1960s >> 1965 >> no-730-june-1965

The roots of race prejudice

It is all too easy to discover examples of man clinging passionately to ideas which have no basis in fact. One of the most widespread of these ideas at the moment is racial prejudice, a term which conceals a multitude of aberrations all of them based on the notion that some people, in some way, are innately inferior to others.

This comes in different forms at different times. Before the war, when the Nazis were at their work, it took the form of intense anti-Semitism. This was then one of the most prevalent types of racial prejudice, and it was fearfully simple. The Nazis decided that the Jews were less than human and were, therefore, proper subjects for bestial experiments and finally mass extermination. Himmler, for example, put it like this to a gathering of his S.S. generals at Posen in 1943:

“Anti-Semitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology, it a matter of cleanliness. In just this same way anti-Semitism for us has not been a question of ideology but a matter of cleanliness.”

No evidence worthy of the name was ever produced to support statements like that, any more than any was ever produced to support their corollary, that there was an innately superior type of person—a fair haired, blue eyed so-called Aryan—who was destined to rule the world. (Only one or two of the top Nazi leaders bore the faintest resemblance to their own idea of racial perfection:) But the gas chambers did not need evidence and rational thought to feed them; they lived on the evil fruits of barbarous prejudices.

In the same way, there is no proper evidence to support the racial theory which is now most prevalent—colour prejudice. Not so long ago, people in this country thought that violent colour discrimination was confined to places like South Africa and the United States, and could not happen here. The influx of coloured immigrants over the past twelve years or so, working its own type of aggravation on the problems of housing, employment and so on, has shown how false was this comfortable notion.

This is not to say that Smethwick is the same as, or indeed anything like, Selma. Nowhere in this country is there a tradition of militancy to compare with that of the American South. People in, for example, Alabama and Mississippi assert their prejudices in defiance of the law, yet they escape the law’s reprisals, which is something yet to happen in Great Britain. The conspiracy in the South is to all intents and purposes complete; it often includes the very people who are supposed to enforce the law. It includes the sheriffs and their deputies and the legal officers of the states.

In a letter to The Guardian of April 14th, 1960, a Judge Jones of Burke County, Georgia, revealed his thinking on the colour question:

“Freely admitting that the number of our Negro voters is relatively small, we believe that this is due to the ignorance and indifference of the Negroes themselves rather than to any present policy of disfranchisement.”

Judge Jones described himself as “a friend sympathetic to the Negroes”: it would be interesting to know whether he now thought the obstacles put in the way of the Negroes who tried to register to vote in Selma amount to a “policy of disfranchisement” or not.

In any case, it is this sort of stonewalling which helps to keep the Negroes deprived of their vote, their chance of employment on equal terms with the whites, the legal right to eat, or ride a bus. alongside a white person. And in the end, if the Negro refuses to accept an inferior social status, it sometimes deprives him of his life.

It is as well to say a word here about the laws, such as the Civil Rights Bill, which the Southerners defy. Many people think that these laws were inspired by humane motives. In fact, they were passed because American capitalism needs them. One of capitalism’s achievements was to make labour power free to move from one place of employment to another, as the prospects of profit require. But the archaic prejudices which are responsible for the Confederate flag being still flown above the Capital in Montgomery, Alabama want to enslave, and therefore restrict the freedom of, the labour power which is in coloured bodies.

Capitalism’s interests demand that it should not be concerned about skin colour; it wants to exploit all its workers at maximum intensity. At the same time, capitalism hates waste which depletes its profits—and having things like transport systems, hospitals and living areas divided into white and coloured is mightily wasteful. The Civil Rights, laws are designed to eliminate, or at least to lessen, all of this and to open up further fields of exploitation for American capitalism.

When the Southern racists defy United States law, then, they are ignoring the needs of the very social system they so ardently support. But capitalism is a ruthless system; it will not be denied by a crackpot minority who cling to the nostalgias of the Civil War and to the divisive theories of the Confederacy. It seems certain that the Klansmen will be forced into a sullen acceptance of integration. The Negroes will have the vote, and the other rights for which they are now demonstrating. But will they also develop their own delusions and prejudices, and at election times support, with the votes so clearly won, the system which exploits and degrades them? If they do, somebody is sure to call this progress.

