Modern racism has evolved into something far more sophisticated than overt racial slurs, stereotypes and discrimination in the workplace. For roughly 200 years, we won some key battles in the fight against racism, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in 2021.
Note: This story reflects the opinion of the writer and not necessarily that of the Essential Millennial.
I’ve come to notice an increasingly troubling trend in the contemporary era, particularly since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps I’ve been blind to it, owing to the fact that I’m not subjected to it personally, but it appears that the social tension brought about by the pandemic (and decades of unresolved systemic issues) has fuelled the fire of racist attitudes in 2021. It’s a time where you’d think racist attitudes shouldn’t exist anymore… but they do. Millennials were meant to be the generation that ended racism, but we still face a monumental task.
Not only have we recently reported on a disturbing rise in Asian hate crimes, but only a year after George Floyd was killed by Derek Chauvin, Daunte Wright was shot by a police officer at the same time as Chauvin’s murder trial. In another story, 13-Year-Old Adam Toledo was shot by police officers in Chicago. This isn’t going away. And the problem is not unique to the United States. Hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent are also becoming increasingly prevalant all over the world, including in Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Brazil, according to Human Rights Watch.
And the pandemic has merely added a new layer to the systems of racism that exist in societies all over the world. We’re still dealing with the inertia of centuries of racism, and to posit that modern racism doesn’t exist or that we live in a non-racial, equal society is preposterous.
A brief history of racism
Before we can enter a reasonable discussion about racism, we need to define it and understand the history of racism. Frankly, I’m unqualified to explore every aspect of racism and it’s simply impossible to fully explore racism, its history and the various intricacies that allow it to poison our societies to this day. However, I will endeavour to provide a brief summary of some of the most prominent instances of institutional racism and I encourage you to inspect the sources that I’ve linked to for better context and a more thorough understanding of how history has shaped our society and how structures were put in place to perpetuate the plight of “formerly” second-class citizens who were excluded due to their identity.
Merriam-Webster defines racism as, “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” or “behaviour or attitudes that reflect and foster this belief : racial discrimination or prejudice“. They also add that racism can be defined as “the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another” and that “a political or social system founded on racism and designed to execute its principles”.
So, for now let’s settle on the following definition for racism and systemic racism:
Racism is the belief that race fundamentally defines us as human beings and that one particular race is inherently superior to another. This is also reflected in the behaviour and attitudes of the people who hold these beliefs. Systemic racism, on the other hand, is when a political or social institution is designed to execute racist principles and oppresses one race to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.
Colonialism, slavery, genocide & segregation
Again, I cannot overstate that these are condensed synopses of complex historical events and require a lot more context than I have the space for, so you should try to understand that there’s a broader context and that you should do further reading on these brief abstracts.
The origins of racism are well documented and many people believe that it is something inherent in mankind. In fact, there’s a theory among scholars – although it is very much disputed and lacks conclusive evidence – that the very first genocide occurred roughly 40,000 years ago, when Neanderthals went extinct. It is speculated that homo sapiens either precipitated or hastened their extinction through violence. However, parasites and pathogens, interbreeding and climate change/natural catastrophes certainly also contributed to the extinction of our genetic cousins.
The conflict between Neanerthals and homosapiens, empires, kindoms and tribes, and between ‘black’ and ‘white’ people is rooted in a phenomenon known as “otherness“.
“Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group. It is an effect that influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group.”Kendra Cherry, Verywell Mind
This probably first began with our steps towards social cohesion as a species, when we began to compete with other humans (or, in the case of Neanderthals, human subspecies) for resources. i.e. if I had a farm on a piece of land and members of another tribe steal my crops, I’d see their distinctive features and inherently regard them as a threat.
The Roman Empire, for example, othered the people of Gaul and branded them as barbarians when they conquered and occupied their lands. One in five Gauls died and another one in five was enslaved (consigning soldiers and women from the losing sides of a particular conflict to slavery had also been commonplace for millennia) during the Roman conquest and they justified it by arguing that they were “civilising” these others and bringing prosperity to them. One of the primary tools for this, of course, was Christianity and religion. By converting and baptising pagans, the church would grant these uncivilised people entry to heaven and turn them into citizens that are more willing to submit to the social norms that are intertwined with religious practices.
And, while Europe managed to emerge from the Middle Ages into the Age of Enlightenment, giving birth to modern democracies, the Industrial Revolution brought about the realisation that the trees, coal and other natural resources that they were using at an unprecedented rate could only stretch so far. So while the European continent, populated mostly by white people, had quite clearly defined territories and kingdoms, empires and newly formed nation states competed over resources. Even before the Industrial Revolution, competing over Europe’s resources was just one strategy for accruing wealth and influence. The other was to acquire resources and labour from outside of one’s own dominion.
