The Development of Race (part 4): What is racism?

What is racism?

Below (in previous posts) I have already hinted at various forms of racism both individual and institutional. Although racism takes many different forms and will continue to find new forms for a long time to come. Crucial is understanding the development into its modern forms.

One of the most insightful and intellectually (academically) rigorous books I have read in this regard has been “The Racial Contract” by Charles W Mills although many other creators cover the topic of race from novelists to historians to philosophers to prophets.

In this book he juxtaposes the imaginary “Social Contract” which underlies the political philosophy of such renowned philosophers as Hobbes, Locke and others with the racial contract. Generally the “Social Contract” is seen as a contract between citizens and the state to guarantee the social order against the chaos, the state of nature out of which the contract arose.

His most poignant insight is that both the social contract and viewing nature as a state of chaos are fictions. Assumptions, premises these philosophers needed to build their “rational” systems of thought. This would not be so revolutionary (as thought experiments are quite common in philosophy) were it not, that he goes on to show that there is another contract which is far from fictional, and whose development can be traced in treaty and treatises: “”The Racial Contract”.

So on the one hand we have world famous philosophers building doctrines of social order and universal freedom. On the other hand we have at the same time the start of colonialism and slavery.

These same philosophers were providing the intellectual basis for the enslavement and eradication of native peoples. Sadly this should not surprise us, in many societies, the freedom of some is premised on the unfreedom and oppression of others. It starts with Plato and the ancient Greeks, the “Free” citizen has mostly been the White/Greek wealthy able adult male.

They were conferences on whether native peoples were humans or not. For the natives of south and central america, that meant, deciding they did have a soul and were worthy of salvation. After having been nearly exterminated this brought new problems in the form of missionaries. For Africans it meant they were now about to be enslaved. Even the Irish served as near-slaves for some time in North-America.

Old prejudices started to merge with scientific methodologies, especially after Darwin published his theory, ‘scientists’ set out to prove the inferiority of other races and other undesirable social classes (‘the poor and criminal classes’), one of Darwins cousins was instrumental in this. Slowly a global system of oppression came into being. The chaotic state of nature that had been imagined as the European past out of which European ‘Civilization’ arose, was projected unto the rest of the world. This projection became the justification for the eradication and subjugation of other cultures, this eradication became the hallmark of so-called civilization. The economic, political and cultural subjugation of different kinds of peoples continues in many forms to this day.

It is hard to overestimate how commonplace racial ideology was across the world’s halls of power. The many hundreds of millions of people that were murdered as part of this project all had relatives and family. They are not abstractions, they and their oppressors echo, even in their absence, through the world of today. A very dark thread of history runs from colonialism, to slavery, to darwinism, to capitalism and to nazism. It is time to unravel this hateful tapestry and make sure history becomes something else than tragedy or farce. A distant memory of hate and suffering which we have overcome.

The most important thing to take from all of this is that there have always been sub-persons. People who were deemed by some as less than others, and thus not worthy of empathy. Also important to note, is that categories of Whiteness can expand or contract. These categories differ from place to place and time to time. Although there is a broad racial hierarchy running from whites, to jews, to slavs, to asians, to ‘reds’, to black people. Historically these categories have expanded to include or exclude certain races as was deemed handy.

What we see in fact is a racial system, which is not based in biological meaningful fact, but a system of oppression of which the parts can be replaced. It is a set of behaviors as much as anything else. We can see this in the example of the Irish who went from being slaves to being oppressors in North America. Or in the example of Korean kamikaze pilots, who were allowed to die for the emperor as WW II started to turn bad for the Japanese.

The racial contract has different classifications and organizations and effects all over the world and affects different people differently. It keeps changing form. As is evidenced by Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow” in which she shows (among other things) that there are now more African-American people in jail, than were previously enslaved. However in many countries by many measures, people of colour have worse life chances than White people.

In summary racism, can affect health, stress, housing, happiness, education, jobs, self-worth, perception, thoughts, feelings, love, relationships pretty much everything. But in order to avoid making it a too vague catch-all phrase for any kind of judgment (which I do think it also is), There are links that connect, governments, corporations, arms dealers, dictators, resource extraction and global private prisons (G4S) and private armies (Blackwater). All operating under the principle of Profit before People & Nature.
Racism also means that as a White person I can choose to be a part of the struggle or I can choose not to be. And enjoy unabated privilege. Of course this an illusion, because these corrosive ideologies affect us all.

One last real world example of racism today, although the examples are endless, Muslims are terrorists, Black people are thugs, White murderers are emotionally unstable. What struck me about the manifesto of the murderer in the recent Charleston Massacre, whose author I’d rather not give attention by naming him: his manifesto although obviously hateful and spiteful was not incoherent or irrational in fact it showed a lot of resemblance to the terms of the racial contract. It is an expression of the hateful logic kept alive by the structures of White Supremacy.

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