Modern anti-black racism is rooted in the Transatlantic slave trade, when European empires kidnapped millions of Afrikan people and deported them to the Americas to work as forced labourers. Afrikans in the Americas were treated as property, bought and sold like animals and subjected to inhumane working and living conditions.
This dehumanization of Afrikans gave rise to stereotypes which have plagued Afrikan people in various forms until the present day. For example:
- Already deprived of formal education and forced into submissiveness, Black workers who resisted slavery by working slowly or “playing dumb” were labelled as unintelligent and lazy.
- Women who worked as live-in caregivers fed into the limiting “mammy” stereotype of the docile, subservient domestic who lives to serve whites.
- Workers who rebelled against their conditions in any way led to the characterization of Black workers as criminal and untrustworthy.
When slavery ended, Blacks were rarely ever given compensation for their years of work. (In some cases, slaveowners were compensated by governments for loss of their “property”.) While whites who had benefited for generations from slave labour were able to keep their wealth and pass it down to their descendents, most Blacks were left poor and destitute, and often turned to working under exploitative conditions for their former masters.
The consequences of this generational transfer of wealth can still be felt today. In the United States, for example, the median wealth of white families is 20 times that of black families.
Yet whenever programs designed to address these historic inequities are implemented – from the Freedmen’s bureau in the U.S. to employment equity programs today – it is blacks who are characterized as lazy, or undeserving, or gaining an unfair advantage.
Popular media and the arts, dominated by non-black voices and perspectives, have long served to perpetuate unflattering black stereotypes, from minstrel shows done in blackface to gangsta rappers and brash, hypersexualized images of black women today. While many media outlets today are more aware than in the past of the damaging effects of these stereotypes, and some make attempts to work against them, they are still pervasive. The fact that majorities of people still lead mostly racially segregated lives means that many do not get the opportunity to meet people who dispel these stereotypes for them.
It is in this context that anti-black racism in the workplace takes root and continues to thrive.