How capitalism creates racism

February 18, 2021
Invasion Day protest, Brisbane. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

There was a sense of relief as former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire was forced to quit after he claimed a report into the club’s racism was a “proud day” for the Magpies.

McGuire was commenting on the leaked 35-page report, prompted by premiership defender Heritier Lumumba’s claims of racism. He was roundly condemned and stepped down on February 11.

But why is it that racists, or apologists for racism, often escape the consequences?

Broadly speaking, it’s because a lot of people accept racism as an inevitable part of the human condition, a “natural”, if mistaken prejudice, that is hard to eradicate.

Today, racism lives on as an ideology that promotes continuing racial oppression — institutionalised inequality based on racial categorisations.

The idea that different “races” of people exist, with clearly definable sets of social and physical characteristics, and that some “races” are superior to others is deeply ingrained in all aspects of society and politics.

Yet biology cannot provide a coherent definition of what are usually identified as “races”, because social traits are not attached to skin or eye colour, or the shape of the nose.

Racial oppression is built into capitalism, including: the torture of refugees in off-shore and on-shore detention camps; the perpetuation of Islamophobia; and the continued dispossession of the First Nations peoples.

The corporate media plays a powerful role in normalising the differential treatment of people based on their appearance.

When that becomes unsupportable, the powers-that-be will either blame an individual for prejudice, appeal to national security or justify racism on the basis of prejudice expressed by ordinary people.

Racism is not simply the result of prejudice. Rather, it has material roots within capitalism.

Capitalism relies on the accumulation of profit for private owners. As capitalism developed, racism was the ideology that helped it expand.

This was because the owners of capital needed a system whereby they could bring workers to a new land and force them to work for nothing, or very little. At first, the colonialists relied on indentured servants, or serfs, from the mother countries. However, if they ran away, it was not easy to distinguish them from free colonists or their masters and as the colonies expanded to meet the needs of growing capitalist industries in Europe the hunt was on to find identifiable sources of forced labour.

The African slave trade came to the rescue. Slaves could be purchased cheaply and brought in unlimited numbers from Africa. Moreover, the colour of their skins made them easily identifiable. This was the origin of racism.

Entire populations are still systematically subjugated. Racism is also used to justify sub-standard working conditions for particular sections of the working class.

Capitalism uses racism to undermine solidarity between workers, and thereby pursue greater profits.

From the arrival of the First Fleet on January 26, 1788, the beginning of the dispossession and genocide of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islanders peoples, colonial Australia’s economic development remains bound up with systemic racism.

The genocide of First Nations peoples was justified by the colonialists’ racism: defining the First Peoples as savages because they did not have a concept of private property was the cover for mass murder.

This was the racist ideology that shaped the colonial settler state that became known as Australia. It laid the economic basis for the development of modern-day capitalism.

Today, the benefactors of the dispossession of First Nations peoples include powerful pastoral agribusinesses and mining monopolies that wield great influence and power over governments at the expense of First Nations peoples’ sovereignty.

During the 1800s Gold Rush, racial oppression began against Chinese immigrants who represented an economic threat to the white colonisers.

Anti-Chinese racism grew as the burgeoning capitalist class perceived its profits to be threatened. The government of the day started perusing all sorts of exclusionary policies, culminating in the 1901 White Australia policy.

Today, we see growing racism against Chinese immigrants, as the Australian government sides with the United States in its trade war against China.

Often the capitalist likes to obscure the link between racial oppression and their accumulation of profit.

But, if you look a little deeper it is easy to see. There is even an economic basis for the government’s racist offshore detention policies because the ruling class has a stake in borders being militarised: it helps legitimise its control of who is allowed to enter and under what circumstances.

Today, racism is used to justify discrimination in employment, whereby people of colour are channelled into the lowest paid, least-secure jobs and it is also the reason why there have been more than 430 Black deaths in custody and not a single conviction.

Institutionalised racism helps the far-right, while giving the mainstream racist parties an excuse to insist that they are not racist.

In the fight against institutionalised racism, and its systematic links to capitalism, we cannot just appeal for tolerance — the catchcry of most mainstream politicians.

To address racism effectively we have to oppose the government’s racist policies including: First Nations peoples being denied land rights; discrimination in employment; racist law enforcement; and restrictions on the rights of migrants.

As racism is used by the powerful to divide us, we can only overcome it by bringing people together and building solidarity among the oppressed.

[Jacob Andrewartha is a member of Socialist Alliance. This article is based on a talk he gave to a Green Left forum on February 9.]

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