A History of Racial Discrimination
"Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason."
~Abraham Joshua Heschela
Despite the giant strides that mankind has made in every walk of life, racial discrimination continues to be one of the biggest banes in
modern society. It has proven to be a tough challenge to eradicate for more reasons than one.
The word ‘Race’ hardly found mentioned in our society before the 1500s. While hierarchies had always existed, they were based on the work a person did or their social status. However in the 1700s, as the class structure between the common people and the upper classes started to blur, a new color-based hierarchy started to emerge.
America’s history of racial discrimination can be traced back to “Colourism”; a practice by which white colonists created divisions between African-Americans and instilled the idea that being fair-skinned was a desirable characteristic. White enslavers chose lighter-skinned slaves to work inside their houses while darker-skinned slaves were subjected to hard work in the harsh conditions outdoors. This created a new hierarchy even within the minorities. Over time, these customs have become widely accepted and deeply entrenched in the societal psyche. Such prejudices have now become a norm in the white and African American communities alike.
The 'Jim Crow laws' drafted in the late 19th century gave a legal basis to the racial segregation of African Americans and whites, promoting brutalities that were completely against the spirit of the founding values of the United States of America. Dark-skinned people were lawfully prevented from using public facilities such as schools, restaurants, hospitals, restrooms, and shops in the Southern states. In addition, blacks didn't have any rights to vote or make gains from their economic actions.
To fight against centuries of social, political, and economic inequality, the civil rights movement was launched in the late 19th century. It was initiated by African Americans with an aim to stop segregation and disenfranchisement. In the 1960s, after years of peaceful protests and civil disobedience campaigns, the movement gained momentum and managed to earn basic rights for the minorities. Although the controversial but long-standing Jim Crow laws were repealed in 1965, the fight for equality in the US continues even today.
While it may seem that the practice of racial discrimination and segregation was limited to the western world, it was also prevalent in many Asian & African cultures. Legally sanctioned racial segregation came into South Africa in 1940 and was called the ‘Apartheid’ system. This system disenfranchised non-whites, suppressed any criticism of the Government and led to frequent clashes.
In other countries and cultures, racial preference is also evident in the obsession for light skin, as it is believed to reflect royalty, power, and upper class. While the darker skin tone is associated with labourers and peasants. Closer home, India, has for decades, seen blatant promotion of cosmetics that guarantee fairness. The Indian film industry, matrimonial ads and workplaces promote this bias where light-skinned individuals are admired and made to appear more desirable than their counterparts with a different shade of skin.
This colour-bias rears its ugliest head when 'dark-skin' gets associated with criminal tendencies. Racial profiling is standard in many countries today due to centuries of cultural conditioning. Even though most scientific studies have pointed towards a strong correlation between factors such as lack of education or lack of economic opportunities with an increase in crime rates. The race continues to remain a deep-rooted prejudice in the human psyche. The case of George Floyd and many others bear testimony to this fact.
Even with the best legal and accommodative frameworks, racial discrimination is a tough challenge to overcome. It may take years, if not decades to bring about meaningful change. An effective approach to addressing the issue of racial discrimination requires grass-root effort. Governments must first strive to bring about meaningful change at the community level before addressing the systemic institutions promoting racial discrimination.