The Lure of ‘Frozen’ Racism

March 31, 2016


“I know the whole House will want to join me in marking Holocaust Memorial Day. It is right our whole country should stand together to remember the darkest hour of humanity. Last year, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I said we would build a striking national memorial in London to show the importance Britain places on preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Today I can tell the House this memorial will be built in Victoria Tower Gardens. It will stand beside Parliament as a permanent statement of our values as a nation and will be something for our children to visit for generations to come.”

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, 27 January 2016

So began Prime Minister’s Question Time on Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 in the British Parliament. Later, in response to the Leader of the Opposition’s questions, Cameron rejoindered that, far from standing up for ‘the British people and hard-working taxpayers’, Jeremy Corbyn ‘met with a bunch of migrants in Calais [and] said they could all come to Britain.’ Many were quick to point out the cruel irony of his dismissive statement moments after his commitment to ensure the memory of the Holocaust never be forgotten. As Joseph Harker pointed out in The Guardian, ‘one couldn’t help but wonder whether, if Cameron had been around in the 1930s, he would have laughed about “a bunch of Jews”.’

Cameron’s callous use of migrants stuck in the no man’s lands of the Calais Jungle and the lesser known but harsher Grande Synthe refugee camp to take a swipe at his Labour opponent came on the back of the decision in Denmark to strip asylum seekers of valuables worth over 10,000 Danish Kroner (€1,340). Holocaust analogies flew fast there too: Danes were following in Nazi footsteps by seizing asylum seekers’ valuables, just as was done to the Jews.

Important as it is to draw these comparisons, the story of Cameron and the Danish government’s supposed hypocrisy only partially explains where current European responses to the hysterically named “migrant crisis” sit in relation to the European history of race.

In fact, a large part of the problem in interpreting and proposing solutions to the persistence of racism can be located in the problematic of comparison itself. One of the most dogged problems facing students of race and racism is one of definition. Racism is correctly viewed as an historical phenomenon (although the impact of psychology has led to its facile identification as a perennial facet of human behaviour). However, the tendency to historicise race and racism is often accompanied by a partial reading of that history. This is particularly the case in Europe where the dominant focus has been on a version of the history of race that, as Barnor Hesse has pointed out, begins in the 18th century with the advent of racial pseudo-science, and ends with the culmination of the Second World War.

World War II is thus retold as a fight primarily against racism and fascism. I have written extensively about the efforts to expunge race following 1945 as an outdated and discredited concept, making way for ideas about difference, such as culture and ethnicity, that rejected the naturalised inevitability of race as genetics. What this undigested rejection of race left Europe with, politically, was the tendency to seek to define race and racism according to a singular, teleological process that ignored their rather more messy trajectories. In other words, the longer history of race as a political project, beginning with the invasion of the Americas through the spread of European colonialism, the expropriation of lands and resources and the genocides of indigenous peoples, the institution of slavery and later indentured servitude, became severed from the telling of the story of race, leaving just the specific moment of Nazism. Even in relation to the Nazi Holocaust itself, it is far from orthodox to point out the colonial antecedents of the concentration and death camps as instituted by the Germans in, for example, Namibia, not to mention their use by the British during the Boer war, or the very similar treatment of Aboriginals in what was to become Australia.

As I argued here, racism becomes ‘frozen’ in relation to past events that have been sanctioned for identification as racist. In part this is to do with the problematic genealogy of the term ‘racism’ itself, first coined to describe the spread of fascistic ideas by Eurocentric early opponents of fascism in the 1930s. As Hesse argues, these defenders of European democracy against fascism were not as concerned with the co-temporality of colonial rule in most of the world. In Australia, which fought on the side of the Allies to defeat Hitler, Aboriginal people were considered flora and fauna until a change in the constitution as late as 1967. This inconsistency did not affect the liberal European orientation that gave rise to the concept of racism.

