Skip to Content

World View: Religion, racism and class

The absurd claim of racism is that people's behavioural, physical and cultural traits conform to a certain fixed and immutable pattern; and this determines the superiority or otherwise of a group in relation to others. This is an outlook that has been used to justify some of the most unspeakable and horrendous crimes against humanity, sometimes leading to killings of genocidal proportions.

In Eduardo Galegno's Open Vein of Latin America, he recounts that before foreign conquerors set foot on the soil of the land the Indians totalled no less than 70 million. But a century-and-a-half later, they had been reduced to 3.5 million; and in 1685 only 4,000 Indian families remained of the more than two million that had once lived between Lima and Paita. Yet Archbishop Linan by Cisneros exposed how some of the church elders had perfected lies into a fine art. He said: “The truth is that they are hiding out, to avoid paying tribute, abusing the liberty which they enjoy and which they never had under the Incas.”

Racism however is flawed on a number of counts, not just for its barbarism and irrationality. Its fundamental arguments are basically weak. Where are those people who conform to racial purity, let's say in terms of colour? You will meet a lot of dark-skinned people in Africa, but you will no doubt also come across light-skinned types in southern Africa and eastern Nigeria. How can one also argue that the Yanamani Indians or the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert are less intelligent than people in Norway or Japan. The two groups live in different material conditions, and these varied environments impose on them tasks and solutions that respond to their peculiar circumstances. In spite of the gaping loopholes in racists' theories racism has been used together with religion to justify the enslavement of other people.

Islam, Christianity and Hinduism
The Arabs and their Muslim counterparts, according to Dais Brion, were the first people to develop a specialised long-distance slave trade from sub-Saharan Africa. They were also the first people to view blacks as suited by nature for the lowest and the most degrading form of bondage. Rotter's pioneering work and the research of Benard Lewis reveals that for medieval Arabs the blackness of Africans suggested sin, damnation and the devil. Arab scholars most of the time also invoked the biblical curse of Canaan to explain why the sons of Ham had been blackened and degraded to the status of natural slaves as punishment for the sins of their ancestors.

By the 10th century some Muslim writers asserted that Ham begot all blacks and people with crinkly hair and that “Noah put a curse on Ham according to which the hair of his descendants would not extend over their ears, and they would be enslaved wherever they were encountered”. Benard Lewis also quotes a 13th century Islamic historian from Iran who concluded that the Zanj (blacks) differed from animals only because their two hands are lifted above the ground and that many have observed that the ape is more teachable and more intelligent than the Zanj.

In the 17th century Father Gregorio Garcia detected “Semitic blood” in the Indians, because like the Jews, “they are lazy, they do not believe in the miracles of Jesus Christ, and they are ungrateful to the Spaniards for all the good they have done to them”. When Bartolome de Las Casas upset the Spanish court with his fiery denunciations of the conquistadors' cruelty in 1557, a member of the Royal Council had replied that Indians were too low in the human scale to be capable of receiving the faith. Another justification for holding other people as slaves was found in Leviticus 25:44 which said, “Both they bonds-men and they bonds-maid, which thou shalt have, shall be the heathen that are round you; of them shall ye buy bonds-men and bonds-maids.” But the most popular text on the matter is found in Genesis 9:25 which says, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren.” Some slave-owners went beyond the bible arguing that it might be wrong to enslave Christians, but that the Negro was not a human being and therefore could not become a Christian. One pious lady said, when asked if her Negro maid was to be baptised, “you might as well baptise my black bitch.” While Bishop Berkeley put the same idea into philosophical language when he said, “Negroes were creaturs of another species who had no right to be included or admitted to other sacraments.”

Similarly, racist sentiments are expressed in the Rig Veda, the Hindu scriptures of ancient India. Indra, the God of the Aryans, is described as “blowing away with supernatural might from earth and from the heavens the blackskins, which Indra hates”. The account further reports how Indra “slew the flat-nosed barbarians, the dark people called Anasahs. Finally, after Indra conquers the land of the Anasahs for his worshippers, he commands that the Anasahs are to be flayed of (their) black skin.”

The first distinctive feature to be noted in religion and racism is their appeal to a two-category system which presupposes a basic division of mankind into an “in” group and an “out” group. In addition, this fundamental division is supported, initiated and sanctioned by God himself. God has a special concern for the “in” group, and it receives his sustaining aid and grace. By contrast he is indifferent or hostile to the “out” group. In the final analysis God does not value all men equally, consequently he treats them differently. And this difference is not accidental but central to his will and purpose. The two-category system is correlated with an imbalance of suffering in which the “out” group suffers more than the rest of the people. In the account of the Rig Veda, for example, we know that God has less affection for the Anasahs because they suffer more than the Aryans. It is also evident from holy books like the bible and the Rig Veda that God's favour or disfavour is correlated with the racial or ethnic identity of the group in question. God's wrath and hostility are sometimes even directed at the physical features of a particular ethnic or racial community.

In the bible Yahveh often sides with the Israelites in the murderous campaigns to grab land from the Jebusites, Canaanites, Philistines, Amalekites in the same way that he was used to justify colonialism. Similarly in African traditional religion the God of a particular ethnic group assists it to overcome its enemies and brings prosperity to the “in” group. It stands to reason that whilst there is no rock-solid evidence to support the claim that God created man, there is enough justification in the materialist assertion that God is an invention of man. This is grimly illustrated by the fact that while Saddam Hussein was calling on God to help the Iraqis in the Gulf War, George Bush was doing the same thing. No God caused the death of the young men who were slaughtered; but the misguided beliefs and the greed of the ruling class.