Spain, France, Portugal, Holland, Britain, German, Belgium and many other European states all began to send out expeditions to distant lands, with famous explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Bartolomeu Dias, Hernan Cortes, Ferdinand Megellan, and Vasco Da Gama taking long trips around the African continent as well as to the Americas. And colonialism had to be justified… because there were already people occupying these distant regions –Africans, Mayans, Aztecs, Cherokees, Aboriginals and so on. Europeans had no right to that land or those resources… but they had guns. To justify the slaughter, subjugation, enslavement and torture of these people who looked different and had been othered, they needed to paint themselves as the good guys. So psuedo scientific academic theories that conflated differences in people’s appearances with differences in intelligence, competence, emotional capacity and so forth.
Africans were portrayed as uncivilised, uncultured, unsophisticated pagans who were living like savages (despite the existence of highly complex metropolises like that in Ancient Benin, as well as thoroughly formulated African philosophy). They were regarded as inferior and sub-human, and treated as pieces of property. I need not detail the horrors of slavery as they are very well documented. But the othering of these people who are genetically no different to white people other than having darker skin, through a co-ordinated method of manipulating so-called objective data, the European conquest of Africa, the Americas, and even more established civilisations in the East (such as India) became an accepted norm.
And even after slavery ended and the post World War II era of decolonisation in Africa and other parts of the world, structural racism endured. In the United States, the Jim Crow laws in Southern states served as legislated segregation, excluding black people from public amenities, jobs and so forth.
On the African continent, although European powers no longer had any political power in their former colonies, they were able to subjugate them economically through global financial systems and offering huge loans with exorbitant interest rates for the reconstruction of the countries that they had left behind in proverbial ashes.
And, of course, the descendants of setlers in these post-colonial nations retained the wealth they were born with and the racial inequalities that were created within the countries themselves either persisted or, even worse, were exacerbated.
Nothing quite exemplifies post-colonial racism as well as the story of Apartheid era South Africa (1948-1994). The legacy of colonialism not only continued, but was magnified when the white Afrikaner government took control of South Africa’s government through segregation laws not dissimilar to Jim Crow, but far more devastating. Laws explicitly forbid black kids from getting the same quality of education as white kids, black workers earned less than their counterparts (if they were allowed to work a certain job in the first place), mixed race marriages were outlawed and people were forced to live in areas designated for particular races.
In the United States, which probably has slavery more deeply embedded into its history than any other country on earth, racism not only continued beyond the Jim Crow era through policies such as red-lining, which prevented black Americans from moving into white neighbourhoods.
And the history of racism stretches well beyond this, in just about every part of the world. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with skin colour either. Language, religion, gender, sexual orientation… you name it… mankind has found just about every reason possible to “other” people. We haven’t even touched on the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide or about ethnic/racial conflicts and systems in the East, such the Nanjing Massacre and the caste system in India. There is simply too much to cover. Racism has simply managed to poison every last part of society, in some ways more significantly than others. And modern day racism is very much a consequence of our long history with this phenomenon.
How this links to contemporary racism
I know we’d all prefer not to mention his name after four incredibly traumatic years, but Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States is the most obvious manifestation of this.
Trump’s 2016 campaign that won him the presidency was truly stranger than fiction. The loud-mouthed trust-fund baby who cultivated the image of a self-made billionaire, barking racial epithets at immigrants, Muslims, black athletes protesting police brutality and the broader group of Democrats or “the radical left”. Trump had very was incredibly successful at othering blocs of the American population to appease his supporters and prey on the fears of people who had recently endured a major financial recession and whose social status was under threat. But we’ll return to this later.
And, even though America likes to be the centre of the universe, this rise of far-right extremist messaging is not unique to them. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro rose to power despite his flagrant homophobia. Nigel Farage’s rhetoric in the United Kingdom led to Brexit. The Philippines is another nation to have succumbed to a leader that represents a fascistic brand of politics, Rodrigo Duterte, a nationality/far-right populist who has led a particularly painful War on Drugs that Human Rights Watch estimates has led to over 7,000 deaths from the day Duterte first took office to January 2017.
And it’s not just present in our political leaders. It’s making its way into our media and our institutions. Structural inequality as a consequence of racism cannot be questioned. It’s a fact that people of colour have disproportionately less wealth than their white counterparts and have a far lower standard of living. There is a lot of data to support this. Households of colour are 2.2 times as likely to be asset poor compared to their white counterparts in the US, infant mortality is higher, there are higher levels of unemployment, worse education outcomes, and you can find just about any metric out there and it’ll show that white people have been given a head start in almost every way.
