Monday, February 6, 2012

Link of Interest: Slavery and the Origins of Racism, by Lance Selfa

Via Tumblr, an article at the International Socialist Review on the origins of racism in capitalist-driven slavery. The article tackles a few misconceptions:

1) That Marx's analysis was only about class and ignores race. (I've been guilty of assuming this, having read bits and pieces of his writing.) Marx very insightfully pointed out the links between racial division and capitalist accumulation.

2) That racism has always existed. And is natural. (It is not.)

3) That slavery in Africa and ancient Greece can be compared to U.S. slavery. (The basis and conditions of slavery in Africa and ancient Greece were very different.)

4) Racism ended after slavery was abolished. (Look, I get that facts make you feel guilty, but telling black people to "get over it, slavery was 200 years ago" is highly counter-productive. And racist.)

5) Multiracial spaces automatically promote racial equality. (Not really, for a variety of reasons.) 

If anything, reading this should remind us that just thinking we're not racist isn't good enough; we have to be actively anti-racist in what we do and say, and even how we think. We need to keep listening to these stories of racism and heed them. We need to keep interrogating any knee-jerk "but I'm not racist!" reactions we may have. 


  1. I have not just done more than skim the article BUT I have to react to #3:
    WAR & POVERTY are the underlying causes of all slavery, both in the ancient world, in the Americas and TODAY. The best (and possibly only) overview of slavery over time is Swedish historian Dick Harrison's Slaveri. Unfortunately, this 3 volume work has not been translated in English or another widely used language.

  2. Yes, but the conditions and circumstances of how the slaves were treated were also different, which is what #3 refers to. Slavery has a variety of causes, and I think economics lies underneath even war and poverty. The thing about #3 is that a lot of people like to say "but Africans used to enslave their own people!" as a sort of counter-argument against white supremacist U.S. slavery, as if to exonerate white supremacist involvement from it, or something.

  3. Um, I think we are talking past each other here. Yes, economics underlies poverty. Slavery has existed for a long time but with the development of Capitalism, it became increasingly brutal and efficient. That Africans enslaved other Africans is a well-documented historical fact BUT in no way justifies racism or slavery.

  4. Yes, I'm not disagreeing with you. Just pointing out that the point of the essay underlines capitalism's role in creating racism through the institution of slavery.

    Also, #3 takes into consideration that Africans don't try to justify the slavery of the past, either, afaik!

  5. Re #4 - I've asked people whether they really believe that the 40+ years since the Civil Rights Act passed really balances out the previous 100 years of institutionalized Jim Crow laws and the centuries of slavery prior to Civil War. Usually, they just look at me... and then go back to whining about Affirmative Action being "reverse racism". [head/desk]