A quick interview conducted with Jane Elliott after her Brown Eye, Blue Eye exercise performed at Boise State.
Now we bring the story of race and racism right up-to-date. Some of the 20th Century’s early genocides, particularly those in Armenia and the Belgian Congo, represented a new, mechanized phase of state-sponsored racial slaughter. During the genocide in the Congo, 10 million African people – almost half the entire population – were butchered by King Leopold’s men. For the first time, details of the massacres were made known to people in Europe. These accounts were so lurid and horrifying, that some Europeans, perhaps for the first time, started to wonder who were the ‘civilised’ - and who were the ‘savages’.
Shortly after the demented carnival of self-destruction that was the First World War, there was a widespread and palpable awareness of the dangers that might arise from racist ideologies. The League of Nations had been created as a forum where peaceful solutions to conflicts between nations – and races - might be found. At the Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese delegation had tried to persuade all nations to sign up to a Race Equality Proposal, which would have established for states and individuals a right in international law guaranteeing “just treatment in every respect making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.” But for leaders of the former colonies, there was too much at stake to concede the principle of racial equality: The Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes thwarted the proposal, knowing that it would have jeopardised his “White Australia Policy”. The Americans, whose southern states still operated the racial separatist policy known as Jim Crow, were similarly unimpressed.
As a consequence, an important opportunity was missed - and the proponents of racist ideas were given a further boost after the election of the Nazis in Germany. Of course, Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ and the Holocaust that it produced has profoundly affected ideas about race ever since. Yet in many respects, the Nazi’s programme was merely a late Teutonic entry into a well-established European bloodsport, since in the colonies, the same programme of violence, segregation, demonisation, inferiorisation, and enslavement that had been applied by the Nazis was already in force. In places as far apart as Namibia and Tasmania, European colonialists had long presided over concentration camps, and legally enforced programmes of eugenics.
Despite this, bizarrely, the impact of the colonial on the political, economic and cultural shape of the modern world is often completely overlooked. The French writer Jean Baudrillard became notorious for his apparently counter-factual claim that the first Gulf War “never happened”. Yet today, it is commonplace to read allegedly learned accounts of everything from the economic problems of Africa to the educational under-achievement of black schoolboys in Britain and the United States without any reference whatever to the colonial experience. Like Baudrillard’s Gulf War, it is as though the Empire “never happened”.
We show how Nazism was, as the historian Mark Mazower puts it, “colonialism re-applied to Europe”. In the immediate post-war years, the United Nations did sign up to the principle of anti-racism, and after some soul-searching, scientific institutions became much more sensitive about the potential use and abuse of scientific disciplines for racial purposes. Yet to examine this question by looking solely through the prism of the Holocaust can distort perceptions of racism. The Holocaust is racism given its most extreme and tangible expression. But just because genocide isn’t unfolding before our very eyes does not mean that racism is any less pervasive than it was at the time of the Nazi’s programme of genocide.
This is not to say that scientific, social and cultural ideas about race and racism have not been reshaped in the years since Auschwitz. Further changes in our understanding of what racism is followed the political upheavals of the 1950s and 60s, which effectively brought Europe’s colonial era to an end. There was unease during the ‘waves’ of post-war immigration from the colonies to the ‘Mother Countries’ of Europe, but it’s usually assumed that things have become “better”. We are all more ‘tolerant’ and more ‘liberal’.
Yet, of course, racism has never really gone away. Today, few people are willing to pronounce themselves ‘racist’: even the extreme right-wing British National Party insists that it is not a racist party. Yet everywhere, evidence of discriminatory practices in the workplace persists. Across Europe, racial attacks are on the rise. European academics continue to publish papers based on the evidence of ‘intelligence tests’ which purport to prove that Africans are intellectually inferior. Neo-fascist parties across Europe command more electoral support than at any time since the War. Despite the carnage of the Holocaust, millions of Europeans are prepared to countenance the election of parties with explicitly and unapologetically racist policies.
We advance several profound cultural and political reasons why this might be so. One modern theorist of racism, George Frederickson, suggests that racism is more deeply embedded in the body politic than is generally supposed. In the 19th Century, racism may have been intelligible as a belief-system, or ideology. But today, it needs to be understood as a component part of modern governance in the West. The avowedly racist policies of racist regimes (Nazi Germany, Apartheid, Jim Crow) have been replaced by largely unacknowledged policies and practices that constrain the activities and control the destinies of non-white populations. This is exemplified by the de facto whites-only immigration policies of Australia, the US and Britain which were applied (and for the most part, continue to operate) throughout the 20th Century. It is these kinds of governmental routines, which are seldom if ever questioned or challenged, which give state endorsement to racism – and creates a political-cultural environment in which other racist practices can flourish. What’s more, all of this can be implemented and operated without the practitioners being wedded to a specific set of racist beliefs.
We end the series by looking at the future of this kind of routine institutionalised racism, considering its implications, speculating on how it might be overcome, and looking at what purchase (if any) the concept of ‘race’ will have in the era of the Human Genome Project. What can science – the discipline that was used to ‘prove’ the existence of a racial hierarchy over a century ago - tell us about ‘race’ today? What do our attitudes towards ‘race’ tell us about ourselves? And is it conceivable that one day, our children or grandchildren might grow up to live in a world without racism?
Danny Glover reads from Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's book Voices of a People's History of the United States, October 5, 2005, at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center George and Sakaye Aratani Japan America Theatre, Los Angeles, California. For more information, visit: peopleshistory.us.