Evolution of Race in State Development

2978 words (12 pages) Essay in Sociology

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Examine critically the view that the idea of ‘race’ is endemic to the formation of the modern state.

The critical examination mandated by the present question requires an introductory note concerning the appropriate definition to be employed regarding the terms formation and racism.

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Formation is suggested to be a less than ideal expression to describe the processes of modern state development. In this sense the term evolution is preferred as the more accurate and organic experience of modern state development.

Racism is a more complicated term due to the variance between its dictionary meanings and etymology on one side, and its popular connotations on the other. The meaning of racism is both closely associated and intermingled with its near cousins culture and ethnicity. It is important to bear in mind as this examination is advanced that racism may be considered as both a scientific term and as a catch –all descriptor for all manner of conduct and attitudes that fosters the discrimination or antipathy of one person or group against another.

This review will proceed on three distinct but related lines of examination: (1) how racism should be conceptualised (2) the legal definition of racism as it has developed in the UK, the European Union and in other jurisdiction as a pluralistic societal initiative (3) examples of how racism has contributed to the development path taken by modern nations. Sports examples are tendered as illustrations of how racism in modern culture remains a constant in the face of wide ranging legislative schemes aimed to eradicate it.

The concept of racism

Racism has been explained by way of both science and social perspectives through history. From a purely biological orientation, debate has raged as to whether there are distinct physiological differences between various peoples sufficient to permit a rational, science based differentiation between them; DNA research and the genome projects confirm this distinction exists to a slight degree in all fundamental human construction.[1]

In modern times, where Western societies have attempted to formulate a comprehensive definition of race, an overwhelmingly white / Caucasian identity is invoked as the societal norm, with others who are not a part of the white definition cast in the position as a racial ‘other’.[2] Goldberg and other academic commentators have employed the contrasting analytical devices of racial naturalism, where race is accepted as an outgrowth of science, and racial historianism, the concept that shapes and defines race through legal enactment.[3]

The historian view of race implicitly involves a consideration of racism as an evolving concept. Much academic commentary has considered racism in terms of outsiders, even where the population subject to racial treatment was born within the nation. Paul Gilroy had considered a defined ‘new racism’ in the UK in the late 1980s not to be exclusively linked to skin colour or other physiological differences between humans, but a logical extension of ‘…discourses of patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia, Englishness, Britishness, militarism and gender differences’[4] – a sweeping rationale that represents the basis for national anti-racism legislation. It is submitted that Gilroy’s observation is much keener than the ability of the law to counter the problem.

Racism is rooted in the establishment of separate and conflicting identities within a society, where a people define themselves as the norm, and those different to them are automatically presumed to possess all opposite characteristics.[5]

The Enlightment thinking that was powered by the philosophies of Hobbes and Locke, among others, has also been the subject of significant criticism as the root cause of racism in modern state evolution. This approach centres upon the Enlightment era reverence for rationality, where the conclusion that there must be positions of natural superiority and inferiority between races was regarded as a scientific outcome. Emphasis upon enlightened and rational thought placed Europe and the supposed civility its race in contrast with all primitive places.

In contrast, other commentators have placed racism on a different historical footing. The leaders of the Enlightment did not articulate racial principles or a presumed white European superiority to a significant degree. [6] Malik places the historical progression of the racial definition as one of class distinctions, with racial divisions bearing a greater relation to economic status than physiology.[7]

As nations were elevated in status throughout the nineteenth century, it is suggested that imperialism is an intrinsically racist concept; the subjugation of another people, by relatively peaceful colonialism or starker military conquest, requires a national mindset of superiority.[8]

The encoding of race has also been a distinctly evolutionary process. ‘Black’ (or worse) was a simple blunt force description of the racial distinction between the Caribbean immigrants to the UK and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s; in modern times, the code words of immigration and naturalisation carry a subtle but equally powerful message.[9]

Racism has evolved to both include and modify popular concepts of culture and ethnicity. Whether one accepts race as a genetic based circumstance, or as a purely social invention, it clearly exists and prospers in Western culture. In modern societies, racism has expanded dynamically as a concept to occupy the same ground as ethnicity, where each has become interchangeable with the other as a means of differentiation.

