Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

What is racism?

by Kuljit 'Kooj' Chuhan

‘If someone asked to make a plan of how to tackle racism, the first thing I'd insist on is that every level of the education system, from nursery onwards, that kids are learning about different cultures, To me racism is about two things: greed and money, and fear. ... Secondly, it's about going through every single aspect of the system - and changing it. ... There's a bigger picture. People make money out of racism. People keep other people down through racism. People can brainwash and trick predominantly poor people into fighting against each other. We don't get anywhere by fighting each other. The problem is the system that's got us thinking this way in the first place.’ Ms Dynamite interviewed by Love Music, Hate Racism, 2005

Origins of racism

We are all used to the word racism. It is heard on the news, on the street, in the workplace, at school and so on. The idea that some people can be treated unfairly, put down, insulted or attacked simply because of the culture they are descended from has existed in Britain for a considerable time. Yet attitudes to people of different cultural origins have not always been the same.

Transatlantic slavery played a key part in the making and spreading of racist ideas. By looking at how racism came into being and how it has changed we can begin to understand it, and then be able to deal with it better.

Definitions of racism

But first of all, do we all mean the same thing when we say ‘racism‘? There is a lot of confusion about what this word means. Some people say someone might act in a racist way due to ignorance, or being persuaded by others, or copying the behaviour of others. But none of this tells us how racism started, and if we can’t get to the root cause, it will just carry on.
Is racism the same thing as racial prejudice? Can anyone be racist to anybody else? The answer is not obvious. Humans have always had prejudices against other people who may come from a different area or country, and people will often say that this is racist.

However, there are different views on this. In simple terms, racism is the belief that distinct human races exist and that one race is superior to another. This definition is generally agreed by the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary (USA) and the Macquarie Dictionary (Australia).

One common view is that racism and racial prejudice are the same thing, that anyone can be racist to another person because of their cultural and national origins, and racism simply goes both ways between any races that have some kind of conflict. This sense of racism often comes to mind when many people use the word, though it ignores the ways in which one race can suppress and exploit another race such as with transatlantic slavery.

Racism and power

An important alternative view is that, while anyone can have prejudices against anyone else and then discriminate against that person, such behaviour can only be racist if it comes from the ‘race' which over the years has been placed as superior and uses its power to strengthen and enforce its prejudices. Many have argued that racism, then, equals racial prejudice plus power.

According to this definition, while a black person might be prejudiced against a white person on the basis of race, perhaps violently and unjustly, this may not strictly be racism because the black person does not have the assumed support of institutions such as the police or the media behind them.

This idea of racism says that there are many parts of society and the major organisations that run it which in either loud or subtle ways support racism, and these support what was declared to be the ‘superior’ race.

Entrenched inequalities

Racism can therefore be seen to occur in many different areas of society. In 2006, black pupils were three times more likely than white ones to be permanently excluded from school and the least likely to get five or more GCSEs. Despite this, black Africans are more likely than white people to have university degrees or their equivalent, but are four times less likely to get a job after graduating. Black people are eight times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police, yet once under court scrutiny they are less likely actually to be found guilty. Black people and ethnic minorities are more likely to be victims of crime and of racially motivated attacks. Statistics shows that black people are three times as likely to be out of work, are paid less than white people with similar qualifications. Black people are also regularly recognised by employment tribunals to be discriminated against and bullied at work (see www.irr.org.uk/factfile for more information).

Britain and Africa before the transatlantic slave trade

So there is still racism in Britain, but before transatlantic slavery, African people were thought to have equal relations with the British. For example, in around 1500 there are records of black musicians playing in the courts of James IV of Scotland and Henry VII of England.

The idea of ‘race’ as we now know it did not exist, though there was a sense of the ‘others’, simply people of other cultures and lands. The way that the idea of ‘race’ and of the racial superiority of white people developed during transatlantic slavery, how this was used to justify the exploitation and genocide of people from Africa (and elsewhere), and also how black people have continually fought against it, is a complex story explored in these articles.

‘Oh I am not racist,’ many white folks have said
But racism’s not just a thought in your head
It’s the privilege we wield when we walk down the street
And don’t have to fear each white cop that we meet’
Ethan Miller, lyrics from song ‘White Lies’.