Racism in Comparative Perspective

Joe R Feagin & Pinar Batur. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

The Global Color Line: Systems of Racial Oppression

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the brilliant sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois ([1903] 1989) explained that “since 732 when Charles Martel beat back the Saracens at Tours, the white races have had the hegemony of civilization—so far that ‘white’ and ‘civilized’ have become synonymous in everyday speech.” Europeans thus invented the “color line” across the globe, thereby making it such that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (p. xxxi). In the process of creating this global color line, Western imperialist colonizers of distant societies racialized economic and social relations everywhere. Today, this color line still represents the line drawn for many societies’ arrangements of socioracial oppression.

Since the eighteenth century, Western rationalizations of this global color line have often defended it in terms of a racist, and often antiblack, ideology. Writing during World War II, Alan Russell (1944), a prominent European intellectual, produced a typical ideological rationale for racial oppression in Colour, Race and Empire: “The aversion which so many white people feel towards the negro [sic] races, based on aesthetic dislike, allied often to what amounts to intellectual contempt, has a parallel in the feelings which are entertained towards the ‘yellow’ races, but here it is not merely dislike, but almost fear, rooted in alarm at the frugality, intelligence and consequent efficiency of these peoples” (p. 21).

Writing about the global color line, Du Bois ([1940] 1984) pointed out that in the process of creating this line, which was indeed an intimate part of European imperialism, numerous white-racist practices have maintained hegemony through “unconscious acts and irrational reactions unpierced by reason, whose current form depended on the long history of relation and contact between thought and idea” (p. 6). He underscores the connection between racist ideas and actions to maintain the racist system. Boldly Eurocentric and racist ideas early became basic components of capitalist ideologies and have long been integral to the establishment of European global hegemony. Thus, as European colonialism gradually created a world racist order, it often absorbed or remade already existing social inequalities, in a layering social formation that takes a number of different forms in the modern world (Batur and Feagin 1999:8-9).

Historically, institutionalized oppression of one human group by another constitutes one of the world’s enduring society-level problems. It is generally in the Marxist tradition that one finds the most developed analyses of social oppression. Building in part on Adam Smith, the pathbreaking Karl Marx developed the idea that human labor is the source of great wealth generation in capitalistic societies. In a capitalistic system, class oppression takes the form of transferring productive value, wealth, generated by workers’ labor to an elite of capitalists. This is a social relationship of class exploitation and oppression, yet it is by no means the only major oppression created in human societies.

In many societies, racial exploitation and oppression are as fundamental. This oppression takes the form of well-institutionalized, systemic racism with roots in European imperialism that swept the globe beginning in the fifteenth century. As with social class systems, racial class systems encompass certain key dimensions: widespread racial discrimination and related exploitation; the racialized stereotyping, ideology, and emotions that defend this oppression; the institutionalized hierarchy and inequality resulting from it; the many human and societal costs generated by oppression; and the resistance movements that develop in opposition.

Under racial oppression that developed across the globe with European imperialism and colonialism, much wealth created by workers of color was transferred to whites—most heavily to the white bourgeoisie and elites—along with other privileges of the new category defined as “race.” In the first centuries of this external (and internal) colonialism, exploitation was typically done by overt enslavement and official segregation. In more recent decades, racial oppression has been accomplished by informal means. Such informal means remain effective in positioning whites as privileged and those who are not white as unjustly disadvantaged. In racist societies like those discussed below, low-wage labor by workers of color generates economic value and profits taken by (white) capitalists. Employers extract added “surplus value” from the labor done by workers of color through the coercive structures of the racist system. Accepting what Du Bois ([1935] 1992) called the “psychological wage of whiteness” (p. 700), most white workers collude in racist arrangements, benefiting by securing better-paying jobs and “white” privileges. A racist system transfers energies of, and wealth created by, the oppressed to improve the lives of most whites. Great inequality of power is part of racial oppression, as is cultural imperialism asserting the values and views of the dominant group in rationalizing oppressive arrangements. White-generated stereotypes and ideologies become pervasive, and whites periodically use violence to keep the racially subordinated group in “its place” (Young 1990:62).

In this chapter, we look beyond surface appearances of the societies selected to illustrate the global racist system and thus show the underlying realities of racial oppression, features often papered over by racial rationalizations. We urge readers to look at racial matters in dialectical terms: exploiter and exploited are in an ongoing, life-and-death struggle—a relationship with a certain stability yet much potential for change.

Some Historical Background

Since the fifteenth century, the expansion of Western capitalism around the globe has fostered the division of peoples according to what Europeans came to see as superior and inferior “races.” This capitalistic expansion created many colonies of racially subordinated peoples, and racial hierarchy and inequality became permanent aspects of this global political-economic system. The first large groups of labor for this newly emerging capitalistic-colonialist system were laborers of color, both those enslaved and transported and indigenous peoples whose labor was stolen within their societies. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, international development of Western capitalism was fostering extensive ideological racism and “scientific” racism in attempts to rationalize new forms of enslaved labor and exploitative peonage. Euro-racism’s global structure was superimposing itself on major institutions of societies it invaded, thereby shaping identities and everyday experiences (Batur-VanderLippe and Feagin 1996). Reaching in some form many societies, this exploitative racialization process has persisted for more than 500 years.

European imperialism began with the overseas expansion of Spain and Portugal, whose rulers sought valuable goods taken by force from indigenous peoples. In the 1400s, the ideological rationale for this often genocidal theft of goods, land, and labor was provided by Catholic popes in papal bulls echoing religious justifications for Christian crusades against Muslims in earlier centuries. Pope Alexander VI issued a bull of demarcation, resolving Spanish and Portuguese disputes. Revised by the Treaty of Tordesillas, this bull put all the world’s non-Christian peoples at the disposal of colonial powers (Cox 1948:331-2; Sardar, Nandy, and Davies 1993:8-9).

Over the next several centuries, numerous European countries—especially the Netherlands, England, and France—spurred the global expansion of capitalism, in the process fostering great inequalities between colonizers and colonized. Scholars, theologians, and politicians developed theories of European (later, white) superiority and the inferiority of peoples caught in colonialism. Colonized peoples were demonized in terms of wildness, cruelty, laziness, promiscuity, and heathenism (Takaki 1990:12). The major racist intellectual of the nineteenth century, Count Joseph de Gobineau, noted thus: “[White people] are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence…. They have a remarkable, even extreme love of liberty, and are openly hostile to the formalism under which the Chinese are glad to vegetate, as well as the strict despotism which is the only way of governing the Negro” (quoted in Ani 1994:272).

