The Colour Line by Hassan Mahamdallie

‘The problem of the twentieth century’, wrote the African-American historian WEB Du Bois in his 1903 treatise on racism, The Souls of Black Folk, ‘is the problem of the colour-line - the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’. Du Bois could just as easily have looked behind him and said that the problem of the colour line had bisected the previous century during which chattel slavery in America had been ended as an institution after a nearly all-consuming civil war. Instead Du Bois looked to the century stretching before him and observed that racism was not only very much alive in his own country, codified in the segregationist Jim Crow laws, it was flourishing across the globe, embedded in the European colonial project busy carving up Africa and Asia. However, even in his darkest nightmares Du Bois could not have imagined that within four decades an ideology of racial purity and superiority would result in the Holocaust – the near total extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis.

Will the colour line dog our progress too? It seems as if we are heading that way. In his essay on Du Bois’s biography of abolitionist John Brown, Gary McFarlane notes that ‘we now have Black History Month, African-American history departments in the major universities of the West and an African-American president of the US, but, as we saw in Ferguson, none of that can shield us from still confronting a reality shaped by the legacy of slavery’. McFarlane  is referring to the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, by the police, a case that reminds us that at the heart of America is ‘a sickness that has been with the republic since its birth; a searing contradiction in the land of the free.’

Of course we know now that there is no scientific or genetic basis for race and associated notions of superiority and inferiority. Or we think we know. Just 20 years ago Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein published The Bell Curve which argued that African Americans were genetically predisposed to lower intelligence and higher levels of anti-social behaviour than other ‘races’. More recently, popular science writer Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance advances the argument that ‘evolutionary differences between societies on the various continents may underlie major and otherwise imperfectly explained turning points in history such as the rise of the West and the decline of the Islamic world and China’.

Whenever notions of race and racism and theories of human development rear their heads, I am reminded of the Ray Harryhausen animated scene in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts. Jason, in possession of the Golden Fleece, is being pursued by King Aeetes. The King sows Hydra’s teeth which spring up as an army of skeletal warriors with swords and shields who advance towards Jason and his men. Every time Jason takes a swipe at one and shatters its bones another springs up to take its place. Jason only escapes being killed by jumping off a cliff, whereupon the skeletons follow him lemming-like and sink to the bottom of the sea while he swims to the Argonaut and safety.

Today the dragon’s teeth are constantly being sowed and re-sowed with the skeleton army springing up everywhere. Europe teems with xenophobic, racist and fascist parties, invigorated by a combination of imperial blowback from the Middle East and economic decline at home – as our list of ‘Ten Xenophobic European Political Parties to Avoid’ demonstrates. A new, but rather indistinct, phrase ‘Islamaphobia’ has been coined to describe the hostility towards Muslims that now seems a permanent and baleful influence on western societies. I prefer the term ‘anti-Muslim racism’, or even ‘anti-Muslimism’, the term advanced by the British political scientist the late Fred Halliday.