31 July 2018

The Return of Racism

What is history and where does it take place?” ponders Sebastian Haffner in his unfinished work Defying Hitler, written in 1939 and published posthumously. “History teaches us, but it has no pupils” had already answered Antonio Gramsci twenty years earlier in his 1919 Letter from Prison. Overdone by the mainstream media, and per such absence-presence of history, the so-called multiculturalism at play during the wedding of Prince Harry with actress Meghan Markle in May 2018 would have us believe that the British royal family’s embracing of other cultures is a sign of times of racial progress – just as would be the case with France’s cheering welcoming of its World Cup football team winners, a squad made up in vast majority of children of African immigrants. Would that it were so. Racism and racial discrimination are to the contrary making a spectacular comeback. The latter being as much an echo of earlier forms of inequality as it is showing continuity in patterns of dispossession, one wonders: has racism ever left us?

If such an epiphany – which makes the 2010s look so much like the 1970s, the other big decade of racial tension and identity clashes – has so much acuity today, it is primarily because of the prevalence of a misleading narrative of continued social progress and of linear and cumulative progress of tolerance within societies round the world. Such a narrative is ahistorical and constitutes indeed one of the great contemporary myths. If admittedly, there have been significant milestones – such as, notably, the international campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa – the swiftness and breadth of the current wave of re-emerging racism is importantly underwritten by a history of non-resolution of the problem.

Three overarching phenomena preside over the current revival of racism, namely the negative exemplarityof a number of political leaders round the world, the societal banalisationthat masks the extent of the issue and the intellectual rationalisationwhich enables its expression. The first, the most important, is the one of a ‘social jurisprudence’, as we can term it, enacted by several leaders and according to which executive behaviour has explicitly introduced acceptance and mimetism thus packaging racism in parameters of acceptability. Front and centre in this sequence are the actions of United States President Donald Trump. There is no overstating the negative role play by a head of state considered “racist” by 49% of Americans in a July 2018, and whose election was arguably less shocking than the ex post factorationalisation that it generated amongst many quarters in the United States and beyond, leading to this standardisation of neo-racism.

Seven days into his presidency and quite symbolically at the occasion of the Holocaust remembrance day (which did not fail in irking many in the Jewish-American community), President Trump signed on 27 January 2017 Executive Order 13769, commonly known as the “Muslim Ban”, a ruling which, in a democratic republic, introduced formally a discrimination against individuals on the basis of their religion. The upholding of this decision – which, in some cases, impacted US nationals – by the US Supreme Court on 26 June 2018 cemented institutionally such official policy of discrimination.

Initiated in this way, the Trump era played out subsequently on a martellato mode of constant normalisation of proto-racist acts opening the possibility of discriminatory practice or merely revealing it. Internationally, African states (as well as Haiti and El Salvador) were called “shithole countries” and, domestically, America plunged full feet into an as-of-yet unacknowledged but fast moving new racial crisis. Antisemitism increased by 60% in 2017, the highest increase rate in several decades, and anti-black sentiment augmented as perceptibly seen in a number of incidents playing unceasingly out across the nation. Black individuals were singled out and subject of harassment in public pools by simple citizens granting themselves a right to control and call the police to express “suspicion” towards a twelve-year-old boy delivering newspapers, boys mowing a lawn, families holding a picnic in a public park or using the facilities of a gym for which they had paid.

Amidst such self-deputisation and racial profiling, there are today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, 954 hate groups active in the United States. The phenomenon is also qualitatively striking as witnessed, revealingly, in the case of a Florida public school teacher casually recording a podcast discussing her social science classes flavoured with white supremacist views, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and calling for a return to segregation. Equally problematic in its ill-conceived representation of the normality of these views was The New York Times’ November 2017 controversial profiling of a Nazi sympathizer (“casually approving remarks about Hitler, disdain for democracy and belief that the races are better off separate”). Quite logically in a zeitgeistof this sort, an… anti-lynching bill could be introduced in 2018 before the US Congress. A congress, that is, for which Nazi sympathisers are running, just as representatives with similar views already sit in the British Parliament – another nation where anti-Semitism is on the rise– while fascism is making a comeback in Italy and Slavic ultra-nationalism rises anew in Eastern Europe.