Over time, this European colonialism became a domination based on colonial political administration, exploitative trade, and missionary efforts to convert indigenous populations to “civilization.” In Asian, African, and American societies, this domination fostered colonial administrations’ oppressive rule, unequal trade, and imposition of Christianity and Western culture. Everyday life in the colonies was radically distorted and restructured, if not destroyed, by European oppressors, who controlled colonized societies politically, economically, and culturally. Exploitation of colonized peoples and their natural resources was accompanied by systematic slavery, peonage, and savage and coercive violence (Brewer 1986; Fanon 1963).

Writing in the 1930s, Du Bois ([1935] 1992), perhaps the first scholar of globalizing racism, captured the centrality of labor exploitation of peoples of color in this summary of the new colonial-capitalistic world order:

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather—how shall we end the list and where? All these are gathered up at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed, and transported at fabulous gain; and the resultant wealth is distributed and displayed and made the basis of world power and universal dominion and armed arrogance in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York, and Rio de Janeiro.

He then added:

Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity…. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and Harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black. (Pp. 15-16)

Du Bois was perhaps the first scholar to discuss the special character of the racialized surplus value extracted from the world’s non-European peoples in order to bring great wealth to Western countries.

The United States

From the beginning, theft of land and labor were at the heart of the European colonization of North America. As with other conquered areas, European imperialists and colonists sought to control the land and the peoples who lived there. Unlike France in Africa (see below), England (later Great Britain) populated the seized territories with large numbers of white colonists, who eventually exceeded in number the indigenous Americans. Descendants of colonists overthrew British authority and established a white-controlled state. Whites would remain in coercive control of local populations of color to the present day—generally in a highly exploitative formation similar to overseas colonialism in some ways, a formation called “internal colonialism.”

The early white colonists in North America and their descendants shared the view of most European colonizers that land under indigenous control is available for their use. According to white-racist constructions, the land is “discovered” by “civilized” whites who “use the land in a productive way.” Indigenous Americans who resisted land-taking were killed off or driven beyond European settlement. With few Native Americans available for labor, and an insufficient European labor supply, larger farmers and plantation owners soon opted for enslaved Africans as needed workers. Enslavement of large numbers of Africans generated much wealth for many white families. Without this labor, it is possible that there would not have been a successful American Revolution and, thus, a United States—at least in the historical time frame that it developed. As a result of this long period of exploitation and enslavement of Africans, the United States has long had a large African-origin population, one of the world’s largest.

In the mid-twentieth century, Oliver Cox (1948) was the first scholar to undertake an extended analysis of U.S. society as a racist system. Cox showed how long-term exploitation of black labor created a lasting structure of racial classes arranged in a hierarchy. White elites decided “to proletarianize a whole people—that is to say, the whole people is looked upon as a class—whereas white proletarianization involves only a section of the white people” (p. 344). This white-racist system was part of the country’s foundation from earliest decades—and today remains systemic. The 1787 Constitutional Convention was composed of 55 white men, the majority with links to slaveholding, slave trading, or the financing and marketing of slave-made products in international trade. Much wealth was garnered from this system, and many nonslaveholding whites benefited from the prosperity created by this system. The American Revolution—and later European and U.S. industrial revolutions—were substantially funded by the slavery-centered economic system’s substantial profits. Later on, by the 1880s and 1890s, a system of near-slavery, termed legal segregation and much like apartheid in South Africa, was developed by U.S. whites—an openly racist system abandoned only in the late 1960s. From 1619 to the present, trillions of dollars in wealth have been taken from African Americans who were enslaved, as well as from those exploited under segregation and contemporary patterns of informal discrimination—trillions that account for much of the wealth and prosperity of generations of white Americans, to the present day.

Most whites today have inherited resources from the unjust enrichment gained by ancestors from Native Americans, African Americans, and other Americans of color. For example, from 1865 to the 1930s, some 246 million acres were more or less given away by the federal government under the Homestead Act. One researcher (Williams 2000) estimates that perhaps 46 million people (almost all whites) are current beneficiaries of that discriminatory U.S. government program. Other U.S. government giveaways of major socioeconomic resources that went only to whites included major air routes, radio and television frequencies, lumber and mineral resources on federal lands, and all major government contracts and licenses until the 1960s. Until then, almost all new capital formation was in white hands, and most unions and better-paying job categories excluded black workers (Cross 1984).

Contemporary Discrimination

Systemic racism remains central. There are still high levels of white stereotyping and discrimination directed against African Americans and other Americans of color. In one 1990s survey, evaluating eight antiblack stereotypes (including “prefer to accept welfare” and have “less native intelligence”), three-quarters of whites agreed with one or more. Some 55 percent agreed with two or more (Anti-Defamation League 1993). In a 2001 survey, a majority of whites nationally applied one or more stereotyped traits to African Americans: lazy, aggressive/violent, prefer welfare, or always complaining (Bobo 2001). Anti-Latino and anti-Asian prejudice can be seen in yet other research. Thus, anthropologist Jane Hill (1995) examined whites’ mocking of Spanish and Latinos. Mocking of Spanish is common in the United States and is mostly created by college-educated whites for such items as greeting cards, coffee cup slogans, children’s cartoons, video games, and media cartoons. White mocking of Latino and black dialects of English shows a “general unwillingness to accept the speakers of that language and social choices they have made as viable and functional. …We are ashamed of them” (Lippi-Green 1997:201).

