Socialist Worker

The origins of racism

Racism is so embedded in our society that many people assume it has always existed. But, says Yuri Prasad, it is really a modern phenomenon that developed with capitalism

Issue No. 2259

The theory of racism was developed to justify the slave trade in the early days of capitalism. The brutality of slavery is depicted in this 18th century anti-slavery drawing

The theory of racism was developed to justify the slave trade in the early days of capitalism. The brutality of slavery is depicted in this 18th century anti-slavery drawing

The plague of racism continues to scar the world that we live in, even though there is no scientific basis whatsoever for the division of society into races. Race is a social construct that benefits our rulers.

The idea that people with different skin colours have different ideas and interests is a common sense one. The implication of this for many people is that prejudice is natural, and that any attempt to get rid of it is doomed.

If this were true, racism would be a feature of all human societies in history. But this was not the case.

People in the ancient world did not regard skin colour as any more important than hair colour.

Tomb paintings from ancient Egypt depict light, brown and black figures in a fairly random way.

The Greeks and Romans did not believe that white skins were inherently superior. In fact, we can be almost certain that the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was black.

As the Trinidadian Marxist scholar CLR James put it, “Historically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race.

“They had another standard—civilised and barbarian—and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and be black and civilised.”

And early explorers from medieval Europe did not believe their societies were necessarily superior to those that they visited.

In 1600, a Dutch trader entering the city of Benin in west Africa wrote, “The city looks very big when you go into it. The houses in the town stand in good order as our Dutch houses are. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch in cleanliness.

“They wash and scrub their houses so well that these are as polished as a looking glass.”


All sorts of prejudices thrived in pre-capitalist societies, such as the ignorance and suspicion of strangers. But racism differs from these.

Racism exists where an entire group of people are systematically discriminated against on the basis of characteristics they are said to share.

In some, but not all, circumstances the group is defined by certain physical characteristics, like skin colour.

The development of such a structured prejudice did not exist prior to capitalism, and a key phase within it—the transatlantic slave trade.

Forms of slavery had existed in medieval societies all over the world. Between the 10th and 16th centuries, the chief source of slaves in western Europe was eastern Europe—the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav”.

But the slave trade took off on a massive scale when Portugal, Holland, England and France began growing sugar and tobacco in their colonies in the 17th century.

These crops required an enormous amount of labour. At first plantation owners used “indentured servants” from Europe to provide it.

These white-skinned debt-slaves were contracted to work for no wages for three to five years. Few survived that long. Soon the demand for labour was such that owners looked to Africa to supplement their numbers.

By 1653, African slaves in Barbados outnumbered white labourers by almost three to one. And while there were only 22,400 black people in the Southern colonies of North America in 1700, there were 409,500 by 1770.

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.”

The slave traders and owners had previously looked to ancient Greek and Roman texts to justify their actions. These had suggested that the enslavement of those captured in “just wars” was legitimate.


But it was difficult to stretch that definition to the hundreds of thousands now being transported in the most horrific of conditions from Africa.

The thinkers of the European Enlightenment, who held that all men were created equal, were in a quandary.

How could they explain away the fact that their prosperity was based on the enslavement of millions of people—and that those slaves were worked to death?

In addition, there was the problem of white indentured labourers making common cause with slaves and native peoples to run away or attack their masters.

In response, the plantation owners developed laws which outlawed association between white and black people.

A new theory—that black people were not human beings, but were a sub-species more akin to animals, such as monkeys—was developed to justify slavery.

In 1771, the English philosopher David Hume wrote, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites.

“There never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white. No ingenious manufacturers among them, no arts, no sciences.”

He was one of many who gave racism a “scientific” gloss. Soon theories abounded in which all peoples of the earth could be described as “white”, “black”, “brown”, “red” or “yellow”.

These arbitrary categories were then placed in hierarchical order, with whites at the top.

Nevertheless, a powerful movement against slavery grew. On the plantations, rebellions increasingly took on an insurrectionary character.

In slave-holding nations, such as England and France, working class opposition to the trade became increasingly militant.

The planters used the most barbaric repression to deter resistance.

Slaves in Barbados who rebelled were punished by “nailing them down on the ground with crooked sticks on every limb, and then applying fire by degrees from feet and hands, burning them gradually up the head, whereby their pains are extravagant”.

Those whose profits depended on slavery resorted to all manner of slurs in a vain attempt to resist abolition.

Racism did more than justify the oppression of black slaves. It also served as means of dividing the poor by tying the interests of impoverished white farmers to those of the slave‑owning white elite.

Racism offered destitute whites the idea that they were supposedly superior to slaves, even if their conditions were not all that different. This reduced the chances of class conflict.

Frederick Douglass, the great anti-slavery campaigner, noted, “The hostility between the whites and blacks of the [US] South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the poor whites and blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

The “usefulness” of racism to the capitalist class is the chief reason why the ideology survived the end of the slave trade in the 19th century.

It is a means to divide the poor and to divert their attention away from the real causes of their misery.

Now, the domination of the world by a handful of European powers, or Europeanised powers such as the US, was justified by a racist assumption that whites should civilise colonial nations.

According to Rudyard Kipling, the poet of British Empire, this was the “White Man’s Burden”.

Racism got a further 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.


While the forms of racism have changed over the centuries, it remains a fundamental part of capitalist society today.

Despite the great efforts of the bosses, racism was never automatically accepted by the working class—neither in days of slavery nor in much more recent times.

Peter Fryer documents hundreds of acts of resistance to racism in his outstanding book, Staying Power: The history of black people in Britain.

One such episode is a mass meeting organised by radicals in Sheffield in 1794. Thousands of artisans unanimously passed a resolution calling for emancipation of black slaves.

“Wishing to be rid of the weight of oppression under which we groan, we are induced to compassionate those who groan also,” declared the Yorkshiremen, before pledging to “avenge peacefully ages of wrongs done to our Negro Bretheren”.

Since the days of slavery, the battle to “avenge the wrongs” of racism has been a continual theme in British working class politics.

The long tradition of militant resistance to racism remains the best answer to those who try to excuse prejudice by claiming that it is just part of human nature.

Further reading

  • The Making of New World Slavery by Robin Blackburn (Verso)
  • Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer (Pluto Press)
  • Slavery and the origins of racism, by Lance Selfa (International Socialist Review, issue 26—available at
  • The Roots of Racism, by Ann Rogers (Socialist Review, December 1985 (graphics of pages available at

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.