How racism works today


Understanding racist discourse will help us fight it. The first thing to note is that virtually everybody, including those who actively promote and trade on racial hatred—like Donald Trump—denies being ‘a racist’. Of course, sometimes they are simply deliberately lying but there is more than just that involved. There is also the fact that racist ideology has changed significantly over time and that contemporary racism is, in some ways, very different from racism in the past. Today’s racists often try to exploit this by talking as if only the older version of racism really counted.

Racism as it developed from the 16th century onwards through to the late 19th and early 20th century was a product and reflection of slavery and colonialism. It preached the inherent superiority of ‘the white race’ and the inherent inferiority of people of colour, with Black people (of African descent) at the bottom of the hierarchy and Asian and Middle Eastern people somewhere in between. Racists of this kind believed that White people had an innate right, a duty even, to rule people of colour (‘natives’), to conquer and subdue them ‘for their own good’ and to lead the world. Many such racists argued and believed that this doctrine of white supremacy had a scientific basis. Moreover, this belief in white superiority, though it had its honourable opponents, was part of the official dominant ideology in Europe and its offshoots round the world (U.S., Australia etc.). For example, Abraham Lincoln stated unequivocally:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

In 1895 British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain said, “I believe the British race is the greatest of governing races the world has ever seen” and Cecil Rhodes proclaimed that “it came to me in that fine exhilarating air [of the South African veld] that the British were the best race to rule the world”.

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