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Racism: A History is a three-part British documentary series originally broadcast on BBC Four in March 2007.

Racism: A History
Directed byPaul Tickell
Narrated bySophie Okonedo
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
Executive producer(s)David Okuefuna
Original networkBBC Four
Original release22 March (2007-03-22) –
4 April 2007 (2007-04-04)

It was part of the season of programmes broadcast on the BBC marking the 200th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act 1807, a landmark piece of legislation which abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. The series explores the impact of racism on a global scale and chronicles the shifts in the perception of race and the history of racism in Europe, the Americas, Australia and Asia. The series was narrated by Sophie Okonedo.



# Title Directed and produced by Original airdate
1"The Colour of Money"Paul Tickell22 March 2007 (2007-03-22)
In its first episode the series begins by assessing the implications of the relationship between Europe, Africa and the Americas in the 15th century. It considers how racist ideas and practices developed in key religious and secular institutions, and how they showed up in writings by European philosophers Aristotle and Immanuel Kant.
2"Fatal Impact"David Olusoga28 March 2007 (2007-03-28)
Examines the idea of scientific racism, an ideology invented during the 19th century that drew on now discredited practices such as phrenology and provided an ideological justification for racism and slavery. The episode shows how these theories ultimately led to eugenics and Nazi racial policies of the master race.
3"A Savage Legacy"Tim Robinson4 April 2007 (2007-04-04)
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 series was researched and prepared by the BBC to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain (which did not abolish slavery itself) and consists of a chronology of events beginning with the invention of the concept of race in the 17th century as a result of colonisation and slavery and ending in the continued struggle for equal rights that still goes on. The story line narrated by Sophie Okonedo is illustrated by photographs, dramatic representations and on-site filming and is liberally interspersed with interviews with leading researchers and witnesses.

The Colour of MoneyEdit

List of experts interviewedEdit

Prof James Walvin

Prof Joe AD Alie

Ibrahim Bangura (Caretaker of Bunce Island)

Dr Talabi Lucan

Prof Orlando Patterson

Prof Robin Blackburn

Prof Charles Mills

Prof Nicholas Guyatt

Dr Barnor Hesse

Prof Gary Taylor

Prof David Theo Goldberg

Prof Peter Linebaugh

Prof Paul Cartledge

Prof Adam Hochschild

Prof George Fredrickson

Prof Laurent Dubois


The magnitude and conditions of the slave trade are explained centring on a tour of Bunce Island - the role of Sir John Hawkins, the brutal treatment and resulting deaths that provided the greatest wealth the growing capitalist system could build on. It engendered a mutual relationship built on fear, with slave owners becoming an armed camp controlling the labourers.

The need for African slaves came about when the writings of the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas in 1552 led to the enslaving of Native Americans being outlawed by the Spanish crown. The horrors and atrocities leading to the prohibition become clear in the telling.

In his interview, Dr Barnor Hesse shows how the system that produces race is the colonial system, projecting onto the native populations the category of Indian or Negro, the legal, anthropological and finally biological debates that turn all different peoples into objects of investigation, two elements that progress hand in hand - the institutions keeping the colonial system in place and the debates relating to the nature of the populations.

The theories of polygenism, the preoccupations of philosophers like John Locke and others gradually created the black stereotype exploited by the entertainment industry with Shakespeare's Caliban as its earliest personification - predestined and bred to be a slave, animalistic, sexually obsessed and savage. In this way racism becomes the justification of the slave system, backed up by Aristotle's indication that slavery was a natural state, and the legend of Noah's curse on Ham. In the middle of the 18th century, some Christian thinkers began to see slavery as a sin for the first time since the beginnings of Christianity, which had always regarded slavery as part of the natural order, an unfortunate situation.

The Native Americans were not slaves, but colonisation nevertheless left most of them dead or displaced. The American nation became very unfriendly to Native Americans and began its programmed extermination. But once these had been evicted, they were taken into the white cultural identity like a symbol. Intermarriage was not taboo as was white/black intermarriage, where the one-drop rule applied. The philosophers of the Enlightenment developed views that some people are more equal than others, supporting a white elite amongst the four tiers of race. It was as if the other races were a different species without the right to sign contracts and be a part of society. Philosophy till today whitewashes race out of the view of these humanist enlightened philosophers.

In South America there was a more liberal mixing of populations in intermarriage, far fewer Spaniards or Portuguese emigrating to South America. The US the system of solidarity among whites precluding an active white working class, with the poorest among whites being generally the most racist and the higher echelons of society more integrated, is contrasted to South America, where the upper echelons were more racist, almost purely white and the lower classes integrated.

