A new poll last week showed that social attitudes in Britain have become more anti-racist over the last five years. For example, it found that 53 percent of people thought most white peo ple would not mind if a close relative married a black person. Five years ago just 21 percent of people said they would not mind. The poll confirmed the findings of other recent surveys, which also show declining racist attitudes.
Home secretary Jack Straw welcomed the poll's findings. But he said that although the level of prejudice could be reduced racism could never be eradicated. His pessimism is based on the mistaken idea that racism is somehow part of human nature and will always reappear. However, the fact that, as last week's poll showed, the level of racism in society can go up and down suggests that racist prejudice is not fixed in human nature.
Indeed, racism is a very recent development if you look at the history of the human species. It was born with capitalism to justify the enslavement of millions of Africans who laboured on the plantations. Slave labour provided the profits for the growth of industry. Of course, other forms of oppression have existed in other class societies. But they were not based on inherited characteristics such as skin colour. From the beginning racism played a crucial role for the capitalist system. It encouraged white servants to identify with their masters rather than with black slaves.
That divide and rule tactic continues to keep racism going today. Capitalism has developed unevenly across the globe. Each burst of growth has depended on people uprooting themselves and moving to another part of the world to satisfy the demand for labour. The US grew through mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. British capitalism depended on immigration in the 1950s and 1960s.
This immigration has a contradictory effect. It provides the basis for overcoming racist superstitions. Britain is far more integrated today than in the 1950s. For example, there are more mixed marriages, more young white people identify with black music, and black and white people work and live alongside one another.
But scapegoating ideas can also gain a hearing. White workers can be encouraged to blame black workers for the decline of services, rising unemployment or other problems they face. Workers who came to Britain earlier can blame newer arrivals, often refu gees, in the same way. Such ideas can grow, particularly in periods of economic crisis or when workers do not feel confident to mount a collective fight against their bosses. So capitalism creates the potential to undermine racism but constantly regenerates it.
Right wing politicians can also deliberately stoke up racism. The likes of Jack Straw can then cave in to the scapegoating by, for example, passing harsher measures against asylum seekers, reinforcing the idea that recent immigrants into Britain are a problem. Racist attitudes have declined in Britain because there have been huge, successful battles against racism over the last three decades. Black and white workers have also united in common struggles against attacks on their living standards from governments and employers. They have confronted institutions, such as the police, which perpetuate racism and division.
But for so long as capitalism exists, workers will be pitted against one another. That provides a seedbed for racist ideas. If you do not believe there is an alternative to capitalism, then Jack Straw is right-racism is a permanent feature of society. But there is nothing natural about a society based on grotesque inequality and crazy competition between people. In a socialist society people would collectively allocate resources to those who need them.
Achieving it requires a united struggle by workers to overthrow the capitalists who exploit them. That in itself would deal a body blow to racist ideas as workers of all backgrounds see they have more in common with one another than with any group of bosses. The irrational ideas which seem natural in capitalist society would not all disappear overnight.
But they would rapidly be undermined by the way people would live in a society run in the interests of all. The whole thrust of society would be for equality and freedom rather than protecting the power of an elite. Under such circumstances those racist prejudices that remained would be among the first rotten ideas to disappear completely.