Racism – A history
Racism – A History was first broadcast on BBC Four in March 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. In a three-part documentary series, the history of racism over the last 500 years is examined in close detail, revealing some uncomfortable truths about how racist attitudes came into being and spread into popular opinion.
Though slavery had, of course, existed for many centuries dating back to ancient civilisations, the concept of racism as we understand it today really only began with the enslavement of Africans in the sixteenth century. Racism – A History reveals how it was actually the slave trade which promoted racism and not, as might easily be presumed, vice versa. Prior to this, skin colour was not in fact the defining factor in prevailing racial attitudes, as Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University illustrates in a discussion on the contact between the early European colonists of the New World and its indigenous peoples. The burgeoning trade in Africans, however, gave birth to the idea that different races of human beings existed, distinguished by the colour of their skin.
The first episode of Racism – A History, ‘The Colour of Money’, explores how this shift in the attitudes of the day can be largely attributed to the colonial powers’ desire to justify the slave trade. Professor James Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York and winner of the 1975 Martin Luther King Memorial Prize for his book “Black and White: The Negro and English Society” explains, “the British don't become slave traders and slavers because they are racist; they became racist because they use slaves for great profit in the Americas and devise a set of attitudes towards black people that justifies what they’ve done. The real engine behind the slave system is economics.” It was through this need to legitimise the exploitation of Africans for the completion of colonial projects and ultimately for profit that the notion of a hierarchy of separate human races was effectively invented; a notion which subsequently seeped into social attitudes, allowing the subjugation and dehumanisation of black Africans to continue and prosper as an ‘acceptable’ part of commerce through the centuries which followed.
In the second episode, ‘Fatal Impact’, Racism – A History looks at how, during the 19th century, the practice of classifying human beings into separate races evolved, relying on pseudo-scientific theories in order to support the belief in ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ human races. Now discredited ‘sciences’ such as craniometry and phrenology sought to substantiate perceived racial differences and categorise black people as a discrete race more closely related to apes than Europeans. The notion that Negroes were created inferior and, as such, were naturally fitted for servitude gave racism the moral justification it needed to allow the empire builders of the day to continue their quest for new territories, imposing their rule on the ‘lesser’ breeds of human who stood in their way.
The final episode, ‘A Savage Legacy’ examines how these racist ideologies were carried forward into the twentieth century, paving the way for the atrocities and racial genocides perpetrated against Africans in the Congo under Belgian colonial rule. Mutilation and dismemberment were commonly employed as punishment against men, women and children who failed to meet their latex quotas on the vast rubber plantations there. Graphic images depict the horrific violence which sprang from racial stereotyping in this, the scene of one of the century’s greatest genocides in which an estimated 10 million Africans perished. The series concludes by bringing us up to the present day with an examination of endemic racism in America and South Africa, segregated by the Jim Crow system and Apartheid respectively, in Britain and, of course, under Nazi Germany where eugenics and the belief in a ‘master race’ resulted first in the enslavement of Jews in forced labour camps and ultimately to the systematic extermination of approximately 6 million people.
Racism – A History is a challenging and often harrowing account of the origins, development and legacy of racism and the violence which results from racist perceptions; perceptions which it asserts are still ingrained in western societies to this day. Anyone doubting the veracity of this assertion is reminded that the vast majority of the world’s wealth remains in the hands of white people in the northern hemisphere, a wealth acquired and maintained through slavery. The series has been described by academics as a ‘highly intelligent study’ and ‘a significant piece of programming whose quality of debate ensures that its message is heard’. For the sake of future generations, let’s hope that message is heeded.
Racism – A History can be used in education and training to teach the history of racism with a licence from BBC Active.