Causes of Racism in Britain

Abdel-Qadar Yassine analyses the roots of racism in Britain

“…With us there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism, since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters” (J. - P. Sartre, 1967).
    The ‘fundamental’ of both Western civilisation and Christianity in the Western World: “Is their inability to recognise that they share the planet not with inferiors but with equals. Unless western civilisation intellectually and socially, politically and economically, and the Christian church theologically, can learn to treat other men with fundamental respect, these two in their turn will have failed to come to terms with the actualities of the twentieth century” (Smith, 1957).
    Racism is the belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics deter-mined by hereditary factors and that endows some races with an intrinsic superiority; this belief may involve abuse and aggressive behaviour towards members of another race. This article tries to point to the causes of racism in Britain, but a great deal of space is spent on racism in general. This is felt to be justified, firstly, because “racism in Britain” can mean racism towards people living outside as well as inside Britain, and, secondly, because foreign settlers are regarded as “The Enemy Within” (P. Gilroy, 1992), linking the outside with the inside, the general with the specific.

The Main Causes
It is obviously not just presence of physical differences between groups that creates races, but “the social recognition of such differences as socially significant or rele-vant” (Van the Berghe, 1967). Why do certain societies consider such differences important, whereas others do not? Van de Berghe says that “Allowing…for the independent discovery of racism in a number of societies, it remains true that the Western strain of the virus has eclipsed all others in importance”, and it is only through the colonial expansion of Europe that racism spread widely over the world. The reasons commonly given for Western racism include personality, social Darwinism, and bour-geois ideology. P. Mason (1954) reminds us of the basic facts.
    “It does no seem that the barriers are based on an aversion which is innate between the races themselves, something comparable with the dislike which most people feel of snakes and some cats… Children do not seem to feel any aversion for people of ano-ther colour until it is taught them”
    The explanation of racism in terms of personality is to ask why certain people become racially prejudiced, while others do not. This psychological question is relevant, though here it will only be dealt with briefly. Van de Berghe explains two theories: “frustration-aggression” and “authoritarian personality”. Quite simply, the first one explains racism as a type of relief from “frustration”, where a “scapegoat” may become the object of aggressive behaviour; however, this cannot be an adequate explanation because it neither explains the presence of racism when there is no “frustration” nor why the scapegoats should be chosen in racial terms (as opposed, perhaps, to gender, class, or even politics). People with an “authoritarian” personality exist in large numbers in every cohesive society, and it is probably manipulation by them that give racism its strength. Again, this does not really explain racism in a society any more than explain racism in a society any more than it explains non-racism, because people with “authoritarian” personalities could be imbued with either viewpoint. Also T.F. Pettigrew showed that the much higher degree of anti-Negro preju-dice among Southern whites as compared with Northern whites could not be accounted for in terms of differences in authorita-rianism between the two groups.
    Many social commentators apply the idea of ‘class struggle’ to explain racism. For them racism is a kind of bourgeois ideology designed especially to “rationalize the exploitation of non-white people of the world”, especially during the imperialistic phase of Capitalism, and that is why it is defined as an “epiphenomenona sympto-matic of slavery and colonial exploitation” (Van den Berghe). Themes of grownup childishness, civilising mission, savagery and arrested evolution were common in the New World, Africa and later Palestine. Some believe that it was “not until the 19th century that racism became a well-defined ideology” (Van the Berghe). However, many have felt that racism raised “questions beyond the limits of traditional Marxist class analysis and have pointed to the need for deeper analysis of non-class forms of domination” (J. Solomos, 1986) and it also seems that racism can be fond in non-capitalist or non-economic interactions (Rex, 1986). This is summed up by H. Wolpe (1986):
    “It does not follow that because race, under certain conditions, may be interiorised in the class struggle, all conflicts which centre on race are, therefore, to be conceived of as class struggles. On the contrary, it will be argued that struggles focusing on race may take on a form in which class is not interiorised within them…”
    Darwinism, although originally a theory in the biological sciences, was adopted by bourgeois social science of the late 19th century and the notions of evolution, survival of the fittest, hereditary determinism and near constancy of the gene pool were used to describe society. Even today many people seem to believe in a kind of linear evolution of civilizations has a limited span in time, suggesting that a more ‘cyclic’ view of history might be appro-priate. This, in a way, is what F. Fanon suggest, when he talks as a black man:
    “The white man was wrong. I was not a primitive, not even a half-man. I belonged to a race that had already been working in gold and silver two thousand years ago”.
That is why social Darwinism is not itself an ideology, but merely an expression of the understanding ideology; it is again a rationa-lisation of racism.
    The ideas of Enlightenment spread by the American and French Revolutions conflicted with racism and yet contributed to its development. As Van de Berghe so finely put it:
    “The blatant contradiction between the treatment of slaves and colonial peoples and the official rhetoric of freedom and equality, Europeans and white North Americans began of dichotomise humanity between men and submen (or the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’)”
    Herein lies the real cause of modern Western racism. It is a kind of arrogance; it is a kind of hypocrisy where egalitarian ideas are only extended to ‘people’, in other words, whites. This is why so few people in the “West” are interested in real democracies outside the Western world, and why regimes such as those of South Africa and Israel (both being European in culture) are only democratic for the ‘master race’ but tyrannical for the subordinated group. Then racism:
    “if it is not innate and natural, must be induced and it must be due to something in the history of the contact between the race, treating history here in the fullest possible sense in which it includes the present”. (P. Mason, 1954).
    There is no space to discuss in detail “the history of the contact”, but a good example is: that ‘intellectuals’ who glorify the Crusades can easily justify Zionism and the conquest of The ‘New’ World. Racism is so ingrained that it seems to work even “across the lines of normal politics as well as within them” (A. H. Richmond). Many social commentators are ‘afraid’ to deal with the real problem and its extent but instead hide behind a superficial economic theory, or explain racism solely in terms of colonialism (whereas colonialism, as well as slavery, can easily be explained in the wider context of an ideology of racism); it might be appropriate to remember that most of these commentators, as well as Marx, himself, are “Western”. The association in metaphor of the ideas of white and black with good and evil may also work in people’s subconscious and sometimes even in their consciousness. It seems appropriate to try to find out what the response would be if these non-white races lived as a minority in close contact with the whites. Would the rights white man enjoys be extended to the non-white or not?
    A final point which seems so very crucial is the guilt Europeans feel for the crimes committed against the Jews, whereas no guilt, but often pride, is felt at the annihilation, slaughter, and deportation of the native peoples of America, Australia, Southern Africa and Palestine. I feel that Fanon, unintentionally perhaps, explains this point lucidly:
    The Jew “is a white man, and apart from some rather debatable characteristics, he can sometimes go unnoticed… Granted, the Jews are harassed. They are hunted down, exterminated, cremated. But these are little family quarrels. The Jew is disliked from the moment he is tracked down. But in my case everything takes on a new guise. I am over determined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance”.