Ethnicity occupies this common ground with racism because it relies upon racial principles in its definition. In each of the five circumstances enumerated as ‘ethnicity’ generated in a society, namely: the existence of an urban visible minority; ethno national groups, such as the Kurds in Turkey; distinct groups that exist in plural societies (e.g. Asian and Caribbean peoples who live within the UK); indigenous minorities, such as North American or Scandinavian native peoples; post-slavery minorities, such as Afro-Brazilians. Each ethnic definition contains a racial thread.[10]

For the purposes of the legal definition outlined below, ethnicity and racism are afforded similar treatment.

The legal definition of racism is at once subtle and bluntly constructed. Legislated definitions, such as those contained in the UK Race Relations Act[11] or the European Convention of Human Rights[12], are comprehensive in their scope. It is equally important to note that such definitions are often an ‘after the fact’ response to societal change, not a signpost for a nation’s future.

The UK legislation enacted in 1976 was built upon the legacy of the Notting Hill riots and the ‘moral panic’ associated with black street crime in urban Britain of the early 1970s.[13] It is impossible for modern states to enact laws that map a future treatment of racism, as ethnic boundaries are in a constants state of flux. Germany’s uneasy relationship with its Muslim minority is generally cast in racial terms that incorporate the religious, cultural and linguistic differences of the migrant labour attracted to the formed West Germany in the late 1970s.[14]

Statutes that proclaim as a purpose the eradication of racism are a constant in modern pluralistic Western nations. The Race Relations Act as interpreted by the House of Lords in Mandla[15] determined that British Sikh people were a racial, as opposed to a religious or cultural group within the meaning of the Act; race was defined by the Law Lords as a combination of a long common history, a distinct cultural tradition, and any confluence of the factors of geography, language, literature, religion or the existence of the people within a larger community. The effect of Article 14, ECHR, combined with Protocol 12 of the Community and the UK Human Rights Act reinforces this definition.

In this sense, the law dictates race. In 1982 the enshrined constitution of Canada elevated racial and cultural diversity to a fundamental national status.[16]The Australian constitution embraces a similar regime. These nations are highlighted here to illustrate the evolution in racial notions in these states, as both countries had previously engaged in efforts to assimilate its aboriginal peoples into a mainstream white culture.[17] Each country was overtaken by the realisation that pluralism and multiculturalism were desirable societal goals, with pluralism used as its own code for racial / ethnic diversity. Declining birth rates throughout the Western world have created a dichotomy between the economic imperative to boost population and labour forces through immigration, and ethnic / racial attitudes.[18]

It is suggested that simply legislating an end to such societal strife will be unsuccessful. Fitzpatrick’s Mythology of Modern Law[19] and the theories of H.L.A. Hart[20] share an important explanatory principle as to why racism exists among peoples. Fitzpatrick’s myth basis to modern law and Hart’s concepts of pre-legal societies that are founded upon shared cultural traditions and observances each exclude those who are different.

The relationship between racism and economic standing mentioned briefly above is also important in this context. It is contended that a wholesale economic re-ordering of the world nations would do more to achieve racial harmony than any legislation. The United States, Brazil and South Africa are prime examples of nations where modern racism and socio-economic status are indistinguishable. [21]

On one level, sport may seem an odd illustration of racism in the modern state. In the predominately white cultures of the UK, USA, and Canada, the black athlete is a well – established figure, particularly in the professional arenas. It is submitted that the elimination of racism in sport has proved as illusory as with any other segment of society. Owusu detailed the contradictory aspects of race in UK athletics through the contention that black athletes are rewarded if they publicly espouse the view that racism is non-existent in UK sport; those athletes who express contrary opinions as to the fact of racism are characterised as paranoid or ungrateful.[22] UK sprinter Linford Christie and boxer Frank Bruno are presented as the opposite ends of this argument – each man is of Caribbean heritage who achieved success in athletic pursuits. Bruno never achieved the ultimate success in his sport, but maintained a steadfast image as a ‘mainstream’ athlete, while Christie was outspoken throughout his career regarding the UK athletics establishment. . It was Christie who was cast as a disruptor of the normative codes for the UK black athlete.[23]

There is little question that racism is endemic in the progression of the development of all Western nations. The period that has followed World War II has been marked by ever-increasing contact between peoples of different national origin, cultures, traditions, and heritage. The black letter of the law is not necessarily a stimulus to changes in racial attitude, as the multi-faceted physiological, ethnic and economic creature cannot be eliminated by legislation alone.