Discrimination remains widespread. One study reported that 60 percent of more than a thousand black respondents faced discrimination in their workplaces. Most with college degrees reported discrimination. Asian and Latino American workers, especially the best-educated, also reported much discrimination (Bobo and Suh 2000:527-9). A large survey of black military personnel found that many had faced racist jokes, racist comments and materials, and barriers in regard to their careers (Scarville et al. 1999:46-78). In a federal survey with thousands of housing audits in 25 metropolitan areas, black renters were estimated to have faced discrimination half the time, and homeseekers, about 59 percent of the time. Recent studies in Fresno, New Orleans, San Antonio, Houston, Boston, and Montgomery have found rates of 58 percent to 80 percent for discrimination in rental housing for black testers and 52 percent to 78 percent for Latino testers (Feagin 2000:155-6). Recent studies indicate that bankers in many U.S. cities set interest rates on loans higher for black and Latino homeowners than for comparable whites: “Prime lenders are not serving low-income communities, communities of color, and seniors; Subprime lenders are targeting elderly and minority borrowers and communities; most subprime borrowers are stuck with loans having unjustifiable and onerous provisions; brokers and loan officers often rely on bait and switch tactics whereby key loan terms change at closing” (PR Newswire 2002).

Americans of color face discrimination in many other aspects of their lives. A National Academy of Sciences report found that black patients receive discriminatory medical care compared with whites. They are less likely to get appropriate heart surgery and diagnostic tests, and more likely to have limbs amputated when they have diabetes than comparable whites. They are much less likely to get kidney transplants (Srikameswaran 2002:F-1; Talk of the Nation 2002). Numerous research studies report discrimination for African Americans when they shop and when they come into contact with white police officers or face bail setting by white judges (Ayres 1991; Ayres and Waldfogel 1994; Forman, Williams, and Jackson 1997:231-6).

The contemporary reality of inequality in the United States can be seen in basic statistics: African Americans live shorter lives—about six to seven years less—than white Americans. On the average, African American families garner about 60 percent of the income of the average white family, and African American families average about 10 percent of the wealth of the typical white family. Today some 95 percent to 100 percent of the top positions in major economic, political, and educational organizations are still held by whites, mostly men (Feagin 2000). These dramatic inequalities demonstrate the long-term effects of 400 years of racism.

In the United States, terroristic violence involving white supremacists remains a serious problem. Not long after the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma federal building, which killed 169 people, other bomb plots were uncovered, one targeting the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, and two targeting federal buildings. Today, there are an estimated 441 armed antigovernment militias, many involving supremacists. An estimated 12 million whites support the sometimes violent antigovernment movement (Klanwatch Project 1996:3-5). One influential leader was the late William Pierce, a physicist who authored The Turner Diaries, which has reportedly sold 185,000 copies. This racist book was reported to be among those read by Timothy McVeigh, the white terrorist who bombed the Oklahoma building. After that bombing, Pierce said: “We’ll see some real terrorism—planned, organized terrorism—before too long. I suspect that a growing number of exasperated, fed up Americans will begin engaging in terrorism on a scale that the world has never seen before” (quoted in Klanwatch Project 1996:38).

The Future: The Coming White Minority

The United States is a diverse and ever changing society in its racial and ethnic makeup. By the 2050s, the United States will likely be majority African, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American. Major challenges to contemporary white control of the country are already arising from population and related sociopolitical changes. Today, European Americans are but a minority in half of the largest 100 U.S. cities and in the states of Hawaii, New Mexico, Texas, and California. Between 2015 and 2040, they will become a statistical minority in many other states. Americans of color will gradually increase economic and political strength and will likely gain power in the struggle against racism. For whites, there seem to be two major choices in this dynamic environment. They will react by working for more extensive racial separatism, as in old South Africa. Data indicate that some whites are currently choosing guarded-gated communities, private schools, and armed militias. Some are moving to whiter areas of the country, such as the Rocky Mountain states. And some whites are building conservative coalitions with certain lighter-skinned or more Euro-assimilated Asian and Latino Americans, whom many whites treat as “honorary whites” (Feagin 2000:237-72).

Alternatively, some activists of all racial and ethnic backgrounds hope and work for another U.S. scenario. They are working for a more democratic future. In this scenario—and reality in some places—Americans of color are building effective coalitions across groups of color, together with large numbers of supportive whites. These coalitions are working to break down discriminatory barriers. They are pressing U.S. institutions to move toward true multicultural democracy for the first time in U.S. history.

France: Colonialism and Contemporary Racism

France has a long tradition of overseas colonialism. While whites in the United States have historically exploited many people of color mostly within the country, whites in France have played a major international role in colonizing areas of the globe such as the African continent. In the U.S. case, whites built up wealth by exploitation of Americans of color. In the French case, the exploitation of Africa brought great wealth to white entrepreneurs in and colonizers of Africa, as well as the French government. Du Bois ([1946] 1965) analyzed Europe’s colonization process, arguing that extreme poverty in African colonies was “a main cause of wealth and luxury in Europe. The results of this poverty were disease, ignorance, and crime” (p. 37). In the African case, unjust exploitation of labor and land has long been a major source of wealth for European companies and countries.

French colonialism differed from other colonialism in that it usually took in newly colonized peoples as citizens of France. Colonial administrators propagated French culture in an attempt to assimilate colonized peoples into the French empire. Yet, they were still seen as inferior citizens. The African theorist of race, Frantz Fanon (1963), argued that European colonialism brought violence on subordinated peoples through construction of the colonial world as “good” and “evil.” Through “colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil” (p. 41). Viewing Europeans as good and Africans as evil has long been part of the European culture of racism. Such an ideology has been integral to racial subordination during the colonial period and subsequent postcolonial era.

Racism and Immigrants Today

In France, some racial and ethnic groups, including the Jews, have long been targets of racialized hostility and subordination. The end of overseas colonialism brought new groups of color into French society, mostly from areas once colonized by France. Today, it is estimated that one in every four French citizens has a non-French parent or grand-parent (Silverman 1992). Popular and official government analyses of immigration problems focus on immigrants of color from Africa, most of whom settled in France after the 1960s Algerian War.

Many whites now see immigration in racialized terms. Surveys of the population find high levels of racist and antiimmigrant attitudes. One 2000 poll found that less than a third of the French respondents were willing to say they were “not racist.” A substantial majority agreed that there were too many foreigners in the country. Six in 10 asserted there were too many Arabs—with 4 in 10 feeling there were too many black residents (Daley 2002:A4).

According to a recent United Nations report, numerous European countries are seeing a resurgence of racist-right political parties and of hate crimes. One sees the growth in influence of racist parties in France as well as in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Australia. Racist-right parties have elected numerous members to parliaments and garnered up to a quarter of the votes in elections. Such groups are racist and attack, verbally and sometimes violently, racial, ethnic, and religious groups, especially immigrants of color (Deen 1998).

