By Jan Lundius
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Jun 15 2020 (IPS) – The #MeToo movement triggered worldwide protests that hopefully was instrumental in making people better aware of a continuous and often hidden mistreatment of women. Maybe can the current I can’t breathe movement make people realize that institutional racism is far from extinct. It was in 1967 the term Institutional Racism was coined by Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton. They wrote that even if individual racism can be quite easy to detect, institutional racism is less perceptible. Such racism makes a difference between people through more subtle means than outright discrimination. It is expressed through disparities in wealth, income, criminal justice, employment housing, health care, political power and education. Carmichael and Hamilton stated that the entire United States is imbued with institutional racism. A social ill that can only be abolished if people, irrespective of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin, are provided with equal, appropriate, and professional services.
The concept of institutional racism has been further developed and is no1w generally referred to as systemic racism to indicate how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking, influencing the entire society, not only from an institutional point of view but on all levels of social interaction. Racism has become intrinsic in the social fabric and colours the thinking and behaviour of all individuals living within such a society. Stokely Carmichael became increasingly troubled by the disinterested, oppositional, or even violent response he was met with and came to despair about the effectiveness of non-violent opposition to racism, stating that if it was only going to work if ”your opponent has a conscience. The United States has none.”
It is easy to be reminded of Carmichael’s desperation when the current U.S. president is rambling, telling U.S. governors ”Overwhelming force. Domination … it’s a beautiful thing to watch […] If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run all over you. You’ll look like a bunch of jerks. […] I will not allow angry mobs to dominate.”
Donald J. Trump´s parlance reveals his thinking and state of mind. Dominance has nothing to do with equality, compassion and social justice – it is all about power. Social dominance means that human relations are not based on justice, but on the maintenance and stability of group-based social hierarchies. Accordingly, it favours institutional- and individual discrimination.2
Such a system makes us believe there is a difference between ”us” and ”the others”. National bigots, whose presence now is felt all over Europe and the U.S., tend to avoid the word “race”. It is considered to be an outdated concept, which died with Nazism and Apartheid. However, racism is just changing appearance. The basic idea remains, that ”white” people with their roots in Europe are better than people, especially those of a darker complexion, who find their origin in other parts of the world. Racism is apparently now hiding its ugly face under the cover of ”culture”. This “new” racism stresses ”insurmountable cultural differences”, and has thus become a racism without racism.
Racist notions consider human behaviour to be biologically preconditioned instincts. Objectionable demeanour of ”others”, i.e. people not belonging to your own racial category, may be referred to their ”inferior genetic code”. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has rightly pointed out:
Why imagine that specific genes for aggression, dominance, or spite have any importance when we know that the brain’s enormous flexibility permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous? Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviour. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological – and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.3
It is hard for fortunate people to fathom the misery emerging from poverty and even harder to accept that their indifference may be a cause for the torment of others. Primo Levi’s introduction to his personal memories of the bottomless hell of Auschwitz describes this difficulty in having empathy with those who suffer misery and injustice:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.4
Fatal misconceptions about people’s ”racially determined” qualifications were driven to murderous absurdity by Nazi extermination policies, many of which could be traced back to the disgusting writings of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, especially his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, which was published in four volumes between 1853-55. In those books Gobineau did with ingenuity, but fuzzy science, claim “Aryan” racial superiority and the right of this race to dominate the world. Gobineau´s fantasies attracted people who considered their privileged position was well-deserved, due to a ”superior biological nature”. They claimed not much could be done about other people’s misery – after all, it was considered to be hereditary and determined by implacable ”natural laws”.
Gobineau differentiated not only between a superior ”Aryan” race and racially inferior ”riffraff” outside the borders of the European continent, but he also explained Europe’s social differences along racial lines. For him, the ”underdevelopment” of the European proletariat was not caused by lack of education, weak resource allocation and limited rights, but was simply due to the fact that they were ”common people” with bad genes.
Such perceptions were with delight and relief embraced by members of the privileged classes. Instead of arriving at the correct conclusion that State and Government should support health, education and guarantee human rights, they could now state that poor people’s misery was hereditary, they were simply unable to assimilate benefits provided by nature. It was no longer a question that equal rights and welfare policies could clean up the large urban ghettos, instead, wealthy citizens had to be protected from a threatening underclass, which was kept in place by police and military. Stephen Jay Gould again:
How convenient to blame the poor and the hungry for their own condition – lest we be forced not to blame our economic system and our government for an abject failure to secure a decent life for all people.
The classification of humans into social classes and different races have served economic interests and been the basis for policy decisions, like restricting state support to education, public health and legal rights. Similarly, categorizations of people into different groups with specific and genetically transfixed characteristics have been used as a defence for abuse of power, exclusion and exploitation. Racism veils the structural causes to poverty, exclusion and disease, transferring the responsibility for their own misery and marginalization to the unprivileged themselves.
Racism is concerned with the surface, assuming that the exterior determines inner qualities. To judge someone on the basis of appearances is a serious violation of an individual’s integrity and personality. Being forced to submit to the prejudices of strangers is a painful experience that daily affects millions of people. Frantz Fanon wrote in his book Black Skin, White Masks from 1953:
A normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal Negro family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world.5
Fanon, who was a psychiatrist, compared the feeling of being black with what it means to be a Jew. According to him, the two groups were victims of discrimination. However, a Jew might choose to hide her/his Jewishness, while a black person immediately is revealed as being of ”another race” and accordingly exposed to the inquisitorial gaze of racists, becoming the object of their condemnation and contempt, completely devoid of any interest in the personality and qualities of the despised ”Negro”.
Racism combined with convictions about their own superiority may hinder decision makers like Donald J. Trump and his equals from addressing the very core of a problem, in the case of the recent upheavals – the lack of individual rights and possibilities which prevents the poor themselves from finding viable solutions to their problems. They ignore social disparities and revert to the use of violence, or what they label as ”dominance”, a combative approach that can only result in more tension and violence. Instead, it is now high time to once and for all get rid of the most absurd obstacle to development and equal rights – racism, and above all try to cleanse our own minds from its deadly poison.
1 Carmichael, Stokely and Charles V. Hamilton (1992) Black Power: Policies of Liberation. New York: Vintage.
2 Sidanius, Jim and Felicia Pratto (1999) Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3 Gould, Stephen Jay (1977) Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton, p. 257.
4 Levi, Primo (1987) If This is a Man and The Truce. London: Abacus, p. 17.
5 Fanon, Frantz (1977) Black Skin, White Mask. New York; Grove Press, p. 143.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.