Such pay was legalised by the Aliens Restriction Act of 1919. Similar attacks were launched by other legislation such as the Coloured Alien Seamen's Order of 1925.

What is significant here is that again it was the British state which organised such discrimination and created the conditions for racist attacks such as those which occurred throughout Britain's ports in 1919. In this they were aided by actions of the leaders of some unions and by the TUC and by the employment practices of the major shipping companies. The 1919 riots were also clearly organised to create diversion and splits amongst workers in Britain's ports at a time when workers struggles were becoming more significant in the years leading up to the general strike of 1926.

Centuries of historical evidence

State racism linked as it was to the preservation of the empire and to the role assigned to colonial labour was therefore evident long before the period of post-war immigration. In the earlier years of post-war migration discrimination in employment, housing, wages etc. persisted and were widespread. Not until 1965 was such discrimination first made illegal. But many theories of racism make no or little mention of the state or how the rulers of Britain in particular benefit from racism politically and economically, even though there are centuries of historical evidence. In the post-war period it has again been the state, politicians, the media, as well as the fascist organisations who have been at the forefront of the development of racism.

* First published in Issue 1 of Progress, March 1996 website: http://www.acprogress.org/

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