Arguably, both racism and anti-racism are forms of prejudice—and this means they transcend economics.
In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, the Polish-Nigerian political scientist, Remi Adekoya, penned a reflective article on the Black Lives Matter movement. In the article, Adekoya defended a quasi-Marxist perspective on extirpating anti-black racism. At the heart of his argument is the notion that anti-black racism is the direct result of a lack of respect for the black community, on the basis of economic disempowerment. Black polities and communities are, by many estimations, amongst the most impoverished in the world and Adekoya highlights how ‘a disproportionate wealth and power gap is not conducive to balanced race relations’. Whilst this argument is compelling at face value, the monocausal and bourgeois ideology behind it is far too simplistic; the argument lacks the very apposite social-psychological comprehension of racism that gives anti-racism its counteractive force. Arguably, both racism and anti-racism are forms of prejudice—and this means they transcend economics.
THE ORIGINS OF PREJUDICE
The term ‘prejudice’ itself derives from the Latin word praejudicium (prae – in advance + judicium – judgement), where a judgement is made without any prior experience or knowledge. Social psychologists Wade and Tavris posit that such unfounded judgement engenders a strong feeling of hatred toward people of a different race, sex, class, nationality, religion or ethnicity. Indeed, there are as many forms of prejudice as there are myriad identities and racism is without a doubt a prejudicial sentiment. Sexism, for instance, is a form of prejudice primarily against women based on the false presupposition that they are mentally and physically inferior to men—a claim often used to justify their exclusion from education and employment opportunities.
On another level, such sexist beliefs owe to certain deep-seated patriarchal norms that prejudge women and deny them the equal opportunity of self-realisation. In her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft contends that what separates men from women has nothing to do with nature but with education—that is, how both sexes are raised. Other forms of prejudice—nationalism, ethnocentrism, classism, tribalism, ableism and the like—function similar to sexism: false assumptions and prejudgments result in one group of people being perceived as superior and dissimilar groups being ‘othered’, which fuels subsequent disparity in multifarious spheres of life.
This should not come as a surprise since humans have a natural disposition to define themselves in opposition to others and are, to a large extent, clannish creatures. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture distinguishes between two important concepts: racialism and racism. Racialism is the view that ‘there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race.’ Racialism suggests that there is a ‘racial essence’ that makes a people different from another.
Whilst racialism is not necessarily a dangerous doctrine, racism is. This is because racism goes further to ascribe moral and intellectual qualities to the purported racial essences delineated by racialism. Furthermore, we tend to ascribe positive qualities to our in-groups and negative ones to out-groups. These ascriptions are often essentializations that, in turn, lead to pervasive stereotypes that disregard genuine distinctions amongst members of the out-group. For example, racialism recognizes that a black person has darker skin than a white person, but racism presumes that by having darker skin, the black person is incapable of reason or morally degenerate. Racism encourages pervasive stereotypes such as blacks being unintelligent, Jews being greedy and the Roma being lazy—all prejudicial sentiments that essentialize these groups and ascribe lower moral and intellectual properties to them. Prejudice and discrimination breed disrespect, dehumanization, severe pain and, in more extreme cases, death. The Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are classic examples of how prejudice—false and unfounded beliefs about others—is dehumanizing and injurious to peaceful co-existence.
MORE MONEY, SAME PROBLEMS?
In his article on Black Lives Matter, Adekoya’s posited solution to racism is economic advancement and he cites the Jewish story as evidence of this. Anti-Semitism goes back centuries—apart from blaming Jews for killing Jesus, medieval Christians resented the ‘chosenness’ tied to Jewish identity and generally viewed Jews as arrogant. Anti-Semitic sentiment persisted into the modern era, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust and the continued demonization of Jews in public discourse. The State of Israel was, as a result, created to ensure ontological security for Jewish people. For Adekoya, the Jews have garnered respect across the world through their economic success and, therefore, economics is the root of respect in the face of animosity; the material thus trumps the symbolic. Rather than appeal to history and sociology to comprehend and fight anti-black racism, Adekoya suggests that black people should focus on economics to gain respect in a similar fashion. He praises Jews for establishing the State of Israel, emphasizing that ‘strength is the best guarantor of safety.’ This begs the question: has anti-Semitism declined since the State of Israel was founded and the supposed concomitant economic empowerment of the Jewish people?
