Author and Page information

  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Sunday, August 08, 2010

Image © Understanding Race Racism is the belief that characteristics and abilities can be attributed to people simply on the basis of their race and that some racial groups are superior to others. Racism and discrimination have been used as powerful weapons encouraging fear or hatred of others in times of conflict and war, and even during economic downturns.

Racism is also a very touchy subject for some people, as issues concerning free speech and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights come into play. Some people argue that talking about supporting racial discrimination and prejudice is just words and that free speech should allow such views to be aired without restriction. Others point out that these words can lead to some very dire and serious consequences (the Nazi government policies being one example).

Race: Are We So Different, Understanding Race, American Anthropological Association (AAA), July 8, 2009

In a short introductory video the Understanding Race project from the American Anthropological Association says race is a powerful idea and an enduring concept, invented by society. It has also fostered inequality and discrimination for centuries, as well as influencing how we relate to other human beings:

Racism in Europe

“Europe has a regional human rights architecture which is unrivaled elsewhere in the world”, Amnesty International notes in their 2010 report on the Europe and Central Asia region. But the human rights watchdog also adds that as well as guarding a proud reputation as a beacon of human rights, “it is sadly still the case, however, that the reality of protection from human rights abuses for many of those within its borders falls short of the rhetoric.” In recent years, one of those forms of abuses has been in the area of race, often growing with changing economic circumstances and increased immigration to the region.

From the institutionalized racism especially in colonial times, when racial beliefs — even eugenics — were not considered something wrong, to recent times where the effects of neo-Nazism is still felt, Europe is a complex area with many cultures in a relatively small area of land that has seen many conflicts throughout history. (Many of these conflicts have had trade, resources and commercial rivalry at their core, but national identities have often added fuel to some of these conflicts.)

Racism has also been used to justify exploitation, even using “pseudo-science”:

Debates over the origins of racism often suffer from a lack of clarity over the term. Many conflate recent forms of racism with earlier forms of ethnic and national conflict. In most cases ethno-national conflict seems to owe to conflict over land and strategic resources. In some cases ethnicity and nationalism were harnessed to wars between great religious empires (for example, the Muslim Turks and the Catholic Austro-Hungarians). As Benedict Anderson has suggested in Imagined Communities, ethnic identity and ethno-nationalism became a source of conflict within such empires with the rise of print-capitalism.

In its modern form, racism evolved in tandem with European exploration and conquest of much of the rest of the world, and especially after Christopher Columbus reached the Americas. As new peoples were encountered, fought, and ultimately subdued, theories about “race” began to develop, and these helped many to justify the differences in position and treatment of people whom they categorized as belonging to different races (see Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History).

Another possible source of racism is the misunderstanding of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. Some took Darwin’s theories to imply that since some “races” were more civilized, there must be a biological basis for the difference. At the same time they appealed to biological theories of moral and intellectual traits to justify racial oppression. There is a great deal of controversy about race and intelligence, in part because the concepts of both race and IQ are themselves controversial.

Racism, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, May 1, 2004

In “the century of total war”, and the new millenium, Europe is seeing an alarming resurgence in xenophobia and racial hatred.

A short review from the Inter Press Service highlights the rise of neo-Nazism in 2000 in Europe and suggests that “far from being a fringe activity, racism, violence and neo-nationalism have become normal in some communities. The problems need to tackled much earlier, in schools and with social programmes.”

Ethnic minorities and different cultures in one country can often be used as a scapegoat for the majority during times of economic crisis. That is one reason why Nazism became so popular.

In France, May 2002, the success of far right politician Le Pen in the run for leadership (though he lost out in the end) sent a huge shockwave throughout Europe, about how easy it was for far right parties to come close to getting power if there is complacency in the democratic processes and if participation is reduced.

In various places throughout Western Europe, in 2002, as Amnesty International highlights, there has been a rise in racist attacks and sentiments against both Arabs and Jews, in light of the increasing hostilities in the Middle East.