Since the 1960s, the migration of Algerians to France has made Islam the country’s second religion, after Catholicism. The large number of Muslims has brought a hostile reaction from whites who fear loss of traditional culture. Intellectual and popular debates focus on immigrant conflicts with French culture rather than on racialized perceptions of whites (Johnson 1993:59; Silverman 1992:3-4). When whites view racial segregation in housing as a result of immigrants’“individual choices,” they de-emphasize dynamics of institutionalized racism directed against African French groups in housing markets.

Indeed, the term immigrant in French (as increasingly, in English in the United States and Great Britain) is popularly used to define only those of non-European origin, and especially those of African origin. Officially, people in France are classified in terms of nationality as a “foreigner” or a “national.” However, there is little popular recognition among whites that naturalized Africans are citizens of France. Contrary to racist argument, the proportion of immigrants in the population has not increased: they account for about the same proportion of the population today (7 percent) as in 1931. The overwhelming majority of those popularly classified as immigrants have lived in France for more than 10 years (Silverman 1992:3).

Since 1980, African immigration has come to the forefront of public debate among whites, pressed there by racist-right advocates like Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the 2002 presidential election, Le Pen got 6 million votes, 17 percent of the vote, putting him into the final round of the presidential election. Though he lost, his support indicates the power of racist thought and action. Le Pen’s support is greatest in urban areas with sizable numbers of immigrants. Racist-right groups advocate ending African immigration, providing job priority for native-born whites, forcing Africans to return to Africa, and reimposing the death penalty. The racist-right objects to acquisition of French nationality by second-generation African French people, whose parents are criticized for attachment to home-country values (De Wenden 1991:108; Kristeva 1993:97-8). In efforts to attract conservative white voters, the French government itself has pursued repressive policies against African immigrants and their supporters (Singer 1996:19).

Today, a large antiracist association, SOS Racism, is challenging xenophobia, antiSemitism, and racism in France. SOS Racism advocates equality of rights and giving immigrants the right to vote. SOS Racism had 50,000 followers at its inception and has attracted media attention for antiracism demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands (Kristeva 1993:13-14). After Le Pen got into the presidential runoff in 2002, more than a million men and women protested his National Front party in cities across France.

Today, foreign-born immigrants constitute a small part of France’s 60 million people. Yet they and their children are increasingly targets for attacks. Discrimination in housing, workplaces, and education is commonplace. Numerous immigrants and their children, including those with substantial education, find opportunities for better jobs blocked by discrimination. Many bars and clubs are closed to the African French. A recent report on racism by the Institute of Economic and Social Studies found that discrimination against nonwhite immigrants and citizens in the workplace is increasing: “An invisible ceiling exists in social and economic life in France that stops the rise of qualified immigrants to middle and high-level executive positions” (Godoy 2002). Even the French National Employment Agency has suggested that nonwhite immigrants seeking employment provide names that hide their African origins, for research indicates that those with European-sounding names have a better chance at employment. Much employment and housing discrimination is blatantly racist in France today (Godoy 2002).

As in the United States, violent attacks on people of African descent continue today. The most extreme form of discrimination is “Arabicide,” a term some use for the many unsolved murders of Arab residents of France (Woodall 1993). Muslim communities face various other attacks on their cultural traditions. One issue is the right of Muslim girls to wear traditional head scarves in public schools. While some Muslim feminists have argued that scarves represent the influence of patriarchy, others argue that the scarves represent assertion of women’s rights if voluntarily worn by women. Yet the French government interprets the increasing number of students wearing scarves in schools as an indication of the appeal of “Muslim fundamentalism” (Ibrahim 1994). Even France’s President Jacques Chirac has aroused racist sentiments by accusing Algerian immigrants of being “welfare cheats” who produce children to drain the welfare system (Creamean 1996). This stereotyped notion is similar to false accusations made by whites in the United States about African Americans and immigrants of color.

As France moves into the European Union (EU), the complexities of the new Europe are now intruding. The EU stresses workers’ rights, the standardization of policies in regard to minority communities, and a stable immigration policy. Racist right-wingers in France resist these policies in anti-EU movements. One survey of young people in EU countries found many to be very nationalistic (Chasan 2000; Frangoudaki 2000:355). Racist music, such as the song “Beating Up Blacks,” seems to be gaining in popularity. Recently, a French television executive was fined for allowing this song to be performed on air, with lines like “Can’t stand the foreigners, the darkies … flick on the lighters, we’re going to set them on fire” (“French TV Executive” 1996:65).

In several European countries, hate crimes are on the increase. Between fall 2000 and late 2001, there were more than 406 violent anti-Semitic incidents in France, with 700 more in the spring of 2002. These included vandalism, shootings, and firebombing, often targeting Jewish-owned restaurants, synagogues, schools, and cemeteries. Children have been attacked as they left schools, and worshippers have been stoned after synagogue services. There is also a resurgence of neofascist groups that celebrate Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust (Southam News 2002:A6). In spring 2002, an outburst of hate crimes against Jews and other groups in France was repeated in other European countries. Responding to anti-Semitic and other racist violence in numerous countries, the EU justice and home affairs ministers issued a statement against racism and xenophobia that committed them to using the law and information exchange to fight rising racism in Europe: “The European Union strongly condemns the racist acts perpetrated in various places in the European Union in the recent weeks. At a time of acute international tension, especially in the Middle East, it is vital to preserve the spirit of harmony, entente and inter-cultural respect within our societies” (Spinant 2002:n.p.).

Colonialism begins by bringing oppression to distant lands, but in virtually every case, it has eventually brought oppression and conflict to the colonizing country as well, especially if the colonized migrate to the colonizing country. In the postcolonial era, institutional racism persists. Immigrants experience the violent legacy of African colonialism in the land of the colonizer.

Brazil: A Racial Democracy?

