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Has racism always existed? Can it ever be totally abolished?
The roots of racism

November 22, 2002 | Page 8

ALEX TAYLOR explains why capitalism thrives on racism.

FOR MANY people coming to radical politics--Blacks and whites alike--hatred of racism and a desire to get rid of it is a huge motivating factor. This is in contrast to some of the common assumptions about where racism comes from.

The first is that racism is part of human nature--that it's always existed and always will. The second is the liberal idea of racism--that it comes from people's bad ideas, and that if we could change these ideas, we could get rid of it.

Both assumptions are wrong. Racism isn't just an ideology but is an institution. And its origins don't lie in bad ideas or in human nature. Rather, racism originated with capitalism and the slave trade. As the Marxist writer CLR James put it, "The conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers had…that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race."

History proves this point. Prior to the advent of capitalism, racism as a systematic form of oppression did not exist. For example, ancient Greek and Roman societies had no concept of race or racial oppression.

These weren't liberated societies. They were built on the backs of slaves. And these societies created an ideology to justify slavery. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle put it in his book Politics, "Some men are by nature free, and others slaves, and that for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right."

However, because slavery in ancient Greece and Rome was not racially based, these societies had no corresponding ideology of racial inferiority or oppression. In fact, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Early Christian societies had a favorable image of Blacks and of African societies.

Septemus Severenus, an emperor of Rome, was African and almost certainly Black. "The ancients did accept the institution of slavery as a fact of life; they made ethnocentric judgments of other societies; they had narcissistic canons of physical beauty," writes Howard University professor Frank Snowden in his book Before Color Prejudice. "Yet nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern time existed in the ancient world. This is the view of most scholars who have examined the evidence."

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RACISM ORIGINATED with the modern slave trade. Just as the slaveholders of ancient Greece and Rome created an ideology that their barbaric slave system was "natural," so did the modern slave-owning class.

There was one important difference. According to them, slavery was "natural" because of race. Africans were not human beings, and therefore, they were born to be slaves. As historian Eric Williams writes in his book Capitalism and Slavery, "Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery."

Again, history bears this out. If racism had existed prior to the slave trade, then Africans would have been the first group of people to be enslaved. But, in the early years of colonial America, slavery was not racially based. Initially, the colonists attempted to enslave Native Americans. They also imported thousands of white indentured servants. White servants were treated like slaves. They were bought, sold, put up as stakes in card games and raped, beaten and killed with impunity.

Not only was servitude a multiracial institution in the early years of colonial America, there was also a surprising degree of equality between Blacks and whites. For example, in 17th century Virginia, Blacks were able to file lawsuits, testify in court against whites, bear arms and own property, including servants and slaves. In other words, 17th century Blacks in Virginia had more rights than Blacks in the Jim Crow South during the 20th century.

Colonial records from 17th century Virginia reveal that one African slave named Frances Payne bought his freedom by earning enough money to buy three white servants to replace him. Such events prove the point that institutional racism did not exist in the early years of slavery--but was created later.

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OVER TIME, the slaveholding class gradually came to the conclusion that racism was in its interest and that it must be deeply embedded in all of society's institutions.

There were several reasons for this conclusion. First, indentured servitude was no longer sufficient to meet the demand for labor as industry developed in Britain and put new demands on the colonial economy. Also, by the middle of the 17th century, African slaves began to live longer than five to seven years--the standard period for indentured servitude. Put in the cold terms of economic reality, slavery became more profitable than indentured servitude. Finally, Africans, whose children could also be enslaved, were more easily segregated and oppressed than servants or Native Americans.

As Williams summarized this process: "Here then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor…This was not a theory, it was a practical conclusion deduced from the personal experience of the planter. He would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon."

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BUT THE most important reason that the planter class created a racially based slave system was not economic, but political--the age-old strategy of divide and rule.

The "slaveocracy" was a tiny, extremely wealthy minority surrounded by thousands of people whom it had enslaved, exploited or conquered. Its greatest fear was that slaves and servants would unite against it--and this fear was legitimate.

For example, Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 began as a protest against Virginia's policy against native Americans, but turned into an armed multiracial rebellion against the ruling elite. An army of several hundred farmers, servants and slaves demanding freedom and the lifting of taxes sacked Jamestown and forced the governor of Virginia to flee. One thousand soldiers were sent from England to put it down. The rebel army held out for eight months before it was defeated.

Bacon's Rebellion was a turning point. It made clear to the planters that for their class to survive, they would have to divide the people that they ruled--on the basis of race. Abolitionist and ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it this way: "The slaveholders…by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the Blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the Black himself…Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers." Or, as Douglass also said, "They divided both to conquer each."

Over time, the institution of racism became firmly established--both as a means of legitimizing slavery, but also as a means of dividing poor people against one other. While the Civil War smashed the planters' slave system, it did not end the institution of racism. The reason for this is that racism had further uses for capitalism.

Similar to the slave societies of antiquity and of the early U.S., under capitalism today, a small, wealthy minority exploits and oppresses the immense majority of people. Racism is the main division among workers today, and it provides a convenient scapegoat for problems created by the system. But ordinary people--regardless of their race--don't benefit from racism.

It's no coincidence that the historical periods in which workers as a whole have made the greatest gains--such as the 1930s and the 1960s--have coincided with great battles against racism.

Capitalism created racism and can't function without it. The way to end racism once and for all is to win a socialist society--in which the first priority is abolishing all traces of exploitation and racism.

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