Anarchist FAQ/Why do anarchists oppose the current system?/1.4

B.1.4 Why does racism, sexism and homophobia exist?Edit

Since racism, sexism and homophobia (hatred/fear of homosexuals) are institutionalised throughout society, sexual, racial and gay oppression are commonplace. The primary cause of these three evil attitudes is the need for ideologies that justify domination and exploitation, which are inherent in hierarchy—in other words, "theories" that "justify" and "explain" oppression and injustice. As Tacitus said, "We hate those whom we injure." Those who oppress others always find reasons to regard their victims as "inferior" and hence deserving of their fate. Elites need some way to justify their superior social and economic positions. Since the social system is obviously unfair and elitist, attention must be distracted to other, less inconvenient, "facts," such as alleged superiority based on biology or "nature." Therefore, doctrines of sexual, racial, and ethnic superiority are inevitable in hierarchical, class-stratified societies.

We will take each form of bigotry in turn.

From an economic standpoint, racism is associated with the exploitation of cheap labour at home and imperialism abroad. Indeed, early capitalist development in both America and Europe was strengthened by the bondage of people, particularly those of African descent. In the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world the slaughter of the original inhabitants and the expropriation of their land was also a key aspect in the growth of capitalism. As the subordination of foreign nations proceeds by force, it appears to the dominant nation that it owes its mastery to its special natural qualities, in other words to its "racial" characteristics. Thus imperialists have frequently appealed to the Darwinian doctrine of "Survival of the Fittest" to give their racism a basis in "nature."

In Europe, one of the first theories of racial superiority was proposed by Gobineau in the 1850s to establish the natural right of the aristocracy to rule over France. He argued that the French aristocracy was originally of Germanic origin while the "masses" were Gallic or Celtic, and that since the Germanic race was "superior", the aristocracy had a natural right to rule. Although the French "masses" didn't find this theory particularly persuasive, it was later taken up by proponents of German expansion and became the origin of German racial ideology, used to justify Nazi oppression of Jews and other "non-Aryan" types. Notions of the "white man's burden" and "Manifest Destiny" developed at about the same time in England and to a lesser extent in America, and were used to rationalise Anglo-Saxon conquest and world domination on a "humanitarian" basis.

Racism and authoritarianism at home and abroad has gone hand in hand. As Rudolf Rocker argued, "[a]ll advocates of the race doctrine have been and are the associates and defenders of every political and social reaction, advocates of the power principle in its most brutal form . . . He who thinks that he sees in all political and social antagonisms merely blood-determined manifestations of race, denies all conciliatory influence of ideas, all community of ethical feeling, and must at every crisis take refuge in brute force. In fact, race theory is only the cult of power." Racism aids the consolidation of elite power for by attacking "all the achievements . . . in the direction of personal freedom" and the idea of equality "[n]o better moral justification could be produced for the industrial bondage which our holders of industrial power keep before them as a picture of the future." [1]

The idea of racial superiority was also found to have great domestic utility. As Paul Sweezy points out, "[t]he intensification of social conflict within the advanced capitalist countries. . . has to be directed as far as possible into innocuous channels -- innocuous, that is to say, from the standpoint of capitalist class rule. The stirring up of antagonisms along racial lines is a convenient method of directing attention away from class struggle," which of course is dangerous to ruling-class interests.[2] Indeed, employers have often deliberately fostered divisions among workers on racial lines as part of a strategy of "divide and rule" (in other contexts, like Northern Ireland or Scotland, the employers have used religion in the same way instead).

Employers and politicians have often deliberately fostered divisions among workers on racial lines as part of a strategy of "divide and rule." In other contexts, like Tzarist Russia, Northern Ireland or Scotland, the employers have used religion in the same way. In others, immigrants and native born is the dividing line. The net effect is the same, social oppressions which range from the extreme violence anarchists like Emma Goldman denounced in the American South ("the atrocities rampant in the South, of negroes lynched, tortured and burned by infuriated crowds without a hand being raised or a word said for their protection" [3]) or the pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia to discrimination in where people can live, what jobs people can get, less pay and so on.

