20/10/2017 13:16 SAST | Updated 20/10/2017 13:16 SAST

Why Racism Doesn't Go Away

Erroneous and deep-seated notions about race persist because we are scared to discuss misconceptions about colour and race.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images


Differential treatment of people by race and colour persists, despite the fact that racism is illegal in most of the world. Racism is most persistent in countries with long histories of legalised segregation and discrimination like the United States and South Africa.

When the roots of this problem are explored closely, we see a pattern of treatment that is based on the mistaken belief that groups differ in their intellectual capacities and potential, their moral resolve, and behavioral predilections, and that these qualities are related to skin colour and race. The persistence of hidden and strong racism is rooted to deep-seated beliefs in biogenetic determinism, and the conviction that different groups of people are born with different inherent capacities, and that these determine a natural social order. That such ideas continue in the 21st century is viewed with disbelief by academics and scientists, who are quick to cite evidence that biological races don't exist and that races are "only" social constructs. Despite ever more genetic evidence confirming the nonexistence of races, beliefs in the inherent superiority and inferiority of people remain part of the modern world. Many of these are based on a belief in a natural hierarchy of skin colour, and the conviction that human worth grades from white to black.

We notice skin colour because it is our most visible trait and because we are highly visually oriented animals. This doesn't mean that we are genetically "programmed" to be biased, rather that we form our impressions of others and the world around us primarily through what we see. We observe people around us keenly, and we imitate. As small children, we pick up on the subtle visual and verbal cues of our parents and caregivers. The transmission of bias starts slowly and subtly. Our minds appear to be organis ed in a way that makes it easy to classify people into distinct groups and then to favor our own group, the "in-group." But our reactions toward members of out-groups are not automatically negative and they are not all or nothing. Stereotypes are created by repeated reinforcement of positive or negative associations with different people. Verbal labels that we affix to stereotypes can have a potent and long-lasting effect on our future attitudes.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the first person to classify people into fixed races according to skin colour. To him and his followers, skin colour was equated with character. People of darker-coloured races were inferior and destined to serve those of lighter-coloured races. Kant's ideas about colour, race, and character achieved wide and lasting acceptance because his writings were widely circulated, his reputation good, and his audience naïve. The "colour meme" was born.

The linking of blackness with otherness and inferiority was one of the most powerful and destructive intellectual constructs of all time. Views on the inherent superiority and inferiority of races were readily embraced by the intelligentsia of western Europe and eventually by the general populace because they supported existing stereotypes. Negative associations of dark skin and human worth became profitable with the development and expansion of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Industrial-scale enslavement of Africans was made socially tolerable when those being enslaved where considered low and fit only for servitude. Belief in the inferiority of the dark-skinned peoples of Africa became ever more pronounced with intensification of the slave trade.

By the early 19th century, darkly pigmented skin signified inferiority and the prospect of profit through slavery, while the possession of lightly pigmented or "white" skin became the norm from which others deviated. The domination of white Europeans over the darker races was deviously justified because of the unshakeable yet erroneous belief that skin colour was inextricably linked to morality, economy, aesthetics, and language. The rise of Social Darwinism in the late 19th century further reinforced the notion that the superiority of the white race was part of the natural order because certain "stocks" were more highly evolved and culturally superior because of their "fitness" and "adaptations." The meme took on scientific trappings! In the United States and South Africa, the two countries in which subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned labour was the cornerstone of economic growth, hierarchies of colour were maintained by legal institutions and rhetorical traditions of superiority and inferiority. Over many generations, ideologies of colour-based race became rigid as they were collectively reinforced by stereotypes and multiple cultural traditions. Races persisted along with the implicit hierarchies they imposed. Race labels that are associated with negative depictions and narratives can have powerful effects on members of out-groups and can also have remarkable effects on in-groups by planting in people's minds the idea that their own group is superior, inferior, smarter, stupider, stronger, or weaker than another. The race label itself thus becomes determinative of personality and individual experience, and itself a destination.

Erroneous and deep-seated notions about race persist because we are scared to discuss misconceptions about colour and race in our classrooms and boardrooms. Paranoia about race born of political correctness had led to the perpetuation of misconceptions about colour and race, the cloaking of discriminatory behaviour and language, and the persistent of racism. Racism is probably humanity's single biggest impediment to human achievement, the realisation of world peace, and our ability to face the challenges of global climatic change. Far from intractable, the problem of racism can gradually be eradicated by education of the world's youth. The colour meme need not direct our destiny. Human attitudes are constantly subject to revision through experience and, more importantly, conscious choice. Biases can be modified and eradicated on the basis of experience and motivation, and stereotypes can be changed when people are motivated to think about someone, in any way, as a member of their own group. We are all one people.

HuffPost UK has teamed up with television presenter, broadcaster and author June Sarpong, ahead of the launch of her book Diversify: Six degrees of integration, to highlight and champion the economic, social and moral benefits of diversity.

Throughout this week we will be hosting personal stories and opinions from June, as well as the inspirational and influential people who helped inform the book and project. To find out more visit