by David Camfield
originally published in Canadian Dimension, Vol. 50, Issue 1, Winter 2016
Racism kills. This is obvious in the police killings that have sparked the important Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and in blatantly racist attacks such as the murders in a historic African- American church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015.
But racism also kills in more subtle ways. Lives are cut short by health problems brought on by living in poverty, toiling in hard and often insecure jobs and in various ways being treated as less valuable human beings. Even when it doesn’t lead to premature death, racism scars the lives of people who are forced to shoulder its burden.
Racism is a gift to right-wing political forces that thrive on scapegoating and fear of “terrorist” threats, both of which they often stir up. They channel fear and blame into support for their efforts to boost spending on the military, police and “security” (including surveillance of the population), restrict the ability of migrants to become citizens and impose a more conservative definition of what it means to be Canadian (or Québécois). Whether “home grown” or foreign, the face of today’s terrorist threat depicted by politicians and the mainstream media is usually non-white. Muslim-Canadians are often treated as collectively responsible for this threat. Racism is also a boon for employers, since it’s a barrier to solidarity among workers and lowers wage levels.
So confronting racism must matter a lot to anyone who wants to change the world. This makes it worth pausing to examine what racism is, and what a solid understanding of it can do for anti-racism.
The most common way of thinking about racism sees it as negative or hateful attitudes that individuals have about groups of people who are different from them in some way (usually skin colour). This is seen as the result of ignorance. The solution is education to improve “race relations.”
But if we consider the full scope of what’s involved, this liberal notion of race relations doesn’t do justice to the reality of racism. In Canada, people of colour and Indigenous peoples have, on average, lower incomes and less wealth than white people. They are underrepresented in higher-level positions in government and other state institutions as well as in businesses. They are more likely to have bad jobs and to live in poverty. They are more likely to be harassed by police, convicted of a criminal offence and serve time in prison. People of colour who are immigrants tend to be worse off than those born in Canada, but being born here doesn’t level the playing field. And being born in Canada doesn’t keep people of colour from often being seen by white people as being from somewhere else, as not “really” Canadian.
Because Canada is a capitalist society, wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of a tiny ruling class. That class is disproportionately white. In the rest of the population, the unequal distribution of income, wealth and power is slanted in favour of white men.
Clearly a lot more is going on than negative attitudes and poor “race relations.” As U.S. sociologist Stephen Steinberg puts it, “How is it that we apply such benign language to such a malignant problem? It is rather like diagnosing a melanoma as a skin rash, and prescribing a topical salve.”
Racism as a form of oppression
It is much more helpful to think of racism as a form of oppression (other forms include sexism and heterosexism). Oppression exists where systemic harm is inflicted on a group of people by another group. Racism, like other kinds of oppression, is a social relation, a pattern of interaction that’s part of how society is organized.
Steinberg puts it well: “Unlike ‘race relations,’ ‘racial oppression’ conveys a clear sense of the nature, magnitude, and sources of the problem. Whereas the race relations model assumes that racial prejudice arises out of a natural antipathy between groups on the basis of difference, ‘racial oppression’ locates the source of the problem within the structure of society. Whereas ‘race relations’ elides the issue of power, reducing racism down to the level of attitudes, ‘racial oppression’ makes clear from the outset that we are dealing here with a system of domination, one that entails major political and economic institutions, including the state itself. Whereas ‘race relations’ implies mutuality, ‘racial oppression’ clearly distinguishes between the oppressor and the oppressed.”
To be precise, racism is the oppression of a multigender group of people on the basis of differences (not limited to those related to sexuality or disability) that are treated as inherited and unchangeable. The differences singled out as relevant are often connected in some way to people’s bodies (skin colour, hair texture and so on). But they can also be cultural differences, when people are seen as defined by a supposedly unalterable culture. Today we see this in how Muslims in the West are considered inherently angry, irrational and violent.
Contrary to common belief, racial oppression hasn’t always existed. Religious persecution and the domination of conquered groups have been around for thousands of years. In these kinds of oppression, the oppressed aren’t treated as fundamentally different in ways that are both passed down to their descendants and unchangeable. For example, in medieval Europe Christians persecuted and sometimes killed Jews but religious conversion offered an escape route.
Racial oppression is qualitatively different. It didn’t exist for most of human history and is a relatively recent development. Capitalist colonialism was fundamental to forging racial oppression and spreading it around the world. Comparing anti-Jewish racism to religious persecution highlights what’s different about racial oppression: religious belief isn’t the issue, but rather the allegedly inherent differences that supposedly distinguish Jews from other humans (so-called “Jewish blood”). The Nazis didn’t care whether the people they identified as Jews and set out to exterminate were religious believers or atheists.
What people of colour and Indigenous people experience in Canada is racism. Although the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and human rights codes proclaim the equality of all citizens (which does little for the migrant wo rkers — mostly non-white — whose numbers continue to grow rapidly thanks to the federal government’s tilt towards admitting people on temporary work visas rather than as permanent residents), legal equality doesn’t produce social equality.
