Socialist Worker

The beginning of racism

Issue No. 2043

Racism as we know it today developed during the Atlantic slave trade. In the 17th century it emerged in its roughest form in the mouths of the plantation owners who wanted to justify their treatment of the slaves.

The planters had both a moral and a theological problem. Their reading of the Bible led them to believe that good Christian men could not be involved in the enslavement of other men.

Their solution was to suggest that black people were not human beings, but a form of animal.

By the 18th century racism was being refined and put in print by those who wanted to justify slavery against the growing movement in opposition to the trade.

Peter Fryer, the outstanding historian of black people in Britain, describes racism as “a largely defensive ideology – the weapon of a class whose wealth, way of life, and power were under mounting attack”.

In 1753 the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume declared, “I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites.”

It is a common argument that slavery was the result of a racist worldview.

Black historian Eric Williams challenged this. He wrote, “Slavery was not born of racism – rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

That this new ideology emerged as the justification for slavery shows that racism is not an ever-present and unchanging set of ideas in human history.

The division of humanity into a hierarchy of races was not a feature of ancient Rome or ancient Greece. Their societies had both black citizens and black slaves, and white citizens and white slaves.

Racism, as a body of ideas, was to survive and thrive after the abolition of slavery. It got a theoretical boost from a form of “science” that distorted Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Now the different races were said to be suited to differing roles in society because of a difference in their biologies. This new variation of racism helped to justify colonial rule.

Despite the widespread promotion of these views, there were always people who were prepared to speak out against racism.

Fryer describes the East End of London in the 17th century as an area in which slave owners feared to go in search of their runaway slaves, because the slaves would surely be protected by “the mob”.

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