Hesse’s conclusion is that when racism, devised Eurocentrically, is applied to the call for equality and justice for colonised people or, for example, Black people in the USA, it is doomed to fail for it was not originally conceived to encapsulate their experiences and agitate for their full autonomy. Be that as it may, and there are good arguments with hindsight that bear this observation out, the problem of fixing the definition of race, and consequently racism, must be scrutinised.

In part, the problem is methodological. As David Goldberg shows in his chapter in Karim Murji and John Solomos’ edited volume, Theories of Race and Ethnicity, most studies that seek to examine racism beyond the confines of one society,

‘have tended to draw together almost exclusively those states considered to exhibit the most extreme and extremely different modes of state racism. These dominant examples of compared racisms are taken either to indicate that their differences are not as extreme as first thought or to reveal that, at least tentatively, there are a limited number of models for state-based racisms.’

He concludes that in contrast to this potentially reductive and comparativist frame, what is needed to fully conceptualise ‘racial conception and racist practice’ is a relational and interactive framework. This would reveal both their local specificities and their ‘trans-territorial conceptions and expressions’. In other words, it is not that there is a confined number of prototypes that explain racial structures and racist expression that can be compared among them with the consequence that any racialising process or racist practice that does not measure up to these exemplars becomes ‘not racism’. Rather, to quote Goldberg again, ‘terms circulate, practices are shaped and fail, only to be taken up and refined in environments that prove to be more conducive to their articulation’. Race, as John Solomos and Les Back have argued, is a scavenger idea that feeds off seeds sown in one location, pollinating them in a sometimes entirely different context. It may not always be clear to us how and why that process took place; tracing the relational aspects that Goldberg talks about requires an intimate knowledge of the mechanisms through which race is not only reproduced but mutates, shaping itself to the context and time.

Gavan Titley and I pointed this out in our 2011 book, The Crises of Multiculturalism, when we described how the idea of multicultural failure becomes a ‘recited truth’ that is translated between societies with vastly different migration histories, ideological standpoints, and policy approaches.

Thus, the direct – and correct – comparison of David Cameron’s pronouncements on a ‘bunch of migrants’ and the Danish government’s new policy on asylum seekers’ valuables with the Holocaust – the racial exemplar par excellence – may obscure more than it reveals. The first thing that struck me on reading these twin developments in the rapidly deteriorating state of European asylum politics was their predictability. As Joseph Harker reminds us, Cameron has form having already described asylum seekers as ‘swarms’ and barely raising the asylum seeker intake in the wake of Aylan Kurdi’s horrible death. But the Danish decision to seize their assets seemed to be of a different order, beyond words. In reality, however, Germany and Switzerland have already instituted similar policies.

As, Michala Bendixen pointed out,

Coverage of jewel issue took all the attention away from the more serious parts of the bill. The most draconian one is a three-year waiting period to apply for family reunification. Even the Danish state’s own Institute of Human Rights says this is a direct breach of article 8 of the European convention on human rights.

The reason why the ‘jewel issue’ shocked was not because the expropriation of valuables (resources) of the majority of the world by Europeans hasn’t been central to the race project since its inception, but because it reminded us of the macabre-ness of Jewish gold fillings. What ‘frozen’ racism has done so successfully is to encapsulate race in its spectacularity while playing down, not only its banality (it has become commonplace to talk about racism as ‘everyday’), but also its more intangible and complex machinations, which have become more or less obscured.

So much of what is needed to understand the operations of race in its entirety can be found in dry, bureaucratic documents such as those so well described by Ann Stoler in her writing on Dutch and French colonialism in Race and the Education of Desire (for an excellent account of Stoler’s approach listen to this interview on the Archipelago podcast). These descriptions of the minutiae that govern the possibilities of colonised populations are mirrored in policies such as that recently enacted by the Danish government, only a small part of which pertained to asylum seekers’ valuables. The three-year waiting period to apply for family reunification for example can be re-written as commonsensical from the perspective that can only see migration as a drain on resources understood as properly and exclusively ‘national’ (the most common defence of the Danish asylum policy is that the gold standard Danish social welfare system must be preserved for Danish citizens). However, it is important to understand race as having the function, not only of condemning other human beings to a life separated from their family for example, but as placing more or less arbitrarily designated non-white, non-European, non-Christian populations (yesterday Jews, today Syrians) in the position of ‘being done to’, and not as agents of their autonomous will.