Official multiculturalism policies encourage us to think about cultural diversity instead of inequalities of wealth and power. Within the framework of official multiculturalism, people considered as belonging to “visible minorities” (visible to whom?) remain “targets for either assimilation or toleration.” This affects all who suffer from racial oppression even though class divisions, sexism and heterosexism mean that the material conditions and lived experiences of racially oppressed people vary enormously.
At the same time as they face racism, Indigenous people are also burdened with another kind of oppression: colonialism. This is because Canadian society was built by European settlers who dispossessed the original inhabitants from the land, marginalized them and attempted to eliminate them as culturally distinct peoples.
Thinking about racism as oppression also helps us to grasp that racism is a structural feature of the society in which we live. Once we do that, we can start to think about where we’re positioned in relation to racism. This helps to dispel the pernicious ideas that many white people have about “reverse racism.” Once we accept that racism is a form of oppression, it doesn’t take much effort to see that white people as a group aren’t systemically harmed as a consequence of being white.
Recognizing that racial oppression exists also opens the door to coming to grips with the fact that it has a flip-side: the advantages that people in dominant racial groups get from their position.
Privilege is an obstacle to understanding
There are many problems with the way the concept of privilege is commonly used today. The word often refers to any situation in which someone is better off than someone else (for example, calling the pay and benefits of unionized workers “privileges”). This leads to infinite fragmentation — there’s always someone worse off.
Thinking this way also hides the huge gulf of wealth and power between the ruling class and the working-class majority. Inequality among workingclass people is real, and some aspects of it are growing. But this is dwarfed by the enormous gap between classes.
In the case of racial privilege, white people frequently get preferential access to information about job openings and treatment in competition for jobs. Thanks to racism, we tend to get better pay and conditions at work and better treatment by landlords, service providers, business owners, police and the courts. There’s also some psychological consolation that comes from being white in a society that treats white people as “normal” or “unhyphenated” Canadians or Québécois. The magnitude of white privilege in Canada and Québec isn’t as big as it once was — and some white folks are given more of it than others — but it’s still very real.
White privilege isn’t something that’s chosen, though sometimes white people actively try to preserve or even enlarge it. Nor is it something that anti-racist whites can simply discard; privilege comes from being part of a dominant group whether one wants to be part of that group or not. What makes racial privilege more complicated than many anti-racists realize is that it’s contradictory. It involves real advantages, however limited and relative. At the same time, racism divides, weakens and economically harms the working class as a whole, including white workers.
The more intense racism is, the weaker unions and other working-class organization tend to be. The weaker the working-class movement, the less able workers are to defend and improve their working and living conditions in the face of efforts by employers and governments that put profit before human needs. This means that white privilege isn’t in the interests of white workers. It’s “poison bait.”
Unfortunately, racial privilege is an obstacle to white workers understanding that their interests lie in anti-racist working-class solidarity. As U.S. socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has argued, it “complicates the fight against racism because it convinces white workers that they have something to lose by not being white — which, of course, is true. If they did not get some advantage — and with it, the illusion that the system works for them — then racism would not be effective in dividing . . . workers.”
Why does racism persist?
Everyday racism is perpetuated in countless ways, consciously and unconsciously, in every sphere of life. But why does it persist? It’s not a hangover from a past when the “white race” was widely seen as naturally superior. There are three deeply-rooted and intertwined features of how society is organized today that explain the persistence of racism.
The first is imperialism. Capitalism has developed unevenly, resulting in world domination by a small number of countries in which capitalist development is most advanced. This imperialism has been and continues to be interwoven with racism. People in parts of the globe oppressed by imperialism or descended from them are marked as different in ways that are supposedly inherited and unalterable.
The second is that racism is profitable. A divided workforce is less able to resist management control. This allows employers to make workers work harder. Competition between workers in the labour market leads to workers with a lower status in their society’s racial hierarchy being willing to work for less pay and in worse conditions than those above them. Racism’s weakening of the power of the working class in society also enhances capital’s profits.
Finally, racism persists because of the efforts that members of dominant racial groups make to preserve or expand racial privilege. Campaigns against affirmative action in the United States and employment equity in Canada are examples of this. So too are policies which reaffirm national culture as white and European, or which bar some Muslims from certain kinds of employment and access to some services in the name of secularism and human rights.
Oppression remains embedded despite equal rights
Malcolm X was right: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” Anti-racists should think seriously about the significance of this insight. Anti-racist action should also be guided by the understanding that racism is a form of oppression that remains embedded in the structures of our society even though legal equality exists.
It would require major changes to really weaken racism in Canada. Reforms that would have a big impact include tough employment equity laws covering both private- and public-sector employers, the creation of significant numbers of good public-sector jobs and non-profit housing units, the unionization of many more workers of colour and permanent-resident status for all migrants. To uproot racial oppression would require revolutionary social transformation that was both anti-capitalist and anti-racist.
There’s no basis in biology for dividing people into “races”: “the genetic variation found in the human species is not grouped in discrete, genetically distinct units scientists can identify as races.” The groupings we think of as races were created as a consequence of racism; “racism is not the product of race.” — Dorothy Robert
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