A Case of the Mondays: Different Forms of Racism

Crossposted to Abstract Nonsense

Americans who talk about racism usually think about anti-black racism in the United States, or perhaps about anti-Hispanic prejudice. So do many Europeans, who find it easier to criticize the treatment of black Americans by white Americans than the treatment of Muslim immigrants in Europe by white Europeans. It’s then a good idea to step back and look at racism from an international angle, examining and classifying the many forms of racism that exist in the world. African-Americans and Chinese-Malaysians are both oppressed minorities, but they’re oppressed in very different ways.

As a side note, it’s controversial whether racism requires merely prejudice, that is an “us and them” view, or also power, that is the ability to inflict harm on “them.” I’m going to deliberately circumvent that controversy. One of the points I will argue is that a prejudiced group without power can later come to power and seriously hurt other groups, often its ex-oppressors. At the same time, all examples I use here include both prejudice and power, and my classification is based both on the form of prejudice and on the form of power it uses.

Whereas Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism focus on nationalism in the academia, I prefer to focus on racism in popular opinion, in government, and in organizations that discriminate against individuals. Although academic racism obviously exists, it tends to either provide intellectual cover for real-world racism, or be so detached from real-world trends that its causes are often completely different from these of the kind of racism that really hurts people.

For example, many racial oppressions are the result of a divide-and-rule policy by a dominant elite. Landowners in colonial North America pitted poor whites against blacks; Saddam Hussein stirred Sunni-Shi’a hatred after the first Gulf War; British colonialism divided Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. In all three cases, it’s perfectly possible that longstanding hatred would have erupted on its own, but the deliberate attempt to divide potential enemies of the regime against themselves was a catalyst.

The mention of Sunnis and Shi’as in Iraq should serve as a good example of what racism can operate on. Difference in skin color, facial features, language, religion, and heritage can all become defining features of an in-group, but any of them can be absent, as long as at least one is present. Although the racisms most familiar to Westerners get stronger when more features are present—compare the treatment of white and nonwhite minority groups in the US and Europe—this is not true in general. Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were perfectly capable of slaughtering one another in Bosnia over a difference in religion, a feature that 45 years of communist rule had come close to erasing.

It’s not quite true to say that racism is the lower class’s dignity, but it’s a good first approximation of reality. In multiracial societies with complex racial hierarchies, the groups close to the bottom tend to be the most prejudiced against those right at the bottom. It’s standard for people who feel disenfranchised by the system to vent their frustration at those the system designates as inferior to themselves; hence crude racism is most common among the lower class, just like crude sexism is most common among lower-class men. This is in fact how reversal of racism works: oppressed minorities typically adopt similar attitudes to the lower class, so when they get the opportunity to discriminate against others, they seldom miss it. This process is usually invisible because the upper class’s racism is the one that has the greatest privilege backing it, but when it becomes visible, its consequences range from the systematic anti-Tamil discrimination of Sri Lanka to the genocide of Rwanda.

The first division of different forms of racism is into those practiced by a minority and those practiced by a majority, while the second is into those coming from above, by a traditionally privileged group, and those coming from below, by a traditionally oppressed group.

Minority racism from above tends to come from an affluent minority group that views itself as special, and possibly backed by an external power; it also tends to be closely associated with imperialism. Western imperialism itself falls under that group, as does what was practiced in former settler colonies like apartheid South Africa, where whites failed to exterminate the native groups the way they did in North America. This division also includes Chinese nationalism as practiced by the Chinese diaspora, especially in Southeast Asia, which is influenced by a theory of ethnic superiority no different from Western white supremacy. Although Jews are a majority in Israel, Jewish discrimination against Arabs falls under this category, because of the Jewish self-perception of a perpetually oppressed minority group surrounded by a sea of Arabs. The single adjective that describes this group best is “aristocratic,” with “imperialist” a fairly close second.

That imperialist or supremacist form of minority racism contrasts not only with majority racism, but also with minority racism that comes from below. The Chinese racist in Indonesia is sure of his superiority to the Indonesian by virtue of his superior ethnicity; the Arab nationalist in Israel or Tamil nationalist in Sri Lanka has no such pretenses. This form can be as mild as an excessively radical desire for statehood, or as extreme as a burning desire to out-oppress the oppressor. It includes not only racism directed against the majority, but also racism directed against other groups, often of lower status. The example most familiar to Americans is probably the stereotypical mutual hatreds each immigrant group in the United States felt against the others. The single adjective that best describes this group is perhaps “victimized,” or in certain contexts even “nationalist.”