For those in power, this makes perfect sense as racism (like other forms of bigotry) can be used to split and divide the working class by getting people to blame others of their class for the conditions they all suffer. In this way, the anger people feel about the problems they face are turned away from their real causes onto scapegoats. Thus white workers are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) encouraged, for example, to blame unemployment, poverty and crime on blacks or Hispanics instead of capitalism and the (white, male) elites who run it and who directly benefit from low wages and high profits. Discrimination against racial minorities and women makes sense for capitalism, for in this way profits are enlarged directly and indirectly. As jobs and investment opportunities are denied to the disadvantaged groups, their wages can be depressed below prevailing levels and profits, correspondingly, increased. Indirectly, discrimination adds capitalist profits and power by increasing unemployment and setting workers against each other. Such factors ensure that capitalism will never "compete" discrimination way as some free-market capitalist economists argue.

In other words, capitalism has benefited and will continue to benefit from its racist heritage. Racism has provided pools of cheap labour for capitalists to draw upon and permitted a section of the population to be subjected to worse treatment, so increasing profits by reducing working conditions and other non-pay related costs. In America, blacks still get paid less than whites for the same work (around 10% less than white workers with the same education, work experience, occupation and other relevent demographic variables). This is transferred into wealth inequalities. In 1998, black incomes were 54% of white incomes while black net worth (including residential) was 12% and nonresidential net worth just 3% of white. For Hispanics, the picture was similar with incomes just 62% of whites, net worth, 4% and nonresidential net worth 0%. While just under 15% of white households had zero or negative net worth, 27% of black households and 36% Hispanic were in the same situation. Even at similar levels of income, black households were significantly less wealthy than white ones.[4]

All this means that racial minorities are "subjected to oppression and exploitation on the dual grounds of race and class, and thus have to fight the extra battles against racism and discrimination." [5]

Sexism only required a "justification" once women started to act for themselves and demand equal rights. Before that point, sexual oppression did not need to be "justified"—it was "natural" (saying that, of course, equality between the sexes was stronger before the rise of Christianity as a state religion and capitalism so the "place" of women in society has fallen over the last few hundred years before rising again thanks to the women's movement).

The nature of sexual oppression can be seen from marriage. Emma Goldman pointed out that marriage "stands for the sovereignty of the man over the women," with her "complete submission" to the husbands "whims and commands." [6] As Carole Pateman notes, until "the late nineteenth century the legal and civil position of a wife resembled that of a slave. . . A slave had no independent legal existence apart from his master, and husband and wife became 'one person,' the person of the husband." Indeed, the law "was based on the assumption that a wife was (like) property" and only the marriage contract "includes the explicit commitment to obey." [7]

However, when women started to question the assumptions of male domination, numerous theories were developed to explain why women's oppression and domination by men was "natural." Because men enforced their rule over women by force, men's "superiority" was argued to be a "natural" product of their gender, which is associated with greater physical strength (on the premise that "might makes right"). In the 17th century, it was argued that women were more like animals than men, thus "proving" that women had as much right to equality with men as sheep did. More recently, elites have embraced socio-biology in response to the growing women's movement. By "explaining" women's oppression on biological grounds, a social system run by men and for men could be ignored.

Women's subservient role also has economic value for capitalism (we should note that Goldman considered capitalism to be another "paternal arrangement" like marriage, both of which robbed people of their "birthright," "stunts" their growth, "poisons" their bodies and keeps people in "ignorance, in poverty and dependence." [8]). Women often provide necessary (and unpaid) labour which keeps the (usually) male worker in good condition; and it is primarily women who raise the next generation of wage-slaves (again without pay) for capitalist owners to exploit. Moreover, women's subordination gives working-class men someone to look down upon and, sometimes, a convenient target on whom they can take out their frustrations (instead of stirring up trouble at work). As Lucy Parsons pointed out, a working class woman is "a slave to a slave."

Sexism, like all forms of bigotry, is reflected in relative incomes and wealth levels. In the US women, on average, were being paid 57% the amount men were in 2001 (an improvement than the 39% 20 years earlier). Part of this is due to fewer women working than men, but for those who do work outside the home their incomes were 66% than of men's (up from 47% in 1980 and 38% in 1970). Those who work full time, their incomes 76% of men's, up from the 60% average through most of the 1970s. However, as with the black-white gap, this is due in part to the stagnant income of male workers (in 1998 men's real incomes were just 1% above 1989 levels while women's were 14% above). So rather than the increase in income being purely the result of women entering high-paying and largely male occupations and them closing the gender gap, it has also been the result of the intense attacks on the working class since the 1980s which has de-unionised and de-industrialised America. This has resulted in a lot of high-paying male jobs have been lost and more and more women have entered the job market to make sure their families make ends.[9]

