VIEW: Origins of racism —Ralph Shaw - Thursday, October 28, 2010

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Power translates prejudice into discrimination. Whereas prejudice is an attitude, a state of mind, a capacity for injustice, discrimination pertains to behaviour; it is the actual act of injustice and it cannot be realised without power

Contemporary science concurs with religion (Judeo-Christianity, Islam) in proclaiming that there is unity in human diversity. That all present-day human populations are descended from an ancient common stock is as much a modern scientific creed as it is a traditional religious belief. Scientists generally agree that physical differences in population groups have come about due to evolutionary factors such as geographical isolation, mutation, natural selection and hybridisation. Thus, if all modern humans, black and white included, descended from a common set of ancestors in antiquity, the concept of race loses much of its meaning. If a Nordic and a Negroid are cousins 200 generations removed, racial superiority of the one over the other has no validity.

However, even though the biological concept of race is out of vogue, the fact remains that race is real in a social sense and perceptions, whether grounded in reality or myth, have consequences — perceptions matter. If people believe that there are races and that their own is superior to the others, they are likely to act accordingly. A belief in human races can, under certain conditions, lead to prejudice, discrimination and apartheid. Racism is prejudice and discrimination based on race.

The factors that give rise to racism are complex and varied. Social scientists do not single out any specific set of processes that gives rise to racism. However, they do suggest that contact, social visibility, ethnocentrism, competition and power inequalities are the ingredients that give rise to racism.

People have always moved about. Wars, quest for adventure, greed, calamity and a host of other factors have brought people into contact with each other since time immemorial. Ever since man lost the abundance, happiness and contentment of paradise, he has been wandering about the globe. The earliest known contacts are those of humans with Neanderthals, with calamitous consequences for the latter. Neanderthals were either amalgamated or annihilated in this encounter, with annihilation being the greater possibility although no record exists of this prehistoric genocide. Thus, migration is the first step in the building of racial and ethnic prejudices. Without it racism would be unknown.

If the migrants are few in number, they generally escape group discrimination on account of lack of social visibility and, over time, are often amalgamated in the host population. However, if the immigrants are substantial in number and exhibit cultural traits such as language, accents, mannerisms, dress, food and habits that identify them as the members of a specific ethnic group, hostilities can arise over time. The case of the American Jews is illustrative.

The failed revolution of 1848 and the slump in European trade (1836) caused many Germans to move to the US. Around five percent of the arriving Germans were Jews. The Jewish population in the US jumped from 15,000 in 1840 to 150,000 in 1860 but the Jews did not face significant discrimination because they were still few in number, relatively speaking, and were socially invisible in American society. The prejudice they encountered at this early date was religious rather than racist. However, by the end of the 1870s, anti-Semitism was on the rise. This was partly due to the economic success of the German Jews. Economic success had given them greater visibility as well as a stereotype — the ‘quintessential parvenu’, i.e. an uncultivated, pushy, loud-mouthed upstart. Following Czar Alexander’s (II) assassination in 1881 by revolutionary terrorists, the Russian government started a large-scale persecution of the Jews, and Jewish immigration to the US skyrocketed. Increasing numbers and economic success gave them greater visibility. Prejudices started to intensify and racist theories began to be propounded nationwide throughout the 1880s and 1890s. During this phase of American history, other immigrant communities did not escape the bigotry of racism but Jews were the main recipients of prejudicial feelings because of their greater numbers and higher social visibility.

Ethnocentrism is belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group. A word coined by William Graham Sumner, ethnocentrism entails group glorification and the judging of other cultures by standards prevalent in one’s own culture. Ethnocentrism often, though not always, results in negative and prejudicial feelings towards the out-group. If one considers one’s own group as the best, others are automatically scaled down in ratings. Ethnocentrism is contagious. Established in one ethnic group, it tends to foster the same in other ethnic groups. The marvel of ethnocentrism is that one’s own group’s virtues become the other group’s vices. As one sociologist put it, if “the in-group hero (is) frugal, thrifty and sparing”, the out-group villain is “stingy, miserly and penny-pinching.” Hard work signifies industry in one’s own group but is a sign of asininity in the out-group.

Contact, social visibility and ethnocentrism are elementary in the making of racism but they do not necessarily give rise to racism by themselves. Even in the presence of these factors, there are known cases of communal adjustment and harmony. Competition for scarce resources is essential to racism. When the gains of one group can only happen at the expense of another, competition is the natural outcome. Inter-group competition inevitably begets prejudice and discrimination. The correlation between depression and prejudice against minorities is no accident. Unemployment intensifies the competition for jobs and hostility is generated by the frustrations of unemployment.

Power translates prejudice into discrimination. Whereas prejudice is an attitude, a state of mind, a capacity for injustice, discrimination pertains to behaviour; it is the actual act of injustice and it cannot be realised without power.

In short, when different groups of people meet and the numbers are substantial, racism develops if there is competition for scarce resources directed along ethnic lines and one group has the power to subordinate and impose its values, norms and preferences on others.

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at

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