Majority racism from below is typically populist in character, and usually based on racial reversal. This includes Sinhala discrimination against Tamils, the Hutu slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans, the anti-Chinese and anti-Christian riots in Indonesia, and possibly certain anti-Semitic pogroms. In all of these cases, divide-and-rule policies by an external power—British colonialism, Belgian colonialism, Indonesian fascism, and Austrian or Russian elites respectively—caused a dispossessed majority to direct its anger at a more powerful minority group. As crude racism is most powerful among the weak and oppressed, the situation turned bloody in all cases but Sri Lanka’s, with prejudiced elites inciting the masses to slaughter, rape, and loot. Although Rwanda is the canonical and most dangerous example of this type of racism, there are two additional complications. First, the majority only has to believe that it is oppressed; Jews did not oppress gentiles in Europe, and the Chinese did not oppress Malays or Javanese in Malaysia and Indonesia. Second, at times, several groups can harm one another simultaneously, in which case it is best to classify them here: the Iraqi civil war and the Bosnian genocide are more similar to the other conflicts and discriminations in this group than to those in other groups. Although “genocidal” describes this form of racism relatively well, the most important characteristic is “populist.”

Finally, there is majority racism from above, the racism most familiar in the West. The canonical examples are anti-Semitism in most of European history, discrimination against African-Americans, discrimination against native Americans or Aborigines in North American and Australia, and discrimination against immigrants everywhere. This group is also the most diverse; anti-immigrant sentiments are different from prejudice against longstanding minorities such as European Jews or native Americans, and anti-black racism in the United States seems to be a class of its own. The main difference is that anti-immigrant sentiments largely die within two or three generations, as the immigrants assimilate, whereas the other two forms don’t; then, prejudice against established minorities is likelier to take the form of indifference, as in anti-native racism in North America and Australia, than the form of active hatred. Discrimination against black Americans is then unique because not only are blacks established but still more hated than not cared about, but also there are specific connotations of poverty and crime associated with African-Americans, which are more similar to anti-immigrant racism. All subdivisions in this group are best described as “privileged” or “systemic.”

Obviously, these four classes are not equally powerful. Racism is most hurtful when backed by plenty of power, which can come from high socioeconomic status or majority status; indeed, the most systemically harmful form is systemic racism. On the other hand, in terms of people killed, all hate crimes in the United States put together don’t come close to the death toll of a single outburst of populist racism.

There are many interesting insights one can draw, with this division of racism into four groups. For example, aristocratic and systemic racism produce pseudo-intellectual apologetics similar to apologetics for sexism; conservative intellectuals are often all too happy to construct powerful narratives demonstrating their own groups’ supremacy. White supremacists appeal to skewed studies of IQ; Chinese ones appeal to the longevity of China; Hindu fundamentalists, who are almost invariably prejudiced against India’s Muslim minority, have a nationalist narrative of Indian history that contrasts with Aryan migration theory. In contrast, nationalistic Serbs never bothered popularizing Serbian supremacy—they simply murdered Bosnians at Milosevic’s behest. It’s this observation that firmly places Jewish racism in the aristocratic group. Orwell’s description of academic nationalism fits a certain subset of racisms from above, though never racism from below.

I am not going to list all observations of this form, for space constraints. Explaining all the differences among the four groups will fill a thick book. But it’s instructive to consider the fact that not all racism is the systemic discrimination that Westerners are used to. It’s just as instructive to consider the fact that an underprivileged group can gain privilege by declaring independence and becoming a majority, as happened in Eastern Europe both after World War One and after the Cold War, or by becoming wealthy by chance, as happened to Europe’s Jews.

Finally, every prejudice carries some degree of power. Even if a prejudiced group is not powerful enough to engage in full-scale systemic racism, it always can find opportunities to discriminate, or even to kill in hatred. On the large scale, the most effective anti-racist agitation focuses on equalizing power, which also serves to reduce ethnic tensions and hence weaken the forces of prejudice. But on the individual level, prejudice is always harmful, and even collectively it generally causes more harm than it empowers. Even if the most acute racism is committed by the usual suspects that are privileged groups, every self-conscious group can become prejudiced against any other group.