By Ron Daniels
Because we do such a terrible job in talking about racism here in the
Overall, someone said, What would I call this topic? I think I would call it "Racism: A Key Deterrent to Genuine Political and Economic Democracy in American Society." What I'd like to do is to do my best to try to give you as in-depth a view as I can about the history of racism and how it has affected us and continues to affect us in American society. I really want to lay out some basic propositions, number one, some working definitions, give you some historical background, talk about current conditions, and then go on to conclude with some suggestions for actions.
In terms of propositions, I want to lay out the following: Number one, that theories of race and attitudes of racial superiority and inferiority, prejudice and bigotry evolved into an institutionalized system of discrimination, of exclusion, of deprivation and oppression based on color or race, an accidental quality, if you will, of color/race. In the black community very often we call this a system of white supremacy or white domination. Proposition two: Racism and cultural aggression were and are highly destructive of people of color in terms of the struggle to develop and sustain community and "peopleness." This is particularly true of native people in this country and African Americans, who have been the most extreme cases of the impact of racism and cultural aggression. Proposition three: Historically, racism constituted and constitutes a system of special privileges, benefits and psychological and symbolic and material rewards for white people. Indeed, one might characterize the system as a long-standing affirmative action program for white people. Proposition number four: Historically, racism has been used and is used as a mechanism and a strategy to divide and exploit people of color and poor and working people, particularly to divide between white working-class people and poor people and whites in general and people of color. Therefore, in this regard it retards the ability to organize along class lines. The final proposition is the thesis of this discussion: That the creation of a new society with genuine political and economic democracy is impossible without the eradication of institutional racism and the breakup of white supremacy.
In talking about racism we need to have some sense of definitions. I want to do some definitions at this point. In defining racism, racism is not just simply individual random acts. Racism we see as a systematic discrimination against or exclusion, oppression of a group of people based upon an accidental quality, as in skin color, hair texture, shape and size of lips and so forth. It's systematic. It's not something that is simply random acts. Racism is to be distinguished from chauvinism. Much of what we often call racism is really not racism at all. It may be cultural or ethnic chauvinism. And chauvinism is often attitudes of superiority based on culture or ethnicity. One group of people feel that their cultural is superior to another, or one ethnic group may feel that it is better than another group. Then there's prejudice. Prejudice is simply a feeling of superiority or bias towards a personal group. Generally we talk about prejudice in terms of the pre-judging of people.
But racism is much more than chauvinism or prejudice. I might stand here and say that I think culturally or ethnically I'm better. I may have certain prejudices. And certainly we all do. But racism is distinguished by the fact that it is systemic and it relates to the question of power and capacity. That is to say, racism is about having the power or capacity to translate prejudices and attitudes or feelings of superiority into practice, custom, policy or law. That is a fundamental difference between simply saying, I don't like white folks, or, I don't like black folks, and the ability to in fact impose that prejudice in a way that impinges upon and thwarts the ability of a group to develop. I could care less whether someone likes me or not. It becomes very alarming when in fact they have the power through various institutions and mechanisms to translate that dislike into policies and customs that in fact block me and impede my ability to fulfill myself as a human being, or in fact even to do violence to my person.
In that regard, some of the terms that have come into prominent usage, particularly on the right with the advent of Reaganism and Reaganomics and Bush and the right wing, such terms as "reverse discrimination," that may be possible, or "black racism," almost an oxymoron. Can black people be racist? Yes, but it implies being in circumstances and situations where there is the capacity to take anti-white attitudes and to translate them into systems that thwart and impede the ability of white people to develop. Quite frankly, that has not been the history here in the U.S. That does not mean that you don't have black people who are prejudiced, who are bigoted, who get up and say bigoted things. But that is not in my judgment to be confused with racism. In fact, in some ways, to do that is to belittle the travail of slavery, the long history of racism and racist violence that has afflicted African people in this country.
What I'd like to do is spend a minute on the history of racism. Some of us, for many years I believe that racism always existed, that this was something that was deeply embedded in the American character, something that we had little opportunity to do anything about. In reality, race theory and racism is a relatively recent development in world history. If one were to go back and read some of the ancients, Herodotus, the Greeks and others, what we find in the ancient world is cultural chauvinism. The Greeks felt that they had the best civilization going. The Romans felt likewise. And there was prejudice and chauvinism. People fought each other based on that. But it was not on the basis of skin color, by and large. In fact, we are hard pressed to find it on the basis of skin color. Indeed, among the Greeks there were leading African people. Among the Romans there were leading African persons, some of whom became Roman emperors. As Roman emperors they thought they were better than anybody else, including other black people who were non-Roman. So that the discrimination and the kind of conflicts between groups was not about race, not about color. It was more about culture. It was more about a sense of cultural superiority or chauvinism than it was on the basis of skin color. In fact, Herodotus and some of the others who wrote about it talked about the virtues of black people in the ancient world, about Ethiopia being a place in Africa that was highly civilized. So we have to look elsewhere for this whole thing of racism as a systematic theory than in the ancient world.
Where we find it in terms of race theory and racism is in association with the transatlantic slave trade. In some respects it was an outgrowth of the transatlantic slave trade. It emerged almost as a rationale and justification for the massive human carnage that has come to be called the "African holocaust," where by some estimates 100 million Africans may have lost their lives. So you had in this regard people like Gobineau, the French philosopher/theorist, beginning to come up with these notions that there are races and that races have different characteristics and that there's a continuum of racial superiority to racial inferiority. That the Indo-Aryan or Caucasian is the superior and there are some people who are yellow who are not quite as good as the white folks but still better than others, and then brown and black and whatever. That became the continuum of superiority to inferiority. One of the most important points to stress about that is that black is the defining color. It is black/white. And even though there are other levels of discrimination involved, the defining color in terms of inferiority is black. The defining color in terms of superiority is white. So in the black community they have this phrase that sort of captures it: If you're white you're all right. Yellow, mellow. Brown, stick around. Black, get back. So in that sense, when you look at the history of how this has played out--and it's still played out--black people are always at the bottom of the ladder in terms of racial discrimination. Black is seen as the most inferior. So if you have societies like in South Africa where there miscegenation, and you have the "coloreds," the coloreds will be seen as being a notch or two above the blacks because they are seen as being better because their skin color is lighter. Even inside the African community, those who are seen as high yellow, or "light, bright and damn near white," as we used to say in the black community, are given more privileges.
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