III Publishing

From Classism to Racism
May 28, 2023
by William P. Meyers

Site Search

Popular pages:

U.S. War Against Asia
Slow Motion Apocalypse
Republican Party
Natural Liberation

Evolution of Racism in 18th and 19th Century Britain

In the United States today we hear a great deal about our society being racist. Some sectors, and members, of our society are considered more racist than others. Here I want to examine, briefly, the history of the development of modern racist ideology in eighteenth and nineteenth century Great Britain. I think that sheds light on today's problems and possible solutions.

Let us touch on England in 1500, before it began its slow climb to global dominance. Columbus had come back from the New World, but thought he had reached Asia. The Portuguese had just managed to get around the southern tip of Africa and reach India. Africans in Britain, if there were any at all, were a novelty. But discrimination was no stranger to the British. Aside from the broad discrimination against females, the main form of discrimination was by class. There was a privileged, landed aristocracy with its own gradations. There was a middle class of smaller landowners and merchants. The lowest classes included tradesmen, urban laborers, and farm laborers. It was difficult, but not impossible, to move from one class to another. Accumulating money, one way or another, enabled moving up the ladder.

As the British Empire grew, slavery grew with it. Slaves were mainly African in origin. Many Irish and British citizens did become temporary slaves, known as indentured servants, and their lot could be bad, but they escaped slavery if they survived the terms of their indentures. In effect slaves became a new class within the empire, the lowest class. It took some time for this to develop into what we now call racism. This transition quickened during the first half of the 1800s. Edinburgh, Scotland, became a center of the controversy. It also involved the pseudoscience of Phrenology, determining a person's characteristics based on skull shape:

"Laughably, the city's hatters —the most enthusiastic phrenologists— provided the most reduction ad absurdum of changing brains: in 1827 they reported that emigres to India left their head measurements with fitters in London and that hats were shipped out for decades, without requiring a new fitting. ... Darwin's Edinburgh witnessed moves to rank whole groups by their crania. Classes first: the country's hatters provided national statistics. They showed how the mild weavers had thin high heads, how livery caps of servants were smaller than their master's hats; and big toppers were required for the superior heads of the master classes."
Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, [page 36]

The book quoted above outlines how academic disputes in Edinburgh interacted with the anti-slavery movement and the pro-slavery movement. The pro-slavery take on the physical, intellectual, and moral characteristics of different races, in particular African-originated slaves in the Americas, led to modern racist ideology. The anti-slavery movement led to considering all humans to be members of a single species, with each person potentially having the capabilities to do what others could do, regardless of skin color, race, or even class.

Class in the United States, these days, is close to strictly economic. Although it tends to be self-perpetuating within families, as knowledge, money and ambition are passed from one generation to the next, if your financial position changes, your class changes. The upper middle class is particularly fluid, as members usually do not have enough wealth to go without working or for their children to go without working. Those who are poor workers, or spend beyond their means, sink. It is not that unusual for an American to begin with working class parents and strive their way into the upper middle class. In Britain in the 1800s it was not that simple. Impoverished aristocrats were not hard to find: being born to aristocratic parents guaranteed class status, but only the oldest male inherited any wealth. One could gain vast sums of money despite starting as a commoner, as Charles Darwin's grandfather Josiah Wedgwood did, and yet have no path into the aristocracy. Much more so than in America today, if you were born in a class, you stayed in the class. Even within the classes, rankings were well known and hard to escape.

The cultural and legal system that justified the class system in nineteenth century Britain served as a model for racist ideology. It held the lower classes were not inferior because of the class system. Rather, they were in the lower classes because they were a lower form of human. Recall too the industrial revolution was running full throttle in this century. Factories, mines and railroad sprang up, creating a great deal of wealth for their owners, but barely a subsistence for the workers. The segregation of classes became far sharper than it had been in rural England.

This was also the era of British colonial expansion. India was conquered and its economy gutted. The Opium Wars allowed the Brits to grow opium in India and sell it in China, both destroying Chinese culture and sucking out its wealth.

Although it had its parallels in Britain, it was in the United States that the ideology of Racism saw its most profound development. Slavery ran against the very ideology of freedom and opportunity that was the (supposed) hallmark of our Revolutionary War and most of our Constitution. Merely making the slaves an underclass was not sufficient. There were already many free black persons in the states. The racists, slave owners and their allies, began arguing that Africans were not just a separate race, but a separate species. They gathered the skulls of slaves and measured them to try to prove their point. They published learned science books on the topic. At first they opposed the Theory of Evolution when it appeared (because Darwin asserted there was only one species of human), but then they tried to modify it so that Africans (or black Africans) would be a naturally inferior race.

Even in the southern, segregated states, before the Civil Rights Act of 1965, there were small numbers of educated, professional black men and women. Economically they might have been lumped into the lower middle class. Racist ideology implied that even these professionals were in a class inferior to working class white people.

Today there is a numerous group of upper-middle class, dark-skinned individuals in the United States. There are even several black billionaires. Many people have learned that it is a mistake to make an assumption about a person's class (their wealth or profession) based on skin color. But the class system itself has its own injustices, which African-Americans are learning as they try to climb the ladder. Money to buy higher education allows for a higher class status for one's children, no matter what their ethnic background. Connections are more important than talent, in our society, most of the time. Upper class people still may assume a blackish person is from the lower classes, but they will also apply the usual tests: what do you wear, what do you eat, who do you know, what vocabulary do you use, where did you go to school? Sometimes this bias is racism, sometimes it is the same classism that the upper white classes apply to the lower white classes. And given the universality of human nature, I expect the same unfairness to be practiced by everyone in the upper classes, especially when they have inherited that status, regardless of how they see themselves with respect to race or ethnic group.

III Blog list of articles
Copyright 2023 William P. Meyers. All rights reserved.