Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

The development of racist theories and ideas

by Kuljit 'Kooj' Chuhan

As Patrick Manning writes, 'In 1500, Africans or persons of African descent were a clear minority of the world's slave population; but by 1700, the majority'.

As the population of European ‘indentured’ servants began to decrease, there was a need for a stable work force and Africans became the sole labour force for the white British planters. Africans gradually began being associated with the status of the enslaved and the minority of free blacks that existed gradually decreased and their status also declined.

At the same time, to prevent uprisings by the poor white indentured servants, the white lawmakers put them at ease by stating that black people were fundamentally of a lower class standing. There was also no one coming to the aid of Africans; even the Christian church backed the institution of slavery.

By the early 1700s the status of black people became property, not people. New laws included the various slave codes (in North America) which included statements such as: 'All servants imported and brought into the Country ... who were not Christians in their native Country ... shall be accounted and be slaves' (1705). This was all a part of a transformation making 'black' synonymous with 'slave'. Other codes removed any possibility of whites being punished for ‘accidental’ deaths of blacks or enslaved people while they were being given ‘corrective treatment’.

Science and racism

The eighteenth century also began the period in Europe called the Enlightenment, where authority began to be supposedly based on reason rather than religion or 'superstition'. Scholars in the mid eighteenth century began to classify people on the basis of race. Scandinavian born Carolus Linnaeus' work 'Systema Naturae' (1735) was the first to create a classification of race based on skin colour, and different races were actually said to be different species of living things. Homo Europeus was 'of fair complexion, sanguine temperament and becoming form... of gentle manners, acute in judgment... governed by fixed laws'. On the other hand, Homo Afer was deemed to be of '... black complexion, phlegmatic temperament... crafty, indolent... governed in their actions by caprice'.
This system of racial classification was added to by Johann Blumenbach, professor at the University of Gottingen, Germany, who created a 'science' called craniology, which tried to use the shape and dimensions of human skulls to measure intelligence ratios. His work 'On the Natural Variety of Humankind' decided that the shape of the African skull limited his capacity for intelligence. He also placed the Western European Caucasian at the top of all civilised beings. This was the beginning of what we now call scientific racism.

A range of 'pseudo sciences' developed all of which claimed to use scientific evidence to classify the 'Negro' as a subset of man, a freak of nature, a product of biological misfortune. Of course, these scientific systems of classification were not scientific at all and they showed how even science was in fact 'the product of social prejudices‘. These theories were created to fit African people even more into the already widely held stereotype.

Racial superiority, inferiority and eugenics

These ideas spread across Europe. In 1748, the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume wrote:

'I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men'.

In the mid nineteenth century the 'scientific' philosophy of 'eugenics' was also developed, originally by Sir Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin). Eugenics is based around the idea of improving the quality of the stock of human beings on the planet, by various methods which would reduce the numbers of 'less desirable' kinds of people. It was applied and used to make acceptable the brutal conditions of the enslaved people, servants and 'British subjects' in the various British colonies.

Social Darwinism

Eugenics was related to a version of Darwin’s theory of evolution called 'Social Darwinism' created by Herbert Spencer, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die. This was put forward to say that it was natural, normal, and proper for the strong to thrive at the expense of the weak, and this justified the oppression of the lower classes by the upper classes and by colonisers over the colonised, slave masters over enslaved Africans and Europeans over all other races. It was also used to justify, for example, the tough British policies during the Indian famines in the late nineteenth century in which over a million people died.

Many leading people including those we normally consider to be respectable have been supporters of eugenics, for example HG Wells, Emile Zola, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, William Keith Kellogg (who invented Corn Flakes), and Sir Winston Churchill.

It was after the carrying out of eugenics programmes by Nazi Germany (which sterilised or killed hundreds of thousands of people not thought to be worthy humans), and the way it was used to make parts of the holocaust acceptable, that eugenics finally lost respect as a proper school of thought.

Public exhibitions of people

Social Darwinism also led to Europeans putting on exhibitions of real live human beings from non-European, 'exotic' and 'lower' races, especially from the 1870s onwards. Basically these were human zoos and were very popular attractions. For example, in 1876, Carl Hagenbeck, a German merchant in wild animals and future entrepreneur of many European zoos, sent a collaborator to the Egyptian Sudan to bring back some wild beasts and local 'Nubian' people. The Nubian exhibit was very successful in Europe and toured Paris, London, and Berlin. Human zoos could be found in Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, New York, and Warsaw with 200,000 to 300,000 visitors attending each exhibition. In 1878 and again in 1889 the Parisian World's Fair presented a Negro Village, and the second one was visited by 28 million people and displayed 400 'indigenous peoples' as the major attraction.

They supposedly tried to show how such races lived, in a similar way to showing how animals lived yet as more of an entertainment spectacle, and this was a continuation of the kind of dehumanising story which was the basic method of racism. They continued long into the twentieth century and cemented the link between racism, anthropology, Social Darwinism and eugenics. Some critics of modern TV and film documentaries on non European cultures suggest that a similar kind of spectacle is being created.