Turning away from averages, we discover that sexism results in women being paid about 12% less than men during the same job, with the same relative variables (like work experience, education and so forth). Needless to say, as with racism, such "relevant variables" are themselves shaped by discrimination. Women, like blacks, are less likely to get job interviews and jobs. Sexism even affects types of jobs, for example, "caring" professions pay less than non-caring ones because they are seen as feminine and involve the kinds of tasks which women do at home without pay. In general, female dominated industries pay less. In 1998, occupations that were over 90% male had a median wage almost 10% above average while those over 90% female, almost 25% below. One study found that a 30% increase in women in an occupation translated into a 10% decline in average pay. Needless to say, having children is bad economic news for most women (women with children earn 10 to 15% less than women without children while for men the opposite is the case). Having maternity level, incidentally, have a far smaller motherhood penalty.[10]

The oppression of lesbians, gays and bisexuals is inextricably linked with sexism. A patriarchal, capitalist society cannot see homosexual practices as the normal human variations they are because they blur that society's rigid gender roles and sexist stereotypes. Most young gay people keep their sexuality to themselves for fear of being kicked out of home and all gays have the fear that some "straights" will try to kick their sexuality out of them if they express their sexuality freely. As with those subject to other forms of bigotry, gays are also discriminated against economically (gay men earning about 4-7% less than the average straight man [11]). Thus the social oppression which result in having an alternative sexuality are experienced on many different levels, from extreme violence to less pay for doing the same work.

Gays are not oppressed on a whim but because of the specific need of capitalism for the nuclear family. The nuclear family, as the primary - and inexpensive - creator of submissive people (growing up within the authoritarian family gets children used to, and "respectful" of, hierarchy and subordination - see section B.1.5) as well as provider and carer for the workforce fulfils an important need for capitalism. Alternative sexualities represent a threat to the family model because they provide a different role model for people. This means that gays are going to be in the front line of attack whenever capitalism wants to reinforce "family values" (i.e. submission to authority, "tradition", "morality" and so on). The introduction of Clause 28 in Britain is a good example of this, with the government making it illegal for public bodies to promote gay sexuality (i.e. to present it as anything other than a perversion). In American, the right is also seeking to demonise homosexuality as part of their campaign to reinforce the values of the patriarchal family unit and submission to "traditional" authority. Therefore, the oppression of people based on their sexuality is unlikely to end until sexism is eliminated.

This is not all. As well as adversely affecting those subject to them, sexism, racism and homophobia are harmful to those who practice them (and in some way benefit from them) within the working class itself. Why this should be the case is obvious, once you think about it. All three divide the working class, which means that whites, males and heterosexuals hurt themselves by maintaining a pool of low-paid competing labour, ensuring low wages for their own wives, daughters, mothers, relatives and friends. Such divisions create inferior conditions and wages for all as capitalists gain a competitive advantage using this pool of cheap labour, forcing all capitalists to cut conditions and wages to survive in the market (in addition, such social hierarchies, by undermining solidarity against the employer on the job and the state possibly create a group of excluded workers who could become scabs during strikes). Also, "privileged" sections of the working class lose out because their wages and conditions are less than those which unity could have won them. Only the boss really wins.

This can be seen from research into this subject. The researcher Al Szymanski sought to systematically and scientifically test the proposition that white workers gain from racism.[12] He compared the situation of "white" and "non-white" (i.e. black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic) workers in United States and found several key things:

(1) the narrower the gap between white and black wages in an American state, the higher white earnings were relative to white earnings elsewhere. This means that "whites do not benefit economically by economic discrimination. White workers especially appear to benefit economically from the absence of economic discrimination. . . both in the absolute level of their earnings and in relative equality among whites." [13] In other words, the less wage discrimination there was against black workers, the better were the wages that white workers received.

(2) the more "non-white" people in the population of a given American State, the more inequality there was between whites. In other words, the existence of a poor, oppressed group of workers reduced the wages of white workers, although it did not affect the earnings of non-working class whites very much ("the greater the discrimination against [non-white] people, the greater the inequality among whites" [14]). So white workers clearly lost economically from this discrimination.