The two countries examined so far both have a long history of colonial exploitation of people of color within the country or outside. Whites in France were among the first to colonize non-European societies overseas. Whites in the United States, while beginning mostly as a colony of England, eventually liberated themselves and began their own internal and external colonial efforts targeting people of color. Numerous societies that are not predominantly white have arisen out of such colonial actions, yet have not been so fortunate as to completely free themselves from the continuing, oppressive effects of that colonialism, including economic neocolonialism. We now examine two predominantly non-European countries that were originally European colonies but have struggled to break with the effects of that horrific past.

In the Western Hemisphere, Brazil is second in population only to the United States. It has the largest African-origin population outside of Africa—more than 60 million, and, counting all people of mixed ancestry, at least half of its population. Although slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century, well-institutionalized racial discrimination still has a major impact on Afro-Brazilians today. Thus, in many restaurants, black customers are excluded; a major television show portraying a white man and black woman kissing received protests; and Afro-Brazilian service workers are expected to use the service entrance of buildings. Afro-Brazilians hold less than 3 percent of the seats in the two houses of the Brazilian legislature. Many employers routinely choose white over black applicants for better-paying jobs (“The Colours of Brazil” 1986:42). Black workers average less than half the incomes of white workers, and few are found in major corporate and political positions. Advertisements for jobs in newspapers specify “good appearance,” a euphemism for “white” (Muello 2002). Forty percent of the black population works in minimum-wage jobs. And black Brazilians constitute just 1 percent of students in universities. At the University of São Paulo, only 5 of the 5,000 faculty members are black. Afro-Brazilians also make up most of the poor (Hart 1988; Whitaker 1991). This oppressive social, economic, and political situation is the legacy of European colonization and subsequent slavery and racial oppression.

Brazil was early colonized by Spain and Portugal. The emerging European textile industry consumed so much dye from Brazil that, by the end of the 1500s, 100 ships traveled regularly there. The Portuguese established sugar cane plantations. Some indigenous inhabitants were enslaved, but most were killed by the European colonizers or, as with indigenous peoples in the United States, died from European diseases. Soon, Brazil resembled the U.S. South, with large numbers of enslaved Afro-Brazilians working on plantations to produce sugar, coffee, and rubber for the expanding capitalist world market (Burns 1993:23-7, 216-17; Skidmore and Smith 1994:140). Brazil’s slave population numbered about 5 million—more than half its total population—just before the abolition of slavery in 1888. Since Brazil became independent of Portugal in 1822, the country’s history has been marked by recurring military intervention in politics on behalf of white elites.

Is There “Racial Democracy”?

Once slavery ended, large-scale racial inequality did not end, but has long been fiercely maintained by whites. In spite of widespread discrimination and oppression, a myth emerged that Brazil had “good” racial relations. To the present day, the majority of whites, as well as some other Brazilians, see the country as a unique “racial democracy.” This notion of racial democracy usually recognizes the existence of some prejudice and discrimination, but claims that such are isolated and that Afro-Brazilians are roughly equal in society. The mainstream ideology argues that because of Brazilian exceptionalism, multicultural Brazil is not starkly divided along racial lines like the United States and South Africa (Hanchard 1994:43). By downplaying racial differences, white elites avoid addressing problems of racially based inequality in the economy, education, life expectancy, and health care.

This mythology constantly ignores persisting racial hostility and discrimination. Emerging in the nineteenth century, racist views and ideologies have remained part of Brazil’s culture and influence white Brazilians’ thinking about the past, present, and future. Today, the racist perspective is seen in immigration policies favoring whites, in negative attitudes to interracial marriages, and even in many Afro-Brazilians’ preference for lighter skin tones. Although many light-skinned Brazilians believe that racial differences are unimportant, they and other Brazilians use more than 100 words for racial identification; “black” (preto) does not have the same meaning in Brazil as in the United States or South Africa. In Brazil, preto describes a person with mostly or all African ancestry. A racially mixed person who would likely be called black in the United States is identified in Brazil as moreno or mulatto, depending on the degree of African ancestry. Since “Negro” includes pretos and morenos, it is a political term for black-power movements, as in Brazil’s Movimento Negro (Hanchard 1994; Sanders 1981). Despite this diverse terminology, the country’s racial hierarchy is supported by strong white stereotypes that view blacks as “bad-smelling, dirty, unhygienic, ugly” and view mulattoes as “pushy and envious of whites” (Sanders 1981:2).

Not surprisingly, whiteness remains a symbol of superiority and the avenue to privilege and power, and discrimination and poverty remain widespread for Afro-Brazilians. Recently, Ms. Benedita da Silva, the first black female governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, noted that “I go into a five-star hotel and they address me in English. That’s because a well-dressed black woman simply isn’t within the standard model for black Brazilians, and they assume she has to be a foreigner. So I have to tell them, ‘No. I am a Brazilian’” (quoted in Rohter 2002:A4). Helio Santos, a black university professor, has underscored the contradictions in his country today: “Brazilian society discriminates against blacks at every point, but it is hidden, disguised…. There is an illusion of social democracy in Brazil” (quoted in Whitaker 1991:41). As in the United States, the illusion of equality serves elites’ political purposes while racial discrimination remains integral to society. The promise of economic success frames the European colonizers’ persisting myth that equality will come, along with prosperity, in the near future. In this sense, Brazil is similar to the United States and South Africa.

While colonial developments in Brazil and the United States were different, racial ideologies and inequalities have been similar over the long course of both countries’ history. Persisting socioeconomic inequality among Brazil’s racial groups sharpened between the 1960s and the 2000s as the result of so-called modernization. International companies headquartered in the United States and Europe have invested heavily in Brazil. Not surprisingly, then, Afro-Brazilians have demanded equal-opportunity legislation to secure greater access to education and employment, and developed human rights movements. As in the United States, white officials have sought to reduce commitments to rights and curtail government efforts to reduce racial inequality. During the 1988 centennial celebration of slavery’s abolition, the government organized a celebration, but Afro-Brazilian groups held counter-demonstrations protesting continuing inequality and proposing a strengthening of ties between blacks in Brazil and other parts of the African diaspora (Andrews 1992:256-7; Winant 1992:173-92).

