Racism and Anti-Racism
Some Examples of Racism
What Is Racism?
Roots of Racism
History of Anti-Racism
Methods of Anti-Racism
Individual ChangeWho Has the Most Responsibility for Change?
Legal and Political Change
Addressing Root Causes
My Ideal Society
"Racism" almost always conjures up visions of white suppression of non-white peoples. There is a long history of "racism," however, among "white" peoples toward other "whites" and among "non-white" peoples toward other "non-whites."
Some Examples of Racism
Some historic "white versus white" racism:
- Norse toward anyone not Norse
- English toward Danes and Germans
- English toward Welsh, Scots, Irish
- "Lowland" Scots vs. Highland Scots
- The division between Quebecois and the rest of Canada
There is racism in Iraq and Syria against ethnic Kurdi, in Pakistan against Tamil, in Indonesia against ethnic Chinese. In India, there is still conflict between Hindu and Sikh; in Indonesia, conflicts between Christian and Muslim in Maluku, Poso, Mataram, Medan, etc. have continued for the last 2-1/2 years.
"Racism" refers to discriminatory practices by the predominantly white social majority against Maoris in New Zealand, against aborigines in Australia.
In the mid-East, "racism" defines the treatment of Israel and Israelis by Arabs and Arab states, and the treatment of Palestinians within Israeli borders, as much or more than "religion" does.
The current conflict in Northern Ireland is a complexity of religious, political and emotional issues. Like conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans, the violence on each side is fueled by bitterness over violence by the other. The root of the conflict goes back to the days of English oppression of the native Irish institutionalized racism.
The intolerance of Serbs toward Albanians in the Balkans made world headlines. Less dramatically publicized is long-standing racist treatment of the Roma (gypsies) in the Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe. In the Holocaust of Germany's Final Solution during the Second World War, Roma were targeted for extermination as viciously as Jews.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the descendants of the "conquering" empires Portugal and Spain rank higher socially and economically than descendants of the indigenous peoples. Latin America also has its own share of racism toward Blacks.
Basque nationalism is proudly racist, defining "a pure Basque" as free of any "taint" of Spanish, Jewish or Arab blood. Sabino de Arana y Giori, founder of the Basque National Party, even developed a new Basque language purged of all Spanish words.
The Basque racism, in turn, is a reaction to Spanish racism: the enforcement of one culture, one language and one people, or as Franco put it, "España, una, grande y libre."
Africans suffering drought, famine, plague and war have claimed that racism obstructs U.S. aid, most recently in the matter of AIDS vaccinations.
Patterns of racism change over time. In the early days of the U.S., Irish immigrants were heavily discriminated against. Both World Wars heightened racism toward "Krauts" in the U.S.; and World War II saw internment of Japanese-American citizens by the U.S. government. Tibetan exiles fleeing the racism of the Chinese invading Tibet found racist treatment in many host countries, too. Islamic students in non-Islamic countries have often experienced racism; it has gotten worse as the actions of Islamic extremists in the mid-East gain more attention.
What Is Racism?
A more universal definition of racism is "Prejudice or discrimination by one group toward others perceived as a different 'race', plus the power to enforce it." Groups may be almost identical physiologically, yet be divided against each other on the basis of culture, language, religion, nationality, or any combination of the above.
Racism requires four elements:
- The belief in separate, definable and recognizable "races."
- The belief that one "race" is superior to others.
- Possession of power by the "superior race" to act against "inferior races" without effective defense or redress.
- Action that is both arbitrary and harmful.
Prejudice that remains an attitude can be emotionally painful and demoralizing, but it is not racism until it is put into action. The actions of individuals, in turn, are harmful to the degree that they are supported by power. Imagine, for example, that a Muslim applied to rent an apartment from a Hindu landlord. If the landlord hates Muslims personally but rents the apartment and treats the tenant on an equal basis with any other in charging rent, maintaining the apartment, etc, that is an example of prejudice but not of racism. If the landlord refuses to rent the apartment to a Muslim, the landlord's action is individual racism, but can be only a temporary setback if it is not supported by the society. If, however, the rest of the tenants and neighbors support the landlord's decision, if no local media find it to be news, if the applicant finds no official avenue for appeal or redress, that is institutionalized racism.
Roots of Racism
Historically, almost every group of human beings who managed to cultivate a cultural identity did so partly by defining themselves as better than any other group, setting sharp boundaries to how much they would interact with other groups (including intermarriage) and limits to how much of their resources and power they would share.
Groups that were isolated by natural borders like the Klingit (Eskimo), native Caribbean tribes, and Australian aborigines did not have to develop traditions of hostility to strangers to protect their tribal identity. Natural obstacles provided all the hostility to invaders they needed; the people themselves could be generous and hospitable to the survivors, who often ended up absorbed into the tribe.