In terms of the media, you get people on Fox News and other conservative outlets all of the world, who espose some of the most widely covered racist talking points. They will use buzzwords and refer to “changing demographics” and use other cheap rhetorical tricks, sophistry and hard to spot logical fallacies to obfuscate from the fact that racism is the underlying cause of almost all inequality.
Tucker Carlson is one such example, with the primetime anchor, Fox superstar and inevitable successor to Donald Trump being one of the most watched people in America. He frequently gives credence to theories espoused by white supremacists but claims only to be “speaking truth to power” and refusing to give in to what he claims is an “elitist agenda”, a cultural shift towards promoting tolerance and broad equality.
And Tucker isn’t alone, there are plenty of others, such as Trumpist mouthpiece, Sean Hannity, as well as popular independent media personalities like Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos, Steven Crowder who frequently misrepresent the data their citing, without sources and pass themselves off as avante garde intellectuals that rebel against the left-leaning academic institutions that are so frequently at the center of anti-racist movements. They are anti-intellectuals and instil a belief that anyone who brandishes you a racist is an out-of-touch elite with a superiority complex.
They call people who take to the streets “woke”, they call them radicals and refuse to acknowledge that there are deep, deep, unresolved, systemic issues that need to be dealt with, like the epidemic of police brutality in the United States. They justify these very real, material outcomes by painting impoverished people as entitled, lazy drug addicts (in effect). The victims of the undesirable social and economic outcomes in our society are not victims of racism, these media personalities will insist… rather they will insist it has everything to do with their own personal shortcomings. Either they didn’t finish school, had children out of wedlock, were incarcerated, or they’re lazy and unambitious and content to live their entire life on welfare.
The inference, of course, is that these people (the others) don’t deserve to prosper. The course of their lives have not been predominantly determined by the lottery of birth, bad choices are not a function of the traumas of poverty and anyone can do anything as long as you “pull yourself up by the bootstraps”. What does this imply? The difference between 1921 and 2021 is that we don’t say this part out loud anymore – these poor, disenfranchised people are poor and disenfranchised because they are morally/intellectually/spiritually inferior… because they are black.
The idea exists that people of colour simply don’t have the capacity to organise, divide their labour, leverage opportunities and put in the hard work necessary to succeed. We, white people, brought enlightenment, technology, trade and civilisation to these other people, people of colour.
It is not that we failed to include them in our decision making or in the development of our societies, it’s that they have failed to assimilate to “Judeo-Christian values” as Mr Shapiro would put it. Look out for buzzwords like “Judeo-Christian values” or “Western values” and other variations of stand-in words for “white culture/superiority”. The Right will always insist that they want to promote concepts that were supposedly born in the West – Democracy, free markets, science, etc.
Yet they make no mention of the fact that Greece, where Democracy and much of Western philosophy began, wasn’t always considered as part of the West. They never talk about how writing systems existed in the Far East thousands of years before the West became literate, or that the field of mathematics was invented by Arabs. No mention is made of the rich cultural history of the African continent and the vastly complex societies that lived there, nor the holistic ways in which their societies were structured or the degree to which they prospered in their pre-colonial societies.
It’s just one of countless dishonest arguments made by these sophists who are all very well paid by conservative think tanks to echo the same, predictable, unsophisticated, short-sighted talking points over and over again.
Every time an unarmed black man is shot in the United States, these media personalities, without fault, ALL bring attention to whether he was holding a weapon, high on drugs, mentally disabled or committing a crime. We ALL saw George Floyd suffocate on camera, yet there’s an insistence that he was either on fentanyl or had an underlying heart condition that led to his death. How is it possible that they all start playing the exact same tune at the exact same time? Why is it never that the police officer made a mistake? Surely out of the dozens of cases of police killing unarmed black people, one of them must be a consequence of the origins of the police in the United States. The police force emerged from organisations that were originally formed to catch and punish runaway slaves. Is it a coincidence that, generations later, the descendants of those slaves are disproportionately at the receiving end of the brutalities of militarised law enforcement?
And, it gets worse. Once you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole… you can end up in some pretty dark places. Take the South African cartoonist/satirist, Jeremy Nel (a.k.a. Jerm) for example. Jerm is something of a poor man’s Ben Shapiro, but lacks the intellectual flourish and fast-speaking style that makes Shapiro’s brand of sophistry so appealing in the US. Needless to say, political commentators in South Africa are some way off in terms of their reach to their American counterparts (although, the Americans should file a few lawsuits, considering how much South African “podcasters” plagiarise their work and repackage it to look even worse.