Immigrants in Britain
Racism takes on specific forms depending on the type and state of society, and impor-tant factors are the organization of society and its dynamic political and cultural processes (S. Hall, 1978). After World. War. II Britain faced a significant demographic crisis, because its population was ageing and dependency ratios remained high, on top which there had been, for several decades, net outward migration. The entry info Britain of immigrants meant that in 1983 it was estimated that almost one million people born in the U.K. were of West Indian or Asian descent, in addition to the 1,3 million born abroad. A. H. Richmond (1988) descri-bes the situation forcefully.
    “Despite the scale of its immigration, Britain has remained insular in its outlook and isolationist in its policies. Immigrants from the ‘New Commonwealth were not welcomed, or effectively woven into the fabric of a polyethnic, multicultural society. Britain was reluctant to admit those who by race or cultural did not fit the image of a traditional ‘white Anglo Saxon’ population. Those who were allowed to settle faced widespread prejudice and discrimination. Personal and institutional racism persisted, even toward the second and subsequent generations born In Britain of immigrants parents or grandparents”.
    P. Fitzpatrick looked at law in general and the Race Relations Act of 1976 in particular and concluded the racism seemed “sym-biotic with liberal Capitalism in Britain”:
“…There were certain persistent limits, certain bounds beyond which law did not proceed in countering racism. What, in an immediate sense, stood on the other side of those bounds and checked the law’s advance was the power and autonomy of employers”.
    Black violations of the law are often defined as a cultural attribute and are used to supply the proof that the Blacks are incompatible with Britain. The solution P. Fitzpatrick suggests is to make the national “community and its law the incarnation of a rational universal ordering. Those of a ‘different culture’ are not, however, merely excluded from superior reasons”. Having a constitution, to which everyone can refer, therefore seems to be a good idea (in fact some have argued that one of the important reasons there is opposition to the writing of a constitution in Britain is that it would mean giving rights to non-white). After World. War. II, in particular, Britain experienced a relative decline in its power and influence, and it also declined economically (access to North Sea oil postponing the time when material standards would be seriously jeopardised). The size of the male labour force in employment fell by almost two million in ten years, while the number of employed women actually increased slightly, “reflecting the growth in service industries and part-time employment typical of post industrial Societies”. Predictably, immigrant workers were relatively hard-hit, especially the male population to other parts of the Commonwealth to one in which there was a multi-way flow of people to and from many parts of the world resulted in violent disturbances, beginning in Nottingham and London in 1958 and subsequently repeated at intervals in many other cities, the most serious outbreaks occurring in 1981 and 1985”.
    A. H. Richmond seems here to be suggesting that the racial situation is made worse during periods of change, when there is insecurity. If one simultaneously considers the disturbances in Los Angles in 1992 and the theory that some people propound, that social changes in the US appear about eight years later in Britain, it may be that the worst is yet to come. These conflicts reflect a combination of the influence of history, and also class and ethnic factors, which are exacerbated by the economic crisis and government fiscal policies.
    A H. Richmond reminds us of the hard facts:
    “Black and Asian immigrants and their descendants growing up in Britain are relatively segregated by region and concentrated in inner city neighbourhoods. They are also over-represented in manual occupations, as well as among the unem-ployed”.
    Unskilled service personnel and labourers are proportionally over represented, but they are not a majority among the immigrant population, or the second generation (Brown, 1984). What all Black and Asian minorities have in common is “persistent exposure to the racial prejudice and discrimination that pervades British society”, which cannot be explained merely in terms of competition for housing, jobs or other resources but is “deeply embedded in the institutional structure of western societies and has been internalised in the personalities of those who live and work within and through those institutions” (A. H. Richmond). Measures taken to solve the problem are not aimed at the roots of the problem, but at trying to contain conflict; the problem will thus persist and flare up from time to time, and perhaps if one is a pessimist or a believer that history repeats itself then one would predict that it may soon flare up conclusively (e.g. looking at the events in Spain 500 years ago may encou-rage pessimism).
    The immigrants had to face the older ‘colonial’ ideas, which ranged from a racist to a paternalistic (i.e. in a sense arrogant) attitude. There is a fear that the traditional ‘British way of life’ would be threatened by the immigration, which needed to be limited in the interests of the community as a whole (Lawrence, 1982). Culture is seen by many as something fixed and not something intrin-sically fluid, changing, unstable and dynamic (P. Gilroy). The culturalism of the ‘new’ racism has gone hand in hand with a definition of race as a matter of difference, but here again are found notions of supre-macy and ‘pure cultures that must not be corrupted’. It seems that there is an urgent need to analyse, in depth, what being ‘Bri-tish’ means, and rather then resorting to emotional outcries that merely encourage conflict. A. H. Richmond suggests that “Nationalism asserted itself in terms of the prior ‘rights’ of the indigenous ‘English’ over ‘alien’ invaders”, highlighting the old attitude about the civilised and the savages. Extremists demanded more restrictive immigration laws and repatriation, and even those who condemned these calls still “main-tained a substantial measure of social distan-ce from the immigrants” (A. H. Richmond). It seems that the mass media reinforce, and sometimes inflame, racial hatred through selective reporting (perhaps these are the modern manipulators of the ‘authorita-rian”?), and children have ‘learned to be prejudiced’ at home, in the school and in the community (Davey, 1983). There are certain factors, including teacher racism, which impede the opportunities of ethnic minority children in education (Swann, 1985), education being very important when one considers the competition for work and realises that education is an important method of improving the ‘status’ of the ethnic minorities.

