Socialist Worker

Racism Where it comes from and what keeps it going

Issue No. 1746

Racism

Where it comes from and what keeps it going

By Kevin Ovenden

FOREIGN SECRETARY Robin Cook rightly denounced the Tories two weeks ago for playing the race card to grab votes. A week later home secretary Jack Straw promised to deport 30,000 asylum seekers in the next 12 months. The official political debate draws little connection between the two. It treats racism in Britain as simply a matter of ignorant ideas held by one ethnic group about another.

It is much more than that. It is systematic discrimination against black people and "outsiders". And the scapegoating of asylum seekers by politicians and the right wing press is creating new forms of racism as well as breathing life into old ones. Racism is not natural. Human societies have existed for thousands of years but racism has been with us only for the last 300 years. It arose with the transatlantic slave trade and the dawn of capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries.

There had been many different civilisations across the globe-in China, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe-up to that point. None of them had systematic discrimination on the basis of race. People were sometimes discriminated against because of their religion. But this ill treatment ended if they changed their religion. Racism is rooted in the history of the huge sugar and tobacco plantations in the Caribbean and North America, which began sucking in millions of slaves from Africa three centuries ago.

Racism came from an effort to justify enslaving black people and to divide them from poor whites, who also worked the plantations. The profits from the slave trade and slave labour were central to fuelling the industrial revolution in Britain. "West Indian money" financed the development of James Watt's steam engine.

The Barclay family got involved in the slave trade in 1756. They went on to found the giant bank which pumps debt repayments out of the Third World today. The rising capitalist class depended on money soaked in the blood of slaves, yet at the same time in Europe preached about formal legal equality and the rights of man.

The slave owners got round the obvious contradiction by claiming that slaves were "naturally inferior". As the capitalist class cemented its control over the economy and state, racist ideas spread.

Pro-capitalist thinkers produced supposedly scientific and philosophical theories to bolster racism. European powers used the idea that people from Africa or Asia were "primitive races" to defend carving up the globe into profitable empires in the 19th century.

SLAVERY AND formal empires have been overthrown. But the racism they bred continues. It is not simply a hangover from the past that can be destroyed through educating ignorance away. Modern capitalism constantly reproduces existing racial divisions and invents new ones.

Capitalism is a dynamic system. It depends on moving workers from one part of the world to another to meet the demand for labour. The last 150 years have seen what one historian has called "the greatest migration of peoples in history". The US working class, for example, is made up almost entirely of immigrants. Capitalism brings together workers from a range of backgrounds. That has enriched everyone's culture and lives. But workers are also forced to compete with one another on the labour market for resources. This provides a seedbed for turning differences between groups of workers into intense racial divisions.

"Native" workers (descendants of earlier immigrants) can be encouraged to blame newcomers for the problems the bosses inflict on both. Employers can fuel this scapegoating by using immigrant workers to undercut indigenous labour. Victorian capitalists deliberately used Irish workers in Britain in that way.

Capitalists can also scapegoat whole groups of immigrants. This does not mean that all the employers sit down together and plan a racist conspiracy. But firms will often employ workers on a segregated basis. The harassment suffered by Ford worker Sukhjit Parma exposed the way management encouraged racism at its Dagenham plant. And there are always establishment figures who seek to whip up racism.

So the history of Britain is a history of immigration, racist scapegoating and resistance to it.

OVER THE last 150 years each group of newcomers to Britain has been subjected to ludicrous scare stories. A report in 1836 said, "The Irish emigration into Britain is an example of a less civilised population spreading themselves, as a kind of substratum, beneath a more civilised community."

The small number of Italian immigrants in the 19th century faced similar bigotry. "The Italians will soon become a standing menace to public health in London," wrote the respectable doctors' journal The Lancet in 1879. There were fanciful stories of unhygienic Italian ice cream sellers poisoning their customers.

In 1905 Tory MP for Fulham W Hayes Fisher spoke of Jews in the same way that the Sun and local papers in Kent talk about Kosovans or Roma Gypsies today. He said, "Just as one river could carry a certain amount of sewage, but not the sewage of the whole kingdom, so one portion of London cannot carry the whole of the pauper and diseased alien immigrants who come into this country." The chief constable of Liverpool told the Home Office a year later that Chinese men "had no difficulty in getting English women to marry them, to cohabit with them or to act the prostitute for them".

Similar bigoted language was dredged up and used against West Indian immigrants in the 1950s. The Times wrote in 1957 that there were dangers for "white girls who become friendly with West Indians to be enticed into hemp smoking. The potential moral danger is significant since the principal motive of the coloured man in smoking hemp is to stimulate his sexual desire."

But in forcing workers to unite to defend their living standards capitalism creates the basis for undermining racism, even as it perpetuates it. So successive generations of newcomers to Britain and those who settled here earlier have whittled away at prejudice. Women today do not fear being drugged and shipped to Shanghai when they go to a Chinese takeaway.

THE OUTRAGE from black and white people over the police racism and incompetence shown during the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence shows how most people do not want to be divided along racial lines. Racism, however, remains. It is concentrated in the institutions of capitalist society.

Black people are five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites. "Non-whites" make up 6 percent of the British population, but 18 percent of those in prison. That institutionalised racism perpetuates the stereotype of young black men as criminals. And new scapegoats are found, as is happening today over asylum seekers.

The ongoing pressures faced by working class people mean some, including people whose parents faced similar scapegoating 30 years ago, can be conned into believing Britain is being "swamped". The result is racism, not only against asylum seekers, but against other immigrant groups as well.

Police figures show an increase in "attacks on ethnic minorities" after politicians make "inflammatory speeches about asylum". Robin Cook praises the multicultural mix that makes up Britain today. But New Labour's own scapegoating of asylum seekers is, as TGWU union leader Bill Morris put it, "giving life to the racists".

Labour has attacked Tory racist scapegoating before. But over the last 40 years it has clamped down on immigration every time it has been in office. The result each time has been to increase racism and encourage the tiny minority of hardened racists to launch physical attacks.


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Sat 5 May 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1746
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