02 June 2020

The Roots of Racism

As the racist narrative continues to make headlines in the United States, and with a public growing increasingly divided over the issue, progress seems complicated. To further understand the complex nature of racism, history often serves as a starting point. In an interview, Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Professor of International History and Chair of the International History Department, and Bram Barnes, PhD candidate in International History, provide insight into racism's roots and steps to untangle them for a more equitable world. 

Why has there been such a difficult history of race relations in America?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Primarily because the country carries forward an unresolved history of systemic racism. It would be misleading to think of racism as an issue currently playing out solely in the United States. We see it present across the world in different configurations, towards different groups and on the basis of a variety of ideologies. The problem is just as gnawing and complex in these other places – see, for instance, how in recent months, in the context of the coronavirus crisis, Chinese nationals (and Asians more generally) were at the receiving end of racist incidents in many places while simultaneously in China some African students and migrants were discriminated against.

The case of the United States, however, is arresting. This is not a matter of gradation – i.e., this or that form being worse than the other – but rather of different histories and their legacies. Quite simply, the United States have not yet come to terms societally with this issue.

In the nineteenth century, the aftermath of the civil war had led to the Jim Crow laws, which de facto laid the ground for the segregation era, which persisted well into the middle of the twentieth century.

The civil rights acts of the 1960s were steps forward but, by nature, racism transcends the enactment of legislation – and indeed that specific enactment has itself been problematic as illustrated notably by the disproportionate rate of incarceration in the country.

Discriminatory attitudes and disenfranchisement practices remained across large segments of the country perpetuating directly or indirectly the de facto racial inequality in the United States. The cycle of riots in Watts 1965, Detroit 1967, Los Angeles 1992, Ferguson 2014, Baltimore 2015, St. Louis 2017 and today in Minneapolis is evidence of this incomplete racial contract.

Bram Barnes: Well, America was founded on racial hierarchies based on the inherent right of white people to take from, own and exploit people of colour, particularly black people.

This inequitable structure has in many ways been maintained through both formal and informal mechanisms. And, in the historical moments where these structures have been confronted, from the Civil Rights and Chicano movements, to Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock, their voices were kept from the table, systematically delegitimised, and violently repressed by state and federal apparatus, often simultaneous to white supremacist terrorism. 

Racism comes in many veiled and unveiled forms, as displayed by recent events. With outrage and disbelief at these events catalysing grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter and now “White people. Do something.”, what role can the everyday citizen play to affect change?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Educating oneself, taking ethics seriously and avoiding self-serving ahistorical rationalisations.

Emotionalism is also not the answer to a societal issue. Literacy is. If indeed racism has persisted in the United States, and elsewhere, then what accounts for this, and how can such continuity be halted?

Civil society’s activism is its prerogative; it is a healthy component of democratic life. It remains, however, a matter of personal choice and engagement. Where the issue transcends those individual aspects is in its impact on the cité and, today, on the world.

The course on the international history of racism that my colleague, International History Professor Davide Rodogno, and I introduced this spring 2020 semester at the Institute gave us the opportunity to discuss the fullness of these issues weekly with our students. How do structures of power, including in academia, perpetuate racism? What is the political economy of discrimination? What is the relationship between ghettoisation, segregation and racial discrimination? How do securitisation and racialisation intersect contemporaneously?

Working with and on racism starts with such production of knowledge.

Bram Barnes: We need to have some hard conversations with each other. Along with confronting institutionalised racism, we should commit to being anti-racist for ourselves and our families.

The narrative of “colour blindness” was pushed strongly in schools for decades. But, as events of the recent years clearly show, being “colour blind” often results in being just “blind” and denying the realities of living in America as a person of colour.

Rather than claiming to “not be racist,” being anti-racist means actively addressing racism around us and within ourselves. We should acknowledge the process.

Back to these grassroots movements, are they helpful or do they serve to divide us more, as seen with the development of counter-movements? 

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Most certainly they are helpful. Those who are painting Black Lives Matter as troublemakers are merely shooting the messenger and indulging an age-old avoidance artifice known in racist studies as "blaming the victim".

Indeed, "black lives matter" is arguably a tepid motto for a basic expectation of justice and equality. Obviously, these lives – like all others – matter. To be reduced to campaigning for that – and being accused of being a terrorist movement – is quite an indictment of the racial state of things currently, or indeed of the success of disinformation.

Historically, campaigns to achieve social justice and equity serve to educate societies about the ills they tolerate in their midst or turn a complicit blind eye on.

Bram Barnes: For one, I don’t believe it’s for me as a white person to say if these are helpful.

As a historian, I’ll say that the record across time and place demonstrates social movements are important catalysts for manifesting change, from policy to the existential.

Moreover, I think that movements such as Black Lives Matter, bear witness to black lives that are otherwise silenced, otherised, and oppressed.

I would also argue that these “divisions” already existed, and that they’ve only been brought to the forefront, with these movements removing the veil.

I mean, they certainly existed while bringing my hispanic wife to my family BBQ, or at Thanksgiving dinners. But now, addressing racist acts isn’t just “over-reacting” or being “sensitive,” but is part of a larger, national discussion.

Is there something history could teach us to help ease tensions, and improve tolerance and respect for diversity?

Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou: Addressing this, James Baldwin famously remarked that “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do”. 

History is indeed the repository of these exchanges, and the very source to tap in to understand how to break the continuity cycle. Ultimately, we are what we do with our history. Facing up honestly to the persistence of the problem of racism, in the United States and beyond, instead of wishing it away or denying its reality is a first step to achieving those positive changes we want to effect.

Bram Barnes: Yes. It has shown me that no matter the repressive historical context, there have always been people who were anti-racist, demonstrating the effort and courage it requires.

They also show historical continuity in the dream for a shared and equitable future. There is an extensive body of wisdom on the topics discussed, and I recommend seeking out resources, such as the recently compiled Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA) anti-racist reading list, in order to start your journey.

At this point in time, we as white people must shoulder the responsibility of (un)learning how to be allies, rather than putting the burden of educating on the shoulders of those struggling under this oppression.

Read, research, discuss with your peers, and apply your developing knowledge to meaningful action against racism.