References: -Van the Berghe (1967), “Race and Racism - A comparative perspective”
-Brown (1984), “Black and white in Britain: The third PSI survey”
-Davey (1983), “Learning to be prejudiced: Growing up in Multi Ethnic Britain”
-Davison (1966), “Black British: Immigrants in England”
-F. Fanon (1990), “The facts of Blackness”
-P. Fitzpatrick (1990), “Racism and the Innocence of Law”
-P. Gilroy (1990), “One Nation under a Groove: The cultural Politics of ‘Race’ and Racism in Britain”
-S. Hall (1978), “Racism and moral panics in Post-war Britain”
-Lawrence (1982), “Just plain Common sense: The Roots of Racism”
-P. Mason (1954), “An essay on racial ten-sion”
-T. F. Pettigrew (1956), “Regional Diffe-rences in Anti-Negro Prejudice”
-A. H. Richmond (1988), “Immigration and Ethnic conflict”
-J. Rex (1986), “The role of class analysis in the study of race relations – Weberian perspective”
-J. P. Sarte (1967), „Preface“ to F. Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth”
-J. Solomos (1986), “Varieties of Marxist conception of ‘race’, class and the state: a critical analysis”
-Smith (1957), Islam in Modern Historyi
-Swann (1985), “Education for all”
-H. Wolpe (1986), Class concepts, class struggle and racism”

Tillbaka till Invandrarrapport

Tillbaka till Immigrant-institutets hemsida