Exploring race and ethnicity

Perhaps the most contentious and controversial issue that exists, even today, is race.

In the past, it has provided the excuse for wars, conquest, and unimaginable atrocities. Today, it continues to be a cause of strife, division, and tension. This is further compounded by the fact that there is no one, unified definition of a “race.” It is a concept based more on perceptions and identity than on hard facts, and so what one person (or group) means by it can be completely contradicted by the opinions of another.

White nationalists assert that racist feelings and loyalties are "natural"

This article will be no different. I do not doubt, from the offset, that there will be many who disagree with what I have to say. Our approach to all issues is defined by our political leanings, and the question of race especially so. Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging my inherent bias as an anarchist and an anti-racist, it is my aim to approach this subject as empirically as possible. Genuine scientific research and fact is better placed than philosophy or political ideals to dismantle the pseudoscience which is used to justify racism.

But, before we get onto that, there is the question of the word racism itself to consider. Unsurprisingly, those denounced as “racist” abhor the word, and have made the argument that it is nothing more than an ad hominem attack.

The myth of Trotsky “inventing” racism

In the British National Party manifesto, leader Nick Griffin stated that “the word ‘racist’, which is of loose definition, was invented by the arch Marxist Leon Trotsky in order to suppress any debate on this important subject.” This is a common retort by fascists and neo-Nazis to accusations of racism, but it is a half-baked nonsense.

I’ll let antifascist website One Million United take up this point;

What Griffin and co are failing to tell you is a simple fact that makes the whole situation look very different; according to most sources of any repute, the word evolved from the earlier terms, ‘racialism’ and ‘racialist’, which were first documented in 1907 and 1917 respectively, thus making their invention obviously nothing to do with communist  Russia.

From Etymonline:


1932 as a noun, 1938 as an adjective, from race (n.2); racism is first attested 1936 (from Fr. racisme, 1935), originally in the context of Nazi theories. But they replaced earlier words, racialism (1907) and racialist (1917), both often used at first in a British or South African context.

In other words, the concept of racism was obviously alive and kicking way further back that Griffin’s claim would have you believe; it is just convenient for him to reference early uses of ‘racism’ itself, and not the concept it describes, as these would make it appear that the notion was conceived by his perceived enemies, the Marxists.

A wealth of evidence suggests this is not the case at all, and that, in fact, most early cases of the use of all terms relating to what we now know as racism were in fact coined, popularised and used predominantly by racists and fascists throughout history. Notably, the origins of the word ‘racialism’ would suggest that such phrases were invented to coincide with changing attitudes towards black slavery and mistreatment in the USA and South Africa.

The Oxford English Dictionary – commonly lauded as an excellent source of etymological history – has this to say on the subject:

[f. RACE n.2 + -ISM; cf. F. racisme (Robert 1935).]

a. The theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race. b. = RACIALISM.

1936 L. DENNIS Coming Amer. Fascism 109 If..it be assumed that one of our values should be a type of racism which excludes certain races from citizenship, then the plan of execution should provide for the annihilation, deportation, or sterilization of
the excluded races.

1938 E. & C. PAUL tr. Hirschfeld’s Racism xx. 260 The apostles and energumens of racism can in all good faith give free rein to impulses of which they would be ashamed did they realise their true nature.

1940 R. BENEDICT Race: Science & Politics i. 7 Racism is an ism to which everyone in the world today is exposed.

1952 M. BERGER Equality by Statute 236 Racism, tension in industrial, urban areas.

1952 Theology LV. 283 The idolatry of our timeits setting up of nationalism, racism, vulgar materialism.

1960 New Left Rev. Jan./Feb. 21/2 George Rogers saw fit to kow-tow to the incipient racism of his electorate by including a line about getting rid of “undesirable elements”.

1964 GOULD & KOLB Dict. Social Sci. 571/2 Racism is a newer term for the word racialism… There is virtual agreement that it refers to a doctrine of racial supremacy.

1971 Ceylon Daily News (Colombo) 18 Sept. 8/5 Mr. Seneviratne is welcome to his ideal of inter-racial marriages as panacea for Racism.

1972 J. L. DILLARD Black English iii. 90 In the British sailors’ reactions to the slaves.., the very early existence of racism is as well documented as the difference in language.

1974 M. FIDO R. Kipling 50/2 In The Story of Muhammad Din he wrote one of the most economical and bitter attacks on British racism ever penned.

1976 Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) 4 Mar. A2/4 The Vatican radio said,..”Racism might have different faces but it will always be reprehensible.”