Those with extremely strong cultural identities as, for example, Jews and Roma (gypsies) have been able to exist within other cultures without behaving with hostility, although they have often suffered hostilities. This behavior has changed, however, in the rare times when such a group has found itself in a position of power. In Moorish Spain and in modern Israel, for example, Jews have demonstrated that they can be as violent as anyone else in defense of "cultural identity" persecuting heretic Jews as well as non-Jews.
Defenders of "racism" (who seldom call it "racism") have put forward several motivations:
- "Racial purity," or the maintenance of a cultural identity and status quo.
- Some proponents of "racial purity" maintain that their own "race" is the highest and best, source of all major advances in civilization, and should therefore be kept free of contamination by others.
- Other proponents claim that all ethnic groups have their own value, make their own special contributions to humanity, and therefore should be kept "separate but equal" for the sake of all.
- Control of scarce resources by a group considered to have the most right to them, and/or the ability to best use them.
- Some proponents claim a version of "Social Darwinism" in which "to the victor belong the spoils."
- Other proponents argue the "White Man's Burden." Non-white races do not have the ability to use power or resources responsibly. They must be controlled, resources dealt out to them, as they are "educated" and "civilized." When they have learned to thoroughly emulate white culture, they may share the benefits of it.
- Self-protection. "They outnumber us and if we don't keep them down they'll destroy us."
- Revenge (or "justice.") "They put us down, now the tables are turned."
Opponents analyze the motivations of racism differently:
- Human psychological needs for:
- A scapegoat, someone to project all evil and all fears onto;
- Someone to look down on, so that no matter how low we feel there's somebody lower;
- Certainty that our own religion, laws and way of life are beyond question.
- Perception of scarcity, in land and resources, and a human tendency to prioritize "our people" for such resources.
- Greed. Using arguments of racial and cultural superiority to justify appropriating resources is based not just on true need and fear of scarcity, but more often on greed for excess.
- Power. Racist arguments are used in both the creation and maintenance of power. Tolerance is seen as an threat to power.
- Justification for harm we have done to others.
- Great Britain's economic exploitation of its colonies and subject kingdoms (including Ireland, Scotland and Wales) made it emotionally impossible for them to accept natives of such places as social equals.
- After Blacks had been enslaved, white society had to continue to practice discrimination toward Blacks and evolve "scientific" and "religious" arguments in defense of it.
- For white America to accept Native American culture and citizens as fully equal, it would have had to accept the full weight of guilt for evils committed during the conquest of Native America.
- Fear of retaliation for harm done to others.
- Culturalization and identification. In a racist society, children are brought up with racist assumptions, whether they identify with the "oppressed" or with the "oppressor."
Whatever the roots of racism may be, it tends to perpetuate itelf. A group of people are defined as "lesser" and denied access to resources, then the results of such denial are used to justify defining them as "lesser."
While racism has ancient and complex historical roots, there is also evidence that anti-racism is not solely a product of "modern enlightenment." Human history does not show every human group holding itself aloof from every other group in all ways and at all times. It is, in fact, the ever-shifting pattern of alliances, invasions, migrations, intermarriages and cross-cultural fusions that makes the whole concept of scientifically categorized "races" scientifically suspect and, increasingly, outright rejected. One of the historical high points of racial tolerance was Moorish Spain, when Jews, Arabs and Spaniards together forged a remarkable culture. This history is cited by Basque nationalists to justify their own racism, claiming that Spanish blood is "contaminated" with Jewish and Arab ancestry, and only the Basque region stayed "pure."
There are several methods used to reduce racism and promote tolerance. These include education, changing the attitudes of both "oppressed" and "oppressor"; legal and political change, enforcing equality until it becomes normative behavior; and change to social structures believed to be the root causes of racism. All of these methods include a belief that as more "others" are included in social institutions and power structures, familiarity itself will erode fear and stereotypes.
Some believe that racist behavior stems from racist attitudes and beliefs that can only be changed on the individual level, in individual minds and hearts. Tactics here include public education and changing portrayals of racist minorities in the media, as well as individuals speaking up against demeaning language, jokes, and use of stereotypes, as well as racist violence and racial discrimination.
A corollary to changing the attitudes and beliefs of racists is changing the attitudes and beliefs of people who have been targeted by racism, a refusal to accept being demeaned or discriminated against.
Others believe that racist individuals are the product of a racist society; that the legal and political system must be changed first before social and individual change can follow. The great civil rights campaign in the U.S. in the 1950's and 60's was an expression of this.
Still others search for connecting causes at the root of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, agism, religious intolerance and all other forms of discriminatory behavior, in hopes that addressing the root causes will create the most social change.
One argument proposed by the radical left is that all social discrimination and oppression is the result of an exploitative economic system. Any economic system that creates Haves and Have-Nots will sooner or later create racist justifications for maintaining the status of the Haves over the Have-Nots.
