So, first things first: for all that people talk about myth and legend, the inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons -- and, to some extent, for The Hobbit, which in turn inspires D&D -- is 19th- and early 20th-century adventure fiction. Dime novels, pulp magazines, all that kind of thing. I don't just mean fantasy and science fiction, but also historical adventure stories, westerns, and so on. You can easily see the tropes of adventure gaming in, I dunno, Treasure Island. And in this type of adventure fiction, humans of some kind -- often humans of a different skin colour from the protagonists -- appear in the story as disposable cannon fodder, just a sort of environmental hazard.
OK, now, I'm not gonna lie: this is pretty racist. It's part and parcel of the underlying cultural assumptions of its time, and I'm not here to pick on anyone from the past for holding hurtful beliefs that I only don't hold because of my very different upbringing. There but for the grace of God go I, and future generations will probably think I'm awful because of some thing I can't even perceive now. But, leaving aside the characters of the authors, I think that we can all agree that portraying your fellow people as bestial subhumans who can be butchered without moral consequence is pretty uncool, especially given that this reflected/influenced the contemporary view that they were, er, bestial subhumans who could be butchered without moral consequence.
Note, however, that this is very much a matter of narrative convention -- even war movies that do spend some time thinking about the morality of killing don't mind when their heroes mow down legions of enemy soldiers. We would all be a little uncomfortable about a movie about how good it is to kill The Germans, but no one minds killing Zee Chermans. In fact, Zee Chermans are just about the only human group it's still acceptable to portray as training dummies with shoes, but we're all agreed it's OK because they started it, I guess? I digress.
In short: some stories want to consider the humanity of the enemy and some don't. And the ones that don't are extra creepy when the enemy is, say, an indigenous population that your heroes were, in the real world, in the process of killing and dispossessing.
So orcs are in many ways a solution to this problem -- instead of treating human beings with complex lived experiences as primitive brutes worthy only of extermination, simply replace them with primitive brutes worthy only of extermination. What you want is to tell stories of adventure and battle without bringing in moral considerations about the value of that battle. So roll out the Native Americans and roll in, I dunno, Koopa Troopas.
|Ah, the eternal struggle between good and evil.|
And at a first glance, that's what I think people who subscribe to the "orcs are a racist idea" argument are doing -- they're looking at the general outline of the situation ("a group are being portrayed as a malevolent horde") and not at the specifics ("that group consists of actual monstrous brutes.")
I suspect that that is why, much over the objections of Tolkien purists, Warhammer orcs went green in the mid-80s and became goofier and goofier. Their over-the-top caricature tells people that this is pew-pew funtimes and not a story where moral concerns have much room to breathe.
However, there are two problems with my line of thought, one pointing in each direction:
First, roleplayers love to explore settings. And I don't just mean see what's over the next hill -- I mean they love to dig around in the details. Where do orcs live? How is their society structured? What are their cultural norms? Can we communicate with them? And so on and so on and so on. And the more that happens, the more likely you are to create an orc society that is an analogue of some kind of human society and therefore either a) portray your orcs as moral actors, harming their narrative function, or b) portray some human society as valueless slaughter-mobs, which takes us back to square one.
Not that there's anything wrong with a) above. I love Glorantha. But not every game is in Glorantha, and it wouldn't be suitable for every game to be. But as soon as you start thinking about how those societies work, you humanise or at least alien (as opposed to monster) -ise them and then, yeah, it's kind of weird to say "we can kill these guys and fuck thinking about the moral content ever." I don't know if it's racist per se, but it's weird. And so certain types of play get closed off. The enemy in Glorantha, when not literal demons or whatever, tend to be just soldiers on the other side, the killing of whom is seldom pew-pew funtimes unless properly managed.
The other is that maybe imagining conflicts in which the enemy are nothing but ambulatory targets does incline people to that kind of thinking, and that's bad because racism and militarism and so on. I'm not convinced by this argument; I think people demonise outgroup members just fine all by themselves. I would have reservations playing Ganghedge or whatever (don't ask) but largely that's a moot question because it doesn't sound like my thing in general. Playing F.A.T.A.L doesn't make you a racist, but being a racist might make you willing to put up with it.
Anyway, to summarise: I can see why people might think the whole lots-of-1HD-humanoids-to-butcher setting has connections to historical racism, but I think that to identify it as racist is looking at it from the wrong perspective. This is tied to a larger point about violence and morality in RPGs which I will talk about one of these days.