Racism and anti-Racism in the World: before and after 1945

It can seem a shocking revelation that Chinese, Russian, Islamic, and European empires were still competing for global supremacy in the early 20th century. This was the Era of Empire. Five hundred years of competing (1453-1945) transformed the world. Instead of three populous connected continents; there were six with oceans of separation. Instead of indigenous religions being pervasive, Christianity and Islam had religious majorities in 83% of the countries of the world. Instead of a tower of babel, most people spoke one of nine empire languages as a first or second language. Instead of ethnically and religiously homogenous societies, the world consisted of ethnically and religiously heterogeneous societies. 

When the era began, generally Asians lived in Asia, whites lived in Europe, blacks lived in Africa, and indigenous populations lived in the three New World continents (North America, Oceania, and South America). During the era, diversity skyrocketed from: the conquest and rule of diverse people; tens of millions freely or forcibly traveling to foreign lands to escape religious persecution, or to work or serve prison sentences; government policies; and the creation of colonial borders. These empires functioned like global population mixers. In some colonies, populations became overt composites of descendants from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe. They were not, however composites of equals. Discrimination was omnipresent, because this was how diversity was managed. It wasn’t seen as discrimination; this was social ordering and ordered societies were believed to be key to social peace.

Hierarchically ordered, privilege and discrimination were baked into societal foundations. This was not the only means to discriminatorily manage populations. There were massacres, segregations, expulsions, forced emigration, enslavement, indentured servitude that resembled slavery, genocides, population transport, ethnic cleansing, and assorted privileges and restrictions. Today, many would call these practices heinous, racist, intolerant, elitist, arrogant, sexist, and illegal. History is like that; it never measures up to the modern standards that come from change. History also tells us that there are no global modern standards of discrimination. 

The last battle for global supremacy was WWII, and it clearly indicated that the competition had gone too far. One of history’s evilest men, Hitler, prompted something good -- an unambiguous wake-up call that stratifying populations as inferior and superior was horribly wrong. Nineteen-forty-five became a global tipping point. The long era of laissez faire attitudes toward discrimination was officially ending. 

Evil though had to be bested by good. This was the role of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). FDR was a relentless champion of creating a unified global organization that would end legal discrimination. Created in 1945 this organization was the United Nations (UN). People would now be given the right to self-determine nation hood. The subjugation of blacks and Asians to whites in Africa and Asia was being abolished. To end discrimination within states, nations had to commit to deliver fundamental freedoms to all people. 

The right to determine nation hood prompted mammoth change. In 1945 there was a handful of empires and 53 nations. In 2020, there were zero empires and 193 nations. Ending legal discrimination would similarly prompt monstrous change. For millennia, the unequal allocation of freedoms and privilege was how polities brought order to diverse populations. But this was not the way forward. Nations had to commit to relegate legal discrimination to the dustbin. Instead of nations being routinely racist, they were to be anti-racist.

Several things quickly became clear: many national leaders were at best committing to a utopian ideal; most leaders, just like the predecessor imperial rulers, didn’t see discrimination as a problem, but rather a solution; what some saw as depraved indifferences to human life, others saw as a sovereign right. Discriminatory practices weren’t seen as racist, intolerant, elitist, arrogant, sexist, amoral, or illegal. Definitely, not a problem. These were seen as inapplicable western views. Many continued to be charmed by ordered populations, bask in the perpetuation of power, wealth and privilege for select people, and find satisfaction in punishing or “disciplining” groups deemed troublesome or distasteful. The west would say these practices are products of systemically racist nations. They, however, see it differently. They see it as a sensible and natural preference for majority populations, and the ordering of minorities. 

There were, however, a handful of nations that committed to anti-racism. These were the world’s first woke nations. Almost all were western nations. Seventy-five years later, these anti-racist nations have become familiar with the complexities of ending discrimination. It is especially complex for them because while many nations see diverse populations as something to avoid many of these nations have laid out generous welcome mats for immigrants that vary by race, ethnicity, religion and political views. They offer millions a chance to flee nations where they may face racial, religious, gender, familial or political/thought discrimination, and where corruption, wars or inept governments leave people with little to no hope of experiencing a better life, let alone a level playing field. But increases in diversity instigates an indeterminate increase in racial discrimination. Still, they see it as the right thing to do. 

All of these nations are case studies in the complexities of creating anti-racist societies. They have shown that governments can only do so much. Putting the hammer to legal discrimination that ends systemic racism is easy. But governments are not equipped to stop parents, journalists, commentators, teachers and different leaders that purposely or inadvertently teach and reinforce discrimination. They cannot address perceptions of discrimination that deviate from reality, they cannot force integration, they cannot cancel history, and they are unsuited to address unconscious discrimination. Governments can enforce what you can’t do, but not what you can’t think. In 1963 US President John F. Kennedy said: “law alone cannot make men see right.” People of any color or religion, even those that believe they are egalitarian, unconsciously and routinely discriminate (one estimate is that 90% of discriminatory actions are unconscious). Prior to 1945 formally or informally stratifying, segregating, and cleansing populations were normal ways to order societies. In 1945, a stake was laid in the ground. Viewing populations as superior and inferior was amoral, and all 193 nations have signed the UN Charter indicating agreement. Since this time, only a small subset of nations has endeavored to honor this commitment. America was at the fore in 1945 and it remains at the fore of the demonstrably anti-racist nations. All of these anti-racist nations have shown how extraordinarily complex it is to end discriminatory practices rooted in history and perpetuated at home, communities, and generally in society. But the fight is young and none of the anti-racist nations are giving up, meanwhile others won’t even enter the ring. In most nations, history repeats itself, or nearly so into the 21st century. Most nations are demonstrably and unapologetically racist; they see real value in homogenous societies, ordered societies, and privileged and unprivileged people.

  1.  The first application of discrimination as a term indicating unequal treatment of diverse people was in the United States in the 19th century.
  2. According to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, fundamental freedoms include but are not limited to freedom of religion and speech, protection from exploitation and arbitrary actions of the state, and a right to education.
  3. Western nations include nations in Western Europe, Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the United States.
  4. Over time the term racial discrimination has come to refer to discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion.
  5. When it became illegal to discriminate against people based on race, religion, sex, or national origin, overt discrimination was curtailed but unconscious discrimination increased.
  6. Unconscious biases stem from stereotypes. People hold stereotypes of different people, for example, whites are privileged and racist, blacks are dangerous and lazy, Latinos can’t be trusted, Asians think they are superior, Muslims are terrorists, and Jews are greedy. A person that prides themselves on being egalitarian can sight unseen unconsciously find anything a white person says as racist, be uncomfortable in the presence of blacks and Muslims, distrust Latinos and Jews, and be skeptical of claims by Asians.