1977 M. WALKER National Front vi. 155 A strike of the Asian workers against racism in the factory.

Bit different to what Griffin’s ‘facts’ would suggest, isn’t it?

This is textbook propaganda – manipulating and even falsifying parts of a word’s history in order to apply bias; bias which is then used to further manipulate anyone who believed the false etymology in the first place.

By claiming that his political opponents invented the term, Griffin is hoping to draw attention away from the fact that it’s origins were in fact fascist. This tactic is double-edged – it not only seems to mock the ideology of Trotsky and co, but also enables Griffin to claim that ‘the left are the real fascists’. It works, as does most propaganda, by relying on the supporters to not check this ‘fact’ and find out that it is actually a blatant lie.

Interestingly, even the inherently biased and racist Sovereignty.org.uk acknowledges that Trotsky was not the inventor of the term ‘racist’, attributing it instead to American fascist Lawrence Dennis, who was indicted for sedition in 1944, for his involvement in a international Nazi conspiracy.

It says:

According to the second edition (1989) of the OED, the earliest known usage of the word “racism” in English occurred in a 1936 book by the American “fascist”, Lawrence Dennis, The Coming American Fascism.

It transpires then, that we can accurately call people racists without being guilty of using an “arch-Marxist” smear. By definition, those who are prejudiced against people of another race on the basis of a belief that our abilities and characteristics arise from differences between racial groups, is a racist.

But, they might respond, this is a natural position to take. After all, race differences are very real, and it is only natural to choose to associate with one’s own kind.

Racial affinity and biological difference

There are many, even beyond the sphere of the far-right, who believe that people have a “natural affinity” towards their own kind. Racial loyalty – or ethnocentrism – is natural, which is why miscegenation is a minor trend. According to Nick Griffin, “such a union mixes what are not meant to be mixed, destroys two ancient family lines, and undermines two equally great but entirely separate cultures.” The two issues are related, and those most strongly convinced of racial affinities are equally convinced that we must “have pride in their own people and to understand the essentially unnatural and destructive nature of miscegenation.”

In an essay titled On the natural rights of nationalism,”Faustus” offers the argument in quasi-religious terms;

Visions and perceptions of our life seen, albeit dimly, have surpassed our wildest imaginations while confounding, at times, our most able scholars. These men search, they study, they become redundant with historical fact, dates, and actions mimicked by those before them. The living organism of the race-culture defies their assaults, precisely because they fail to acknowledge the very nature of organic life: a root, a purpose, a people. Too what do we owe the living reminder of the past – to the monuments, the living literary achievements, the art? This, all this, was left to us by a People. Our People! To the Fathers and Mothers who created us, we, you and I, are but their extension; we represent their lives, their presence, in our own destiny. In the coming and going, each of us tell of that small, yet significant story; the seed for our children. This people have their manifestations of God, of Life, of Religion, and a definite vision of the world – it is our distinctive volksgeist – that was made manifest by, and for the race-culture. This was their creation. It was intended, as a matter of course, to be seen and utilized by their children, their Posterity; it was to prepare and perpetuate their kind in a progressive setting – both in the present and the future. It was to carry on the life cycle of the Original birth. This, a living history that will outlast time itself. The visions of our ancient life survive as history to us – it is the continuation of the present presence of our past. Only through an understanding of Life, and its organic application, can history have any true significance to us who, at this moment, are but the living history of our tomorrow.

This, is Natural Law.

This “natural law” is highly flawed. The presumed “natural affinity” for people of the same racial group does not exist. It may be true that ”if you divide people into two groups along any dimension – it can be a completely silly dimension – they will start favoring the in-group and discriminating against the out-group.” But the person who noted this was Leda Cosmides, one of the authors of Can race be erased?: Coalitional computation and social categorization.

The results of this test are interesting;

Our subjects had experienced a lifetime in which ethnicity (including race) was an ecologically valid predictor of people’s social alliances and coalitional affiliations. Yet less than 4 min of exposure to an alternative social world in which race was irrelevant to the prevailing system of alliance caused a dramatic decrease in the extent to which they categorized others by race. This implies that coalition, and hence race, is a volatile, dynamically updated cognitive variable, easily overwritten by new circumstances. If the same processes govern categorization outside the laboratory, then the prospects for reducing or even eliminating the widespread tendency to categorize persons by race may be very good indeed.