Since 5 percent of the population, mostly whites, control almost all the land, there have been major land protests. Some 50,000 rural poor marched in the late 1990s to protest the slow pace of land reform. Though he was the first Brazilian president to discuss racism as a national issue, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso was criticized for not undertaking land reforms that would confront elites (Olivier 1999). Under Cardoso’s administration, visible gains have been made, mainly in the government bureaucracy, and some universities have begun to reserve positions for Afro-Brazilian students (Oliviera 1999). Another movement is that of indigenous people. Even though national censuses indicate rapid growth of the indigenous population, some of the 216 identified indigenous groups are still facing extinction. While they make up nearly 4 percent of the population, their voices have long been ignored by the white elites (Kennedy 2000:311).

The Brazilian case shows the impact of European colonialism not only on economic and political institutions but also on the creation and development of a persisting ideology of white racism. The legacy of Afro-Brazilian slavery remains a central part of Brazil’s present, and thereby promises to continue to influence the country’s future through the continuing dominance of systemic racism.

South Africa Emerges from Apartheid

Now cited as an example of how a country can liberate itself from European colonialism, contemporary South Africa is an important case to examine. South Africa was created as a country by European imperialists, not by Africans. As with North America, European colonizers constructed the country, and then constructed its mythological history in racist and exploitative terms, often viewing the land as “discovered” by whites who were allegedly the first to use it “productively.”

Contrary to much European thinking, South Africa has a long and complex history. The Khoisan people were living in what is now called South Africa when the ancestors of the current Bantu-speaking black majority settled there around 300 B.C.E. The first European settlement dates to 1652, when the Dutch established a small supply station. As Dutch settlements spread, confrontations with indigenous peoples led to what Europeans call “Kaffir Wars.” Kaffir is a degrading term (like nigger in the United States) that whites have long applied to black South Africans. Britain’s conquest of the Cape Colony in 1806, and British settlement beginning in 1820, fueled out-migration of Dutch farmers (called “Boers”) into the interior (Davidson 1991; Harris 1987; Oliver and Atmore 1989; Thompson 1985). The British imperialists abolished slavery and changed regulations on black labor, and the Boers interpreted these actions as putting the Khoisan and Bantus “on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race” (Worden 1994:11-12).

Early on, a white mythology about land ownership developed. Some Dutch settlers began calling themselves “Afrikaners,” or the “white tribe of Africa” (Thompson 1985:76). Defending slavery, white colonizers argued that “we make the native Africans work for us in consideration of allowing them to live in our country” (Davidson 1991:269). According to the white-racist ideology, there were no native black South Africans prior to the arrival of Europeans! This naïve view persists even today (Thompson 1985:70). From the beginning, many European occupiers saw colonization as a civilizing mission that justified killing, subjugation, and enslavement of indigenous peoples. European colonizers rated themselves as racially superior to Africans, whom they, like white colonizers elsewhere, considered to be animal-like, and stereotyped as “idolatrous and licentious, thieving and lying, lazy and dirty” (Thompson 1985:71).


Created in 1910, the Union of South Africa united British and Boer areas of the country. This united, white-controlled state imposed segregation on defined populations of “blacks” and “coloreds,” the latter of mixed white-black ancestry. A 1913 Native Lands Act limited land ownership and settlement for blacks and coloreds to restricted areas. Voting rights and political representation were for whites only. As mining expanded, the racial structure of the preindustrial colonial society became part of new capitalist industry. Almost without exception, white workers held skilled and supervisory positions, while black workers were most of the unskilled workers and worked under severe conditions (Thompson 1985:111-12).

Black South Africans often drew on their home cultures to resist apartheid. Opposition to racist policies came from the African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 to demand voting rights, freedom of residence, and land for black Africans. White voters elected the openly racist National Party in 1948 with its platform of apartheid and commitment to complete segregation. Apartheid was a racial hierarchy where whites, a fifth of the population, ruled over the large majority of colored and black Africans. Discrimination was extensively institutionalized (Lipton 1985:14-15). The 1950 Population Registration Act established legal registration by racial group; the Group Areas Act prohibited blacks from residing outside zoned areas. White officials sought to control opposition by passing security legislation against so-called communist activities. Since the white minister of justice decided who were “Communists,” this permitted the silencing of any people opposed to racist policies through imprisonment and police violence. The government took control of education from the missionary schools, creating a separate and inferior system for black Africans (Thompson 1985:295).

Black Resistance

When whites accelerated the oppressiveness of the apartheid system, those opposed increase their efforts as well, in groups like the ANC and Pan-African Congress (PAC). After the Sharpeville massacre in 1964, in which the police killed many demonstrators, Nelson Mandela and other ANC and PAC leaders were sentenced to prison (Meli 1988). Imprisonments were followed by torture and deaths of some in custody. When support of apartheid became violent, the antiapartheid movement became stronger and more violent in response. Black demonstrations resulted in hundreds of deaths of protesters at the hands of police (Diseko 1991: 40-62). During the 1970s, opposition to apartheid in black townships forced the government to search for new ways to legitimize control. Thus, the restrictions on labor organization among black workers and on multiracial political parties were lifted. In addition, the ANC was changing its emphasis from armed struggle to mass political mobilization (Barrell 1991:64-92).

Recurring differences among black, colored, and Asian South Africans were periodically used by whites to channel black anger away from white oppression. By providing for limited political participation by Asian and colored people in a 1984 constitution, the government tried to divide the nonwhite population. Demonstrations in townships were met with brutal suppression (Thompson 1985). These divide-and-conquer strategies allowed the government to continue to rule, and by accentuating racialethnic divisions, such governmental actions produced lasting problems for the development of a democratic South Africa to the present day.

Increases in black protests, together with an international economic boycott, put great pressure on the white leadership, especially the businesspeople disturbed by chaos and loss of profits. Soon, in 1989, the new white head of government, F. W. deKlerk, began dismantling apartheid, and in 1994, Nelson Mandela, head of the ANC, was elected to the South African presidency. This marked a dramatic shift in political power, from oppressors to oppressed, something rarely seen in human history without large-scale revolutions.

What Will the Future Bring?

In contemporary South Africa, whites are little more than a tenth of the country’s 45 million people, yet they still dominate economic and certain other major institutions. One challenge is to bring democratic changes to all institutions. The new black South African government has outlawed apartheid, but the movement to socioeconomic equality has been very difficult. Racial discrimination remains institutionalized in everyday life, from the city of Pretoria—which white Afrikaner separatists see as their spiritual capital—to the rural homelands, where many Zulus resist the ANC as a continuation of oppression (Keller 1994:A1; Masland and Conteras 1994:34-7).