Earlier in 1998, in an area of Germany a right wing racist party won an unprecedented number of votes.

In Austria, the Freedom Party was able to secure the majority of the cabinet posts. The party is an extreme far right party, whose leader, Jorg Heider, has been accused of sympathetic statements towards the Nazis. The European Union has reacted to this indicating that Austria’s participation may be in jeopardy. This Guardian Special Report has much more in-depth coverage.

In Italy, there are attempts to try and deal with the rise in undocumented immigrants from Tunisia. The reactions from the right wing have been labeled by some as being “openly racist”.

Into 2010 and problems of racism in Italy continue. For example, a wave of violence against African farm workers in southern Italy left some 70 people injured. This resulted in police having to evacuate over 300 workers from the region. The workers were easy targets being exploited as fruit pickers living in difficult conditions. They earn “starvation wages” according to a BBC reporter, doing “backbreaking work which Italians do not want” in a labor market controlled by the local mafia.

Spain has seen increased racial violence. The growing economy invites immigrants from North African countries such as Morocco. However, the poor conditions that immigrants have had to endure and the already racially charged region has led to friction and confrontations.

In 1997, Human Rights Watch noted that, “The U.K. has one of the highest levels of racially-motivated violence and harassment in Western Europe, and the problem is getting worse.” In April 1999, London saw two bombs explode in predominantly ethnic minority areas, in the space of one week, where a Nazi group has claimed responsibility. The summer of 2001 saw many race-related riots in various parts of northern England.

For over a decade, immigration issues have been headlines in the UK. The nature of the discussions bear a clear racial dimension as well as hostility to Eastern Europeans, such as those from Poland. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has also contributed to increasing interest in racist political parties such as the British National Party. This also, predictably, has increased as the global financial crisis impacts more of Britain’s population.

Anti immigration sentiment has also been seen in Switzerland as the country has repeatedly tightened its asylum policy due to concerns about increasing numbers of illegal migrants.

Greece has one of the worst records in the European Union for racism against ethnic minorities, according to the BBC. Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been high, especially against ethnic Albanians, who form the largest minority. Until the 1990s, the BBC notes, Greece had been an extremely homogenous society. With the fall of communism many immigrants from Eastern Europe came to Greece. Albanians especially have been targetted by a lot of racist sentiment. Some hostage taking by a few Albanians in recent years has not helped the situation.

Russia has seen violent anti-racism on the rise in recent years together with the rise of neo-Nazism (which is a cruel irony given the immense death toll the Soviet Union suffered at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War II). Although the previous report is from 2006, Amnesty International’s 2010 report shows that despite greater recognition of the problem, effective programs to tackle the issue still do not exist.

So far, the above represents an incredibly tiny number of examples and details. Many, many more events haven’t been mentioned, as it is admittedly difficult to keep up with all the different items. For more details and up-to-date information, one web site to check out the UK-based Institute of Race Relations and their subsection attempting to document the rising support for the extreme-Right in local and central government in Europe, building on a platform of populist anti-immigrant policies.

Back to top

Racism in Australia

In 1987, a sensational “discovery” was made by a Sydney University team, led by Australia’s most celebrated pre-historian, Professor D J Mulvaney. They reported that the Australian population in 1788 was 750,000, or three times the previous estimate. They concluded that more than 600,000 people had died as result of white settlement.

John Pilger, Cathy Freeman’s broad Olympic smile is being used to conceal a multitude of Australia’s original sins, July 10, 2000

In June 1998, One Nation, an Australian nationalist party in Queensland won 25 percent of the votes with their main lines at fighting immigration by non-whites. This was made possible where unemployment was been high and where it was easy to convince the people that immigrants were taking their jobs, as it would serve to be a convenient excuse and avenue to vent frustration. In a speech the party leader said that Australia was “in danger of being swamped” by Asians and she also questioned the special welfare benefits for Australia’s Aborigines. The reaction to that meant the same party won only 6 percent of the votes two months later, in the State elections.

