Which comes first, racism or the systemic need for racism?
In all the reams of printed and digital discussion about Donald Trump’s (attempted) ban on Muslims from seven countries, the murder of six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque and Islamophobia in general, few commentators have mentioned the economic roots of racism.
But the truth is ideas have always been needed to justify treating other people badly in the competition for wealth and power. As long as there have been battles over resources people have objectified and demeaned the “other” to provide ideological cover and to motivate their side to victory.
This has likely gone on for a very, very long time, but it was not until the modern, capitalist era that the notion of “race” was invented. Capitalism was taking over the world and needed an ideology to explain and justify war, the enslavement of Africans, the pillage of Asia and the stealing of indigenous people’s lands across the globe, amongst other crimes against humanity. The absurd idea of “race” and the ideology of racism were invented to serve the economic interests of European capitalists.
Like religion, which often served to justify various forms of minority rule and imposed a common understanding of “the way things are” to enable a few to rule over ever larger numbers of people, the ideology of racism took on various cultural and institutional forms.
So, for example, in the land that is now called Canada, where there was little economic need for slavery the institutions and culture of racism were much different than in the parts of the Americas where plantation economies were dominant. Anti-aboriginal racism, needed to justify stealing First Nations’ land and control over resources, was, and is, most common.
Even within the various slave societies the culture and institutions of racism could vary widely depending on the exact economic and social situation. This can be illustrated by contrasting racism in the United States, with its large poor white European population and the Caribbean islands with their overwhelmingly African slave majorities. In the latter societies the legal system and cultural practices gave higher status to “part white” people while in the former, one’s legal and social status was black unless you could “pass” as completely white. The economy in the United States didn’t need “whiter” people to function as foremen or various other higher status positions — it had enough Europeans to perform those roles.
If racism and the forms it took were shaped by economic interests, what can we learn from this history that is relevant to current Islamophobia and even the rise of Donald Trump?
First, that there is a fundamental connection between western capitalists’ desire/need to profit from Middle Eastern resources and Islamophobia (and other forms of anti-Arab racism). The ongoing war over control of the land of Palestine is obviously a key source of this racism, as is evidenced by Jewish/Christian Zionists’ (a critical Trump electoral base) fanatical support for both growing Israel settlements and anti-Muslim ideology.
Second, that to be an effective anti-racist one must also be prepared to change our economy, and especially its addiction to war, so that it no longer requires the sort of “us and them” fight over resources that produces racism.
Third, one must understand that many supporters of the current economic system believe that to be anti-racist is also to be anti-capitalist. Nationalists such as Trump, Le Pen, Farage etc., are consciously racist precisely because they believe the us/them way of looking at the world must be encouraged to keep their national capitalism strong. And, one needs to add, to keep working class opposition at a minimum through dividing and conquering. Such nationalists hate anti-racists and equate them with communists or other enemies of the existing economic system. Time and again throughout history the majority of capitalists in many countries have used these racist nationalists to save their economic system.
People who desire a better, inclusive, democratic, racism-free world can achieve their goals, but only if they understand the forces that are working against them.