Before that happens there is a long, hard road of brutality to be travelled. The Southern rebels are representing ideas sprung from the roots of an earlier social system, and such attitudes do not die easily. They will not quickly abandon their prejudices, especially as long as they can assert them in violence. (There is a chilling echo of Himmler’s words in this extract from Ku-Klux-Klan literature which was circulating in Mississippi last Summer: “Race mixing is more criminal than murder.”)

The demonstrations, also, will continue; the Civil Rights workers have shown that they are not easily broken. These workers are doubtless confused, not to say ignorant, on many issues; they are certainly not Socialists; the end of their campaign will at best deliver the Negro from one type of suppression into another. It is easy enough to write this, in comfortable London. But it does not obscure the impressive courage of many of the Civil Rights workers—of the three young men who were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss., nor of those who were killed in the Selma marches, nor of the many others who have suffered in the Negro cause.

Compared to these people, the white racists are a poor lot. The novels of James Baldwin make the point that those who erect racial prejudices are themselves lowered by it. The many people who endured the concentration camps, and kept their dignity, were infinitely more mature and complete human beings than the insane brutes who tormented them.

The one hope in this is to be found in examining the reasons for racial prejudices. Capitalism rests upon the ignorance and the apathy of its people. It requires only a few to be sensitive and learned; the mass are expected and encouraged to absorb only as much knowledge as will fit them into their place in the routine of exploitation. Capitalism promotes a ruthless competitive urge, and all manner of conceits, It instils nationalism into the working class, and it sets its own example by living out its disputes in violence. Periodically, capitalism glorifies brutality—it makes heroes of military murderers, it ennobles the men who organise the mass killings of wartime.

In this situation, one type of ignorance begets another even one like racial prejudice, which capitalism generally finds a nuisance. But popular ignorance has its own momentum. The most recent example of this is the way in which the Labour Party has been forced to pander to electoral realities by imposing even stricter immigration controls than the Conservatives did. (It was, after all, Labour voters who changed their votes in Smethwick, on the issue of immigration control.) This has been done despite the bitter attacks which the Labour Party made on the original controls, and despite the fact that Mr. Wilson is still strongly condemning racial discrimination:

“. . . we have a duty at home to show our deep loathing and to condemn by our words, and to outlaw by our deeds, racial intolerance, colour prejudice, anti-Semitism . . .”

Those words were spoken at last November’s Lord Mayor’s banquet. Perhaps everybody there was too full of over-ripe pheasant to reflect that Mr. Wilson, like the other political leaders of capitalism, is after the votes of workers who are politically ignorant, and who are therefore easy prey to any rabble-rousing race maniac Mr. Wilson wants the support of people who, although they react against problems like bad housing, unemployment, inadequate hospitals, have not the first idea of how to abolish them—and who cannot hope for enlightenment from Mr. Wilson’s party. They are, therefore, liable to blame such problems onto anything or anybody. At the moment, many British workers are inclined to blame the influx of foreign, and especially coloured, immigrants. This, in its way, is no more foolish than the Labour Government blaming the financial crises of British captalism onto foreign financiers.

The roots of racial intolerance are now stirring in this country, and it is disturbing to reflect that they may yet blossom into the same sort of malignant growth as disfigured pre-war Germany, and which went on to transform the greater part of Europe into a paradise for sadistic thugs. Racial theories divide the working class and set them against each other. They deny the unity of workers’ interests, which overrides all barriers of nation, skin colour, language, and which joins all workers everywhere in the need for Socialism.

In some ways, the human race now resembles a blind, wounded beast, picking its way over a wilderness of smouldering ignorance. But human beings have eyes to see, and they are whole. There is massive hope in those who hang on and work for enlightenment, for the day when man ceases to wander like a tormented beast and starts to live like a man.


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