(3) He also found that "the more intense racial discrimination is, the lower are the white earnings because of . . . [its effect on] working-class solidarity." [15] In other words, racism economically disadvantages white workers because it undermines the solidarity between black and white workers and weakens trade union organisation.

So overall, these white workers receive some apparent privileges from racism, but are in fact screwed by it. Thus racism and other forms of hierarchy actually works against the interests of those working class people who practice it—and, by weakening workplace and social unity, benefits the ruling class:

"As long as discrimination exists and racial or ethnic minorities are oppressed, the entire working class is weakened. This is so because the Capitalist class is able to use racism to drive down the wages of individual segments of the working class by inciting racial antagonism and forcing a fight for jobs and services. This division is a development that ultimately undercuts the living standards of all workers. Moreover, by pitting Whites against Blacks and other oppressed nationalities, the Capitalist class is able to prevent workers from uniting against their common enemy. As long as workers are fighting each other, the Capitalist class is secure."


In addition, a wealth of alternative viewpoints, insights, experiences, cultures, thoughts and so on are denied the racist, sexist or homophobe. Their minds are trapped in a cage, stagnating within a mono-culture—and stagnation is death for the personality. Such forms of oppression are dehumanising for those who practice them, for the oppressor lives as a role, not as a person, and so are restricted by it and cannot express their individuality freely (and so do so in very limited ways). This warps the personality of the oppressor and impoverishes their own life and personality. Homophobia and sexism also limits the flexibility of all people, gay or straight, to choose the sexual expressions and relationships that are right for them. The sexual repression of the sexist and homophobe will hardly be good for their mental health, their relationships or general development.

From the anarchist standpoint, oppression based on race, sex or sexuality will remain forever intractable under capitalism or, indeed, under any economic or political system based on domination and exploitation. While individual members of "minorities" may prosper, racism as a justification for inequality is too useful a tool for elites to discard. By using the results of racism (e.g. poverty) as a justification for racist ideology, criticism of the status quo can, yet again, be replaced by nonsense about "nature" and "biology." Similarly with sexism or discrimination against gays.

The long-term solution is obvious: dismantle capitalism and the hierarchical, economically class-stratified society with which it is bound up. By getting rid of capitalist oppression and exploitation and its consequent imperialism and poverty, we will also eliminate the need for ideologies of racial or sexual superiority used to justify the oppression of one group by another or to divide and weaken the working class. However, struggles against bigotry cannot be left until after a revolution. If they were two things are likely: one, such a revolution would be unlikely to happen and, two, if it were then these problems would more than likely remain in the new society created by it. Therefore the negative impacts of inequality can and must be fought in the here and now, like any form of hierarchy. Indeed, as we discuss in more detail section B.1.6 by doing so we make life a bit better in the here and now as well as bringing the time when such inequalities are finally ended nearer. Only this can ensure that we can all live as free and equal individuals in a world without the blights of sexism, racism, homophobia or religious hatred.

Needless to say, anarchists totally reject the kind of "equality" that accepts other kinds of hierarchy, that accepts the dominant priorities of capitalism and the state and accedes to the devaluation of relationships and individuality in name of power and wealth. There is a kind of "equality" in having "equal opportunities," in having black, gay or women bosses and politicians, but one that misses the point. Saying "Me too!" instead of "What a mess!" does not suggest real liberation, just different bosses and new forms of oppression. We need to look at the way society is organised, not at the sex, colour, nationality or sexuality of who is giving the orders!


  1. Nationalism and Culture, pp. 337-8
  2. Theory of Capitalist Development, p. 311
  3. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, vol. 1, p. 386
  4. Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, p. 99 and pp. 125-6
  5. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin, Anarchism and the Black Revolution, p. 126
  6. Red Emma Speaks, p. 164
  7. The Sexual Contract, p. 119, p. 122 and p. 181
  8. Op. Cit., p. 210
  9. Henwood, Op. Cit., p. 91-2
  10. Henwood, Op. Cit., p. 95-7
  11. Henwood, Op. Cit., p. 100
  12. "Racial Discrimination and White Gain", in American Sociological Review, vol. 41, no. 3, June 1976, pp. 403-414
  13. p. 413
  14. p. 410
  15. p. 412
  16. Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin, Op. Cit., pp. 12-3