Racism: From Slavery to Apartheid to Brixton

Racism is the belief that one group of people is superior to another based on the colour of their skin, their ethnicity or their nationality.

Racism can take many forms; the most common is for the victim to be subjected to racist language, which typically includes racist names and derogatory language about background, traditions and culture. Racism can also lead to violence, including assault and even murder. Victims of racism are made to feel small, weak and insignificant, especially compared to other races. It can lead to feelings of anger, self-loathing and depression.

Those who hold racist views may have acquired them from a variety of sources. Some may have grown up in surroundings where racist views were prevalent. Alternatively, they may have made friends at school who held such views without knowing they were wrong.

Some may develop their views based on what they see or read in the media. Additionally, some governments in history have deliberately adopted racist policies which lasted for many years, resulting in generations growing up with racism being normalised in society. Some of these will be examined later.

Racism in some form or another can be traced back to the beginnings of civilisation itself. In Ancient Rome, the term “barbarians” can be frequently found as an adjective to describe non-native peoples, implying that the inhabitants of other lands did not measure up to the standards and morals which the Romans held themselves to.

The slave trade, which began in the 15th century and grew exponentially in the 16th century, saw Africans being forcefully abducted from their homelands and exchanged by European traders for goods such as brandy and guns.

This diminished the status of Africans to mere commodities and saw them subjected to horrific conditions on board slave ships. Placing white people in such conditions would have been unthinkable. Even when the slave trade was finally abolished, slavery itself continued around the world until the mid-1800s. Similarly, the discovery and colonisation of the New World popularised the belief that the incumbent inhabitants were “savages” that needed to be either tamed or wiped out. Peoples such as Native Americans were subjected to prolonged periods of genocide, discrimination and inequality.

Racism and the belief that the white man was racially superior to all others was especially pertinent during the time of Empire. To take the British Empire as an example, in southern Africa the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, once wrote: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.” When considered alongside Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden”, which exhorts the United States to conquer and subjugate the Philippines and includes words such as “Your new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child”, we can clearly see a deeply ingrained belief that to be non-white was to be less than human.

Perhaps the two most recognisable forms of state-sanctioned racism in the
twentieth century are apartheid in South Africa and segregation in the United States. In 1948, the National Party came to power in South Africa promising increased racial segregation.

They immediately set about implementing the laws which would form apartheid. Every non-white citizen was classified according to race, mixed marriages were banned and people of certain races, predominantly black Africans, were forced to live in designated areas known as townships.

White South Africans enjoyed many privileges forbidden to non-whites and even toilet facilities were segregated. This form of government was reviled around the world and many sanctions were placed on South Africa.

Apartheid was finally dismantled in 1994.

Segregation, particularly in the southern states but also present in the North, in USA began in earnest with the so-called Jim Crow Laws (named after a derogatory term for African Americans). These segregated everything from schools to public parks and pools, theatres to cemeteries and even jails and public phone booths.

Job opportunities were frequently denied to African Americans and many businesses such as restaurants operated on a Whites Only basis. For decades, the civil rights movement strove to amend the law so that Americans of all ethnicities could enjoy equality and freedom.

Notable figures of this movement include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and MalcolmX. Eventually, in the 1950s and 1960s, a series of acts were passed which saw African Americans granted the same rights in work, justice, housing and education as their white counterparts.

Racism is also prevalent in many early films such as D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, most notably through the use of “blackface”, a process by which an actor darkens their skin, usually with soot, to appear “black”.

This process was heavily used in 19th century theatre productions and served to reinforce racial stereotypes. Blackface was usually accompanied by exaggerated lips and wild hair, most notably through the “golliwog” character which made many appearances in children’s books.

Notable uses of blackface in the United Kingdom include the BBC’s Black and White Minstrel Show which was broadcast from 1958 to 1978. Racial stereotypes also abound in many LooneyTunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, most notably when an explosion or the backfiring of a car in a character’s face produces a blackface caricature.

Racism continues to be an ongoing issue around the world. During the 1980s United Kingdom serious race riots erupted in Brixton, Toxteth,
Handsworth, Chapeltown and Moss Side in 1981, Tottenham and Brixton
again in 1985 and Bradford in 2001, mostly as a result of continuous tensions between local black communities and the police.

Paris saw serious rioting for three weeks in 2005. Notable victims of racially-motivated attacks include Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in 1993, Philip Lawrence, a headmaster who was murdered in 1995 as he attempted to defend a black pupil from a racist attack and Anthony Walker, who was murdered in 2005.

In whatever form it takes, be it racial insults, harassment directed against local communities or prejudices stoked by material in the media, the best weapons against racism remain tolerance, understanding, education and perseverance.

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