Australia has also had a very racist past in which apartheid has been practiced and where indigenous Aboriginal people have lost almost all their land and suffered many prejudices. In the past, the notorious policy that led to the Stolen Generation was practiced. This was the institutionalized attempt to prevent Aboriginal children (and thus future generations) from being socialized into Aboriginal culture. (This also occurred in various parts of the Americas too.)

Aborigines are the poorest group in Australia and suffer from very much preventable diseases. For more about these issues, you can start at these harrowing reports from John Pilger a prominent Australian journalist who has been critical of many western policies.

The Sydney 2000 Olympics also brought some of Australia’s racist past and present to the fore. (On the positive side, many parts of Australia’s rich diversity in people is slowly helping relieve prejudism. However, some more traditional and conservative politicians are still openly racist.)

In 2008, a study found that Australians in general are welcoming of diversity but some 1 in 10 Australians still hold racist views — a ratio likely to be less than in some European countries, but still high the lead researcher noted. Muslims were most feared or loathed for “not belonging”, and followed by indigenous Australians and Africans.

In 2009 and 2010, there were increasing racist attacks against Indians with many Indians in Melbourne fearing racist attacks and lynchings were increasing. It even led to the Indian government issuing an advisory warning about the dangers of traveling to Melbourne.

Back to top

Racism in Africa

A number of nations in Africa are at war or civil war, or have been very recently, just few years after they have gained their independence from former colonial countries.

While most of the conflicts have resources at their core and involve a number of non-African nations and corporations, additional fuel is added to the conflict by stirring up ethnic differences and enticing hatred. (Also not that the artificial boundaries imposed in Africa by European colonialism and imperialism during the divide and rule policies has further exacerbated this situation and plays an enormous role in the root causes of these conflicts compared to what mainstream media presents.)

In Zimbabwe, there has been increasing racism against the white farmers, due to poverty and lack of land ownership by Africans.

South Africa until recently suffered from Apartheid, which legally segregated the African population from the Europeans.

For more about conflicts in Africa, check out this site’s section on Africa.

Back to top

Racism in the Middle East

In a number of countries in the Middle East, discriminatory practice has been commonplace, mostly against foreign workers who work in low wage conditions, such as domestic workers. Reports of taking away foreign worker’s passports and treating them as second class citizens are unfortunately commonplace.

Inter Press Service (IPS) describes how Lebanon has these discrimination problems even though it is often considered relatively open compared to its neighbors, due to freedoms enjoyed by women. For example, people of color face discrimination at work and away from work, often not allowed at some beaches or clubs, or allowed with various restrictions. In addition, property rights are severely curtailed, even for Palestinians who are the same race, but not nationals.

Worsening discrimination in recent months seen at various beaches in Lebanon was “symptomatic of the widespread racism that exists in Lebanon” says Ali Fakhri, communication director at Indyact, a Lebanese NGO finding that all of the 20 beaches investigated barred domestic workers from Asia and Africa from using their facilities. Fakhri also feels that the culture of discrimination is socially accepted in Lebanon, and is seen in the government and private sector as well as among individuals, according to IPS and the discrimination/racism does not only target people of color, but is also class oriented and sectarian.

Highlighting the effects a legal system can have on culture, a lawyer also interviewed by IPS notes that “The Lebanese constitution states that all Lebanese are equal in the eyes of the law, but no mention is made of the rights of foreigners.” In the absence of a unified civil law, such discrimination will continue she adds: “The Lebanese legal system follows different rules of law that vary from one community to the other. It is a situation that naturally leads to inequality among people.”

As well as these cultural practices, there has also been a geopolitical dimension:

For a long time there has been resentment by many in the Middle East at the policies of America in their region. For many of the more extremist factions, this has turned into a form of racism as well, where many things that are Western are hated or despised.

The situation of Palestine and Israel is also very contentious. While Arabs and Jews technically do not belong to different races, their religious and cultural differences and the political history of the region has contributed to extremities and tensions — by perhaps a minority, but perhaps an influential and often vocal and violent minority — resulting in prejudice on both sides.