Today, there is substantial opposition among whites, particularly Afrikaners, to the recent economic, social, and political changes. For example, a major radio station (Radio Pretoria) broadcasts in the Afrikaans language much programming opposed to the changes in the direction of an integrated and multicultural society. As a recent press report puts it, this station offers an important, yet “unique voice for conservative Afrikaners, the white minority that oppressed blacks for decades and then resisted, sometimes violently, the transition to multiracial democracy” (Swarns 2002:A1). The station broadcasts programs of interest to conservative whites, especially Afrikaners, including much traditional music. Programs reflecting the yearning for the apartheid past are listened to by at least 100,000 whites. Feeling abandoned and alienated, these whites are disturbed about the changes in employment, with affirmative action for black Africans, and the increasing (though small) unemployment for whites. They are concerned about black Africans moving into traditionally white neighborhoods and about interracial marriages. As the station’s head expressed it, “We, the Afrikaner people, opened up this country, developed this country, put this country in the front ranks of the developed countries of the world…. Black Africa is wiping out everything we have brought” (quoted in Swarns 2002:A1).

A key problem for the black-led government of South Africa is the fact that most of the economy is controlled by white entrepreneurs and white-controlled corporations. This situation is under great pressure for change. One spokesperson for the government, Joel Netshitenzhe, has indicated the rationale for changing this situation: “The implication of not involving the majority at all levels of the economy is that the country relies on a smaller pool of wisdom and expertise, it has a smaller middle class and employed population.” He added that changes are necessary to increase aggregate demand for blacks, and if changes are not made, blacks will likely “become cynical of democracy” (quoted in Stoppard 2002:n.p.).

Historically, South Africa’s gold, diamond, and platinum mines have made many whites—especially those in international corporations—very wealthy, yet the black laborers who generated that wealth have received little benefit. The new government is now determined that not only political power but also economic power be democratically controlled, if not fully redistributed. Thus, in the year 2000, the government set forth for discussion a plan providing for negotiation with white owners and executives for the transfer of the control of major industries to the black majority. In 2002, the government also started moving forward on a Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development bill. When this legislation is put into full effect, the government will become the owner of all the country’s mineral resources. Since many of these resources have historically been controlled by white resources firms, this marks a major shift in ownership of the country’s major resources (Cauvin 2002:W1).

One immediate-term goal is to move a third of mining assets, as well as half of new businesses, to the control of black South Africans. One way this is being done is to bring in black partners—a program called Black Economic Empowerment. At least one major firm, Anglo-Platinum, has already laid out such a plan, and others are considering them. Legislation to implement the Black Economic Empowerment policy was under way in 2003, and it has sought to provide benefits to black miners and their communities, as well as to protect the environment and provide for long-term sustainable development. Thus, one major concern of many black South Africans is to guarantee that these new partnerships actually provide economic benefits to ordinary blacks and the numerous small businesses—and not just to members of the new black middle class and elites (Stoppard 2002).

A number of black South Africans have begun to seek compensation for extreme brutality and killings that apartheid officials and programs carried out. Lawyers for a number of black plaintiffs, including relatives of those killed by apartheid regimes, have filed lawsuits seeking billions in compensation—for example, for the actions of IBM and certain Swiss, German, and U.S. banks during the apartheid era. These companies, according to the lawsuits, provided money and technology that enabled the systemic racism of apartheid to be much more effective in operation. According to the lawsuits, these companies knew that their money and products were being used in violation of human rights. Some expect the number of legitimate claims to increase to thousands of cases (“Apartheid Victims” 2002).

In June 1999, a new president was elected to replace Mandela, the ANC leader Thabo Mbeki. To this point in time, the black-led ANC has had a mixed record in political office. The ANC party has facilitated a peaceful transition from white to black political rule, and it has provided some economic help for poor black South Africans. So far, however, it has failed in its policies in reducing unemployment and stimulating regional development for the majority of the black population. President Mbeki was elected because the new opposition, called the Democratic Alliance, represents white power to many of the country’s black citizens. Yet, even many black South African voters now seem to be losing hope for real economic development and prosperity (“Race about Race” 2000:5).

Frantz Fanon, a strong critic of European colonialism, once asked: “What is South Africa?” He answered his own question: “A boiler into which thirteen million blacks are clubbed and penned in by two and a half million whites” (Fanon [1952] 1967:87). Today, South Africa is changing significantly, yet whites still have by far the most economic control, and a great many black South Africans feel the country is not changing nearly fast enough. The case of South Africa reveals how European colonialism has historically operated through a trilogy of domination—administration, trade, and religion—to establish a system of white control for a very long period of time, for centuries. Well-institutionalized racism became part of most social sectors. Racial discrimination has regularly shaped the construction of racial and ethnic identities and everyday experiences. The once legally, now informally, segregated patterns of housing, education, and employment reveal persisting patterns of racist practices of white South Africans. After centuries of exploitation, the lives of the black people of southern Africa have been changed fundamentally.


Across the globe, institutionalized forms of racism have become structural realities in many non-European societies through the means of European and American overseas colonialism. This has typically operated through the means of bureaucratic administrations, exploitative trade, Christian missionary culture, and, more recently, a global media culture. European, and later U.S., colonizers rationalized this colonial expansion by defining themselves as superior modernizers of those peoples who were very “uncivilized.” The construction of colonized peoples as racially inferior was fundamental to legitimizing exploitation and enslavement. Racist ideology and institutions were integral to colonialism, and white racism has remained central within colonized and colonizing countries into the current era.

The postcolonial lives of both colonized and colonizers have been scissored by conflict and violence. Across the globe, well-institutionalized racism can be seen in highly racialized stereotyping, practices, and institutions. Not surprisingly, thus, the processes of Western imperialism often forced colonized peoples to accept stereotypes of whites as superior and themselves as inferior. This pervasive ideology usually required colonized peoples to accept growing patterns of racialethnic inequality and continuing European and U.S. domination. For Western countries, non-European countries remain major sources of extractive resources that fuel the dynamic Western economies. Such economic neocolonialism continues the exploitation of human beings and their natural resources and thus the destruction of their lives, bodies, families, and cultures (Batur-VanderLippe 1992).