According to some on the radical left, the few who exploit the labor and resources of the many now promote social divisions as a "divide and conquer" strategy. By turning men against women, Black against White, Christian against Muslim, Arab against Jew, young against old, etcetera, they disguise the fact that the true battle is Corporations Against Everybody.
By this argument, a truly socialist economic system will result in eliminating racism and all other -isms.
Socialists are not the only ones, however, who claim that a different economic/social system will eliminate the evils of racism and other discriminatory practices. Libertarians and the followers of Ayn Rand have claimed that a "Real Capitalism" would eliminate such social evils; Democrats and Republicans both claim that a "Real Democracy" will eliminate racism; the Christian Right claims that a real (i.e. Christian) social morality will eliminate racism; communists claim that Real Communism will save us and anarchists claim that Real Anarchism will; etcetera.
A similar argument says that all these -isms, like all other social evils, are the result of humankind's sinful nature. The only cure is the salvation of humanity and the establishment of a society based on religious virtue and/or under religious rule. Christians argue for Christianity as the world's salvation, Muslims argue for Islam, and so on.
Those who believe that all discriminatory -isms are rooted in human psychological insecurities believe the way to eliminate all of them is to focus on raising emotionally healthy and secure individuals with high self-esteem who don't need to feel superior to anyone else. For those who are already adults, we should try to understand them and teach them a more healthy way to deal with their fears and emotional needs. Attacking "racists" as "the enemy" only compounds the problem.
Another approach based on the psychology of racism follows a parallel to the Twelve Step program pioneered by AA. After admitting that racism is a powerful force that has made our lives uncontrollable and that we cannot combat it alone, we must become conscious of our own moral failings (racist assumptions and behaviors) and the harm we have done others, and make amends. Most racial conflicts as between Irish and English, Arabs and Jews cannot heal at this point without both sides acknowledging and apologizing for their own acts.
Another argument says that since human beings try to make their beliefs justify their behavior with at least as much (or more) energy than they make their behavior conform to their beliefs, energetically enforcing non-discriminatory behavior on all fronts and making sure that all individuals are exposed to the widest possible variety of human beings and cultures will eventually erode all racist and discriminatory practices and attitudes. This could be called "behavioral therapy for society."
This is the argument that no oppression can take place without the cooperation of the oppressed. Non-violent resistance has fueled social change "from the bottom up" in India and the United States.
It is a simple fact that whoever has the most power in a given situation bears the most responsibility.
The women of Afghanistan are making a courageous effort to free themselves from Taliban oppression; yet, the Taliban who are in power in Afghanistan cannot blame the conditions of the women of Afghanistan on the women themselves, and if a woman of Afghanistan makes disparaging comments about the men of the Taliban it is not "reverse sexism." The Taliban have placed themselves in power, therefore they have made themselves responsible.
Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans have a right and duty to take their culture, self-esteem and power from a society that has stolen it. White people in Europe, New Zealand, Australia or the United States cannot, however, throw off our own responsibility. We have the advantages of being white in a white culture, whether or not we want or acknowledge them; we also have the responsibility for either changing or maintaining "white culture" whether we want or acknowledge it.
The day that the overwhelming majority of prisoners in jails or penitentiaries are white, far over their percentage in the general population; the day that whites are routinely suspected of crime; the day that Black police officers shoot white suspects and are routinely exonerated; the day that a minority of whites hold any executive position, far below their percentage in the general population: then whites can claim "reverse racism."
Everyone has the right to life, which includes a right to the necessities of life. Our planet is rich enough that there is no reason anyone should live in poverty or go hungry. The resources of the planet and the accumulated knowledge and technology of the human race are the inheritance of every human being, equally. The right to education, the right to free choice, the right to create, and the right to be heard are equally important as the right to food and shelter. The only limitation on the rights of an individual are the rights of other individuals and it is a limitation. No one has the right to increase their own wealth by paying others less than they need to live on. No one has the right to suppress the freedom of anyone on any grounds other than a direct threat to the life and freedom of others; that includes arguments of morality, religion, or politics.
My vision of an ideal society is one in which every person has equal access to the resources of society and an equal voice in making decisions that will affect them, participates fully in social institutions, has a free choice in what work to do, where and how to live, how to worship or not to worship, who to marry or not to marry.
I regard every person's difference as a gift to me. I have learned to appreciate behavior that I considered "wrong" according to the culture I was raised in: the body language in way someone sits in their chair, looks in my eyes or away, or stands close to me; the way they walk or talk or the music they listen to; their religious or scientific belief system; even the way they perceive "reality." I have also learned to not consider my own speech, beliefs, dress or behavior "wrong" because it is different.
It is my hope that in the Ideal Society everyone will be free to express their own culture, adopt another, fuse and meld and develop new cultures, without the fear of "losing identity." We are living organisms. We can be completely different from one year to the next and still be ourselves. That's being human.