The tragedy of Sierra Leone, of the marginalisation of Olaudah Equiano, or Gusavus Vassa in favour of William Wilberforce are given as examples of the mind set of white domination and finally the Haitian war of Independence beginning in 1791 and its aftermath until today. This revolution was the only one that outlawed slavery and discrimination on the basis of race. The costs to Haiti were enormous, yet it marked the gradual end of slavery, which ended in the British Empire in 1833, in the US with the American Civil War and in South America in 1888. However, the quality of life for the ex-slaves was no different than before, their rights curtailed and their options limited to the same work they had done before. Abolition was by no means an anti-racist movement, but the basis for a greater empire.

Fatal ImpactsEdit

List of experts interviewedEdit

Prof David Dabydeen

Prof Catherine Hall

Prof Henry Reynolds

Prof Bain Attwood

Prof James Moore

Prof Steve Jones

Mike Davis

Dr Maria Misra

Dr Jan-Bart Gewald

Pastor Izak Fredricks

John McNab (Kaptein Rehoboth Basters)

Casper W. Erichsen

Edwin Black

Dr Michael Burleigh


The episode opens with scenes from death camps depicting victims of the truth behind the "myth of the white man's burden." "Throughout the 19th century European scientists writers and philosophers developed ideas to justify the mass killings of the age of Empire. These same theories went on to inspire some of the horrors and the savagery that would consume Europe in the 20th century." After freeing the slaves, Imperialism developed another vision - to exterminate the dark races.

Examples depicted are the Black War fought, despite all legal constraints, by the settlers, against the Tasmanians, the Koi-San people, who were hunted like animals in South Africa, the Beothuk of Newfoundland and the Pampas Indians of Argentina. The dark races were felt to be beyond civilisation by writers such as Thomas Carlyle, who spoke of the necessity for inequality. Men should rule women, white should rule black and educated people the ignorant.

When in 1865 Gov. Edward John Eyre was tried for the atrocities committed in East Jamaica, the British House of Lords and the establishment stood behind him and he was acquitted. Other writers supported the views of Thomas Carlyle, who orchestrated the defence, such as Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Kingsley. From then on the policy was to rule the Empire with the maximum degree of coercion.

There emerged Scientific racism. Dr Robert Knox wrote The Races of Men in the 1840s, prophesying the clash of races and cultures. Craniologist Samuel George Morton began to measure skulls to determine brain capacities. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species created biological racism on the basis of natural selection, a theory that became known as Social Darwinism, with protagonists like Thomas Huxley and Herbert Spencer. The idea was that the native peoples were unable to compete and would gradually die out.

The racial theories were applied also in the British Raj in the great famine of India in 1876. Millions had begun to starve while Lord Lytton prepared to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. The viceroy justified his inactions with the arguments of the social Darwinists and introduced a system of camps with heavy labour, which effectively became death camps.

Social Darwinism was also applied to the working and lower classes with references to the Cockney race, the Scottish race and so on and investigative methods were utilised in prisons to determine the characteristics of the "criminal classes." Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, saw these multiplying faster than the upper classes and set about developing theories to reverse the process. His new science of Eugenics attracted many supporters like George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Winston Churchill.

Social Darwinism, Eugenics and scientific racism were practically implemented in South West Africa by the German military against the Herero and Nama, for whom the first concentration camps like the death camp Shark Island were set up. It became the later Nazi system, the bureaucracy of mass killing and the 20th century's first genocide. Skulls from this camp were sent these all over the world by way of trade and in 1908, Eugen Fischer started his investigations on the local people to prove the ills of racial mixing.

Particularly the United States followed these experiments and theories of Eugenics, financing their implementation under Charles Davenport. In many states laws forbade racial intermarriage. Forced sterilisations took place and the instigators thought they were saving humanity. In Britain too, there was much support for these theories. But in Germany the movement found its most ardent adherents. Financial backing by grants from American foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology of Eugen Fischer prepared the way for the Nazi extermination policies, starting with the mentally ill and the so-called Rhineland Bastards for sterilisation, then graduating to murder. The fact that the death camps of the Hereros, the extermination of the native Tasmanians and the 30 million who died of starvation in India have been widely forgotten allows us to believe that Nazi violence was unique in European history and not a continuation of the crimes of Empire.

