Early in human history, when nations began to form and humanity entered the age of exploration and colonization, religious wars were largely supplanted by ethnic conflict. Like the earlier post on global inequality, colonialism is a major player in contemporary ethnic conflict and inequality.
Colonial rule cared little for differences or antagonism among ethnic groups within a colonized territory. Borders, activities, and social institutions were organized to benefit the colonizers. In many cases, colonial rule actually decreased ethnic conflict. But many countries were not prepared for the sometimes violent ethnic conflict that followed the end of colonial rule. Ethnic groups that had been equally subjugated by colonial rule now found themselves fighting for power in the post-colonial regime. In many cases, the result continues to be a weakened state, rife with in-fighting.
Colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade created the foundation of many New World economies. In many instances, ethnic differences were used to justify unequal power relations. Social discourse about the “natural” inferiority of particular ethnic groups was used to justify their enslavement and exploitation. Ethnic minorities were blamed for social or economic unrest. This process of scapegoating deepened taken for granted social beliefs about ethnic minorities’ inferiority. Belief in the inferiority of particular ethnic groups led to fewer opportunities to accumulate wealth or skills to be competitive in the market. The lack of wealth accumulation and the sometimes intentionally blocked opportunities for ethnic minorities to advance socially created the conditions for rationalized inequality by ethnic group.
The legacy of colonialism and slavery restricted opportunities for the social mobility of many ethnic minorities. Under colonial rule, minorities had few opportunities to acquire wealth, education, or other resources to allow them to hand accumulated wealth or contacts down to their children. After colonial rule, those who took power were the elites who had benefited from colonial rule. They had little incentive to provide more education and better working conditions for minorities, often continuing a cycle of exploitation. Sometimes the exploitation and discriminatory treatment or opportunity was codified into law, such as South African apartheid or U.S. Jim Crow laws. Even when these laws or customs gave way to ostensible equality, the social deck had been stacked. With few opportunities to compete with whites in the historic accumulation of wealth, race and ethnicity continued to be highly correlated with poverty.
That the correlation between ethnicity and correlation continues today is a testament to the devastating legacy of colonial imperialism.