In an increasingly violent world, with constant news of death and destruction, questions regarding how it is possible for one group of humans to inflict such violence and exploitation on another are often asked. These are certainly complex questions with no single clear answer. According to Foucault, however, the answer to questions such as this one lies in the concept of racism (2003). Ordinarily, from a lay perspective, racism may be considered a split between what is perceived to be two distinct races of people. Foucault, however, in his attribution of violence to racism defines it as “primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die” (2003: 254).
Here, it is clear that at the core of this idea of racism is the segregation of people into groups, wherein a certain group is viewed as naturally superior with ‘pure’ and ‘good’ attributes, while the other group is viewed as inferior with negative or ‘impure’ attributes (Foucault 2003). With this segregation arises the implication that the existence of the inferior group is a natural threat to the general wellbeing of the population at large, hence sanctioning violence that is carried out against this group for the ‘greater good’ (Foucault 2003). It is significant, here, to note that this violence is further sanctioned due to the viewing of this inferior group as sub-human and devoid of essentially civilised, humanistic characteristics (Foucault 2003). It is this idea of racism that may be seen in acts of terrorism or war across the world, which are essentially acts of violence rooted in this idea of segregation. Further, we see that according to Foucault, this racism is a way of not only “improving one’s own race by eliminating the enemy race, but also as a way of regenerating one’s own race” (2003: 257). This indicates the close link of racism and it’s sanctioning of violence to the idea of a biologically superior, pure population that must ensure its own survival and power by eliminating any and all threat to this purity in order to ensure the pure sustenance and health of the greater population (Foucault 2003).
These ideas of racism go hand in hand with what Foucault refers to as biopolitics – power over the biological body at both individual and mass levels (2003). Here, racism is viewed as the mechanism, within this power, “fragmenting the field of the biological that power controls” while acting as the precondition that makes killing acceptable (Foucault 2003: 255). These ideas of biopolitics and racism are closely linked to our contemporary idea of sovereignty (Foucault 2003). However, it must be mentioned that while links to state, sovereignty, war, terrorism, etc remain, the idea of racism first develops with “colonizing genocide” (Foucault 2003: 257). That is, elements of Foucault’s ideas of race and its implications are first evident through the colonial genocide that was rooted in racism that took place throughout the history of colonialism.
This idea may be closely linked to colonial racism as established by Fanon. While Fanon does not explicitly speak of racism, elements of Foucault’s racism may be derived from Fanon’s descriptions of the colonial experience.
First, considering the depiction of colonial society as a Machinean society with opposing extremes of good and evil as the colonisers and the colonised with regard to essential biological characteristics involving ‘goodness’, ‘beauty’, ‘morality’ and ‘purity’, it is evident that the population has indeed been segregated into superior and inferior groups (Fanon 1963) where the survival or life of one is linked to the destruction or death of the other (as typically expressed in Foucault’s idea of racism). This segregation is, at its core, pure racism. However, the single difference here is that rather than the complete destruction and elimination of the inferior or impure ‘species’, as seen in Nazism, colonialism requires the survival of this lower species for its own survival. Therefore, rather than death, the symptom of racism, here, is extreme exploitation and violence.
While Fanon’s depiction of the colonial relationship and the subsequent struggle for decolonization may be understood through Foucault’s ideas of racism, racism as a concept is taken a step further within Fanon’s argument, linking it to the economy. Here, Fanon states that while the Marxist structure of a capitalistic society is indeed accurate, within a colonial setting it must be altered to take into account the pure racism that is present at the levels of both the base and the superstructure, making them essentially the same (Fanon 1963). Within this context the deep rooted racism is not only racist at the level of the economy but is also with regard to the creation of a distinct identity where the colonised are viewed as sub-human or animal like and can therefore be severely, repeatedly violated (Fanon 1963). This identity, with time becomes severely entrenched within the colonised and it is with the questioning of this segregation that the struggle for decolonisation can take place (Fanon 1963). Therefore, racism or segregation is the root of colonial violence and genocide while the questioning of this segregation leads to the struggle for freedom which in turn leads to a liberation from the ideological racism in itself (Fanon 1963).
However, whether the struggle for freedom or decolonisation did indeed lead to freedom from racism or if the idea of racism is ideologically so deeply rooted within society that it cannot be erased is a question that remains to be answered.
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrintgon. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.