Racism – A History was first broadcast on BBC Four in March 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. The three-part documentary series closely examines the development of Racism over the last 500 years, revealing some uncomfortable truths about how racist attitudes came into being and were spread into popular culture.
Though the institution of slavery dates back to ancient civilizations, the modern concept of racism began with the African Slave Trade in the sixteenth century. The self interested desire to economically exploit Africans gave birth to the European concept that different races of human beings existed, distinguished by the colour of their skin.
Episode 1: The Colour of Money
The series begins by examining how the development of modern racist attitudes can be attributed to the colonial powers’ desire to justify the African slave trade. Professor James Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at the University of York explains,
“the British don’t become slave traders and slavers because they are racist; they became racist because they use slaves for great profit in the Americas and devise a set of attitudes towards black people that justifies what they’ve done. The real engine behind the slave system is economics.”
It was this desire to legitimize the exploitation of Africans for cheap labor that ultimately fueled the creation of the idea that an hierarchy of the races existed. This notion was subsequently supported by religious and philosophic apologists which shifted public perception into believing the subjugation and dehumanization of Blacks was an acceptable social practice.
Episode 2: Fatal Impacts
Part Two examines how the practice of racial classification and scientific racism developed in European societies during the Nineteenth Century. Religious dogmas and discredited sciences such as Phrenology created the myth that Negroes were a sub-species giving European colonists the moral justification they needed to justify the mistreatment and exploitation of indigenous populations. These theories would eventually evolve into the discipline of Eugenics and the Nazi vision of the “Master Race,” which would lead to the forced labor and mass genocide of over eight million European Jews, Slavics and Romanians.
Episode 3: A Savage Legacy
Part three of the series examines the impact of racism in the 20th Century. By 1900, European colonial expansion had reached deep into the heart of Africa. Under the rule of King Leopold II, The Belgian Congo was turned into a vast rubber plantation. Men, women and children who failed to gather their latex quotas would have their limbs dismembered. The country became the scene of one of the century’s greatest racial genocides, as an estimated 10 million Africans perished under colonial rule. The final episode also explores the Jim Crow Era in America, the Apartheid regime which developed in South Africa and the institutional racism which still affects the United Kingdom.
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