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Who’s to blame for racism?

This article is over 13 years, 10 months old
The root causes of racism in Britain are examined by Esme Choonara
Issue 2093
Facing racism in Burnley - Monawar Hussain sees his store daubed with racist graffiti in 2001 (Pic:» Jess Hurd/ )
Facing racism in Burnley – Monawar Hussain sees his store daubed with racist graffiti in 2001 (Pic: » Jess Hurd/

There is a recurring theme in the media’s discussion of racism – that white working class people are more racist than other sections of society. The reality is that racism comes from the top of society and is deliberately propagated by the ruling class.

Look for example at New Labour’s obsession with Britishness. Last year we had Gordon Brown demanding “British jobs for British workers”. This month we had Lord Goldsmith’s report into Britishness – which suggested that school leavers should swear an allegiance to queen and country.

New Labour has set out to define those not included in this Britishness, such as Muslims who are repeatedly told they must do more to stop terrorism and to integrate into the “British” way of life.

The government has also created a new demon – the “foreign national” – subject of a series of panics about “foreign criminals” who are allegedly not being deported or imprisoned enough, and were targeted recently for the first wave of ID cards.

Much of Labour’s policy has been about appeasing the Tories and pandering to what they perceive to be the right wing views of voters. They are stoking up and giving credibility to nationalist and racist ideas.

Racism is perpetuated by the press. The Sun and the Daily Mail have run repeated (and unsubstantiated) stories over the past months about migrants in “squalid camps” eating “our swans” or “our donkeys” or poaching “our fish” out of parks.

Some of this is currently aimed at eastern Europeans – it is not always skin colour which is the defining characteristic of racism. Scapegoating involves picking on a small group of people and blaming them for all of society’s ills. A set of racist myths are then peddled in order to justify this.

For instance the Mail and the Express are full of columns about how Britain is being taken over by eastern European migrants and then seamlessly move on to scares about white people becoming a minority.

These arguments are also reflected through the “quality” press, which largely follows the same agenda on Muslims, immigration and national identity.


British history is littered with incidents in which the ruling class whipped up a climate of fear around race or immigration.

The Tories’ 1905 Aliens Act – the beginning of immigration controls in Britain – was accompanied by a rise in antisemitism led by the press and Tory politicians, and aimed primarily at Jewish refugees in London’s East End.

The act was not just a reflection of existing racism. It was part of a deliberate assault on the whole working class. Both Liberals and Tories used the outcry around it to blame immigrants for the growing housing crisis.

Liberal MP Cathcart Wilson even asked, “What is the use of spending thousands of pounds on building beautiful workmen’s dwellings if the places of our own workpeople, the backbone of the country, are to be taken over by the refuse scum of other nations?”

This was just one event in the long disgraceful history of the ruling class attempting to divide and rule workers by blaming immigrants for lack of housing and jobs.

Importantly it has never just been under the Tories. Labour too has a history of scaremongering over immigration. For instance, the scare whipped up around the expulsion of a small group of Asians from Malawi in 1974 was under a Labour government.

It clearly shows how racist agitat­ion by the ruling class is really about creating scapegoats and dividing workers.

Only 250 Asians were expelled from Malawi – a number that could have been allowed into Britain without controversy as part of the immigration voucher system in place at that time.

Instead some Tory MPs tabled motions demanding discussion about the “changing demographic character of Britain”.

Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins responded by reassuring them that Labour would maintain “strict immigration controls” and root out illegal immigrants.

A few years later Labour MP Merlin Rees admitted on television that immigration controls were aimed at stopping “coloured immigration”.

The ruling class has a contradictory attitude to migrant workers.

They need extra workers to expand the economy. At the same time immigrants provide a useful focus to divert anger over poverty, job losses or lack of services. This means that even at times when the ruling class has encouraged immigration to boost profits, it has also whipped up racism.

This is not just directed at new migrants, but also at black and other minority ethnic groups in Britain.