However, the older audience that follows Jerm are children of Apartheid and were educated under the system… so converting people into racists is not a hard job. As can be [nauseatingly] exemplified by these screenshots from some of the conversations from Jerm’s Telegram group, which only has 4131 subscribers at the time of writing, but the Twitter and Facebook accounts that he took down recently had larger followings and his Youtube channel has 5.6k subscribers.
Yes, as you see in the images above, a media personality, such as this particularly vile one, will reel you in by touting free markets, meritocracies, traditional values and claiming to fight against intellectuals, the ruling elite and what they believe to be reverse-racism (affirmative action, etc.).
But once they’ve got you to join their little right-wing bubble, it’s a slippery slope from subconscious racism to actual racism – Holocaust denial – and before you know it, someone it typing in a public forum that they “Dig this guy [Hitler] for what he was, not for all what he did [sic]”.
This kind of discourse is truly dangerous in ways that we don’t even want to contemplate and it needs to be nipped in the bud, particularly in the Covid-19 era and this moment of complete uncertainty.
What it’s all really about
Capitalism. Plain and simple. As I mentioned earlier, Donald Trump’s messaging in his 2016 Presidential campaign managed to prey on the fears of people who had recently endured a major financial recession and whose social status was under threat. Yes, aside from decades of racist legislation, such as the 1994 Crime Bill, NAFTA and other structural issues, Donald Trump’s victory was largely a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis.
Just like when the “others” stole our crops and we came to fear them for their threats to our personal property, the real estate bubble and the subsequent crash of the stock markets and almost the entire economy left behind some very real scars. People lost their homes, their retirement funds and in many cases their entire livelihoods.
When Donald Trump, a man who painted himself as a successful businessman and told people that he was going to bring back their jobs and Make America Great Again, they went along with it. And when he called Mexicans rapists and muslims terrorists, he merely emboldened his supporters’ existing beliefs. But there were certainly some who were merely aggrieved from an economic perspective – they felt financial hardship – and Trump merely put up a strawman for them to direct their hatred. Then they became radicalised and indoctrinated by the rhetoric, along with the rhetoric that mirrors it on Tucker Carlson Tonight or whatever Ben Shapiro’s saying on Twitter.
Realistically, people are feeling their pockets get emptier and emptier, while rich oligarchs who hold all of the power in our profit-driven world, are accruing an astronomical level of wealth. However, as we’ve become less racist on a cultural level, workplaces are becoming increasingly more diverse and therefore there’s increased competition for jobs (and therefore livelihoods, happiness, etc.).
So, instead of saying that “you’ve lost your job because I decided I needed to make money and I believe you are expendable”, the wealthy direct the media outlets that they own or have huge influence over to take the conversation in the direction of “affirmative action and laws targeting systemic racism are the reason you’re unemployed or not getting a promotion.
And while we are watching our circumstances change, as the rich get richer at all of our expense, we see the world becoming less monochromatic, we have more black neighbours, colleagues and lovers than we ever have before. People that are motivated to perpetuate racism and divert our attention away from the issue are perfectly comfortable with making it look like there’s a correlation between our shrinking social status and heightened diversity.
What can be done?
As a 30-year-old South African who’s political upbringing was shaped by my country’s transition to democracy, led by potentially the greatest icon of the struggle against racism, Nelson Mandela, I have to say I’m highly demotivated and feel defeated.
Twenty-seven years and an entire generation of democratic governance has led us to a position where liberation still seems well out of reach. The thing that made me proud to be a South African, the fact that we overcome such profound racism and overcame the systems of colonialism and Apartheid, seems not to be a thing. We boast the shameful title of being the most unequal country on earth and I look across the Atlantic, to the United States, whose history of racism is somewhat comparable to ours, and I don’t feel very confident about us being able to overcome the highly sophisticated phenomenon of modern racism.
HOWEVER, because we love millennials so much, our generation does deserve credit for the fact that we are overwhelmingly more likely to oppose racism and structural racism and white millennials in particular are far more cognisant of structural racism, racist attitudes, privilege and a host of other concepts that are seemingly foreign to older generations of white people.
So a case can be made that we are far closer to ending racism than ever before, at least when it comes to our own attitudes. But the proof is in the pudding and, as a generation, we need to get results. We’ve made significant progress in changing racist attitudes and racism on an individual level as a generation. Now, however, is the time to redirect our efforts to destroying systemic racism. And, unless we do so, this pandemic could hit us a lot harder. We’re all in this together, and we cannot leave anyone behind.