The Ideology of Racism
Racism is an ideology assuming the existence of groups of humans, who would show specific inborn qualities allegedly because of genealogical background and genetic makeup. Racism attributes great effect to these alleged qualities also in the sphere of Politics and Society. The groups of humans postulated in racist narratives1 are often named “races” or “peoples”, although there as well exists an implicit racism, avoiding these tags in the sense of concealment. The appearance of racism does not only show up when people are explicitly discriminated against; already the ascription of different qualities and attributes – including positive ones – because of the descent or skin colour of a person is to be considered racist.
Racism as an ideology of legitimation
Historically, (modern) racism originated in the early modern period. The colonization of the world by the great European powers fell into this epoch. By postulating the existence of different races and the superiority of Europeans, the subjugation of the populations of colonized territories could be legitimized. In the 19th century, for example, the slogan “White man’s burden” circulated. It expressed the idea that non-European or non-white people were incapable of civilized achievements and that for this reason the oppression by the colonial powers was not only morally correct, but even charitable. With the reference to the alleged superiority of the “whites” one finally tried not only to justify colonialism, but also the barbaric practice of slavery associated with colonialism was supported by racist arguments. In the USA, for example, people with dark skin were treated like objects because they were not regarded as people but as members of a “lower race”.
In the course of the historical development, the followers of the thesis of white superiority began to combine their way of thinking with new insights from biology. Racist ideology was elevated to “science” in the light of a crude and associative simplification of heredity and evolutionary theory: In the 19th century, “racial theory” was internationally recognised as a part of biology. Only after the victory over Nazi Germany such projects were for the most part discredited in science. But implicit and explicit racism still exist in everyday life and politics: Even today it is considered normal for states to apply the “blood law” and define themselves as representatives of a certain “ethnic group”.
Racism in the Capitalist World: The Legitimization of Inequality
Even if today in a large number of states the open propagation of pseudoscientific “race theories” is frowned upon and the formal equality of all people is at least officially recognized, it is all too obvious that racist attitudes continue to be expressed by a large number of people even in bourgeois-democratic states and also governments and politicians express implicitly to openly racist statements. One explanation for this is that the economic causes and consequences of racism have by no means disappeared. People in Africa, large parts of Asia and South America are on average considerably poorer than Europeans and (North) Americans and suffer considerably more from the consequences of catastrophic working conditions, hunger, climate change, civil wars and natural disasters. A factual analysis should ascribe these conditions to the consequences of colonialism, a trade policy that discriminates against poor states, competitive disadvantages in global capitalism, and the support of neoliberal and authoritarian regimes by Western countries. Since, however, there is a tendency in the more privileged parts of the world to legitimize existing inequalities and inhumane living conditions in other parts of the world in order to maintain one’s own prosperity and good conscience, some attempts are made to attribute these conditions to alleged character traits of non-whites. As an example, myths could be cited about allegedly work-shy Africans or the diligence of the Chinese. It should be clear to everyone that the extremely long working days and catastrophic conditions in Chinese factories have nothing to do with “Chinese diligence” but with dictatorship and the consequences of a catch-up of early capitalist development, and that Chinese workers are now resisting this with massive strikes.
The fact that the immigrant population in Western countries is often poorer than the rest is also not least due to discrimination and denial of civil rights. Instead, in a reversal of cause and effect, attempts are made to blame the people themselves for this economic inequality, e.g. by accusing them of unwillingness to integrate, an alleged unwillingness to work or a cultural “otherness”. In this way, Europeans and (North) Americans can legitimise their own privileges and discriminatory behaviour.
Hidden Racism: Nationalism, Cultural and Integration Debate
A subtler form of racism can be found in the so-called integration debate, which has been going on for over 30 years in almost all Western countries. Even far into the centre-left spectrum of the political parties, the assertion is regularly heard that the integration of migrants is not successful because migrants allegedly adhere to the culture, norms and values of their countries of origin. As a consequence, deportations or sanctions are demanded if migrants do not prove their loyalty to the Federal Republic of Germany (or another state). Representatives of such views often represent a so-called “constitutional patriotism”2 and often superficially speak out against racism. They would reject claims that the criticised behaviour of migrants had something to do with their genetics or even with “races”. However, they do not explain why such high demands are made only on migrants (and in some cases even on the descendants of migrants born in Germany) but not on the “autochthonous” population. Many Germans (almost all voters of right-wing parties) hold “anti-constitutional” views and would probably fail the various integration tests. However, the fact that demands for integration and loyalty to the constitution are only made on people who are attributed to certain ethnic groups proves that this is racism.