A Savage LegacyEdit

Experts interviewedEdit

Manning Marable

Anthony Appiah

James Allen

Michael Eric Dyson

Thomas Pakenham

Adam Hochschild

Dr Bambi Ceuppens

Prof Deborah Posel

Pallo Jordan

Dr Barney Pityana

Simeon Wright

Hazel Carby

Lee Jasper

Doreen Lawrence

Prof Paul Gilroy


The final episode begins with the abolition of slavery in the US in 1865 after which black people were denied the vote, remained impoverished and became victim to violence and murder if they resisted racism. Instead of slavery there was Sharecropping, a system that left black people in permanent debt to the landowners. Examinations for the vote were introduced and the Jim Crow laws became the norm for segregation. At the heart of this was a system of political and economic terror with lynching as its most powerful weapon. Often the killing and torture took place to the amusement of large crowds of spectators, and postcards of the proceedings sold throughout the States.

The lynching of 17-year-old Jess Washington in 1916 is described in detail, as are riots and murders like the Tulsa race riot of 1921. As James Allen says in regard to why these events have faded from human memory: "White America has maintained to this day control of the history of racial violence as victors. Its as if we live in an occupied country intellectually and as long as white America retains the power and maintains the myth of moral superiority the history will never become fully public and be written into our national conscience." Besides this, black people were characterised as buffoons in traditions like the Blackface.

In the name of civilising the African 90% of Africa was divided among the European powers. Leopold II of Belgium set out to become personally wealthy through his seizure of the Congo, where extreme violence, mutilation and other coercive methods forced the local people to obtain rubber and other raw materials. Between 1880 and 1920 about 10 million people, were killed, yet Leopold built an opulent museum to the colonisation of the Congo, which became the venue of one of the first so-called Human zoos that toured Europe throughout the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Then the words genocide, holocaust and racism became used in connection with the Nazi treatment of the Jews and it became clear that these were abhorrent. However, it did not change the way things were done towards people of colour.

In South Africa the system of racial classification did not have the intention of exterminating the black population created a bureaucracy to determine and enforce access to resources along racial lines. This included an illusory face of democracy which enabled the government to obtain the support of international governments. After the Sharpeville massacre, the banning of the ANC and arrest of Nelson Mandela, the attacks became increasingly violent and deaths mounted up. In 1976 student riots led to many schoolchildren being killed as well as Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko. Practically every family in South Africa was in some way affected by the killings and torture.

It comes as no surprise that many countries supported South Africa. In the United States African American soldiers returning from the war in 1946 were lynched at the rate of one a week. Protests led finally to the passing of anti-lynching laws. When schools were desegregated, violence erupted, resulting in the death of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, the photo of whose mutilated face, testimony of extreme viciousness and hate, bore witness of the white man's savagery towards blacks. Four months later the Civil Rights Movement was born, having to deal with years of violent resistance and the murder of two of its leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. However, even the civil rights legislation could not alleviate the ubiquitous poverty.

Britain's race riots and racial controversy led to the Race Relations Act of 1968 and, in retaliation, the Rivers of Blood speech of Enoch Powell. Many years of aggressive policing followed as the new generation of young black men fought for their rights. Finally the murder of Stephen Lawrence and subsequent failure of the legal system to deal appropriately with the investigation proved that Institutionalised racism was part of the problem.

The William Macpherson report identified institutional racism as a situation “where you have no overt policy saying no one is discriminated against, but all the outcomes of your operations are overtly discriminatory. It is the culture of racism within an organisation that overpowers the formal commitment to equality that produces the racist outcomes." Nevertheless, the situation of economic and social inequality of black people in the UK still persists.

Across the world racial inequality remains as it was, with the majority of white people living relatively well-to-do lives and the majority of black people in abject poverty. In the United States, Color-blind racism consists in three institutions - mass unemployment, mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement. Of the 2.3 million prisoners in the US, half are black. These, just like ex-convicts, cannot vote for the rest of their lives.

Finally we hear the story of The Bell Curve, a bestseller that claimed that black people's poor performance in IQ tests proved their intellectual inferiority. Criticism of this has been given little attention. The book's research was funded by the Pioneer Fund and underpins racial eugenics. Racial privilege endures, continuing to shape destinies the world over.


The music is by composer Nikola Kodjabashia. Surprisingly, it has not been reviewed.


The brief review on IMDb is indicative of the situation:

" Racism: A History was made by the BBC in 2007... and frankly, I am stunned to see the low amount of attention it's getting. It covers an immensely important subject matter, it cuts through the veils of censorship and history-whitewashing and illuminates SO much that you never heard from anywhere else!“[1]

The Institute of Historical Research gave it a positive review in an article entitled 1807 Commemorated ending with the words:

" 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."[2]


External linksEdit