Colour prejudice is just an idea

Anyone who ever gets involved in arguments with racists sooner or later runs up against their assumption—sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit—that their prejudices are based on an eternal, natural law. The assumption which follows this is that racism has an existence independent from other social factors and that, unlike other ideas, it came into being regardless of whatever else was happening in the world and will, therefore, remain regardless of whatever else happens. The importance of examining this theory is not so much to assess the value of the racists’ assumption but also to look at an example of the forces which operate for changes in society and in its ideas.

Let us begin with the simple statement that the Negro, who has suffered centuries of oppression in America, did not choose to go there in the first place. He was taken there—mostly by force. This transportation began at a time when manufacture was developing in North West Europe and a plantation economy taking root in the West Indies and the American South. The first Negroes were brought from Africa in 1510, to work the gold mines of what was then Hispaniolia. By the beginning of the 17th. century there were settlements all along the east coast of America, from Massachusetts to the West Indies.

These settlements represented one corner of a triangular trade, which supplied raw materials to another corner which was European industry. The third corner was Africa, where the Negro slaves were to be found. The sides of this triangle were the voyages between the corners— first the carriage of manufactures from Europe to be exchanged for African slaves who had been captured in tribal wars and raids; then carrying the slaves across to America to be traded for raw materials; and finally bringing the materials to Europe, to feed the appetites of the manufacturers there. At first the Negroes were treated in the same way as white indentured servants and were allowed to buy their freedom; they were not subjected to any race prejudice. It was the demands of the plantations, with crops depending on regular, disciplined tilling, which brought the pressure for outright slavery. Virginia, the first American colony to import Negroes, legalised slavery in 1617.

The side of the triangle representing the carriage of slaves from Africa to America was called the “middle voyage’’ and it was here that great cruelty was imposed and suffering endured — and vast profits made. It is possible now only to estimate the numbers who underwent the horrors of the middle voyage but a cautious figure would be 15 million, with a death rate of about 20 per cent. The central fact of this trade was that the slaves were not regarded as being any more sensitive than inanimate cargo. Thus they had to be packed into the holds of the slave ships as tightly as possible—one writer describes them as lying “like spoons”—and there could be no second thoughts about jettisoning them if disease broke out aboard, or if the ship ran into heavy weather. Those who survived the crossing were cleaned and oiled and polished for the auction.

Many great fortunes were made from the triangular trade. In 1789, the total trade of France amounted to £17 million of which San Domingo, with its slave economy, was responsible for £11 million. The bourgeoisie of Bordeaux and Marseilles, and the merchant capitalists of Manchester and Liverpool, owed most of their wealth—their big, comfortable houses, their carriages, their women—to the slave trade and all that it meant in human suffering and degradation.

There was of course a contradiction in the erection of an entire, and very important, economy on slavery at a time when the countries which were responsible for it were themselves developing the commodity production of capitalism, which needed free labour power. An attempt was made to resolve this contradiction by the simple expedient of classifying the Negro as an inherently inferior being. Thus American slavery could be distinguished from earlier forms, which were in harmony with the prevailing mode of wealth production, by its conscious dehumanising of the slave. Negro families were broken up either during or after the middle voyage ; the slaves were forbidden any education in reading or writing and they had no legal existence other than as the property of someone else. In 1857 the Dred Scott decision, which caused such an uproar, merely gave formal confirmation to something which had existed in fact for a very long time.

By that time the theories of racism, having taken something like three centuries of the slave trade to form themselves, began to emerge. Before then, the climate of opinion was such that the slave was regarded as outside the pale of humanity—without law, morals or religion. As each wretched shipment came in, religious divines rejoiced at all those souls saved from the moral depredations of paganism and idolatry. (At first any slaves who accepted conversion to Christianity automatically won their freedom. But by the end of the eighteenth century the Church had decided that there was after all nothing inconsistent in the converted Negro remaining a slave—and of course the slave owners agreed.) Dr. Cartwright, a professor at the University of Louisiana, diagnosed the slaves’ lack of interest in their work, and their tendency to run away, as mental diseases with impressive names—dyaesthesia and drapetomanie—for which the only cure was a whipping.

And not only the pro-slavers were affected. In 1765 Granville Sharp, who was later an abolitionist, intervened to save the life of a slave who had been flogged almost to death. At the time Sharp did not regard this incident as anything more than an act of private charity—certainly not as a condemnation of slavery. It is not surprising, that the whole thing eventually became rationalised into a theory, or perhaps a series of theories. In the early nineteenth century, for example, the “Teutonic Origin” theory—the idea that all worthwhile cultural achievements were the work of the peoples of North West Europe—took root, fostered by intellectual leaders like Bishop Stubbs of Oxford.

What this means is that any measures which, say, the American government now takes on civil rights must run up against opinions and prejudices which have become entrenched over centuries. These opinions have been responsible for some pretty dreadful episodes; for example the Tuskegee Institute documented 1,797 lynchings of Southern Negroes which took place between 1900 and 1964. This figure takes no account of the undocumented killings—the quiet murders with the body dumped in the river or the swamp and few people beyond the victim’s family marking their disappearance. More recently, between 1964 and 1967 over forty Negroes and whites have been murdered or lynched in Mississippi alone, without any effective action being taken against those responsible, although often their identity is general knowledge.

In addition, widespread, persistent segregation exists, in spite of the many Bills which have been passed to outlaw it. Sometimes this segregation is open, as it is in the schools of the Deep South, eight out of nine of which are still segregated. Sometimes it is a more subtle, de facto segregation, in which the whites simply move out of a district and leave it, with its schools, to the Negroes. The effect of this in Washington, D.C. is that in nearly all district schools black pupils are in a majority of over 95 per cent.

Herding any depressed group into a particular section of a city brings its own problems and tensions. In the case of the Negroes in America, these are accentuated when coloured workers from the South, thrown out of work by the increased use of mechanised farming methods and pesticides, migrate into that section. This produces the classic immigration situation, of desperate people pouring into an area already run down, an area of crumbling buildings which house rats and lice along with the people and where rack renters and other exploiters can take rich pickings.

There is a short, evocative word to describe these areas. Ghettoes. Officially, their names are, for example, Watts in Los Angeles and Harlem in New York. It is no cause for surprise, that they are breeding grounds for all manner of social disorders; in Harlem in 1964 the juvenile delinquency rate was twice that for the city as a whole, the proportion of drug addicts about ten times, the incidence of venereal disease in the under-21s six times.

Yet the very existence of the ghettoes, and the ways in which the Negroes protest—by riots, burnings, Black Power cells—are all taken by the racists as evidence to boost their conviction that Negroes are sub-human and therefore deserve nothing better than confinement in more ghettoes, and subjection to more prejudice and fiercer suppression. This racism is self-perpetuating, feeds upon its own appetite—and all in the conviction that it is an eternal and immutable truth.

And that really is the key to it. Contrary to what the racists think, racism as much as any other idea is a product of the prevailing economic conditions in society. Which means that, like other ideas which in their day were just as reactionary, just as powerful, it must change, and die, as conditions outside it require.