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Racism is not just about colour

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Some argue that discrimination against eastern Europeans is not racist because they are white. But, as Ken Olende explains, racism goes beyond colour prejudices
Issue 2428
A racist anti-Irish cartoon from the 19th century depicting “Bridget McBruiser” against the English ideal, Florence Nightingale

A racist anti-Irish cartoon from the 19th century depicting “Bridget McBruiser” against the English ideal, Florence Nightingale

Damian Citko was attacked by 15 men in Dagenham, east London, earlier this year. “All I could hear while they were beating me was, ‘Go back to Poland, go back home’,” he told the Guardian. Roughly two people a day are arrested in Britain for hate crimes against Poles.

Most discrimination and attacks are still aimed at black people and Muslims. But attacks against eastern Europeans have significantly increased since the recession started.

Earlier this year a broad group of Poles wrote an open letter to prime minister David Cameron. They said, “excellent British-Polish relations are on the verge of being shattered by populist politicians, who are using Poles as scapegoats.”

The letter went on, “Use your position to call for an end to racism against Poles”. There is a common argument that prejudice against eastern Europeans cannot be racism because Poles are white and mostly Christian. But this view is wrong. Racism has never been simply about not liking people who look different.

There has been widespread racism towards Irish people, many of whom are white and Christian. And the Nazi Holocaust was carried out by white people against mostly other white people, such as Jews. And the Nazis considered Slavic people such as Poles in eastern Europe a lesser race to be dominated.

The Holocaust made the idea of biological races so totally unacceptable that it can be hard to realise how pervasive it was before 1945. And ideas of race went far beyond colour prejudice.

In the 18th century emerging capitalists developed racial classifications to justify their brutal subjugation of Africans in slavery. This was at the same time as they were talking about Enlightenment ideas of equality. Some argued it is just an extension of Enlightenment attempts to classify the world scientifically. But racial classifications were set out to divide by creating a hierarchy of races.

The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus established modern biological classification for races. In 1735 he classified humans into four races. The example of two of his definitions shows how poisonously it combined objective description with supposed character traits: “Asiaticus: sallow, melancholy, stiff; hair black; dark eyes; severe, haughty, avaricious; covered with loose garments; ruled by opinions.

“Europeaeus: white, sanguine, muscular; hair long, flowing; eyes blue; gentle, acute, inventive; covers himself with close vestments; governed by laws.”

This was only the beginning of a process that saw scientists come up with a range of divisions and sub divisions. As the European colonial empires grew through the second half of the 19th century, the dominant system came to divide Europeans into three sub groups. These were Nordics, Mediterraneans and Alpines. Again there was a hierarchy, with Nordics at the top.

Eugenicist Francis Galton published an influential book Hereditary Genius in Britain in 1869. It graded all the races “statistically”, even identifying inheritable shifts within Britain. So, “The average standardof the Lowland Scotch and the English North-country men is decidedly a fraction of a grade superior to that of the ordinary English.”

John Beddoe, president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, wrote The Races of Britain in 1862. It explained how geniuses could be identified by jaw shape. Beddoe said geniuses tended to be “orthognathous”, that is to have receding jaws. He noted that the Irish and the Welsh tend to have large jaws.

These were not fringe views at the time. They were opinions that justified the position of the ruling class to itself and made the dominant role of Europeans part of the natural order.

Nationalism and racism both create the idea of unity across classes. They create the notion of a shared community who are “all in it together”. As the new capitalists tried to establish their states this was a way of binding other classes to their project.

Such ideas were immensely valuable to them for dividing the working class to make it less powerful. This was not simply a trick played on workers. Bosses really did believe that they were superior to other races and destined to rule.

To many workers this idea provided a sense of shared experience with the successes of their national states. But in reality they were being robbed to create the bosses’ wealth. These ideas shifted as capitalism developed. The US grew through mass immigration of Europeans. Its rulers encouraged these migrants to see themselves in opposition to black slaves or native Americans.

But by the early 20th century those at the top were worried about unrest among the white immigrants. And they came to believe that some were more troublesome than others.

SWP poster says Don"t blame the bulgarians or romanians - blame the Etonians

In 1922 Kenneth Roberts, a journalist on the popular Saturday Evening Post magazine, wrote an anti-immigration book, Why Europe Leaves Home. “The American nation was founded and developed by the Nordic race,” he stated.

“If a few more million members of the Alpine, Mediterranean and Semitic races are poured among us, the result must inevitably be a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe.”

This attempt to divide established workers against immigrants is similar to the torrent of abuse against Muslims or eastern Europeans we see in the British media today. Racial differences and national or ethnic differences are not the same but one can shift into the other. So currently British hostility to Germans could be classed as xenophobic, but not racist.

But it is possible to imagine a time when power relations would shift to see Germans as a persecuted minority. And while there was no systematic discrimination against Poles in Britain 20 years ago, that situation has changed.

One of the most dangerous things ideologies of this kind can do is make people who have the same interests turn against each other. The great American antiracist WEB Du Bois described a false sense of privilege that workers who accept racism get as a “psychological wage”.

But this “psychological wage” is not a material benefit for white workers. On the contrary, it stops them from seeing their own interests and ends up making their own situation worse.

Dubois looked at black and white workers in the US south and how racism kept them apart. He said, “There probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply.”

The Holocaust struck a serious blow to scientific racism. But there has been a return of the idea that people in Europe are divided into races, some of which are superior. The war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s is usually remembered for fighting between Christians and Muslims, but much of the war was between Serbs and Croats.

Extreme nationalists revived ideas from the Second World War that Croats and Serbs were different races. The return of these ideas was associated with economic crisis.

The different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia had lived in relative peace for more than 40 years. But as the economy went into crisis at the end of the 1980s, workers struck to defend their conditions. Leaders of the various federal states turned to nationalism to defend their positions.

Racism is never primarily about individuals and their prejudices. Dealing with racism is not a matter of “race relations”, which suggests it is a matter of dealing with prejudice in different communities. It requires active challenging of racism and the real causes of scapegoating.

In Britain today the levels of racism faced by African-Caribbean people and Muslims remain far higher than that against eastern Europeans. Festering prejudice against eastern Europeans or Roma does not replace discrimination against other groups. It creates an atmosphere where all kinds of racism are tolerated more.


Say It Loud! Marxism and the fight against racism
ed by Brian Richardson, £7.50

What’s wrong with privilege theory?
by Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, ISJ 142
Available to read online

Karl Marx’s letter to Sigfried Meyer and August Vogt

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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