This year, scientists did a study on children with a neurodevelopmental disorder called Williams syndrome. Those afflicted “are overly friendly because they do not fear strangers,” and the study shows that these children also do not develop negative attitudes about other ethnic groups, even though they show patterns of gender stereotyping found in other children. What is interesting, according to Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, director of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, is that “this is the first evidence that different forms of stereotypes are biologically dissociable.”

An illustration mapping the geography of skin colour

Late last year, Newsweek offered an excerpt of the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It discusses a study carried out by Dr Birgitte Vittrup at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas. It found an unwillingness of white, liberal families to talk to their children about race, except in terms of vague platitudes, which generated some quite abhorrent attitudes in their children. By contrast, children “dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week” where their parents were more open.

From these three quite different studies, we can develop a rough conclusion that racism is borne of fear and ignorance. We live in a society which promotes in-group cooperation and out-group hostility in nearly all arenas of life from sports to politics, and where race is (for a wide variety of reasons) the subject of much fear and uncertainty. As such, racism and/or the development of racial affinities is inevitable. But it is not “natural,” because society being structured this way is not. I will return to this point later on.

It is also important to point out that, in biological and evolutionary terms, the concept of “race” is meaningless. As Leonard Lieberman and Fatimah Linda C. Jackson said in Race and Three Models of Human Origin;

For empirical reasons we prefer to place emphasis on clinal variation, which recognizes the existence of adaptive human hereditary variation and simultaneously stresses that such variation is not found in packages that can be labeled races.

There are no separate human races in the sense of their being sub-species. Sub-species develop in geographical isolation from one another, allowing for significant enough microevolutionary divergence. However, the Human Genome Project as found that “people who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other.”

In other words, there are only gradations in genetic variation, not sharp lines which would naturally define notions of race or ethnicity. In Race and genetics: controversies in biomedical, behavioral, and forensic sciences, Troy Duster and Pilar Ossorio make the point thus;

Anthropologists long ago discovered that humans’ physical traits vary gradually, with groups that are close geographic neighbors being more similar than groups that are geographically separated. This pattern of variation, known as clinal variation, is also observed for many alleles that vary from one human group to another. Another observation is that traits or alleles that vary from one group to another do not vary at the same rate. This pattern is referred to as nonconcordant variation. Because the variation of physical traits is clinal and nonconcordant, anthropologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries discovered that the more traits and the more human groups they measured, the fewer discrete differences they observed among races and the more categories they had to create to classify human beings. The number of races observed expanded to the 30s and 50s, and eventually anthropologists concluded that there were no discrete races (Marks, 2002). Twentieth and 21st century biomedical researchers have discovered this same feature when evaluating human variation at the level of alleles and allele frequencies. Nature has not created four or five distinct, nonoverlapping genetic groups of people.

The idea of “race culture” or “equally great but entirely separate cultures” is a sociological concept which has no correlation to biological reality. As far as human biology is concerned, there is no such thing as race. True, there are obvious physical differences which we have evolved out of neccesity in particular surroundings but it is the geography which defines this rather than ethnic group or culture.

Recent genetic studies back this point up;

Skin has changed color in human lineages much faster than scientists had previously supposed, even without intermarriage, Jablonski says. Recent developments in comparative genomics allow scientists to sample the DNA in modern humans.

By creating genetic “clocks,” scientists can make fairly careful guesses about when particular groups became the color they are today. And with the help of paleontologists and anthropologists, scientists can go further: They can wind the clock back and see what colors these populations were going back tens of thousands of years, says Jablonski.

She says that for many families on the planet, if we look back only 100 or 200 generations (that’s as few as 2,500 years), “almost all of us were in a different place and we had a different color.”

Over the last 50,000 years, populations have gone from dark pigmented to lighter skin, and people have also gone the other way, from light skin back to darker skin, she says.

“People living now in southern parts of India [and Sri Lanka] are extremely darkly pigmented,” Jablonski says. But their great, great ancestors lived much farther north, and when they migrated south, their pigmentation redarkened.

“There has probably been a redarkening of several groups of humans.”


Ultraviolet light, or UV, in high doses can age the skin and damage the DNA molecule, which makes it harder to build a fetus. Not to mention that ultraviolet light can sometimes cause skin cancer.

On the other hand, if a human is plopped down in, say, Norway, where the days can be short and there is precious little ultraviolet light, this creates problems, too. All vertebrate animals need ultraviolet light to help produce vitamin D. Vitamin D helps us absorb calcium from our food to build strong bones. If we don’t get enough ultraviolet light, we’re less likely to survive to reproductive age to produce strong-boned babies.

