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What is racism and why must we fight it?

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on the 'Where We Stand' Socialist Workers Party statement of principles printed each week in Socialist Worker
Issue 1892

Socialism depends on workers overcoming the divisions within their own ranks. The most virulent of these divisions is racism, in all its forms. The racism of Hitler and the Nazis produced the organised mass murder of millions of Jews and Gypsies in the 1940s. What is racism?

At root, it means making physical or cultural differences between people into a basis for treating them differently. It can involve skin colour, or language, or religion. In politics, racism is always a basis for reaction. Racism is a way of diverting people’s attention from the causes of their problems, and finding a ‘scapegoat’ in some other group.

I was recently shown a leaflet the British National Party has been putting out in north Manchester. It is based on an article by BNP leader Nick Griffin. It’s a classic racist leaflet.

It begins by describing a woman pensioner who suffers from bad housing and poverty. Are there such pensioners? There are indeed, in large numbers. But does the leaflet attack the causes of bad housing and poverty? Does it attack the vast inequalities in society? Does it suggest pensions should rise? Not at all!

Instead, it says, if only the poor pensioner could apply for asylum! It goes on and on about how the government sets minimum provisions for landlords who house asylum seekers at a profit. They have to provide TV! They must clean their windows four times a year! Of course, the BNP’s leaflet doesn’t mention that asylum seekers are denied the right to work.

It says nothing about the government casting them into complete destitution, or threatening to take away their children. What does the BNP leaflet set out to do? To stir up resentment among one section of the poor against another.

It suggests nothing that will help the plight of pensioners. It pretends sympathy for them, but offers them nothing but hate for strangers. Who will benefit from the BNP’s argument? Not the pensioners, for certain. They need a big pension increase, financed from taxation on the rich. To win that, we need a strong and united working-class campaign-the very thing the BNP fascists most hate and fear.

Fascists like the BNP may be the worst, but they’re not the only racists. The home secretary, David Blunkett, is not a fascist, but his endless attacks on asylum seekers are racist to the core. Indeed, they help the BNP. Racism invents differences between working people, to divide them.

Racism doesn’t even benefit ‘privileged’ groups it claims to defend. In the US, for example, the most segregated states with the worst racism are also those with the lowest wages for white workers-and of course for black workers.

Who gains from US racism? Big employers in the racist South. Modern racism emerged with capitalism. The Atlantic powers had to justify slavery and colonialism. They invented ‘biological’ differences between so called ‘races’, to legitimise white domination over African and Asian peoples. Today racism is used to divide working people across the face of world capitalism, hoping they will fight each other rather than unite against their common exploiters.

A more insidious justification is more common. Racists claim that people of ‘different cultures’ can’t mix together. Yet the whole history of our human species suggests quite the opposite. The very languages we speak are mixtures of all sorts of different sources. Our cultures are constantly enriched by interchange with others, whether it’s technology, food, music, clothing or decoration.

Against the divisive hatreds of racism, socialists always argue for solidarity with the oppressed and for working class unity. Racism, which helps no one but our rulers, is endemic in class society. But it can be combated. Outside the small ranks of organised fascists, most racism today is shallow and deeply contradictory.

The same person can make a racist remark one day, and the next day sign an actual asylum seeker’s petition if the case is presented in a human way. Much everyday racism is of a very generalised nature, based on images from the Daily Mail and Sun. It’s notable that much of the BNP’s voting support comes from the outer rim of our cities and towns, where black and Asian faces are least seen.

There is a constant war within the working class. On one hand are divisive ideas, that tie us to our rulers and leave us feeling weak, hopeless and afraid. On the other are ideas of solidarity and hope for change. Socialists have to be part of that ongoing argument, all the time.

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