The quintessence is that every form of nationalism (including the civic variant) claims the right to exclusivity and must define who belongs to the nation and who does not. Exclusion is almost always based on ethnic criteria. The difference between ethnic and civic nationalism is thus merely that the latter allows members of other “ethnic groups”3 a limited number of opportunities to become citizens, while the former excludes this from the outset. Nationalism without racism is therefore not to be had in the present world order.
Cultural relativism, ethnopluralism and counterculturalism
Another form of racism is the so-called ethnopluralism, which is a popular idea, especially in right-wing radical circles. The demand for an “ethnically” pure nation is made on the grounds that each “people” has its own way of life and therefore the different “peoples” should not mix. The racist content of such an ideology is obvious. It violates the universalist principle that all people, regardless of their origin, must have substantially equal rights.4
A seemingly progressive and tolerant ideology, which is not unpopular even in leftist circles is cultural relativism. On closer inspection, however, it is based on the same thought construct as ethnopluralism. This cultural relativist worldview has its roots in the poststructuralist philosophy and, in short, takes the view that in non-Western countries and cultures common life practices as well as cultural and religious traditions cannot be judged according to the same standards as their equivalents in Europe or the USA, since in the West a lack of understanding of other societies and their living conditions prevails. As a result, representatives of this ideology in individual cases provide ideological legitimacy for the most atrocious crimes such as genital mutilation or sexist practices such as wearing burkas. On the other hand, those representatives of cultural relativism who want to escape the legitimization of such crimes lack the arguments here. A rationally comprehensible moral condemnation of such crimes in accordance with the fundamental convictions of cultural relativism is not possible. Ethical considerations must be replaced by systematic arbitrary exception and one’s own gut feeling.
Critics of such practices, on the other hand, are often accused of racism by representatives of cultural relativism. The representatives of cultural relativism are in many cases themselves committed fighters against racism and certainly do not have the same intentions as Neo-Nazis or identitarians. Nevertheless, it can be countered that this theory ultimately leads to individuals being granted different rights on the basis of their “ethnic” affiliation or origin, thus making a consequent condemnation of discriminatory practices impossible, and apparently not having completely detached themselves from racist thinking.
Another current circulating in leftist and anti-racist circles could be called “counterculturalism”. Its roots date back to the 1960s. The “Nation of Islam” of the American civil rights activist Malcolm X could be cited as an early example. A detailed analysis of such and similar groups would go beyond the scope of this text. In summary, it can be said that they have in common the basic assumption that the predominant culture of Western countries (i.e. above all the former colonial powers) is a culture of white oppressors and that for liberation from racism and (neo-)colonialism, a kind of counterculture of the oppressed (i.e. above all the non-whites) must be created. However, in many cases this has led to a positive reference to religious and cultural practices in developing or emerging countries, which are by no means to be regarded as emancipatory. Moreover, it must be noted that culture, tradition and religion are in many cases merely the everyday life expression of the material misery in developing countries caused by colonialism and capitalism and not a positive alternative to its causes. Finally, materialistic social critique aims at the eradication of poverty and misery and not at their glorification.
A large part of all people worldwide has internalized racist ideas and stereotypes and apply them in social interactions. People who are identified as members of another “race” or “ethnic group” because of their appearance or language, for example, are often massively discriminated against and hosted against. They are confronted with prejudices, stereotypes and exclusionary language use. This everyday racism has a massive impact on the material welfare and mental and physical health of the people concerned.
So-called “institutional racism” plays a not inconsiderable role here: people identified as “non‑German” are often subjected to massive harassment by the authorities. This becomes clear when, for example, the police use racist methods of investigation such as “racial profiling” or when people with an uncertain residence status are threatened with massive repression or even deportation for trivial offences. A particularly shocking example could be the NSU investigations, where police and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, despite clear indications that Nazis were the perpetrators, for a long time only investigated the Turkish community. The authorities took it for granted without convincing objective reason that the perpetrators came from the “same milieu” as the victims.