Thus the dilemma: People who live in sunny climes around the equator have too much UV. People who move away from the equator eventually have too little UV.

The solution is what Jablonski calls “a really cool molecule”: melanin. In different concentrations, melanin makes skin lighter or darker. Kind of like a Venetian blind, it can let UV light in or keep it out.

Melanin has evolved in many different animals. Humans have had it for a long, long time and what Jablonski and others have learned is that when early humans migrated from the equator, their melanin levels changed.

That doesn’t mean they lost their tans. It means they had very specific genetic changes that allowed them to live and successfully reproduce in less sunny places. Darwin teaches that these changes began randomly. Somebody in the population at some point had a baby, and that baby, just by chance, had a little change in its DNA that made her skin, for example, a little lighter. When that baby moved north to Europe, lighter skin gave her an advantage as a grown-up, because it helped her produce strong-boned babies who could survive and have babies of their own.

Successive mutations created successive generations of lighter and lighter people as they moved north.

“This, in short, really created the gradation of skin color that we see in modern humans today,” says Jablonski. Her map of UV radiation levels on Earth closely mirrors the array of skin colors on Earth.

It is fallacious, then, to talk of “races.” There are distinct variations both between and within population groups and cultures, but ultimately we remain of the same subspecies.

How racism divides the working class

Whilst race does not exist in biological terms, it remains a roundly accepted social construct. The most obvious extreme of this is racism, in which the genetic drift between different population groups becomes a justification for different – or even less favourable – treatment.

The British National Party are one of many political parties which use race and nation as a way of diverting peoples' grievances away from the realities of class and capitalism

Now, this is an ideology in and of itself. However, harking back to its origins, racism was created with a clear purpose – to justify abuse, exploitation, and conquest. It was also a useful way of dividing the working class against itself. This served, and still serves, to offer weaker groups as scapegoats for wrongdoing and problems as well as to funnel dissent down reactionary channels where it can burn out without causing any harm to established power.

An excellent article on Zablaza.net, originally published in Red & Black Revolution, explains this point more fully. It is worth reading at length, especially on the point that “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” It is through racism that “workers’ anger is deflected onto other workers (with whom they have almost everything in common) rather than being directed against capitalists ( with whom workers have nothing in common).”

This is detrimental to the entire working class;

Racism does not benefit any workers. Even workers who are not themselves directly oppressed by racism lose out from racism because it divides the working class. White American workers, for example, in no way benefit from the existence of an impoverished and oppressed minority of African American workers who can be used to undercut wages, and working and living conditions.

In addition, racist attitudes make it very difficult to unite workers against the capitalists to challenge the overall distribution of wealth and power in society. Racism has been used again and again to break workers’ struggles.

The more the working class is divided, the worse its overall condition will be. This point, which was repeatedly made by the classical anarchist movement, has been confirmed in a study by an American sociologist who set out to test the proposition that white workers gain from racism.

Comparing the situation of White and Black workers in all fifty US states, he found, firstly, that the less wage discrimination there was against Black workers, the better were the wages that White workers received. Secondly, he found that the existence of a substantial nationally oppressed group of poor workers reduced the wages of White workers (but did not affect the earnings of middle and upper-class Whites very much). Finally, he found that the more intense racial discrimination was, the more poverty there was for lower class Whites.

The only conclusion, as I have argued in other contexts, is that “racism is a working class issue because it affects the conditions of all workers, because most people affected by racism are working class, and because, as indicated above, it is the working class members of racially oppressed groups who are the most severely affected by racism.”

Addressing the race question

One thing that is clear from recent history is that race as an issue is not simply going to fade into the background. We cannot simply ignore it in the hope that it will go away. As long as the myths of race persist, then so too will the ideologies that feed upon peoples’ anger and fear and direct it into racism – overt or otherwise.

Nor can a strategy of attack work. As I argued in Anti-fascism in the 21st century, “a popular and growing fascist movement quite clearly contains a significant number of quite ordinary working class people who have for one reason or another thrown their lot in with the far-right” and “unless we want to bow to snobbery, we cannot simply write this off as proof that the “lower classes” are all simply vile racists.” We must not censor or shout down people who voice racist ideas, but engage with them.

Of course, when people try to put racist or fascist ideas into practice, they must be met with physical resistance and direct action. However, when the weapon is words we must be willing to respond in kind. Otherwise, their argument that we are trying to “silence debate” holds weight. Whilst it may be counter-productive to get into arguments with neo-Nazis in the streets, a willingness to lay out our position on race in full (as I have tried to above) will be far more effective than simply calling “racist” anybody who doesn’t agree with a position we refuse to articulate.

