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Racism: A History

Presenter: Sophie Okondeo
Producer: David Okuefuna
Date: Wednesday 21, 28 March, th April 2007
Time: 9.00pm

This three-part documentary examines the history of racism, covering its origins with the enslavement of Africans in the sixteenth century, its overt nature in the colonial projects of the European powers and its appearance within twentieth century western societies. Featuring interviews with European, American and African academics and cultural commentators as well as employing strong images, the programme is a detailed and far-reaching assessment into the way in which racism has been constructed over the last five hundred years.

An important feature of this documentary is its strong, consistent message that racism emerged as a product of social and economic factors. Enslavement is shown to be the root of this erroneous discourse as the European intelligentsia sought to legitimise the slave trade. It is the trade of Africans which is considered to create prejudice, as Professor James Walvin states, 'they didn't become slave traders because of racism, they became racist because of the slave trade.' As a means of proving that the process of African enslavement was justifiable the concept of a hierarchy of human races existing was employed. This is examined as purely as a means to continue the highly profitable trade, echoing the work of Williams by linking the desire of capitalist systems for the ceaseless acquisition of profit with the enslavement of millions. The way in which these concepts born from economic exploitation seep into social and cultural contexts is also highlighted; the works of notable and indeed cherished philosophers and authors such as Locke and Shakespeare are shown to be riddled with the racist assumptions of the period. That the concept of racism was not initially dependent on difference in skin colour is revealed with Dr. Barnor Hesse's discussion of the contact between the indigenous peoples of the New World and European colonists. The categorisation of 'race' is thereby shown to be a system whereby groups of peoples are subordinated.

The use of 'race' as a means by which people are abused, brutalised, terrorised and exploited is examined in the documentary with specific examples from twentieth century America, South Africa and Britain as well as Belgian colonial rule in the Congo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These particular examples utilise graphic images, taken from primary sources or reconstructions, to emphasise the violence which has resulted from racist perceptions. The scenes of mutilation in the Congo, the disfigured corpse of Emmett Till in Mississippi, and police brutality in South Africa are what are referred to in the documentary as, 'the savage legacy' of racism. The documentary is careful however to avoid representing only suffering by black people and discusses at length the way in which black activists have fought against the ingrained racism of western societies. Prominent in this discussion is the 1791 Haitian Revolution, which is offered as an antidote to European histories of abolition and emancipation, as the documentary uses it to highlight how enslaved peoples rebelled against their oppressors, ensuring the system of slavery was impossible to maintain. Civil rights leaders in America and South Africa are shown to have continued this struggle against those who would use concepts of 'race' to classify and differentiate.

It is the ingrained racism within western societies which is called into account by this challenging programme which states how notions of 'race' have resulted in inequality and prejudice. The documentary ends with the reminder that white people within the northern hemisphere still possess the majority of the world's wealth: a wealth which itself was established and maintained by enslavement. Black people from western countries are said to be less likely to participate in this wealth, leading to endemic poverty within some black communities. In America this situation is described in the documentary as, 'mass unemployment, mass disenfranchisement, mass imprisonment.' The programme reinforces its message of racism as a social and political tool in its closing remarks debunking those who still claim that racial difference exists within human populations: 'in scientific terms race is not a factor but in political and social terms it still divides.'

The documentary is a challenging and highly intelligent study; it maintains a coherent structure throughout the three episodes which focus on racism's origins, development and legacy. Its use of analysis from academics and individuals from a worldwide perspective marks it out as a significant piece of programming, and its quality of debate ensures that its message is heard.

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