With the terrible acts of terrorism committed by terrorists in America, on September 11, 2001, there has additionally been an outpouring of violent racial hatred by a minority of people in Western countries against people that look Middle Eastern (some who are not Middle Eastern, such as Indians, have even been beaten or killed). Furthermore, with the American-led attacks in Afghanistan in retaliation for those terrorist attacks, from Egypt to Pakistan, there have been minorities of people who have protested violently in the streets, and also committed racist acts, attacking anything that appears Western, from Western citizens, to even UNICEF and other UN buildings.

Yet, this is more complex than just a clash of religions and race, as deeper an issue is the geopolitical and economic activities of the past decades and centuries that have fueled these social tensions. See this web site’s section on the Middle East for more on that.

Back to top

Racism in Asia

In Cambodia, there has been a strong anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

In Indonesia there has been a lot of violence against the affluent Chinese population who have been blamed for economic problems that have plagued the country in recent years.

As noted by Wikipedia in an article on racism, “until 2003, Malaysia enforced discriminatory laws limiting access to university education for Chinese students who are citizens by birth of Malaysia, and many other laws explicitly favoring bumiputras (Malays) remain in force.”

In India, there has long been discrimination against what is considered the lowest class in Hinduism, the Dalits, or untouchables, as well as sectarian and religious violence. Although it has been outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the caste system was a way to structure inequality into the system itself. And while outlawed, the social barriers it creates is still prevalent in rural areas where most Indians live. It also features in the view of Hindu extremists and traditionalists.

At various times, there have also been tensions between different religious groups, such as Hindus and Muslims with both sides having their fair share of extremists. While this is not racism, technically — as people of all classes are of the same race — the prejudice that had come with the caste system is quite similar to what is seen with racism.

Back to top

Racism in North America

A report from Survival International about the plight of the Innu people in Canada also reveals how racism can be a factor. In the words of the authors, the “report reveals how racist government policies, under the guise of benevolent ‘progress’, have crippled the Innu of eastern Canada — a once self-sufficient and independent people.” (While this report is about the problems of an indigenous people in Canada, it is a common story throughout history for many peoples and cultures.)

In the US, racism is a well known issue. From racial profiling to other issues such as affirmative action, police brutality against minorities and the history of slavery and the rising resentment against immigrants.

The American Anthropological Association produced a short video providing an overview of how prevailing ideas in science, government and culture intersected throughout history to shape American concept of race today:

The Story of Race, Understanding Race, American Anthropological Association, July 13, 2009

Since the horrific terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, Security concerns have understandably increased, but so too has racial profiling, discrimination etc. In the early aftermath of the attacks some Americans that were understandably outraged and horrified, even attacked some members of the Sikh community where at least one was even killed, because they resembled certain types of Muslims, with beards and turbans. Various people of Middle East or South Asian origin have faced controversial detentions or questionings by officials at American airports. This web site’s section on the war against terror has more details on these aspects.

It was a historic moment for America when they voted in their first black president, Barack Obama, given America’s history. Yet, it seems that some of his policies have met with near hysterical opposition (his attempt to push a somewhat more inclusive health system has been decried as socialist, or even communist, for example).

One can’t help but see the increasing criticism from right wing segments having a racist, almost coordinated, undertone to it. He is Christian, although his middle name is Hussein, which right wingers have used to claim he is Muslim, anti-Christ and so on, which further fuels racial and discriminatory sentiments.

Leonard Zeskind, head of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, pointed out that the anti-Obama “opposition” contains many different political elements:

[Elements of anti-Obama opposition] include ultra-conservative Republicans of both the Pat Buchanan and free market variety; anti-tax Tea Party libertarians from the Ron Paul camp; Christian right activists intent on re-molding the country into their kind of Kingdom; birth certificate conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant nativists of the armed Minuteman and the policy wonk variety; third party “constitutionalists”; and white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety.