It has very real effects on the levels of racism in society. So the agitation by Tory Enoch Powell 40 years ago resulted in a rise of racism among sections of workers as well as in physical attacks on black people.

Labour is not committed to racism as an ideology in the same way that the Tories or the tabloids are.

In fact most Labour activists and members are anti-racists. But Labour’s commitment to securing power and running a capitalist state means a mixture of nationalism and electoral opportunism, coupled with the need to find scapegoats. This leads them to propagate the same racist scares.

Racist ideas, then, are not innate in white people. The roots of racism show this.


Racism – the systematic discrimination against people on the basis of characteristics attributed to their “race” – has not always existed. Scientists have proven conclusively that there is no real scientific basis to the concept of race – it is a social construct.

Racism was developed by the ruling class to justify the Atlantic slave trade. The barbaric trade was exceptionally profitable for a new capitalist class and funded the industrial revolution in Britain.

Yet the mass enslavement and murder coexisted with the ideas of the French and American revolutions – ideas of equality and inalienable human rights.

This meant an ideology had to be developed to justify the brutality of the slave trade. This involved saying that black people were inferior, inhuman or childlike and so not entitled to universal human freedoms.

This racism was spread through political speeches, popular writings and the invention of a fake science, backed up by laws.

Many of the early racist laws on slave plantations were about stopping intermixing between poor white indentured servants and black slaves.

This shows racism was not automatic – it had to be imposed. The mutual support of black and white people was a threat to the ruling class’s ability to maintain control.

In Britain, racist attitudes to the slaves on the plantations were accompanied with fears about black people destroying the British way of life back home. Edward Long was one of the English rich with ties to the slave trade. His 1769 book History of Jamaica was one of the early “histories” arguing black people were a different species.

In 1772 he published a pamphlet which described black people in Britain as “dissolute” and “idle” and the threat of mixed relationships as a “venomous and dangerous ulcer”.

He attacked “the lower classes of women in England” for having relationships with black men and warned that “in the course of a few generations more, the English blood will have become so contaminated with this mixture, this alloy may spread so extensively as even to reach the middle and then the higher orders”.


Racism was not developed over night – it took many decades to become fully embedded in the institutions of the capitalist state. It spread unevenly and was contested and resisted.

Ideas about racial inferiority followed European imperial projects as they dominated and exploited the globe. For example, the conquest of India meant the cultivation of a racist ideology which reversed previous commonly held notions of India as a superior civilisation to Britain.

With the end of slavery and colonialism, racist ideas remained useful to the ruling class to divide and weaken workers. Karl Marx pointed to the way in which the ruling class used racism to divide Irish and English workers, describing it as the “secret of the impotence of the English working class”.

The capitalist class does not just control the economy, it also controls the institutions of the state such as the police and army. Its ideas dominate but workers are not just sponges who soak up ideas pumped out by the ruling class.

The powerlessness workers feel under capitalism – with no control over whether they work, or how, or what is produced in society, along with the daily struggle to get by – means that workers are open to accepting ruling class ideas.

But the position of workers in society – with a collective experience of exploitation and struggle – means that working class people can also reject these ideas.

The fact that working class people are more integrated than the ruling class – which remains overwhelmingly white and segregated – provides an alternative reference point for working class people.

This doesn’t mean that working class people are automatically anti-racist.

It means that there is a battle over ideas in which experience and argument can change ideas.

From the battles against slavery onwards there is a long history of workers coming together against the attempts to divide and rule from the top.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci pointed out that working class people have a contradictory consciousness.

On the one hand there is “common sense” – the ideas that come from the ruling class, such as racism and competition.

On the other there is “good sense” – ideas that come from traditions of solidarity, anti-racism and confidence.

For socialists the key is to build networks that feed the good sense, at the same time as struggling for a society in which divide and rule, and rotten ruling class ideas, are redundant.

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