BBC News ‘Polish Immigration’ (June 16, 2006) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/uk_news/england/5080924.stm (Accessed April 22, 2007)

BBC News ‘Coe’s racial jibe’ (2001) http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/athletics/1171320.stm (Accessed April 22, 2007)

BBC News ‘History of UK race laws’ (December 13, 2005) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4510062.stm (Accessed April 22, 2007)

Fitzpatrick, Peter (1992), The Mythology of Modern Law (New York: Routledge)

Guardian ‘Since when did Seb Coe learn to Jive talk?’ (2001) http://sport.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,5274602-108365,00.html

Gilroy, P. (1987) There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Routledge)

Goldberg, David Theo (1993) Racist Culture (Oxford: Blackwell)

Goldberg, David Theo (2002) The Racial State (Oxford: Blackwell)

Hart, H.L.A. (1961) The Concepts of Law (Oxford: Clarendon)

Keita, L. (2002) The Problem of Race in the 21st Century The Western Journal of Black Studies 26: 1, 55

Malik, Kenan (1996) The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society (New York: NYU Press)

Miller, Mark J. “Muslim Immigration to Europe” (University of Delaware) http://www.udel.edu/poscir/mjmiller/MuslimImmigrationtoEurope (Minaret)-1.htm (Accessed April 22, 2007)

Owusu, Kwesi (2000) Black British Culture and Society: A Text reader (London: Routledge)

Riese, Matt ‘The Biological Meaning of “Race”’ (Spring 2005), University of California at Santa Cruz http://www.cbse.ucsc.edu/pdf_library/MeaningOfRace_Riese101005.pdf (Accessed April 21, 2007)

Solomos, John and Martin Bulmer (2004) Researching Race and Racism (New York: Routledge) Routledge

Thomas, Cora (2001) Australian Aborigines to White Australians Australian Aboriginal Studies 1, 21

Thompson, Kenneth (1998) Moral Panics London: Routledge

Werner F. Menski (2005) Immigration and multiculturalism in Britain: New issues in research and policy http://www.art.man.ac.uk/CASAS/pdfpapers/osakalecture.pdf (Accessed April 22, 2007)

Table of Cases

Mandla v Dowell Lee [1983] 2 AC 548

Table of Statutes and Conventions

European Convention on Human Rights

Race Relations Act, 1976



[1] See for example, Riese, Matt ‘The Biological Meaning of “Race”’(Spring 2005), University of California at Santa Cruz, 1, 3

[2] Goldberg, David Theo (1993) Racist Culture

[3] Goldberg, (2002) The Racial State, 143

[4] Gilroy, Paul (1987) There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, 41

[5] Fitzpatrick, Peter (1992), The Mythology of Modern Law, 101

[6] Malik, Kenan (1996) The Meaning of Race, 54

[7] ibid

[8] C.f. Kipling’s ironic “White Man’s Burden’ (1899)

[9] Keita, L. (2002) The Problem of Race in the 21st Century The Western Journal of Black Studies 26: 1, 55

[10] Werner F. Menski (2005) Immigration and multiculturalism in Britain: New issues in research and policy, 1, 10

[11] Race Relations Act, 1976 (and as amended, 2001)

[12] Article 14

[13] See Thompson, Kenneth (1998) Moral Panics London: Routledge

14 Miller, Mark J. “Muslim Immigration to Europe” University of Delaware http://www.udel.edu/poscir/mjmiller/MuslimImmigrationtoEurope(Minaret)-1.htm (Accessed April 22, 2007)

15 Mandla v Dowell Lee [1983] 2 AC 548



[16] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s.7, 15

[17] E.g. Curry, Bill and Karen Haslett, (2007) Residential schools Globe and Mail (Toronto) (April 24, 2007, p A14); Thomas, Cora (2001) Australian Aborigines to White Australians Australian Aboriginal Studies 1, 21

[18] A recent ethnic issue that makes this point in the UK is BBC News ‘Polish Immigration’ (June 16, 2006) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/low/uk_news/england/5080924.stm

[19] (1992)

[20](1961) The Concepts of Law

[21]Keita, L. (2002) The Problem of Race in the 21st Century The Western Journal of Black Studies 26: 1, 55

[22] Owusu, Kwesi (2000) Black British Culture and Society: A Text reader (London: Routledge), 9

[23] ibid

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