Bill Berkowitz, US: White Supremacists Crash Anti-Obama Tea Party, Inter Press Service, December 22, 2009

Back to top

The Lure of Adolph Hitler and neo-Nazism

It seems that many people who join supremacist groups do so at a young age, and a lot of recruiting by these various hate groups are targeted at children. A reformed skinhead adds how easy it can be for some people, to be recruited into these groups, especially children.

On the anniversary of Adolph Hitler’s birthday in April 1999, a planned killing spree at the now infamous Columbine High School in America by two children claimed the lives of many fellow school mates. It is reported that they were targeting ethnic minorities and were involved in some Nazi related activities.

Side Note

President Clinton’s reaction seemed very ironic given the situation in Kosovo at the time. His reaction, to the incident in this high school, while welcome, was contradictory to what was then happening in Kosovo at the time and so the message was a bit unclear:

“We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons. And we do know we have to do more to recognize the early warning signs that are sent before children act violently”

The anger and conflict in Kosovo was being resolved with weapons, while many early warning signs, which had been recognized by many groups for a number of years, were not heeded.

In USA, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (incidentally, the day before the birthday of Adolph Hitler) triggered anti-Muslim sentiments, even though it was not an Islamic group at all. The previous link reports that there was a 60% increase in discrimination of Muslims in the USA.

And during the week of Adolf Hitler’s birthday, in 1999, neo-Nazi groups were suspected of planting two nail bombs that exploded in predominantly ethnic minority areas of London. The following week, a gay bar in London’s Soho area was also bombed killing at least 3 people. The fact that the Stephen Lawrence case, which, in UK is one of the perhaps most infamous on-going cases of racism in the police force and has received much attention at the time of this bombing could be more than coincidence.

Back to top

Racism against Gypsies

One group of people that often go unnoticed when it comes to racism and discrimination are Gypsies. In Europe they have been persecuted to a similar extent as the Jews throughout history, including World War II and even now they are largely mistreated or ignored.

Back to top


Please note that this section has moved into its own page, immigration.

Back to top

The Internet and Racism

And while the World Wide Web is a great proponent for the ideals of free speech, it can also be a breeding ground harboring hatred. This is very serious as the number of hate sites that have sprung up in the recent years is shocking and also increasing at an alarming rate.

There has been much talk of Internet sites hosting hate material. Some groups such as HateWatch have gone as far as buying racist domain names so that real racists cannot buy these domains themselves!

For more about the Internet and free speech, check out this site’s section on human rights and the Internet. It has some useful links to additional sites and material.

Back to top

Globalization and Racism

As globalization in its current form expands, so too does the inequality that accompanies it, as discussed throughout the Trade, Economy, & Related Issues section on this web site. Rising inequality can result in an increase in racial bias for scapegoating or advancing xenophobic and isolationist tendencies.

During French and British Imperial days for example, racial bias was ingrained within the culture itself (as explored in great detail by Edward Said, in his books such as Orientalism (Vintage Books, 1979) and Culture & Imperialism (Vintage Books, 1993)). However, an element of this is also seen in today’s period of globalization, with what A. Sivanandan describes as the increasing “xenophobic culture of globalisation” seen in some parts of the world:

Racism has always been both an instrument of discrimination and a tool of exploitation. But it manifests itself as a cultural phenomenon, susceptible to cultural solutions, such as multicultural education and the promotion of ethnic identities.

Tackling the problem of cultural inequality, however, does not by itself redress the problem of economic inequality. Racism is conditioned by economic imperatives, but negotiated through culture: religion, literature, art, science and the media.

... Once, they demonised the blacks to justify slavery. Then they demonised the “coloureds” to justify colonialism. Today, they demonise asylum seekers to justify the ways of globalism. And, in the age of the media, of spin, demonisation sets out the parameters of popular culture within which such exclusion finds its own rationale — usually under the guise of xenophobia, the fear of strangers.

