The Roots of Racism – An Interview With Noam Chomsky circa 1995


All over the world — from LA to the Balkans to the Caucasus to India — there’s a surge of tribalism, nationalism, religious fanaticism, racism. Why now?

Chomsky: First of all, let’s remember that it’s always been going on. I grant you that, but it seems more pronounced. In parts of the world it’s more pronounced. Take Eastern Europe. Europe is altogether a very racist place, even worse than the US, but Eastern Europe is particularly ugly. That society traditionally had very bitter ethnic hatreds. One of the reasons why many of us are here is that our grandparents fled from that. Up until a couple of years ago, Eastern Europe was under the control of a very harsh tyranny — the Soviet system. It immobilized the civil society, which meant that it eliminated what was good, but it also suppressed what was bad. Now that the tyranny is gone, the civil society is coming back — including its warts, of which there are plenty.

Elsewhere in the world, say in Africa, there are all kinds of atrocities. They were always there. One of the worst atrocities was in the 1980s. From 1980 to 1988, US-backed South Africa was responsible for about a million and a half killings, plus about sixty billion dollars worth of damage — and that’s only in the region surrounding South Africa. Nobody here cared about that, because the US was backing it. If you go back to the 1970s in Burundi, there was a huge massacre, tens of thousands of people killed. Nobody cared. In Western Europe, there’s an increase in regionalism. This in part reflects the decline of their democratic institutions. As the European Community slowly consolidates towards executive power, reflecting big economic concentrations, people are trying to find other ways to preserve their identity. That leads to a lot of regionalism, with both positive and negative aspects. That’s not the whole story, but a lot of it.

Germany had the most liberal asylum policies in the world — now they want to limit civil liberties, and ban political parties.

0,,16663214_303,00 (1)Chomsky: There’s a lot of talk about German racism, and it’s bad enough. For example, kicking out the Gypsies and sending them off to Romania is a scandal you can’t even describe. The Gypsies were treated just like the Jews in the Holocaust, but nobody’s batting an eyelash about that because nobody gives a damn about the Gypsies. But we should remember that there are other things going on too, which are getting less publicity. Take Spain. It was admitted into the European Community with some conditions. One was that it’s to be a barrier to the hordes of North Africans whom the Europeans are afraid will flock up to Europe. There are plenty of boat people trying to get across the narrow distance between North Africa to Spain — kind of like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If they make it, the boat people are immediately expelled by the Spanish police and navy. It’s very ugly. There are, of course, reasons why people are going from Africa to Europe and not the other direction. There are five hundred years of reasons for that. But it’s happening, and Europe doesn’t want it. They want to preserve their wealth and keep the poor people out. The same problem is occurring in Italy. The Lombard League, which includes a kind of neofascist element, won a recent electoral victory. It reflects northern Italian interests. They don’t want to be saddled with the poor people in the south of Italy. And they’re concerned about the North Africans coming up from the south, drifting up through Sicily into Italy. The north Italians don’t want them — they want rich white people.

That brings in the whole question of race and racism and how that factored into the relationship between the North and the South.

Chomsky: There has always been racism. But it developed as a leading principle of thought and perception in the context of colonialism. That’s understandable. When you have your boot on someone’s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity. It’s very striking to see this in the case of people who aren’t very different from one another.

bloody-sunday-confrontationTake a look at the British conquest of Ireland, the earliest of the Western colonial conquests. It was described in the same terms as the conquest of Africa. The Irish were a different race. They weren’t human. They weren’t like us. We had to crush and destroy them. Some Marxists say racism is a product of the economic system, of capitalism. Would you accept that? No. It has to do with conquest, with oppression. If you’re robbing somebody, oppressing them, dictating their lives, it’s a very rare person who can say: “Look, I’m a monster. I’m doing this for my own good.” Even Himmler didn’t say that. A standard technique of belief formation goes along with oppression, whether it’s throwing them in gas chambers or charging them too much at a corner store, or anything in between. The standard reaction is to say: “It’s their depravity. That’s why I’m doing it. Maybe I’m even doing them good.” If it’s their depravity, there’s got to be something about them that makes them different from me. What’s different about them will be whatever you can find.

And that’s the justification.

Then it becomes racism. You can always find something — they have a different color hair or eyes, they’re too fat, or they’re gay. You find something that’s different enough. Of course you can lie about it, so it’s easier to find. Take the Serbs and the Croats. They’re indistinguishable. They use a different alphabet, but they speak the same language. They belong to different branches of the Catholic Church. That’s about it. But many of them are perfectly ready to murder and destroy each other. They can imagine no higher task in life.

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