One of the first unspoken parts of the Star Wars extra-movie canon, dating decades back to the first trilogy, was that the Galactic Empire was discriminating towards non-humans. This was established early on, when the first extra-movie sources for Star Wars (books, comics) started coming out.
There were several reasons for this. Some were part of the story – the Empire was evil, therefore intolerant; striving for uniformity, therefore especially intolerant to anything “different” (and there was also the fact that Imperial officers looked and acted like Nazi commanders from contemporary war films). These reasons, however, were kind of secondary and did not necessarily mean things had to be perceived the way they were.
Only Human Actors, Only Human Imperials
The first and strongest reasons to assume that the Empire was xenophobic were, so to say, external – indirectly influenced by the way the film story was originally written. Especially in the original films, it was simply easier to make majority of the characters human, therefore, non-humans didn’t appear in many prominent roles. Especially when it came to important characters with lot of screentime, it was difficult to create costumes that would not start looking ridiculous or break the immersion when observed for a long time. An occassional almost static alien in the background or in one scene (like Greedo) was fine, an alien as a protagonist would require much more effort (Chewbacca, who was basically a big human covered in fur, was about as far as it was safe to go; Yoda had to be a puppet, but you really couldn’t spend that much effort on every single character in the story).
These external reasons, however, soon carried over into the canon at large. We could start from the fact that there were no aliens among the Imperials, let alone Imperial commanders, in the movies. Even though the bounty hunters or spies the Empire used were very often alien, they were “contracted employees”, but all the officers on board the Death Stars were human. Obviously, fans who delved deep eventually began asking the question: how comes? A satisfactory, believable answer was needed. To say “it just randomly happened that there were no aliens in the room” would be possible, but it would require some suspension of disbelief. After all, already the first Star Wars movie showed many different species. By pure numbers, out of a dozen commanders in the Death Star’s conference room, we would expect one human, one Rodian, one Wookiee… The absence of non-humans led to a simple conclusion: the Empire was human, or at least human-centric.
Why Only The Empire?
Humans were obviously dominant among the Rebels as well, but there, thanks to decentralised system of leadership and more aliens shown among its active supporters (Chewie, Yoda), it was clear that the Rebels can’t discriminate non-humans. It wouldn’t even make sense, since they were happy to get any allies they could. Eventually, admiral Ackbar appeared as a Rebel commander in Return of the Jedi, with a crew of members of his own species. It was a clear signal supporting the theory: the Rebels allow, probably even support diversity, the Empire suppresses it.
But what about the Empire? Was it really necessary to assume there was some discrimination present in the system? From the “historical” point of view, even just what we know from the movies, there was no reason for it. Humans and aliens have been living together for thousands of years – wasn’t it possible that they would just learn to treat each other as sentient beings, regardless of their visual appearance? How could the Empire change it so massively?
This question became unavoidable with the arrival of the prequels, which showed the Galactic Republic and its Senate consisted of members of thousands of different species. Sure, there were many planets where humans formed the majority – like Naboo or Alderaan – but that was only a fraction. Many of the Jedi were non-humans. There were crowds of aliens in the background on Coruscant. How come that after the Galactic Republic became the Galactic Empire, non-humans simply disappeared?
The Dark Side of Human Mind
There is one more angle to this issue, which offers one possible explanation. Clearly, the Empire would be xenophobic because it was evil. Why is it evil? Because it is ruled by a Sith Lord. There is evil on the top, seeping through all levels of the society; perhaps the Dark Side itself now reigns in the Galaxy, waking up the worst in everyone.
Let us look at it this way: there was one more reason why the Galactic citizens shouldn’t discriminate each other based on their visage, and that was the belief in the Force. If during the old Republic times the Jedi were omnipresent and the faith in the Force was a known thing, so would be the belief that everything is part of the Force. Everything, and everyone: regardless of how many eyes or tentacles you had, you should be treated as just one more manifestation of the living Force.
With the ascension of the Dark Side in the form of Palpatine, the ways of the Force were forgotten; Palpatine made sure of it by exterminating the Jedi. No longer being reminded that they are all one in the Force, the citizens might have more easily succumbed to their other instincts, the visible separation given by their different appearances and demeanor. I find this a very believable, and very “Star Wars”-appropriate explantion. The idea that where Dark Side reigns, “dark” inclinations grow stronger also among humans (and others) was further reinforced in other sources, like stories about the Old Republic, where the ancient Sith society was also portrayed as discriminating towards non-human, non-Sith species.
Thrawn – The Alien Who Beat The Odds
One of the very first (and most succesful) Star Wars novels addressed the position of non-aliens in the Empire’s service directly. It was the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn, published in 1991, which took place shortly after the Return of the Jedi. Its chief antagonist, the alien Grand Admiral Thrawn, had returned from his exploration mission to uncharted fringes of the Galaxy (which explained his absence in the movies) and reunited the Imperial remnant to strike back at the Rebels.
The blue-skinned, red-eyed Thrawn was a strategic genius, clearly surpassing the incompetent officers from the films, however, he had the disadvantage of being non-human. In the version of the Empire assumed to be canon at the time when Zahn’s books were published, no alien would be promoted to a higher rank thanks to the system’s inherent discrimination. However, the Emperor himself had recognised Thrawn’s capabilities and gave him the highest rank an Imperial officer could attain. Partly to amend the controversy, however, he sent him on a mission to unknown space, saving the offended officers the need to interact with him on daily basis.
The New Canon
The assumption of xenophobic Empire disappeared when the Star Wars canon underwent a change after Disney bought the franchise. Some elements from the previous canon were retained, but some were dropped. Generally, the Galaxy was presented as more diverse, and discrimination even inside the Empire is no longer an automatic assumption.
Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn was among the characters awarded a comeback, even though his story had to be altered: in the Star Wars Rebels show, nobody seems to care what species he is. In Zahn’s newest canon book, Thrawn, however, his painful ascend to command is shown to have met a few stumbling blocks. Zahn has – fairly masterfully, in my opinion – figured out a way to shed more light on the problem of the Empire and alien discrimination. Let us finish this article by an excerpt from a dialogue between Thrawn and young ensign Eli Vanto from the book:
“Well, officially we’re not allowed to disrespect aliens. …I say officially, because that’s what the General Orders say we’re supposed to do. But that’s not always what we really do.”
“You dislike nonhumans?”
Eli hesitated. “There were a lot of different nonhuman groups in the Separatist movement. …The Clone Wars killed a lot of people and devastated whole worlds. There’s still a lot of resentment about that, especially among nonhumans.”
“But were not other nonhuman groups allied with the Republic?”
“Sure,” Eli said. “And most of them did all right. But humans still carried most of the weight. …Well, that’s the perception, anyway.”