As we have documented, the problem of white-maintained racist systems has been a global reality now for many centuries. This has never been more true than today. The challenge for the racially oppressed is how to confront white-maintained racism effectively and on a global scale. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, several Pan-African conferences were among the first to globalize the antiracist movement. Writing in 1927, W. E. B. Du Bois summarized a statement made by the fourth Pan-African Congress. This declaration asserted the legitimate human rights of peoples of color across the globe: voting rights, education, rights to land, and economic development for the benefit of the many rather than the white few (Du Bois 1995: 670-5).

Widespread demands for economic equality, political participation, social justice, and cultural representation are still goals for those seeking an antiracist future for the planet (Batur-VanderLippe 1998). Today, an awareness of this global challenge is growing, and those involved are emphasizing the creation of new terms of human coexistence and international relations. For example, in fall 2001, some 160 countries met in Durban, South Africa, at the first World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Most governments represented there—but not including the United States, which withdrew early—agreed to a new international plan (the “Durban Declaration”) for fighting racism and xenophobia in countries across the globe. This Declaration explicitly labels racist systems such as slavery a crime against humanity, and the European delegates there even agreed to an expression of regret for European involvement in slavery. This conference signaled a growing international concern with racism and xenophobia.

The unfortunate early withdrawal of the right-wing U.S. government from that conference, however, signals the great difficulties that the U.S. (then the George W. Bush) political administration had in exploring an end to racism in the United States and overseas. In the United States, South Africa, Brazil, and France, institutionalized discrimination maintained by whites continues to destroy the lives and communities of many millions of people of color. In postcolonial France, racialized thinking and practice still target French Muslims from Africa, who regularly experience the destruction of property and attacks on their culture. In South Africa and in Brazil, in spite of their quite different histories, citizens of African ancestry still face much socioeconomic stereotyping, discrimination, and oppression. In the United States, there is continuing conflict over the continuing racial oppression that is directed by many whites at various groups of Americans of color. Today, postcolonial governments still allow the discriminatory realities descending from European colonialism to continue. Their effects can be seen in persisting racial inequalities in, among other institutional areas, education, housing, business, employment, public accommodations, and health care.

From our perspective, realistic evaluations of the present and future of postcolonial societies require a deep understanding and direct confrontation of entrenched racial inequalities and a major organized struggle against these burdensome realities. Fortunately, in the few decades right after World War II, the conditions of the cold-war era facilitated the revolt of colonial societies against their European masters. Ironically, the cold war between the former Soviet Union and the United States and its European allies reshaped the political dependency of most postcolonial societies. They became their own political masters. Yet, severe and often racialized economic neocolonialism has persisted. This economic (and often cultural) neocolonialism is often an extension of the old imperialistic-capitalistic domination created in previous eras. Today, as the capitalist system recreates itself in globalizing and neocolonial forms, it still creates or reinforces racial discrimination and inequalities that remain embedded in the societies and cultures of both former colonies and former colonizing countries (Batur and Feagin 1999).

In his brilliant book Darkwater, W. E. B. Du Bois (1996) reminded those of European extraction that they have not lived by their own professed morality: “The number of white individuals who are practicing with even reasonable approximation the democracy and unselfishness of Jesus Christ is so small and unimportant as to be fit subject for jest in Sunday supplements” (p. 501). Later, in the same book, Du Bois notes the changes that must eventually come in the world racial order.

Du Bois made this sage comment in relation to how the world’s non-European majority viewed what is called World War I:

But what of the darker world that watches? Most men belong to this world. With Negro and Negroid, East Indian, Chinese, and Japanese they form two-thirds of the population of the world. A belief in humanity is a belief in colored men. If the uplift of mankind must be done by men, then the destinies of this world will rest ultimately in the hands of darker nations.

What, then, is this dark world thinking? It is thinking that as wild and awful as this shameful war was, it is nothing to compare with that fight for freedom which black and brown and yellow men must and will make unless their oppression and humiliation and insult at the hands of the White World cease. The Dark World is going to submit to its present treatment just as long as it must and not one moment longer. (P. 507)

As we enter the twenty-first century, most of the world’s people carry the burden of the history of European and American racism in their minds. Just under 200 million people have died in genocide and mass murders over the past century, yet the human race still searches for global solutions to genocide in terms of intervention, assistance, restoration, and punishment. The Treaty of Rome, dated April 11, 2002, established an International Criminal Court. Supporters anticipate that this important court will establish a legitimate global reach in matters of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. However, the U.S. government has so far refused to sign this important international treaty. At the time of writing, the conservative U.S. (George W. Bush) administration has argued that giving the international court jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers cannot be allowed because of the U.S. American Service Members Protection Act. Indeed, this arch-conservative administration demanded that the U.S. government should have a seat on this tribunal, but will only participate in interventions of its own choosing. In this perspective, any American brought before the tribunal might testify, but could not be convicted. In July 2002, the United States also began to withdraw its commitment to another important international legal agreement, the Convention against Torture, which it had signed in 1994. The conservative U.S. administration argued that mandatory inspections of its operations would be too intrusive (Anderson 2002:7; “In This Case Might Is Right” 2002:35; “UN-nerving” 2002:3).

Crimes against humanity are global offenses. Fifty years ago, when Justice Robert Jackson of the United States made his opening statement at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, set up to try German war criminals, he said: “The wrongs that we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated” (Powell 1995:52). Yet, not only have we seen these wrongs repeated—in widespread, often violent racial oppression in many countries, and in genocide from Cambodia to Kosovo to Rwanda to Chechnya—we are also witnessing the silencing of the voice of universal objection and the erosion of various governments’ commitment, including recently that of the United States, to the well-being of humanity.

On April 16, 1963, the U.S. civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1964) wrote a letter from his Birmingham, Alabama, jail cell to a group of clergy who argued that King’s protest actions were unwise. In the letter, King said, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (p. 77). Throughout the world, systemic racism continues to destroy the lives of many millions of people, along with their (and all) hopes for a better world. Only if we the people of planet earth can learn to empathize with those routinely targeted and harmed by white racism can we comprehend its destructiveness, and only if we comprehend that destructiveness can we ever develop successful strategies to fight racism both locally and globally.