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The roots of racism

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
In the first of a series of articles to mark Black History Month, Ken Olende explains how capitalism and slavery created racism
Issue 2324
A German engraving of the 1791 Haitian revolution
A German engraving of the 1791 Haitian revolution

Many people believe racism is part of human nature and will always be with us. But racism isn’t hard wired into our brains. The best evidence for this is the fact that it has not always existed.

The development of racism is intimately entwined with that of capitalism—and we will not get rid of it until we dispose of capitalism.

Racial discrimination emerged alongside the Atlantic slave trade. It accompanied the growth of Britain as a capitalist nation and a world power. As it has developed it has become a powerful way to divide people who might threaten capitalist rule.

Slavery was central to early capitalism and racism became its justification. Between the early 16th century and 1870, up to 13 million slaves were transported to the Americas to work on sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations.

It is likely that as many as 21 million people were captured in order to get that many live slaves across.

In the 17th and 18th centuries Europe’s new capitalist merchants talked of people being judged on their individual worth and everyone having an equal chance.

Their ideas were expressed in the slogans of the bourgeois revolutions, “all men are created equal” in the US, and “liberty, equality, brotherhood” in France.

But as these ideas developed the new capitalists were making money from the brutal, but massively profitable slave trade—and forcing some people into inequality.

They resolved this contradiction by developing race prejudice in order to dehumanise black people. Racist ideas first developed among the planters in the West Indies and the Americas.


When Europeans first arrived in the Americas they forced Native Americans to work for them. But a combination of overwork and European diseases led to a catastrophic decline in the population.

Plantation owners then imported indentured labour from Europe. For much of the 17th century there were more indentured labourers than slaves on the plantations. Though there was a time limit on indentured work, the labourers often died before their working life ended.

The planters found that imported African slaves could do the work, and if they died there was a plentiful further supply available.

The massive scale of the Atlantic slave trade marked it out as thoroughly different from anything that had existed before, in Africa or anywhere else in the world.

Slavery came first and the racism that justified it followed. The justification was that Africans were naturally suited to slavery, and weren’t fully human anyway.

Initially, planters spread such ideas by word of mouth. But they then took root further afield. After a century the rich in Europe proudly displayed their prejudice in books such as Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, published in 1774.

His book claimed to be a scientific treatise, but it contains passages like the following about black people: “When we reflect on the nature of these men and their dissimilarity to the rest of mankind, must we not conclude that they are a different species of the same genus?

“An oran-outang has in form a much nearer resemblance to the Negroe race, than the latter bear to white men.”

The disgusting ideas of the slavers gained currency back in Britain, particularly at the top of society. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume wrote in 1753, “There never was a civilised nation of any complexion other than white. No ingenious manufacture amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”


Long and Hume were not simply restating existing prejudice. They were developing new ideas and justifying them with philosophy and scientific terminology.

Marxist historian Brian Kelly has looked at the British colony at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, during the crucial century when racist ideas emerged.

From the available historical documents it is hard to tell in 1600 who is a servant and who a slave as the terms were used interchangeably.

Kelly shows that it was “not uncommon during the first half of the 17th century for Africans, Europeans, and Indians to work alongside one another and even to share the same living quarters”.

“No sharp racial division of labour had yet emerged to prescribe which work would ‘belong’ to a particular group.

“We know that at least some white workers were conscious of the common lot they shared with blacks. One servant-poet wrote that ‘We and the Negroes both alike did fare/Of work and food we had an equal share’.”

But the number of black people defined as slaves went up dramatically. In 1670 a law was passed banning black people from owning property. At the beginning of the century some black freemen had controlled their own unfree labourers. Now what had become an aberration was banned.

The colony’s rulers had good reason to push a racist agenda. Through the past decade servants had led a series of rebellions and the rulers wanted to stop solidarity between poor people from different backgrounds.

Slavery, justified by racism, was key to capitalists building up the money that would fund industrialisation—the process Karl Marx called “the primitive accumulation of capital”.


Thankfully, as long as there has been racism there have been examples of people coming together to fight it. Slaves did not quietly accept their lot.

The epic revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture in what is now Haiti shocked the world. Slaves rose up and defeated the French army. They were inspired by the French Revolution and took its talk of equality seriously.

In a letter from the leaders of the slave revolt to the colonial assembly in St Dominique, in 1792, Toussaint said, “Yes, gentlemen, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us…

“We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black or an advantage to be white.”

Britain’s rulers were eventually forced to abolish slavery. But they certainly didn’t do so out of sympathy with its victims.

The abolition act set aside £20 million in compensation, but all for the slave owners, not the former slaves, who now found themselves paying rent to their former owners.

Racism didn’t simply wither away once its initial cause had disappeared. With minor modification it became a tool of empire. Always our rulers looked to the latest science to justify their claims.

The subjects of empire were no longer described as animals or subhuman. They became ungrateful children who have to be brought up with tough love. As empire receded after the Second World War racism was rebranded to justify fear and hatred of immigrants.

Now our rulers prefer to talk of cultural differences rather than racial ones, but when social crisis returns, they return to type, and cultural differences become racial once more.

Race is socially constructed, with no basis in real science. But racism is now a social fact—one that cannot be ignored by anyone hoping to change our society.

How they try to use racism to divide us

So why did racism remain once slavery ended? Karl Marx argued that racism offers real benefits for capitalists. He developed his understanding by watching divisions between Irish immigrants to England and “native” workers.

Marx’s arguments show that racism is not specific to any particular physical characteristic, such as skin colour. He explained:

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life… The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class.”

Marx identifies three conditions for the existence of racism. First, there is economic competition between workers. Second, the capitalist class keeps renewing racism.

Third is the fact that racist ideas can appeal to workers. Such workers believe they benefit economically from racial oppression. Some white workers accept racism because it appears to offer a solution to real problems in their life.

In a modern context, think of workers who complain that there are no council houses. When they say this is because immigrants have taken them they are not only wrong, but the “compensation” they look to actually weakens them.

Racism is in the interests of capitalists, but not racist workers. This was backed up by a seminal study carried out in the early 1970s by Albert Szymanski. He looked at wage rates across the US.

Logically, if racism benefitted white workers then you would expect to find white workers better off in the most racist states.

What he showed was that in states where white workers were most racist, they did feel they were better off. But in fact they were worse off than white workers in states where workers were more united.

Further reading

  • The Black Jacobins (£14.99) by CLR James is a masterpiece that details Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt in Haiti

  • Bury the Chains (£8.99) by Adam Hochschild, covers the campaign against the slave trade in Britain

  • The Making of New World Slavery (£19.99), by Robin Blackburn is a powerful history of the Atlantic slave trade

All available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. 020 7637 1848 or go to

Read the next two articles in this series: The state of racism in Britain and Taking on the racism of Jim Crow

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