The way in which that is achieved is through the connection of racialised discourse – crime and terrorism, economic drain, cultural incompatibility – to banalised bureaucratisation. As Sanmati Verma et al point out, a good example is the ‘Code of Behaviour‘ for asylum seekers living in the “Australian community” on so-called “bridging” temporary protection visas. They are threatened with return to detention centres should they violate the code, much of which pertains to the intangible perception of anti-social behaviour, from the most ordinary (spitting, bad language) to the more disruptive, including protest. This potentially leaves the arbitration of the fate of temporarily protected asylum seekers (who in any case have not been offered refugee status and permanent settlement) to any individual who deems them to have breached the code and reports them to the Australian Border Force. Even if this may not eventuate (although regular ‘compliance’ operations are undertaken by the Force), it leaves the affected group living under constant threat of a sudden and permanent change to their circumstances and an end to their freedom, however circumscribed and temporary.

Taking on board Goldberg’s insistence on the adaptive and relational dimensions of race, ‘competencies’ can be understood to be widely definable, with multiple – often contradictory – interpretations coexisting with each other. For example, in the week running up to David Cameron’s pronouncements on Holocaust Memorial Day, he was widely lambasted for insisting that Muslim women in the UK be forced to learn English in an effort to curb what he called their ‘traditionally submissive’ tendency not to condemn radicalisation. This unleashed a satisfactory counter-attack on social media by multilingual, highly competent Muslim women under the hashtag #traditionallysubmissive. Nevertheless, the coexistence of Cameron’s desire to free Muslim women through education with his attack on migrants as seeking to destroy the ‘British way of life’ – thus ascribing to them both ignorance and cunning – is not immaterial (perhaps the real comparison with Nazism, which also portrayed Jews as both all-powerful and as racially degenerate, is here).

The point is that it does not matter because race has been, and continues to be, about the delineation of proximity and distance and the ever-changing parameters of where one fits in. What defines cultural compatibility? Where are the boundaries of ‘national values’ drawn? And what measures are used to assess the individual according to them? Who arbitrates? What arguments are used to legitimate applying these measures? Who, beyond the bureaucrats, even knows about the myriad constraints on those non-citizens in limbo outside of an ‘event’ such as #traditionallysubmissive or ‘the jewel issue’? It is relevant here to consider how the issue of detention was brought home when a US-American PhD student was put in a detention centre after being refused leave to remain in the UK.

Indeed, the multiplicity, intangibility and seeming arbitrariness of these judgments of ‘competence’ or ‘compatibility’ play into the distance that is put between the purportedly ‘real’ – frozen – racism of the past, and the commonsense approaches to the ‘management’ of migration flows and the assurance of integration today. With the supposedly post-racial hindsight afforded by a partial reading of the history of racism that freezes it in narrowly defined regimes, events, and practices, the messiness and complexity of race as it appears to us today is easily dismissed as ‘not racist’. In essence, the success with which racism has been hegemonically defined from a white standpoint, not only denies experience as key to the subjective definition of racism (as has long been pointed out by Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), but refuses to get ‘bogged down’ in the detail of race in practice.

The operations of race can be found in the contradictions, between the lines, in the ironical, hypocritical and paradoxical statements, and so on. Because it is the apparent confusion that is created that permits racial rule to persist. It is precisely because this lack of clarity breeds confusion and misunderstanding that there is hesitation in defining something as racist. It is this lack of clarity too that allows purportedly ‘anti-white racism’ to take ascendance as an idea, deracinated as it is from any understanding of history.

If we seek to understand the functioning of race at a time that is deemed post-racial, it is imperative to understand that it is indeed this that keeps race alive: a defining feature of race post-race is the perfecting of racism’s deniability. The violence of race is not only in the materiality of its effects, but in the denial of its presence as an arbitrating factor in decisions about human life.

by Alana Lentin | @alanalentin |


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