In the west today, we most often think of racism as prejudice or discrimination against people of a specific skin colour. But this is not the only way racism manifests. In fact, colour-based racism may be a temporary historical phase.
Racism based on skin colour remains a reality affecting far too many people. But it is only one form of prejudice. Even in our own culture, the current emphasis on physical features—such as the skin colour and facial structure considered typical of different groups—is a historical anomaly.
Past Evils: Not as Monochromatic as You Might Think
For much of recent Anglo-American history, the Irish—and particularly the predominantly Catholic Southern Irish—have endured severe discrimination. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845–52 killed around one million Irish people and displaced a million more. Though its ultimate cause was a fungus, its immediate cause was a combination of incompetence and animosity on the part of the rulers in England. A dislike of the Irish and a disregard for their suffering allowed the English to continue to exact large exports of food from the country even during the height of the famine. This pattern of behaviour was repeated during the Great Famine of 1876–78, which killed 6–11 million people in India. Even in relatively recent English history, then, skin colour was not a primary determinant in how subjugated peoples were treated. Both cases involved racism, yet that racism was not based on skin colour.
English attitudes towards the Irish soon hopped across the pond to the United States. For example, in the 1860s, lawyer and diarist George T. Strong writes: “I am sorry to find that England is right about the lower class of Irish. They are brutal, base, cruel cowards, and as insolent as base.” Theodore Roosevelt once declared that, “The average Catholic Irishman of the first generation … is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.”
As attitudes towards the Irish changed in America, discrimination switched to other groups, such as Italians. Often stereotyped as prone to crime, Italian immigrants were generally viewed as dirty and untrustworthy—and the fact that they were predominantly Catholic in the mostly Protestant America did not help much either. Like African-Americans, Italians were often targeted by mobs. In New Orleans in 1891, in one of the largest mass lynchings of American history, eleven Italian men were killed over the murder of a policeman. Ironically, the policeman was of Irish Catholic descent—but the Irish had by then been more or less accepted into American society. As these examples show, it is not only possible, but relatively common, for racism to be based on religion, nationality or a combination of the two, rather than on skin colour.
Racism Today: Still Not Always About Colour
Nor is it just western, white societies that have engaged in racism on the basis of things other than skin colour. Consider the enmity between Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, the result of various wars and occupations. The current coronavirus pandemic has not helped: No Chinese signs popped up outside some South Korean and Japanese businesses in the early days of the pandemic.
Or consider the animosity that has existed between Persians and Arabs for centuries. In Iran, Arabs are often portrayed as dirty barbarians, and referred to by epithets such as eaters of locusts and lizards. The Arabs often refer to Persians as ajam: which, though it literally simply means someone whose native language is not Arabic, is a loaded term often used with derogatory and condescending intent.
Even among Africans, intergroup racism exists: the most glaring recent example was the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which at least 800,000 people were killed in a little over three months.
It’s Getting Better
Racism, then, is not as tightly connected to melanin levels as we might think. It can exist even when both sides look identical or contain the same mixture of skin colours. Attitudes towards previously out groups can change: witness the changes to the status of Irish and Italians and the reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Real world data shows that—despite media portrayals—skin-colour-based racism is on the decline. According to Steven Pinker: “Racist violence against African Americans, once a regular occurrence in night raids and lynchings, plummeted in the twentieth century, and has fallen further since the FBI started amalgamating reports on hate crimes in 1999 … hate crimes against Asians, Jewish and white targets have declined as well.”
If that trend continues—and there is no reason why it should not—bias based on the colour of a person’s skin could eventually all but disappear in many places.
While decreasing overall, particularly in liberal democracies, tribalism seems to be part of human nature. Differences in skin colour can differentiate the in group from the out group. But the ethnic composition of the locals in any given place has usually undergone dramatic changes throughout history as the result of migrations, warfare, settlement and intermarriage. Usually, however, these shifts involved somewhat similar ethnic groups: Chinese and Mongols, for example, or Romano-Celts and Anglo-Saxons—though there have been notable exceptions, such as the European conquest of the Americas and some of the early Islamic empire building.
Today, people fleeing war-torn countries or seeking economic prosperity may resettle on the other side of the world. At no other time has it been as easy to attend university or get a job outside your country of birth. As travel and immigration become more common in the increasingly globalized and wealthy world of the twenty-first century, the ethnic mix in many places—especially in western nations—will likely become far less homogeneous and more varied in skin hue. While this unprecedented mingling of populations could lead to short term upswings in racism and distrust, over time the probable result will be the continued decline or even end of colour-based racism. Nonetheless, if tribalism is hardwired in us, we should expect it to endure and simply morph into other forms.
The Future of Racism: It Will Probably Not Be About Colour at All
Imagine a future humanity that looks and acts like the people portrayed in The Expanse. Racism is still prevalent, but it’s not about skin colour anymore. Rather, there is intense distrust and often enmity between Earthers, Dusters (inhabitants of Mars) and Belters (who have colonized the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn). There is a rich variety of skin tones among members of all three camps, but their ways of viewing the Solar System are often diametrically opposed. Their mutually incompatible goals bring them into conflict: this is how inter-group conflict often works. Some simply despise those who are different from themselves and adamantly refuse to change their attitudes. Racist insults and hatred are common, but examples also abound of people able to overcome their prejudices and work with and even love those different from them: such people are exemplified by the crew of the Rocinante, which is comprised of two Earthers, a Martian and a Belter.
One of the reasons why The Expanse is an excellent show is that it projects technology forward a few centuries, but assumes that human nature will remain the same. The world of the show is recognizable: like our world, it is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. Unlike many popular sci-fi tales, the show portrays humans being human—except with fusion-powered spaceships. The series acts, therefore, as a mirror that allows us to see what we might look like without colour-based racism.
It is also possible that eventually the pendulum could swing back and we could see the return of discrimination based on physical appearance. Over time, as a larger proportion of humanity lives and works beyond Earth, human forms might begin to diverge in visually obvious ways. Some people may become taller, slimmer and physically weaker from spending generations in lower gravity environments. Or maybe genetic engineering will result in even larger visible variations between groups. Cultural trends often move in cycles, so perhaps the current bias towards discrimination based on outward appearances could mostly disappear, but then come back into vogue in a different form at some time in the future.