Militant no-platform is the only way to challenge attempts by fascists, neo-Nazis, and racists to organise and put their ideology into practice. But that does not mean that, when they put into into words, we should shy away from it. If, when people voice ideas or thoughts about race that we do not like, our only response is accusation and censorship, then we are only adding to the number of the unrepentant who need to be challenged on the streets.

6 Responses to “Exploring race and ethnicity”
  1. Faustus says:

    Phil Dickens:

    Your essay, as are many of the Left, was well done.

    The struggle of man is immemorial , each distinct, created by variations of Land, race-culture, technics, and those aspirations specific to those individual people.

    As a White Nationalist, the terms ‘left and right’ are commensurate; this is axiomatic, as the issues of Race, in my case, White European, does not exclude those instances of compassion, sympathy, wages, workers-rights, negative authoritarianism, and basic civil-rights.

    Where the ‘left and right’ go awry, is that the distinction of race, for some reason, is held in contempt by the ‘left’ on many levels, whereas the ‘right’, at least the ‘racial right’, sees many issues in the same light, but promotes the essential elements of race, affinity, and identity as a priori of group interest.

    Both sides endlessly promote statistics, of which many are, undoubtedly, sound and necessary for all interested men and women. Yet, as we all know, numbers have a way of always being used to bolster one agenda or the other – like religious documents are used by one side or the other, and then declares war for the sake of the same word – so, while they are necessary, I do not use them much in essays as a rule; let a man’s point of view be heard, and then the necessary microscopic investigations will, undoubtedly, travel in its wake.

    As you might anticipate, my attitude is summed up by Jack London, “I am first of all a white man, and only then a Socialist”. Or not a socialist at all . . .”

    Struggle will, of necessity, continue for our lifetime and beyond.

    The rudimentary underpinnings of Race are real, how we address these logical and self-evident realities will be the way-signs of the future. I wish all of us well, in the coming years. We, all of us, will decide the future, not the politicians of today.

    Looking forward to more of your commentary.

  2. hal says:

    I agree with this essay. Racism is a tool used by the ruling class and their servants (the politicians, the police force, and the military) to divide the working class. One cannot be a racist and support working class issues, as class cuts across supposed racial divisions (which in reality do not exist, as we all originated in the rift valley in africa). Working class solidarity is about uniting with peoples of all colors, ethnicities, and creeds inorder to defeat capitalism. As workers we have no country, we have more in common with workers of other countries than the bourgeoisie of the countries that we live in. National anarchism/ national bolshevism are not about the emancipation of oppressed peoples or about ending the exploitation of the working class, they are instead neo fascist ideologies which only serve ruling class interests. When there is a strike in a work place workers of all nationalities, ethnicities, colors, creeds, sexual orientations, genders etc come together with the aim of winning higher wages and better working conditions. Sometimes a strike will get support from overseas workers (our sisters and brothers). If one believes in blood and soil nationalism one would not unite with peoples of another color, one ,instead, would team up with the ruling class of their particular color (which is white, as no african origin person i know believes in this rubbish). Class struggle puts an end to racism, sexism, heterosexism, anti semitism, islamophobia etc. The only class that benefits from racism is the ruling class as the workers (the collective vehicle that will bring down capitalism by the withdrawal of labor) are divided and conquered by such an ideology.

  3. jjj says:

    I am a black chap living in Liverpool. Both of my parents are from Nigeria. Am I intellectually inferior? Well if I am, hopefully someone will be kind enough to point it out for me, because I certainly cannot see it. I must not be intelligent enough.

  4. Sophie says:

    Hey Phil,

    I agree with what you write about racism dividing the working class. However, I think it is much more useful for anti-racists to think about racism primarily as a system, rather than as a personal belief located in ignorant people. This approach (Critical Race Theory) allows us to challenge racism everywhere in society, as opposed to just in white supremacists. It is important to look at White privilege as something that affects all white people, even if all white people do not enjoy the economic benefits of the system of racism.

    I read “The Everyday Language of White Racism” recently, by Jane H. Hill, which explains this concept and operates from a Critical Race Theory perspective, and I found it really helpful and interesting.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Phil Dickens. Phil Dickens said: PiT: Exploring race and ethnicity http://bit.ly/bQJ3GN […]

  2. […] and the mainstream don’t want to hear our perspectives on the question of race, or an opposition to multiculturalism not grounded in nationalist or racial politics. As a result, […]

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