Production and production relations
Consequently the “out” and “in” scheme of analysis has nothing to do with God. It is a manifestation of the concrete and material world of humans reflected in their consciousness in the process of the production and distribution of wealth. Ultimately, production and production relations determine the ideas individuals have about themselves as a group, and about society at large in matters of morality, religion, metaphysics, etc. And it is only when we have identified and understood the material assets and constraints of a society, how it produces goods to meet its material needs, how the goods are distributed, and what type of social organisation sprouts from the organisation of production that we would have come a long way to understanding the culture and religious views of that society.

If the production relations are such that makes it possible for a minority to appropriate the end-product of the labour of the majority the views of the minority become the dominant ones in society, whilst the opinion of the majority are suppressed. The ownership of the means of production is thus important in understanding people's perception of social phenomena – religion, philosophy, art etc. Bearing this in mind, we shall find that religious perceptions in any class-divided society are not neutral, but a tool in the hands of the dominant class in its struggle to maintain its control over economic surplus. Religious and all manner of spurious ideological theories are contrived by the ruling class or its representatives in the intellectual community and church organisations to keep the downtrodden perpetually entrapped in the vicious circle of exploitation.

As children in a predominantly Catholic community, we used to be told that God was surrounded by a host of angels with archangels. God was the boss and each angel and archangel had a specific assignment to perform in heaven. This was a world-view that sought to give blessing to the master-servant relationship that existed in the feudal era and class society in general.

Some quotations in the bible are also anti-worker if applied in today's circumstances. Take for instance the saying, “But I say unto you, that ye resist no evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy cheek, turn to him the other also.” I suppose that when the Accountant General's Office slashed as much as a 100,000 cedis from my salary in March, I should have responded: “Please my Lordship why are you so generous with me? Take 400,000 cedis more.” This would have been submissiveness stretched to its idiotic limits, and an invitation to exploitation and despotism. It could mean an acceptance of wage slavery, a system that is inimical to working people's interests.

The New Testament also advises us to despise and deprecate worldly things in lieu of heavenly rewards. What would this mean for those who have already made material gains here on Earth? If people like Bill Gates are also God-fearing they would have a double reward; one on Earth and the other in heaven, whilst the God-fearing poor will have only one. As for the poor who are not God-fearing the extent of their loss and damnation is inestimable. The end result of these teachings if employed in a class society makes the working people docile and facilitates their exploitation by the owning class.

Convenient smokescreen
But this is not all. It also calls forth the other forms of alienation which are not strictly economic, but are organically linked to it. It is important to note that racism and religion tend to elevate the culture and other virtues of the dominant class; and denigrate that of the oppressed. But the class character of this domination especially becomes difficult to unmask if the oppressor class has a different racial background from the oppressed, as was the case during the heady days of apartheid and colonialism. Skin pigmentation and other physical characteristics subsume the class dimension of the problem, and exploitation is seen through the binoculars of race. One therefore develops a superiority or inferiority complex, depending on one's physical traits; and the fundamental issue which is class exploitation is lost. Given these circumstances racism becomes a convenient smokescreen with which the ruling class masks its exploitation of labour. Eventually the attention of the working class is diverted from the real causes of its predicament; and a section of it becomes a pliant tool of the ruling class in its attempt to entrench the capitalist system.

The effect on that section of the working class which does not share similar physical characteristics with the owning class is to deny itself as different from the dominant class. It identifies and shares the convictions, doctrines and other attitudes of the dominant class which oppresses it. Guilt and an inferiority complex promoted by the dominant class and imbibed by the oppressed become the result of this process. Consequently the attempt to escape this inferiority by denying and condemning oneself becomes a lifelong struggle.

Let's consider this for one moment. It is important to note that for many Christians, the traditional African religious individuals is superstitious and worships idols and several gods; there is only one God, though he has a son begotten by the Holy Spirit. This god is white, his angels are white; and when the saved finally go to heaven, they will wear white robes of purity. But the devil is black; his angels are black; sin itself is black and when the sinful finally go to hell, they will be burnt to black coal. It is surprising that the African converts sing in pleading terror: “Wash me Redeemer, and I shall be whiter than snow?” And is it any wonder that some Africans buy skin-bleaching creams to lighten their dark skins? Is it also surprising that so-called educated and enlightened women often buy red, blonde or brunette wigs to hide their black hair or spend hours on end in hair saloons trying to make their hair curly and long?

Christianity even denies the African the right to their name. A name is a simple symbol of identity. But the African convert would normally be required to discard his African name and give himself such good Christian names as Smith, Verwoerd, Robert, James, Julius, Ironmonger, Winterbotham, Elizabeth, Summer, Winter and sometimes Autumn. This business of getting new names has its roots in slave property relations, where the person of the slave was the property of the owner to be disposed of and used as the master deemed fit. So slaves were branded with the master's name.

The same story is true in art, dance, music, drama etc, but the ultimate objective in class society is one – to control the productive forces and appropriate economic surplus irrespective of the exploiter's race or tribe. Economic control however is much more difficult to attain without political control. Political control is therefore established through proxy governments. Even then the vampire system finds that economic and political control are incomplete without cultural and hence ideological control. So the system employs religion and bogus theories like racism to ensure the mental castration of the worker be he European, Asian or African.