September 20, 2016

Race & Racism: Biology or Systemic?

"You can't have capitalism without racism" - Malcolm X
Kayla Hilstob

The way we come to identify ourselves and others within our society has much to do with our social conditioning. Most of us have been conditioned to believe that because of the colour of our skin, naturally we belong to a certain group. This is the concept of race, the mother of racism.

This creation happened only a few hundred years ago in a deliberate move to justify and enforce the system of slavery for white Southern American plantation owners. Scientists have continuously tried to find a biological basis for race since its inception, to justify racial oppression, conflict, segregation, apartheid and genocide, yet there have been no findings whatsoever. Conclusively, there is no biological difference between people of different complexions, other than the few genes that produce the trait of skin colour. Race is a social construct that was created to impose a hierarchy of oppressed people to make a few powerful plantation owners very, very rich.

Race itself is not real, but the legacy of this invention is very real, as is systemic racism which continues to be reinforced by today’s capitalism. People are still devalued, discriminated against, and even killed because of what the colour of their skin signifies. In order to understand racism then and now, we must look at the development of capitalism in America.

The Origin of the Myth of Race

The colonies of the American South were largely developed for resource extraction originally, not for settlement. This initial lack of settlement made for a labour shortage. The colonists attempted to enslave the local Native population after defeating them militarily, but failed to institutionalize their slavery due to their indigenous knowledge and ties to the land. Instead they needed to forcibly bring outsiders with no local establishment who could be easily subjugated.

At first, they used the labour of both black and white slaves, but this too became problematic, where the slaves and poor majority banded together against the property and plantation owners. Their common interest was clear: they were oppressed by the wealthy, and the way to overcome this was by fighting this together.

After this realization, the elites decided to kidnap and enslave people from Africa. The colour of their skin became the mark of bonded labour and lack of citizenship. While imposing this structure of slavery, the lawmakers, land and slave owners themselves, decided to give symbolic citizenship and rights to poor white people in order to institutionalize this racial divide. While legally free, the majority of the white population were still poor, landless, and excluded, but they had white skin. It was the perfect tactic to divide the population, devising the concept of race.

The Fluidity of Race

In today’s society the situation has become more complex than just black and white, slave and free person. The perception of an individual’s race depends on multiple factors, including skin tone in relation with that of the economically dominant population, geographic location, economic condition, and religion, among other factors. Originally, the term “white” was really meant to signify Anglo-Saxon, where Irish, Slavic, Italian and French Canadian people were considered non-white up until the mid-twentieth century. To be non-white had a class connotation, with devalued labour and poor living conditions in the inner-city.

Because of new forms of nationalism and the changing nature of capitalism post WWII, this exclusive view of whiteness began to shift. It is now commonly accepted that these groups are now white, while there are still some Europeans who are not necessarily considered to be. Muslim Europeans who have relatively light complexions but are from countries with large Muslim populations in the Balkans, as well as transcontinental nations such as Turkey may not be. Their “non-whiteness” is not about their skin, but their religion, their “otherness”, especially today with the rise of Islamophobia.

Where one may be considered black or white changes significantly depending on where and when the question is considered. For example, a person may be considered to be white in Brazil, “coloured” in South Africa, and black in Canada. Each country has a hierarchy of whiteness relative to the composition of the local population, and the level of acceptable discrimination. For example, in America up until the mid-twentieth century, there were still laws defining the legality of blackness, which in some places included people with 1/32 of their familial heritage identified as black, despite their skin tone. Today we would likely consider someone with that small of black heritage as white. This fluidity shows that race is a social construct that is open to interpretation of the time and place.

Biology and Difference

A person’s perceived race does not give us any indications about their biological characteristics. People originate from various geographical zones, where they have adaptations which suit their environment. The only biological difference between people across the gradient of complexion is how many UV rays can be absorbed by the skin, based on a very small set of genes related to the evolutionary history of an individual’s ancestors.

In fact, there is more genetic diversity within races than between them. For example, despite the Eurocentric view that Africa is rather homogenous, the continent is home to more human genetic diversity than the rest of the globe combined. From a biological standpoint with such genetic variation, the idea that people with a certain skin tone have some sort of connection is as absurd as saying that people sharing another physical genetic commonality, such as blue eyes, belong to a race.

After generations of living in America, at what point does a black American cease to be an “African American” and affirmatively become an “American”, in the same way that a white (European) American is? When we ask this question it becomes clear that we are still separated by race and there are populations that are more “American” or “Canadian” than others. But does this mean if we just change peoples’ ideas about racial identity and condemn prejudice with enough forcefulness that racism will be abolished? Or still more naively, that if we adopt a “colour blind” worldview where there are no such people as “Afro-Canadians” or racialized people that the world will change? These liberal views do not understand the deep historical and contemporary connections between systemic racism and capitalism that gives rise to prejudice and racist ideologies.

Is There Racism in Canada Today?

As much as it may challenge our understanding of Canadian society built through our years of education and perpetuated stereotypes of inclusion and multiculturalism, the legacy of the creation of race is rooted in our history. Despite our celebrated history and national myth of Canada’s “cultural mosaic”, we know that institutionalized racism still exists.

Scratching the surface of these narratives, we see murders of countless (literally countless, since StatsCan refuses to collect this data) black men by police with impunity, such as the case of Andrew Loku last year. Racialized people live in poverty twice the rate as non-racialized people. The incarceration rate of Afro-Canadians is triple the national average; and the rate of Indigenous people is ten times that.

These are all current and tangible ways that racism is still alive and well. Race is about racism, not skin colour. The legacy of the creation of race continues to devalue the labour and lives of racialized people in Canada and fuel our capitalist system. At home, it is in the form of police brutality, mass incarceration and poverty. Racism rears its ugly head in our sentiments and presence internationally, where terrorist attacks against white people are tragedies, yet are virtually unknown when they happen to non-white civilians. It is considered acceptable and praiseworthy to participate in foreign wars that kill thousands of (brown) civilians, and to extract their resources for the gain of our elite population. As capitalism gives rise to imperialism, so too does it give rise to racism.

As the discontent with racism and capitalism grows, we expose the construction of race as a tool of division and justification for cruel acts that keep us divided for the long-term benefit of no one but the small elite – a legacy that continues to this day. Groups like Black Lives Matter and its allies are on the forefront of challenging the oppression that is perpetuated by the capitalist system, and the Young Communist League expresses full solidarity with this movement, and those oppressed worldwide by racist bourgeois states.

Achenbach, Joel. “Study Finds Africans More Genetically Diverse Than Other Populations.” Washington Post, May 1, 2009.

Jones, Brian. “The Social Construction of Race.” The Jacobin Magazine, June 25, 2015.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “Racial Formations”. In The Social Construction
of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality, 4th ed., edited by Tracy E. Ore, 19 - 28. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009.

Soo-Jin Lee, S. et al. “The ethics of characterizing difference: guiding principles on using racial categories in human genetics.” Genome Biology, 9, no. 404 (2008). doi:10.1186/gb-2008-9-7-404

Waters, Mary. “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?”. In The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality, 4th ed., edited by Tracy E. Ore, 29 - 41. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009.


This article is printed in Issue 20 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on racism and anti-racist struggles. Find out more and subscribe today!

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