A. Sivanandan, Poverty is the new black, The Guardian, August 17, 2001

With expanding globalization, the demands for more skilled workers, especially in North America, Europe and elsewhere (while they cut back on education spending themselves, little by little), has led to increased efforts to attract foreign workers — but filtered, based on skill. At the same time, this increases resentment by those in those nations who are not benefitting from globalization.

Additionally, those trying to escape authoritarian regimes etc are finding it harder and harder to get into these countries, due to tighter immigration policies. Hence it is harder to immigrate to the wealthier nations unless, says Liz Fekete, “these citizens are part of the chosen few: highly-skilled computer wizards, doctors and nurses trained at Third World expense and sought after by the West. Global migration management strategy saps the Third World and the former Soviet bloc of its economic lifeblood, by creaming off their most skilled and educated workforces.” From the perspective of globalization, Liz continues, “the skills pool, not the genes pool, is key.”

Immigrants face numerous criticisms and challenges; It is difficult enough often, to get into another nation as mentioned above. If one succeeds, then additional struggles (some to naturally be expected, of course) are faced:

  • Living in a new country can be daunting, especially when the cultural differences are great.
  • As a result it can be expected that an immigrant would try to maintain some semblance of their own culture in their new country of stay.
  • Or, due to fears of racism or due to the culture shock it would be expected that immigrant communities would form as a way to deal with this and as a means to help each other through.
  • By doing this, sometimes they face criticism of not integrating and of “sticking with their own kind”;
  • Yet, on the other hand, if they do integrate in some way, they face critique from certain types of environmentalists and others of contributing to environmental degradation by increasing their consumption to the high levels typical of the host nation.
    • (And if environmental degradation is the concern, then it would make sense that one of the main issues at hand to address would be the consumption itself and its roots, regardless of who is doing it — in this context
    • That is, if the host nation had different modes of consumptions, immigrants would likely follow those too.
    • Hence, singling out immigrants for being a factor in environmental degradation is often unfair, and itself hints of prejudice and of attitudes — intentional or not — almost like “stay out; we want to maintain and not share our lifestyle and standards of living; we recognize it is wasteful but if not too many are doing it, then it is ok” etc.)
    • For more about these issues of resource consumption, blaming the poor and immigrants etc, see this web site’s section debating population and consumption issues.

Back to top

UN’s World Conference on Racism, 2001

A UN Global Conference to discuss racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance was held from 31st August to 7 September 2001.

While it was brave enough for the United Nations to attempt to hold such a meeting, it proved to be a heated challenge. While all nations are good at being critical of others (and often very accurately, although often not!), when it comes to one’s own criticisms, most would be uncomfortable to say the least. As an example:

  • United States and Europe were against effective discussions of slavery reparations (and sent in only low-level delegates — a possible sign on how they really feel about this conference, and what it is about)
  • Israel and United States were against discussing the possibility that Zionism is racist against Palestinians, causing both to walk out of the conference altogether
  • India was against including discussions about caste-based discrimination
  • Some Arab nations were against discussions on oppression of Kurds or Arab slave trade
  • etc.

A watered down declaration was eventually made.

Such an eventful week shows how far we all have to go! It is also a detailed issue, and the following links may provide more details:

Back to top

Where next?

This article has the following parts:

Other options

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Monday, July 20, 1998
  • Last Updated: Sunday, August 08, 2010

Back to top

Document Revision History

August 8, 2010Added some additional examples of racism in Russia and Lebanon
January 12, 2010Added some additional examples of racism in America, Australia and parts of Europe. The rest of the article remains unchanged since December 2004 (for now)
December 20, 2004Greece is one of the most racist places in the EU, according to many human rights organizations
May 4, 2004Racism has been used to justify exploitation
January 24, 2004Details on the almost entirely negative media coverage of immigration issues in UK added

Alternatives for broken links

Sometimes links to other sites may break beyond my control. Where possible, alternative links are provided to backups or reposted versions here.