Speaking of Racism

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alana lentin & ronit lentin

Speaking of Racism
It has never been easy, but speaking about racism in the western political climate of the first decade of the twenty-first century is more difficult than ever before. There is a feeling in post-colonial and post-immigration societies that the blatant, overt racism of the past is no longer as pressing. We hear more and more talk of euphemisms such as discrimination, intolerance or the challenges of living with diversity than of the bluntness of racism. Racism evokes times past: the extermination of the “racially impure”, the trade in captured slaves, the lynchings, the injustices of Apartheid… It is unimportant that the legacies of these histories continue to define societies in many areas of the world. What is important is that “we” can relegate these horrors to times and peoples past. Anything that reminds us of them—the chanting neo-nazi “thugs”, their excrement through letter boxes, the jokes in bad taste—are written off as ignorance at the margins, psychologically challenged individuals to be either helped and educated or written off.

There is a deep discomfort about admitting racism, in Europe in particular, because common wisdom, fed by national and supranational policy, tells us that racism opposes everything that we believe in as citizens of democratic, “civilised” modern states; at least the virulent racism we associate with ghettos and genocide. When it comes to the everyday issues of discrimination in employment, education and access to services, unjust policing and the racialisation of minority religion and culture we question whether this can really be called racism. Isn’t it in fact rather arbitrary? Isn’t just a question of a few “bad apples” to be weeded out?

In reality, racism goes well beyond the everyday discrimination that continues to affect the children and grandchildren of immigrants and indigenous minorities. Today’s racism descends directly from the pernicious history of twentieth century Europe. This is the racism of the immigration regime: the rounding up of “illegal” immigrants, their incarceration in detention centres, their expulsion—bound and gagged—on chartered planes. There is the scapegoating of Muslims for the threat posed to western culture and civilization, the attack on the civil liberties of those racially profiled brown-skinned others, blamed for bringing the Middle East onto our streets, and the equation of every political action taken by a black or brown person with fanaticism, barbarism and primitivity. Finally, there is the antisemitism that political leaders insist on blaming on abstractly defined Muslims, purposefully avoiding the implications of pitting minority groups against each other and leaving officials free to rail against Jew hatred while drafting even stricter policy to curtail asylum and immigration.

In other words, racism both past and present is inextricably linked both to the policy instituted by states and to the political climate engendered by governmental leaders playing the proverbial “race card”. The fact that it is impossible to disentangle it from the role of the state in its perpetuation is what makes it so difficult to talk about racism, in either politics, academia or just among our friends and acquaintances. Few brought up in the culture of national education systems that preach the supremacy of western democracy are capable of admitting the interdependency between racism and the functioning of the state. Furthermore, the anti-racism that the majority white population is exposed to is not based upon the lived-experience of those who face racism, but on vague principles of tolerance, solidarity and respect for human dignity that tend to leave out a lot of the detail. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that people facing racism are often accused of exaggeration and self-victimisation.

Under these conditions, it is all the more important that the interconnections between “race” and state are brought out. The papers collected in this book all seek to draw attention to these relationships from either historical, theoretical or contemporary sociological perspectives and, in some cases, in specific relationship to the Irish case. These papers are bound together by their being unapologetically political. In opposition to the contemporary tendency to dissociate sociological phenomena from contemporary political processes and events—not least the ongoing “War on Terror”—the contributors to Race and State seek to engage theory, history and sociology with the world which inspires them. This collection aims to contribute to the revitalisation of a politicised approach to doing social science through the specific prism of “race”. As both Eric Voegelin (1933) and Michel Foucault (2003), two key figures in the theoretical background to the discussion of “race” and state, have pointed out, the discussion of “race” and racism is interesting because of what it can tell us about the nature of the state and politics. While the contributors to this volume are more committed to the study of racism for its own sake, the point is well taken and serves to validate the importance of insisting on treating racism politically and not, as is too often the case, as pathology.

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