"You can't get rid of racism! People always fear what's different..."
The first thing to understand about racism is that it hasn't always existed - if it has, well then it's inevitable and it's useless to fight what's "natural" or what has "always been around". The second thing to understand is what exactly we mean by the word racism. It's the idea that a person is inferior because of where they are from, the color of their skin, or their religion.
Racism originally arose to justify slavery and colonialism in the New World, which came during and on the heels of the "Enlightenment". The ideas of the time put man (instead of God) at the center of the universe, and said that reason should rule, not superstition. It also attacked the idea of hereditary status, which was the basis of feudal inheritance; instead, it was argued that "all men are created equal" and what they make of themselves depends on their actions, not who their parents were or whether or not God "chose" them.
But how can you say, "All men are created equal", and brutalize African slaves? How can you claim that you stand for equality when you treat the Native Americans worse than animals and systematically exterminate them? "Well of course you can't treat them equally; they aren't people" is what any "explorer" or slaveholder would tell you.
Slavery in the New World was part and parcel of the developing capitalist system in Europe. Manchester's cotton mills needed cotton, and slaves were kidnapped and shipped over the ocean to the Southern U.S. to pick cotton and feed England's factories. It was a lot cheaper to steal people from Africa than to pay high wages to attract "free labor" for the hard, dirty work of picking cotton. Racism originally arose as a way to justify slavery and colonial expansion; so why did it last long after slavery had been abolished?
After slavery was done away with, capitalism remained. Capitalism cannot survive without oppression; it exploits the working class, and capitalism fosters divisions within the working class to help maintain itself. It forces workers to compete for jobs, for housing, for health care, and for schools. But this fact alone cannot explain why many white workers are racist.
Marx described the racism between Irish and English workers this way:
Every industrial and commercial centre in England posses a working class divided into two hostile
camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish
worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels
himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and
capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.
He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude
towards him is much the same as that of the 'poor whites' to the 'niggers' in the former slave
states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the
English worker at once the accomplice and stpid tool of the English rule in Ireland.
The antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic
papers, in short by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the
secret of the importence of te English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret
by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.
In the search for the lowest wage, capitalists often hire immigrant labor, which is flexible, pliable, and very low paid. If there are national, religious, and language barriers between workers competing for the same job, the potential for racism between the two exists. But more importantly, workers of a dominant or non-oppressed race/nation (like whites in the U.S.) may hold racist ideas because they comfort them, they think they are better than blacks; in a sense it is a "psychological wage". So do white workers benefit from the oppression of black workers?
No, not at all. The only benefit is the "psychological wage", which exists between their ears alone. For example, white workers in the South make less than black workers in the North. The reason is that racism is much much stronger in the South than it is in the North, and it allows the capitalists to pay both blacks and whites less. If a white rat and a black rat fight over a crumb, they aren't going to get very much; if they band together and storm the rich man's table, they can get far more. Working class unity, across racial lines, is key in the fight against capitalism, in the fight to save jobs, to keep plants open, and to keep unions strong. Racism hurts the working class, and so workers of all races have to stand up against it. White workers have to stand up and protest when blacks are brutally beaten by the police, or when Arabs are rounded up en masse by the government.
The capitalist class knows that racism helps them "divide and rule." During strikes, capitalists will often try to bring in scabs of another nationality and race to spark racial tensions. But even in the world of politics today, issues like crime, the death penalty, and drugs, are not issues in and of themselves; they are a cover for racism; blacks make up a huge proportion of those arrested, and those executed in the U.S. injustice system. Issues like "welfare mothers" are another example - it is implied that the "welfare leeches" who simply have kids are all lazy, black people. An attack on the poor is couched in a racist cloak because most people on welfare are actually white (most are also children).
Racism cannot be ended short of socialist revolution, short of the working class overthrowing the bosses. This is because with every recession, every crisis, every war, the people at the top point their fingers at scapegoats - blacks, immigrants, women, Mexicans, anyone but them. Racism appeals to white workers because it provides a false answer to real problems like unemployment, poverty, crumbling schools, crime, and so on. Fighting racism means standing up to racist attacks by cops (or fascists); but it also means linking anti-racist demands to class demands, it means saying racism is not the answer, here's what is.
Understanding that racism will not end until capitalism is gotten rid of does not mean that revolutionary socialists tell blacks to "wait for the revolution." What it does mean is that socialists connect the daily fight against racism to the long term goal, to working class self-emancipation. The working class is an international class, spread all over the globe; it will have to overcome racism (and sexism and homophobia) in order to throw the bosses of their backs. The rats will have to fight racism within their ranks if they are to storm the table.
While socialist revolution would not automatically end racism, it would be a final, fatal blow because it presupposes a united, determined working class. Secondly, there would no longer be a ruling class minority that needed to divide and rule the majority.
Red, yellow black, white - same struggle same fight! Workers of the world, UNITE!