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Racism is Conditional

Recently, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and largest city and some parts of southern Iceland. With mountains engraved with waterfalls and glaciers, geysers lined with black sand beaches and crystal clear waters, I felt like I was exploring a different planet. My senses were on overload, except for one. And that was my sixth sense of awareness about racism.

As a Black American, my sixth sense of awareness is consistently stimulated. But here, I could breathe. There was no undercurrent of entitlement or racism among the people I encountered in Iceland. Conversations and interactions weren’t latent with racial subtext and nuances. They were just conversations and interactions. This figurative breath of fresh air is indicative of the gaps found in Iceland’s social heritage.

Racism is a conditional social construct that doesn’t have to exist. Iceland’s lack of colonialism and undogmatic approach to capitalism seemed to shape its welcoming, all-inclusive sentiment. America rose to power from the ashes of colonialism, and sustained its global grasp with capitalism.

Iceland and America are irrelative to each other. Their distinct histories, geographical locations in the world, and policies prevents any apples to apples comparison. However, the absence and presence of certain social elements in each country does provide insight into how racism is weaved into a nation’s culture.

In its infancy, racism developed via colonialism. During the late 16th century in America, an onslaught of English, French, Spanish, and Dutch settlers exploited the lands, killed millions of Native Americans, and disseminated their values until they were the dominate culture. Scholars vary in their data for Native American populations during the Pre-Columbian era, but it’s estimated that about 100 million Native Americans inhabited the Americas before the arrival of the Europeans. Jeffrey Ostler, author of Genocide and American Indian History, estimated that about 80% to 90% of the Native American population perished as a result of colonialism.

On the contrary, Iceland didn’t have any indigenous inhabitants and was discovered by Naddod, a Norwegian-Faroese Viking in 860 B.C. Iceland would go on to become one of the first countries to establish a parliament in 930 B.C. Colonization didn’t happen in Iceland because there were no natives to colonize.

Successful colonization is marked with genocide. There has to be a “them” vs. “us” approach carried out by racism in order for it to work. During Colonial America, there was an emphasis placed on killing the natives so that a European elite could rise to power. While Iceland did have its share of land wars, it wasn’t motivated by race. Even after America abolished slavery in 1865, colonialism transitioned into nations practicing “whitening” tactics in an effort to attract and keep more European immigrants.

According to the Atlantic Black Star, Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, South Africa, and Australia all enacted laws that favored European immigrants and even banned non-White immigrants from migrating to their nations. All five countries also had indigenous people who were inflicted by colonization.

From the causalities of colonialism came capitalism. Arguably, colonialism’s legacy lived on through a free enterprise economic system controlled by a private class– capitalism. Dr. Edward Younkins, author of Capitalism and Commerce, describes America as a democratic capitalist nation where a “dynamic complex of economic, political, moral-cultural, ideological, and institutional forces” shape a multi-faceted economic system.

Certainly, there are benefits to capitalism: it promotes innovation, economic growth, and political freedom. Capitalism is what made America a global player, but it was built on the backs of the underclass – usually people of color and immigrants.

Malcolm X once said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” And the pre-Civil War era was just that.

According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, by 1840 the South grew 60% of the world’s cotton and provided about 70% of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry. Although the North didn’t have slaves, it did develop a number of businesses that catered to the burgeoning South from insurance companies to cotton brokers. Black slaves weren’t capitalizing off their own capital. Fast forward to today, and Blacks are still unequal to Whites regarding capital.

Iceland and other Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden) follow the Nordic model, where it’s an economic system of free market capitalism complemented with a cohesive welfare state and collective bargaining. The Research Council of Norway found that Nordic countries rank among the highest in the world in terms of wealth and equality. Iceland also boasts an extensive welfare system for its citizens that includes universal healthcare and tertiary education. It’s not every man for themselves.

The Global Peace Index ranked Iceland as the most peaceful country in the world due to its low crime rate and lack of armed forces. If there’s an equal distribution of wealth with a built-in safety net, there’s no gaps for citizens to fall through.

Again, Iceland and America are unfair comparisons. Iceland is an island in the middle of the ocean and doesn’t experience an influx of immigrants like America does. Immigrants certainly plays a role in race dynamics. Also, Iceland has a pretty homogenous population with little to no interracial relations within the country  compared to America. Iceland could never be like America and America could never be like Iceland. But the fabric of each country’s history does point to how racism is constructed or how it isn’t. Since history often dictates how a country is today, given the right historical ingredients, maybe race relations could’ve been different in America.