Racism: a beginner’s guide

June 11, 2009 — Review

Written by Arun Kundnani

A short, accessible and jargon-free introduction to theories of racism.

If, even nowadays, one of the objectives of undergraduate study is to make sense of one’s own experience, how effective are the relevant UK university courses in giving students a framework for understanding racism? To begin with, the word ‘racism’ itself jostles for attention in a supermarket of other terms – ‘identity’, ‘postcoloniality’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘multiculture’, ‘hybridity’, ‘whiteness’ – each offering significantly different ways of making sense of the same contemporary political issues. The simple, one-word title of Alana Lentin’s new introductory book – Racism – is therefore unusual in its clarity.

Moreover, in taking racism to be essentially a political phenomenon, which takes multiple forms in specific social and historical contexts, much of the usual arid examination of identity, belonging and individual attitudes is bypassed. Rather than reflecting on how identities are culturally produced and interact or on a set of attitudes associated with the pathology or ignorance of individuals, the focus is on a social relationship of racialised domination that operates across society as a whole. Hence, ‘getting to know people from other cultures, although clearly beneficial, has proven to be insufficient for ending racist discrimination’.

Drawing on the work of Neil MacMaster and David Goldberg, Lentin argues that modern, ideological racism has specific origins in the process of modernisation that began with the Enlightenment in Europe and the emergence of nation-building, in particular ‘the idea of a common ethnic and political heritage, territorially bound by legal frontiers and with limited membership’. Political discourse on immigration is thus intimately bound up with racism, from California’s Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 – the first, modern legislative attempt to control non-White immigration – through to the xeno-racism of European managed migration policies, with their new hierarchy of who is deemed ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ of admission.

Similarly, the question of who is entitled to rights within the nation and who is deemed beyond the protection of the law is inseparable from processes of racialisation. Central to the ‘war on terror’, states Lentin, is the notion that there is a category of people who can be subjected to ‘extraordinary’ forms of punishment and confinement beyond the ‘normal’ rule of law; race provides the essential codes through which such exclusion is enacted.

A powerful chapter on antisemitism (Lentin deliberately omits the usual hyphen to signal a historically specific form of anti-Jewish racism) explores the variations that racisms take in different contexts. While racism, Lentin argues, trades on fixing a group’s character as natural and unchangeable, whether biologically or culturally, what that character is changes with different social contexts. For example, nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century antisemitism involved a variety of inconsistent ideas and images: Jews were portrayed as the secret controllers of capitalism as well as the hidden hands behind anti-capitalist revolution.

Assimilation offered not so much a route out but a different form of racialisation. Unassimilated Jews were seen as eternally alien and outside the mainstream but assimilated Jews were seen as ‘imposters’ and mistrusted. What would now be called the ‘integration debate’ was a trap for nineteenth-century Jews, just as it is today for Muslims. Indeed, ‘The contemporary paranoia, prejudice and ostracism against Muslims in western societies mirrors the treatment of the Jews in pre-war Europe.’ Yet, as Lentin suggests, rather than see these parallels, many instead confuse antisemitism with ‘the not uncontestable but wholly different position of anti-Zionism’.

The target of much of Lentin’s sharp analysis is the attempt to elide the real political issues of racism in favour of the more comfortable terrain of culture, diversity or prejudice. Lost in such a repackaging, argues Lentin forcefully, is racism’s historical connections with nationalism, colonialism, slavery and immigration control. Liberals opposed to multiculturalism (for example, David Goodhart) as well as liberals who defend it are criticised for their dissolution of political conflicts into a language of culture, leading to a ‘tendency to see minority groups as homogeneous and to reduce them to the fact of their cultural difference alone’. Both sides in the liberal multiculturalism debate share the same assumption – that the fundamental issue is managing potentially incompatible cultural differences.

Particularly dangerous is the argument, increasingly circulated today, that racism is the inevitable outcome of the presence of high levels of ethnic diversity. ‘If cultural incompatibility and an excess of diversity are seen as the real causes of racism, it is no longer necessary for the complex political and economic factors behind migration or terrorism to be explained.’ Recent attempts to define an idea of ‘western values’ are shown to involve an arrogant monopolisation of decency on one side of a global cultural divide. ‘Integration’ to these values is no more than coercive assimilation and one-sided blame. Instead, concludes Lentin, only an engagement with the history of racism ‘which is also … the history of the modern western world’ will help us to go beyond it.

Lentin’s book is not only an accessible survey of scholarly writing on the nature of racism but is also a powerful intervention in its own right.

Related links

Racism: a beginner’s guide

Racism: a beginner's guide, Alana Lentin, (Oxford, One World, 2009), £9.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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