Speaking of Racism

The double face of the racist state

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The double face of the racist state
Today the postcolonial, post-immigration societies of the western world present us with a political paradox that has a strong influence over how we interpret and struggle against racism. Put simply, the discourse and practice of western states are both racist and anti-racist. What does this mean? The end of the Second World War and the realisation of the horrors of the Holocaust brought with it a commitment to eradicate racism. Governments and international institutions introduced programmes of education, public information and legislation to this end. Their approach was founded upon the idea that racism is an external force that invades the body politic but that the state itself, contrary to the argument this collection seeks to make, is unconnected from this process. Racism is seen as an aberration of the politics of democratic nation-states, the work of posthumously named fanatics as epitomised by Adolf Hitler. Following the Holocaust, the bringing to an end of colonialism and the beginning of large-scale non-European immigration to the West, it was important to officially prove the falsity of racism as a scientific idea. The emphasis of organisations such as UNESCO in the 1950s, which strongly influenced government policy, on providing alternative explanations for human difference by focusing on culture and ethnocentrism rather than “race” and racism, had an important effect on policy-making (Lentin 2004). Successive governments over the last fifty years have officially promoted the importance of confronting and punishing racism, while at the same time both instituting policies that could only be described as racist and failing to challenge a culture of discrimination that ensures the persistence of racism.

The contemporary political situation throws this paradox into relief. There is an increasing concern in the West with identity or what it means to belong to a particular national entity, to Europe, or to what is considered western civilisation. This identity is being pitted against a non-western essence, that has entered the metropolis and which for many runs the risk of overrunning the West itself. Difference from western cultural norms, which has always been strange and vaguely threatening, has come now to symbolise an attack on values that have taken on proportions of “we-ness” that greatly exaggerate the realities of the majority of those living in today’s diverse societies.

Since the eleventh of September, 2001 this threat has been mainly associated with Islam. The religion itself and Muslims have been associated with barbaric actions and inhumane attitudes. This notion has not confined itself to rhetoric, but has been practically transformed into the “War on Terror”, a war on all fronts that potentially attacks our neighbours in Paris, Amsterdam and London as much as it does those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “collateral damage” caused by this war is the erosion of everybody’s civil liberties, a fact that the politics of fear have managed to convince the majority of us is for our own good. It is impossible to dissociate the fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims from the actions of states in their quest to eliminate the scourge of terrorism. Although we can make coherent arguments that demonstrate the rise in Islamophobia since “9/11”, it is rare that the racial profiling of the brown-skinned in general is perceived as racism. The dominance of “human security” above all political concerns has made this a question of commonsense. It is important to recall that, in Europe, the historical precedent for this is the widespread social antisemitism that indirectly enabled the gas chambers.

In the approach of western states and supranational institutions today there is no sense of the contradiction between the discrimination bred by the human security regime and what racism is officially understood to be. Racism, as an aberration from the “natural” course of modern state politics has always been seen as marginal. It has been treated psychologically, as a problem of individuals, the result of ignorance or socioeconomic disadvantage. Rarely has it been treated as a problem of elites and, even less so, as the business of states. Even the landmark admission of the institutionalised racism of the British police force in 1997 (The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry 1997) focused on the perceived importance of introducing greater numbers of minority ethnic police officers into the force, as though police racism was uniquely a result of individuals’ lack of sensitivity.

This dominant attitude makes it possible for the paradox at the heart of official approaches to dealing with racism and discrimination function. On the one hand, governments admit that great numbers of the population face discrimination in employment, education, health care, and in social and political life. This discrimination is put down to a variety of factors that rarely recognise the role played by states, and the political culture in which they are moulded, in bringing it about. On the contrary, the state is seen as a source of protection against discrimination through its declared commitment to principles of democracy, equal rights and the rule of law. Moreover, the state actively intervenes against discrimination in various ways, including the funding of campaigns, training programmes, employment schemes, educational programmes etc.

On the other hand, states across the West actively participate in the practice of racism in many ways. Most significantly, they do so by distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens on the basis of racialised criteria. Immigration policies are differentially oriented according to country of origin. To curtail the flow of unwanted western-bound immigration, all western states have embarked upon a politics of detention and deportation that violates the treaties that they themselves have signed to protect human rights. There is an increased link drawn between immigration and asylum and terrorism, creating the impression that those wishing to come to the West are a potential threat to “our” security. Finally, children and grandchildren of immigrants do not escape this general association of the “foreigner” with danger or threat. It is more and more common to hear about the radicalisation of young people of immigrant origin, almost always associated with Islamic fundamentalism whether or not these claims have any bearing in reality. Despite the living together of generations of young people of different origins in western metropolises for decades, an image has been created that gangs of ethnically segregated young people endanger our neighbourhoods and that, in the worst cases, they have links to terror organisations that bring the threat to our very existence into the hearts of society.

The uprisings of young people in the banlieues of France for three weeks in November 2003 highlighted the nature of contemporary western racism. The response of the French government was to admit to the social disadvantage faced by residents of these poor and under-serviced areas and to promote the importance of greater “mixité sociale” as a solution to the discrimination faced by young people of minority ethnic origin. This response nevertheless came after the French interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, called the rioters “scum”. It was also tempered by the overriding belief that solutions to the problems of the “difficult neighbourhoods”, as they are euphemistically referred to in French, could be overcome by a reinstatement of “French values” (Lentin 2006). Encouraging diversity, or “mixité sociale”, as a solution to the police brutality that actually triggered the riots or the daily racism faced by brown and black people in a myriad of spheres, reveals the extent to which racism is divorced from acts and practices carried out in the name of the state and relegated to the domain of intercultural communication. The insistence in France, but also in other examples from the US, that these young people are in fact French sends out mixed messages when they are also culturally reified as different from their peers of “French stock”.

The racism of western states cannot be separated from their publicly declared commitment to anti-racism. This is because the definition of racism upon which official anti-racism is built is often very far removed from what the lived-experience of racism tells us that it is. This dissociation of racism from the state and its resultant depoliticisation is what ultimately leads to the bubbling over of rage that became the French riots of late 2005. Until there is a widespread realisation of the need to analyse racism from a perspective that sees the state as central to its origins, its persistence and perhaps its resolution, it will remain impossible to redress the injustices that racism has left as legacies imprinted upon society and individuals.

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