Racism and War: Overcoming Us and Them

Racism and War: Overcoming Us and Them

By Ramzy Baroud

Racism is, among many things, convenient. It provides simplified, definite
and ready-to-serve answers to complex and compounded questions. Racists, in
turn, come from all walks of life; their motivation and the root causes
behind their contemptible views of others may differ, but the outcome of
these views is predictably the same - racial discrimination, social and
political oppression, religious persecution and war.

The textual definition of racism pertains only to race, but in practice
racism is a consequence of groupthink, whereby a group of people decides to
designate itself as a collective and starts delineating its relationship
with other collectives - or other people in general - with a sense of
supremacy. When coupled with economic and/or political dominance, supremacy
translates into various forms of subjugation and cruelty.

The adulation of the self/collective and the disparagement of the other is
an ancient practice, as old as human civilisation itself. It is everlasting
for the simple reason that it has always served as a political and economic
tool and will likely remain effective so long as the quest for political and
material power drives our behaviour.

It is also pertinent to stress that the need for this negative group
designation is not always as straightforward as “black” and “white”. For
example, less economically advantaged Eastern Europeans seeking (and
competing for) employment in Western Europe find themselves lumped in the
same group and subject to all sorts of classifications. Equally convenient
has been the caricatured misrepresentation of “Arabs” by mainstream media,
which serves to further specific political and economic interests.

Ironically, an extreme form of racism also exists in various Arab countries
where foreign workers find themselves placed in a demeaning hierarchy based
on country of origin. Western Europeans and Americans top the scale and are
readily accommodated, while Southeast Asians are often at the bottom. A very
qualified Indian engineer, for example, may find himself getting paid a lot
less than a French one with relatively little experience.

In some countries, like South Africa, racism has wreaked havoc on society
for generations. It manifests itself in the refusal of some people to
identify with their original ancestral cultures because they fear that such
affinity would negate the fact that they are “full” South African citizens -
a right for which they fought a most arduous fight.

In Malaysia, which exhibits considerable social harmony compared to some of
it neighbours, racial classification is still very much real. Despite the
government’s commendable efforts to accentuate the Malaysian national model
while carefully underscoring Malay, Chinese or Indian sub-groupings, members
of these groups are wary of their statistical representation in Malaysian
society. Some react by stressing their number in comparison to the other
groups, while others tirelessly underscore the types of discrimination they
experience at the hands of the politically and economically advantaged.

While racism is universally recognised, few individuals would admit to their
own prejudices and racist tendencies. Moreover, it would be self-deceiving
to view racism as a purely Western phenomenon. While the Western model of
racism, influenced by 18th century colonialism, is unique in many respects,
group prejudices based on class, race and religion are shared almost equally
between all nations.

The racism of those with political, military and economic power is often
violent and detrimental, but it is important to remember that the underdog
can be just as racist. An Arab reader from London sent me an e-mail
demanding that I explain myself for collaborating on various projects with
some well-known Jewish authors. “You are either naïve or you are selling
out,” she wrote. It made no difference to her that these authors are
anti-Zionist and have been, for many years, on the frontline of the struggle
for Palestinian rights and justice. She simply couldn’t break away from a
deeply ingrained racist belief that “Jews are not to be trusted.”

Of course, this is not an Arab, but a global predisposition; prolonged
conflicts and wars tend to validate and inflate already existing prejudices.
Although the Israeli educational system has produced generations of students
saturated with grossly misleading images of Arabs and Palestinians, the
relationship between Arabs and Jews hasn’t always been negative. For
centuries, both groups lived in harmony; some of the best Arab poets of past
times were Jews and some of the most luminous Jewish texts were written
originally in Arabic. Unfortunately, conflict and war have a way of
undermining such facts; racism in Israel is so intense now that few dare use
the term “Arab Jew”.

Even when it doesn’t pertain to race, most people seem to slide easily into
greater tribal memberships that divide the world into “us” and “them”, often
using words of negation and often utilising religion. The “non” factor
becomes very useful here: “non-Muslim”, “non-Jew”, “non-Christian”, and so
on. Such negations are never well intended and always produce negative
results. Less conspicuous terms such as “non-democratic” (a neo-colonial
equivalent to “uncivilised”, perhaps?) could be similarly loaded and
dangerous and are often used to promote and justify war.

It remains to be said that a true fight against racism and various other
types of group prejudice requires first accepting personal responsibility in
shaping one’s own society, and this includes the racism that exists within
it. Martin Luther King Jr. refused “to accept the view that mankind is so
tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright
daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality”. We, too, must
uncompromisingly reject such pessimism if we truly wish for peace, harmony
and equality to replace war, social discord and injustice.

-Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume, “The Second
Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle” (Pluto Press,
London) is available from Amazon and other book venues. He is the editor of
PalestineChronicle.com and his articles are archived at ramzybaroud.net