Selective reporting in leading media also often promotes racist stereotypes; in reports of serious violent or sexual crimes, for example, people described as “foreigners” are clearly overrepresented in relation to their actual statistical share of such crimes. This type of reporting often leads to a distorted worldview with false generalizations among mass media consumers, in which “foreigners”, for example, are associated with crime. It is often attempted to substantiate such stereotypes with supposedly scientific arguments. Studies are often quoted that allegedly prove that “foreigners” are more likely to be criminals than “non-residents”. For years it has been pointed out that the alleged over-representation of “foreigners” in crime statistics is due to the fact that on average they belong to poorer sections of the population and that offences such as “violation of the Aliens Act” are also included, which by definition can only be committed by “foreigners” and thus distort the statistics.
Social psychological causes
Racism serves many people to enhance their self-esteem by creating a collective identity with positive connotations. The creation of this identity necessarily implies an outward demarcation: For the “we” to exist, there must be a circle of people who do not belong to it. Especially groups of people who suffer from inferiority complexes for economic, historical or ideological reasons are susceptible to racist thinking.
In general, “non-white” people are more affected by everyday racist experiences than people who are identified as “white”. At the same time, it must be emphasized that racism exists on all continents and that people or groups who are victims of racist practices often have racist prejudices against other people and groups.
But there are other psychological mechanisms that cause or promote the emergence of racism. A special role is played by a psychological defence mechanism, the so-called projection. Character traits, needs and psychological dispositions classified as unpleasant, immoral or generally undesirable are projected to other persons or groups in order to repress them and reject them. From this perspective, it is no wonder that the accusation that certain “ethnic groups” tend to commit sexual assault is primarily made and reproduced by men.
Furthermore, racism satisfies the widespread need for simple explanations. By dividing the world into different “races”, “peoples” or “ethnicities” with certain characteristics, it appears less complex and easier to grasp. The interplay of economic, sociological, psychological and political factors can be ignored in favour of simple characterizations and stereotypes.
It should also be pointed out at this point that racism is often reproduced unconsciously and that even leftists and anti-fascists are not automatically free of it. This can be reflected both in unintentionally pejorative behaviour towards migrants and in supposedly positive references to foreign and exotic cultures.
Xenophobia can also be seen as a widespread partial phenomenon of racist thinking. The diffuse fear of strangers and newcomers is seen as a threat to one’s own tradition and way of life and is particularly widespread where members of the majority society have little contact with migrants. In contrast, a regular interaction with a higher probability leads to a dissonance between one’s own prejudices and personal experiences, which can lead to a reduction of xenophobic thinking.
We position ourselves against all forms of racist thought and action. Racism generates suffering among those who are discriminated against, excluded or even murdered on its basis. It directly contradicts a rational and realistic view of the world and is a massive obstacle to the development of global solidarity.
Combating racism is necessary at two levels: On the one hand, directly and immediately, on the other hand, as a fight against its causes. The first means denouncing, refuting and, if possible, preventing racist expressions, actions and theories. This implies not only intervention in public and everyday life, but also solidarity and cooperation with the victims of racism. Ultimately, racism must be refuted, discredited, repressed and smashed through extensive education and agitation campaigns. Groups and individuals who propagate racist ideas must be combated in the most efficient way, depending on the social balance of power. Hegemonic, media, legal and violent means must be skillfully combined.
In order to effectively eliminate the social-psychological foundations of racism, a reorganization of economy, politics and education is necessary. Inferiority complexes, projections and the need for simple explanations must be banished as far as possible from the psychological structure of people. Only a society with a high level of education, free from borders and national states, can be completely free from the dangerous ideology of racism. Furthermore, housing and distribution policies must promote the mixing of the population in order to reduce xenophobic stereotypes.
We also clearly reject cultural relativism and counter-culturalism because, despite good intentions, they contribute in part to the reproduction of racist ideology. In quite a lot of cases, however, dialogue and discussion (unlike with convinced racists) can help. People who in principle have the intention to fight racism and in so doing unintentionally reproduce racist stereotypes or ideologies themselves are more likely to be convinced by rational arguments than by those who intentionally display their racism.
1. A narrative is a story or an interpretation of the event in narrative form.
2. The term constitutional patriotism is usually used equivalently to the term “civic nationalism” and describes the idea that belonging to a nation should not be defined by ancestry, but by a commitment to the nation and its political system.
3. The quotation marks should make it clear that terms such as “ethnicity”, “people” or “race” are irrational constructs, which we therefore only use in the citation form.
4. See also our text on State logic and universalism, published as part of the Political Self-Conception (PSC).