If clearly there is racial trouble in the United States where residential segregation and asymmetric policing persist (44% of Latino males are arrested by age 23), one would be mistaken in deeming the problem solely American or European. Racism is also making a comeback in the Global South. In Libya, where, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), migrants are sold in open markets; in Algeria, where Sub-Saharan migrants are transported and left in the desert without food or water; in Lebanon where Kenyan women were beaten in plain sight and a black child denied access to a daycare centre; in India, where the memory of Hitler inspires for some the killing of Muslims; and in Myanmar where a modern-day genocide is playing out before the international community – not to forget the raiding of Roma camps in Ukraine.

The second phenomenon, which in recent years has enabled the recrudescence of racism is its banalisation. Considering erroneously that the issue is no longer an urgent problem in need of attention and resources, many societies have trivialised the question. Consequently, they became less apt to map the evolution of its landscape and detect its resurgence. In truth, societies round the world are accountable in deeper ways for many started showing signs of racism fatigue and indeed irritation when presented with evidence of its persistence. Such irresponsibility-cum-insensitivity is quite consequential as it hits doubly those facing the effect of racism; with, on the one hand, denial of the issue (e.g., white people reportedly less inclined to consider President Trump racist, according to an Associated Press/NORC Centre for Public Affairs Research February 2018 poll displaying what actress Anne Hathaway has called “white privilege”, and denial of the victims’ experience. Such dynamics partake of the materialisation of an unexamined phraseology whereby the same experience is represented, processed and eventually dealt with differently depending on the identity of the person. Accordingly, a Malian doctor contracted from a medical cabinet in Bamako to one in Paris is an “immigrant”, and an unemployed man journeying away from social misery in Liverpool to work as bar tender in Dubai is an “expatriate” (with a hip-sounding ‘expat’ variation .

Thirdly, racism is back because discrimination has been intellectualised and increasingly conceptually authorised. Proliferation of hate speech has thus been facilitated by a bamboozling that makes such speech appear as a legitimate opinion, like any other normal point of view. It is presented as a mere manifestation of free speech, and any questioning of its legitimacy, much less its legality, is deemed censorship. Such intolerance in the name of tolerance is probably the single most insidious form of a nouveauracism that wraps itself in the mantle of freedom, but which is in reality profoundly anti-democratic. In France, for instance, during the summer of 2017, amidst enthusiastic passivity, a woman was forced by representatives of the state to undress in the name of…her freedom, thus revealing the extent of the institutional racism that had overtaken that country. Above and beyond the by-now familiar French obsession with Muslims and elite (mis)construction of that population’s image, what emerges more significantly is the unexamined question of a contemporaneous racism anchored both in replayed colonial dynamics and in a newly-released, self-righteous stance – what Jim Wolfreys has called “respectable racism in France”.

Eventually, the sum total of these dystrophies is collapsed in a passivity-cowardice-rationalisation mix. Accordingly, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg can come to offer convoluted and contradictory explanations – primarily meant to maintain the supremacy of his network – to indicate that he does not see the need to suspend fake news denying the historical reality of the Holocaust – an event, which revealingly is reportedly increasingly forgotten by new generations. What we are currently witnessing is a post-modern form of racialisation of hatred; a truly Orwellian world in which one can be detained for speaking a foreign language. 

In truth, education remains at the heart of the racism problem, as both a cause and a solution. Far too many young boys and girls hear their parents utter racial epithets in private about this or that group, and such a founding negative exemplarity is then set on its lasting course. Beyond childhood; invisibilised by those economists mesmerised by market logics, consumption logics or impersonal data sets (and who missed on its materialisation in post-Brexit UK, as investigated by the United Nations special envoy Tendayi Achiume; and still unaddressed by the mainstream media, the rise of acceptable racism is one the great new ills of the troubled international affairs of our era.


Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou
Professor of International History, the Graduate Institute, Geneva


Learn more about the Lunch Briefing "Why is racism making a comeback?" with Professor Mohammad Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou on Tuesday 2 October.


Read the original article in French on the blog of the Swiss newspaper Le Temps.