No sight of a new colour-blind century

Oxford Readers
April 28, 2000

In their introduction to this comprehensive and absorbing compendium, Martin Bulmer and John Solomos - both professors of sociology - note the "regrettable need" for its appearance. They then quote W. E. B. Du Bois's famous statement of 1903 that "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour line" and observe that "socially structured racial inequality and disadvantage" have yet to be eradicated. This addition to the Oxford Readers series offers multiple perspectives (there are 51 extracts) on racism: its origins, theoretical foundations, manifestations and persistence. It also examines movements with declared anti-racist agendas and the role of state institutions in devising, or combating, racist policies, and offers a variety of reflections on "the vexed question of the future of racism".

Arranged in eight discrete but interlinked sections, these pieces illustrate the editors' contention that notions of race are fluid - that "race and racism remain essentially contested concepts". They also caution against the pitfalls inherent in viewing current forms of racism in isolation from the past. A useful working definition of racism posits that it is "an ideology of racial domination based on beliefs that a designated racial group is either biologically or culturally inferior, and the use of such beliefs to prescribe the racial group's treatment in society". Inequality in the form of slavery existed in ancient Greece and Rome and was a feature of Muslim and Arab societies. But it was not until the late 18th century, and the era of European exploration and colonisation, that racial ideologies - later elaborated to justify the enslavement of Africans in the New World - began to emerge. Historians of American slavery - represented here by such authorities as Winthrop Jordan, George Fredrickson and David Brion Davis - offer differing assessments of the factors that gave rise to racial slavery. Of particular interest is Jordan's account of the discovery by Elizabethan explorers of tribes in West Africa and the Congo region, "when one of the lightest-skinned of the earth's people suddenly came face to face with one of the darkest". Eugene Genovese's Marxist interpretation compares the emergence of a virulent racism in the two-caste race system (white and black) that emerged in the Old South with a more fluid and less colour-conscious three-tier racial order in the slave-holding societies of Brazil and the Caribbean.

Whatever its provenance, racism certainly survived and may have been exacerbated by the abolition of slavery. During the 20th century, black migrants to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London faced discrimination and violence, often at the hands of law enforcement agencies. Before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States, the federal government, as Desmond King demonstrates, "played a significant role in shaping and reinforcing the system of race relations which disadvantaged black American citizens". Yet, as Robert C. Smith argues, there are few reliable measurements of racism because widely reported individual acts of racist violence "become so embedded in systemic practices that it becomes all but impossible to disentangle the individual from the institutional type of racism". In America, "counter discourses to the dominant conceptualisation of race" are illustrated by Marcus Garvey's fervent pleas for people of African ancestry to combine ideas of racial pride with practices of racial separatism. These ideas were reformulated by such ideologues as Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton in their 1967 primer Black Power and the Politics of Liberation . In South Africa, the Black Consciousness movement was a similar response to the state-sanctioned system of apartheid. That structure, in turn, was demolished by a government that used state power in an (ongoing) attempt to "implement a multi-racial order in which the different racial groups coexist and collaborate in a society still marked by profound racial divisions, extremes of income and social provision". In Australia, as Stephen Castles and Ellie Vasta affirm, social scientists have played a part in the emergence of initiatives designed to reverse policies of discrimination against Aborigines and non-white immigrants and facilitate a multicultural society.

Elsewhere, the picture is less encouraging. Among the French, emphasis on racial "difference" has become the preserve of the extreme right, represented by the supporters of Jean-Marie Le Pen. In modern China, racial prejudice "made an official reappearance when the Communist party increasingly harped on the theme of biological difference between the Soviets and the Chinese". After Uganda achieved independence, Idi Amin promptly engaged in a form of "ethnic cleansing" against the country's Indian merchant class.

Several contributors refine and expand accepted notions of racism. Abby L. Ferber's trenchant essay, "Constructing whiteness", suggests that race and gender are interrelated social constructs, with gender being "central to white supremacist discourse because the fate of the race is posited as hinging on the sexual behaviour of white women". Patricia Williams, in an otherwise discursive piece on the desirability or otherwise of a colour-blind society, offers the reflection that discourses on "race" are often counterproductive, partly because "the notion of whiteness as 'race' is almost never implicated". The flourishing scholarly field of "white studies" has begun to rectify this lacuna.

Race and racism, Bulmer and Solomos suggest, are likely to remain emotive and perplexing problems. Classifications by race in official records and censuses are increasingly controversial. There is also the question of how individuals of mixed racial origin will identify themselves - and how others will perceive them. If the current scholarly consensus is that race is an artificial and social construct, we are reminded that "racism has become... one of the most important categories used to justify ideological domination, subordination and privilege".

Racism is a judiciously assembled collection of writings, which addresses what Du Bois called "the relation of the darker to the lighter races in Asia and Africa, in America and in the islands of the sea". Sadly, its contents and concerns appear as relevant to the 21st century as they were to its predecessors.

John White is reader in American history, University of Hull.

Oxford Readers: Racism

Editor - Martin Bulmer and John Solomos
ISBN - 0 19 289300 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £15.00
Pages - 463

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