An Ever-Present Problem: The Course of Racism Throughout History

Despite the recent prominence of globalism and increasing standards of education, racism still stands as a major problem, both on a personal and systematic level. Undoubtedly, this is a multi-faceted issue caused by a plethora of underlying interconnected problems relating to human nature and the cultural norms of humanity constructed over many millennia. Nowadays, the greatest struggle of anti-racism activists is changing these cultural norms which encourage or enable racism. Therefore, one of the most important towards understanding and overcoming racism is to understand its course throughout history.


Discrimination against the out-group is as old as humanity’s first attempts at forming groups. Our brains are hardwired towards categorization and this categorization, when combined with the fear of the unknown creates discrimination against those who are unlike your group. Concerning this kind of discrimination, the properties of others that we can physically see make for easier properties to discriminate against since they are so readily discernable. This ease of discernability is what made some forms of discrimination, such as sexism or racism, more prevalent than others. So, racism can be said to be as old as two ethnicities meeting each other.


To observe racism in a modern sense based on ethnicities, however, one needs to look at a closer period. The first such period is ancient Mesopotamia where, as a result of hosting a variety of ethnicities, the region also became a place where ethnic discrimination prospered. This discrimination however was not as close to the modern, western racism as one might think. To find that kind of racism, we have to fast-forward time until we reach the classical period. As early as the classical period, thinkers had already begun categorizing people by their geographical location, linking personality traits of the people with geologic traits of their homelands. With the rapid expansion of Rome people of different ethnicities were united on a scale never seen before, which also contributed to geographical and ethnic categorization. The real discrimination, however, began when Rome could not expand into some locations. This failure in conquests brought about a “us vs them” mentality in Rome and as a result, the tradition of categorizing yourself as “civilized” and others as “barbarians” was created. This tradition is what persisted for a long time in western societies and it continues today. Historically, seeing others as barbarians justified enslaving and discriminating against them. In the Roman times, the Germanic tribes were the barbarians, as time passed native Africans and Americans were given that role.


One important question that arises is how that transformation of the subject of discrimination happened. Nowadays, Germans suffer hardly any racism, while people of African descent, aboriginal Australians, and native Americans are the subject of it to a much harsher extent. Of course, when you contextualize racism with a “us vs them” mentality, a shift in the subject of racism is often caused by a change in the groups of “us” and “them”. As Germanic tribes settled into Christianity and a similar way of living with the rest of Europe, eventually, they started to be considered as civilized people (which did not mean they were not discriminated against anymore, they still faced scorn because they were the people that converted to Christianity latest) and the accusation of barbarity turned to other ethnic groups.


The first reasons for this transformation were religious in nature. In the middle ages, the Catholic Church held that humanity was descended from the three sons of Noah, Ham, Shem, and Japheth. It was believed that the descendants of these sons formed the Hamitic, Semitic, and Japhetic peoples, respectively. The biblical belief that Ham was cursed for he “saw the nakedness of his father” was associated with the skin color of the Hamitic (African) people. As the Middle Ages progressed, this belief gained traction throughout Europe and would persist until works relating the skin color of various peoples to the environment, they lived in came out. Yet, the mass slavery of Black people was not established in this period. The majority of European slaves were of Slavic or Asian origin.


The pointer of slavery only turned towards Black people with the start of the Age of Discovery. After discovering the fertility of the lands of the New World, European colonizers realized they could profit heavily from these fertile lands. The problem, however, was the lack of personnel to work on European plantations and farms. The option of using Native Americans was considered but capturing the natives of a freshly discovered region proved difficult and the weak constitutions of these natives hindered their capacities for long-winded slave work. The solution colonizers arrived at was to bring in slaves from Africa to use in their American plantations and farms. This eventually leads to a triangular trade where America offset its need for labor by importing slaves from Africa, The produce that was created by slave labor in America was sent off to Europe, and Europe used this raw produce to create processed goods, which is sold back into America and Africa. This scheme was massively profitable for European countries, but it put a roadblock on the way of African growth.


In time, this profitability began to affect racial philosophy within Europe as well. Scientific racism rose to prominence in the 17th century, as a result of thinkers observing the illusory supremacy of Europeans over other peoples. Over the following centuries, scientific racism remained commonly accepted despite the rising popularity of human-centered philosophy. This acceptance can be attributed to its function as a justification for the inhumane treatment of non-European people. The beliefs that enslaved people were subhuman or not human at all (either due to not being Christian or being inherently inferior by race) provided easy justification for their mistreatment. So, racist beliefs permeated through the thought space of Europeans with ease.


Yet, this state of affairs would not last forever. Abolitionist movements decrying slavery as inhumane started taking off during the latter half of the 18th century, and a wave of slavery being banned in the world was slowly being established. Colonialist nations first outlawed slavery in their mainland regions and over time this practice spread to their New World lands as well. The most significant event within all this process was slavery being abolished in the United States of America. The abolitionists in the North and slave owners in the South fought for 4 years in the American Civil War, with the ultimate conclusion of abolitionists coming out victorious. The many contributions of former slaves to the Northern side affected the consensus of American people greatly and justified their rights to be recognized as proper citizens of the United States. This event was seen as an important indicator of the changing times and that, from now on, slavery would be in decline.


Despite the abolishment of slavery, the previously slaved minorities would not gain anything near equal footing in society for a long time. These minorities were now being seen as 2nd rate citizens, even by the very abolitionists who had fought to free them. Again, they would have to fight for their right to be treated equally. This period is marked by the mistreatment and segregation against minorities. Many societies practiced segregation either by the force of law or by informal cultural expectations. The most famous example of segregation took place in the US. For a while after the civil war, Southern states practiced informal segregation but as the end of the 19th century approached, a series of laws now known as “Jim Crow Laws” were passed. The aim of these laws is best explained by the phrase “Separate but Equal”, in practice, however, African Americans and White people were seldom equal, although separated.


The most impactful event contributing to the decline of Racism in the 20th century was the Second World War. Devasted by the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazi Germany, both nations of the world and their citizens began to see merit international acts toward preventing such ideologies from unleashing their horrors ever again. This eventually culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which became the first international document to outlaw slavery in its entirety and contained a set of universal rights, essentially decrying segregation. Not long after, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States would begin, aiming to end segregation and discrimination. After almost a decade and a half of fighting, American minorities successfully repealed laws that were used in the enforcement of discrimination and segregation. Being an inspiring movement for minorities everywhere, this movement encouraged many other minorities to fight for their rights.


Humanity might have ended slavery and segregation, but this does not mean that racial discrimination is no longer an issue. Even as humanity progresses into never seen before heights, it is one of the many problems of the past that continues to plague society. Even in the most developed regions of the world, racism is still a substantial issue, and if we want to take action against it, we must all properly educate ourselves on its course in history and incorporate the appropriate lessons into our efforts.

by Boran GÖHER