Racism Without Race

Post-Colonial Hate Politics

In 1988, French philosopher Étienne Balibar asked, “To what extent is it correct to speak of a neo-racism?”

New rhetoric, same results. African migrant, Torino.

As it turned out, the answer was 100% and long overdue.

Xenophobia flourished in the postwar era in the United States and Europe. Neo-racism is perhaps the most relevant version to emerge from it.

Then, as now, the US struggled to come to terms with the long-term consequences of African slavery and anti-Black racism.

1964 was a watershed year. It saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination based on “race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin”.

That same year also witnessed George Wallace’s openly segregationist primary challenge to Lyndon Johnson.

Although it failed, Wallace’s open espousal of racism proved appealing to the Republican Party, which, having lost six out of the previous eight presidential elections, was searching for a way to convince lower and middle-class whites to support them.

Stoking race-based fears became a staple of Republican campaigns after that.

London and Paris both saw upsurges in racial tension related to communities brought to the metropole by colonialism: Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians in the UK and North Africans in France.

In both cases, the results were explosive.

From the Notting Hill Carnival riots in 1976 to the long, hot summer of 1981, in which British cities erupted in violence in response to the racist SUS policing laws, long-pent-up rage against the heavy discipline employed by police against minority communities spilt into the streets.

The National Front, a marginal presence since its founding in 1967, increasingly became a conduit for white racist counter-agitation.

A similar dynamic took place in France, where police pressure on Maghrebi communities ramped up throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

Emigration to France from Algeria grew in the 1960s, even after Algeria’s formal independence in 1962. Algerian communities in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, and other major French cities were subjects of racism and extreme police violence.

The rise of the Front National, founded in 1972, correlated to the xenophobic backlash of the white population.

These were by no means the only instances of racism, but the European examples illustrate the background of Balibar’s claims about the rise of a new kind of racism.

Biological accounts of race, which had percolated down from scholarly discourse to the broader masses since the mid-19th century, were stigmatised due to their association with the Nazi regime.

In the decades of decolonisation following the war, immigration became, as Balibar put it, “a substitute for the notion of race and a ‘solvent of class consciousness’”.

“The new racism,” Balibar noted, “is a racism of the era of ‘decolonisation’, of the reversal of population movements between the old colonies and the old metropolises, and the division of humanity within a single political space.”

It was racism “without races,” or, expressed otherwise, “a differentialist racism”.

Differentialist racism is specific to Europe. US imperialism manifested itself in different ways, largely eschewing the settler colonialism of European states (except in North America itself).

The vast population of African descent arrived involuntarily, in the context of the Atlantic slave trade. The dynamics of this process were much different than those of the European colonial states, and, as a consequence, so was the text of the accompanying racism.

Balibar was undoubtedly correct in noting the differentialist quality of the racism that arose in the context of decolonisation.

The discourse of difference, used to mask the less acceptable language of racialist hate (although no less prone to inciting violence), metastasised into other countries without colonial pasts (such as in Scandinavia) or in which there had, for whatever reason, been no significant colonial reflux.

Germany was, and continues to be, a notable case of the latter.

Having been stripped of its colonies in the wake of the First World War and killed off a large proportion of “outsiders” in the Nazi genocide, West Germany did not have a significant minority population group until a Turkish one arose as a consequence of the guest worker program of the 1950s and 1960s.

Once it did arrive, though, the response to this population’s continued presence was identical to the differentialist racism of the most prominent former colonial powers.

Balibar briefly alludes to the way that some non-racist thinkers employing concepts of difference were unwittingly made props for the claims of differentialist racism. He cites the case of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss as an example.

Although Lévi-Strauss was a well-known opponent of a hierarchical evaluation of cultures, he “finds himself enrolled, whether he likes it or not, in the service of the idea that the ‘mixing of cultures’ and the suppression of ‘cultural distances’ would correspond to the intellectual death of humanity and would perhaps even endanger the control mechanisms that ensure its biological survival”.

Difference became the central concept for France’s Nouvelle Droite in the 1970s and 1980s, roughly at the same time that it was beginning to loom large in the conceptual lexicon of the identitarian left.

In his 1977 book Vu de Droite, the prominent new right intellectual Alain de Benoist railed against a society that wanted to make everyone the same, thus effacing any concept of difference and, thereby, any hierarchy.

Therein, of course, lies the rub.

On the left, difference is, at least in most varieties of the discourse, a means of destabilising hierarchies and finding a way to acknowledge the universal dignity of sentient individuals.

On the right, the discourse of difference leads, via hierarchy, to a justification of superiority. The connection here is implicit. After all, it’s not as if those insisting on hierarchy are doing so because they need someone better to rein in their unruly inclinations.

The new racism identified by Balibar is still with us today and, if anything, has developed an even broader scope, in the hands of illiberal nationalist and populist parties.

As the debates over the politics of refugees in the EU have shown, the discourse that sees outsiders as constituting a culturally static “other” likely to stir up base and violent tendencies within otherwise peace-loving European peoples is alive and well in the public pronouncements of Alternative für Deutschland, Fidesz, Fratelli d’Italia and Rassemblement National.

The narrative of the new racism is consistent and disingenuous. They are not (necessarily) bad, just different from what we (however defined) are.

We have a right to a political space where the cultural values of people like us are dominant and can be recognised. The others are foreign and will always be.

They present an existential danger to the order that makes us who we are. While we might be inclined to help them if they would just stay (or go) somewhere else, their presence here is intrinsically threatening.

Balibar notes early in his essay that there is a sense in which the study of the intellectual underpinnings of racist thinking is less important than the need to mitigate, in some immediate sense, the violent expressions to which it gives rise.

But, as Étienne Balibar correctly observes, “the destruction of the racist complex presupposes not only the revolt of its victims, but the transformation of the racists themselves and, consequently, the internal decomposition of the community created by racism”.

Knowing how narrative chains give rise to racist communities and racist violence is crucial to the project of eliminating them.

The racism of today is not the racism of yesterday. It needs to be tackled on its own terms if it is not to become the racism of tomorrow.

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Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.