Recent statistics suggest the contrary. In 2017 alone, there was a 34 per cent rise in violent assaults against Jewish people in the UK. In Germany, crimes motivated by anti-Semitism rose by 13 per cent in 2018. This is not to mention the endless conflict in the Middle East, where there has been a spike in outward hatred against Jews. In ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’, German critical theorists, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, argue that ‘There is no authentic anti-Semitism, and certainly no born anti-Semite. The older adults to whom the call for Jewish blood has become second nature are as ignorant of the reason as the young people who have to shed it.’ In essence, a group of people can be loved or hated regardless of their level of economic advancement, and Adekoya’s proposed linear relationship between economic prosperity and respect for a people does not necessarily hold. Ironically, one of the prejudices that stoke global anti-Semitism is the false belief that Jews control financial markets and wish to dominate the world with their economic resources.
The reality is that racism is a systemic conundrum that is sometimes perpetrated unconsciously. Robin DiAngelo makes a similar argument in her book White Fragility, asserting that racism is not invariably the product of intentional or conscious denigration of others. Racism is the simultaneous consequence of conscious and unconscious biases engendered through varied social institutions and forms of social learning. And Adekoya’s thesis seemingly discounts the fact that ideologies are effected through social institutions such as courts, schools, churches and the media.
A counter to the economic reductionism of Marxism that Adekoya appeals to exists in Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci’s notion of ‘cultural hegemony’. According to Gramsci, the state and ruling elite use social institutions to establish and sustain their preferred ideologies as social norms. For instance, the Nazi party legitimized Nazi racial hygiene in 1933 and sterilized people with specific hereditary conditions to preserve the ‘quality’ of their population. Nearly 90 years later, Neo-Nazi groups, today use literature, social media and social gatherings to propagate Holocaust denial and other prejudicial ideas that tyrannize Jews, and portray them as a dangerous racial group set on economic and political domination. With social institutions serving as a powerful medium for such racist propaganda, it is no wonder that anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks persist in the modern world despite Jewish economic success and political independence.
The importance of social institutions in preserving ideology becomes even more pronounced when we consider systemic anti-black racism. The Jim Crow era in the United States illustrated that black economic advancement does not guarantee anti-black racism—rich and poor blacks alike suffered racial segregation and discrimination during this period. Elements of the same racist ideology from this era persist in social institutions and structures today, and black people still face racism irrespective of their income level. The incidences of police brutality in the United States, for example, owe much to a systemic racism that has written off black people in terms of crime and criminality. Because racism operates through social institutions, many racists do not understand how some of their own beliefs about others are biased and unfounded and thus live out their own lives thoroughly convinced that they are not racists. A separate but equally important point to emphasize is that some forms of anti-racism function like racism; they too are based on essentializations and false simplifications of the out-group. When Black Lives Matter protesters yell—as on one occasion in Washington—‘White silence is violence!’ at random white people dining at restaurants with their families, this essentializes every white person without knowledge or experience of them. It is a prejudice that dehumanizes white people who may not be racist and who may, in fact, be ardent supporters of racial equity. To Viktor Frankl’s salient point in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, decent and indecent people exist within each human group, a fact that should preclude us from thinking of groups of people in essentialist ways as decent or indecent.
AVENUES FOR UNDERSTANDING
Economic advancement cannot automatically reduce prejudice without a concerted effort to understand and co-exist respectfully beyond one’s kith and kin. To address racism, we must transcend economics and seek avenues through which different groups can interact under conditions of mutual interdependence and equality. American psychologist, Gordon Allport, has recommended the contact hypothesis as an efficacious strategy to reduce prejudice through intergroup contact and communication under conditions of rough equality. Contact with members of one’s out-group is key to enhancing one’s knowledge and empathy, reducing anxiety toward the out-group and ultimately correcting the myriad of deep-seated prejudices in human societies. The contact hypothesis is particularly pertinent today, not least because addressing racism requires a total transformation of social institutions. Schools, universities, places of worship, the media and other social institutions must be avenues for intergroup contact; they should not be sites of inclusion for some and exclusion for others. For example, the novel idea of constructing a segregated Black university in the UK to address the legacies of slavery and colonialism would only nurture these narratives about the out-group—in this case, white people—and further stymie our common social progress just as with racial segregation in the United States and the gruesome apartheid in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Indeed, many Western cities are already highly multicultural hubs where people from all walks of life constantly interact and share knowledge about themselves and their cultures. Over 50 languages are spoken on the streets of London, New York and Paris on a daily basis. The prestigious Cambridge and Oxford universities offer scholarships and other opportunities to minority groups, and there are sustained efforts by Western universities to incorporate race in their curricula as a way to mitigate racism that stems from ignorance. There is increasingly greater ethnic minority representation in British and American political institutions advocating for their communities. The music industry has also seen more British and American artistes collaborating with their African counterparts to produce some of the best tunes, lyrics and beats. All these and many more are avenues for cosmopolitan contact and communication across groups that reduce racism. We must sustain and promote them not only for peace to reign but for a better common future as one human race⎈
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