Society has achieved at least one significant victory in the fight against racism – it has succeeded in making open racism a dirty concept. The power of stigma that worked so effectively to reinforce racism has been harnessed to turn the tide against open discrimination – at least in polite society. Today, in most public discourse, it is social suicide to admit to any kind of open racism. This stigmatisation of racism is only one victory however in the long fight to rid society of its most pernicious form of exploitation.
Racism is the invention of social categories based on arbitrary physical and cultural characteristics so that a dominant ethnicity can justify and exercise dominance over other ethnicities. Cutting through the social science verbiage, it is when the ‘big noses’ suddenly announce that only people with big noses are smart enough and advanced enough to rule the roost. I’m sure you get the idea.
Even though society has succeeded in making open racism a social anathema, racism hasn’t disappeared. Likewise, there has always been disguised racism – the kinds of discrimination that are hard to identify, very hard to prove outwardly and sometimes also very hard to admit. Following the successes of civil rights movements, covert racism has become the default position for a significant portion of whites. The same is certainly true of Finland also.
For example, ideas of racial superiority have given way to ideas of cultural superiority. Industrial and economic advantage are taken as signs not of exploitation or historical expedience, but of superiority in cultural evolution, something to be celebrated, defended and held as a matter of national pride. Indeed, such a position of superiority is taken as a perfectly natural justification for advancing second-class or stigmatised citizenship for all manner of peoples from other places, particularly those from the developing world.
The notion of the ‘developing world’ is problematic for this reason. It has built into it a value system that naturally places societies – and by implication their citizens – into a scale, a hierarchy in social development and evolution, with Western societies standing aloft of the developing world. This hierarchy in turn serves as implicit evidence of the cultural superiority of the white races over other ethnicities. Even if it is nowadays recognised as an accident of history, it is still defended to the hilt as a justification for a wall of separation, to keep out the economic migrants from the South, Asia and the Middle East.
But it’s not merely an economic argument. In the populist/fascist discourses, disadvantaged migrants always morph naturally into the barbarians. Cultural superiority over the barbarians is assumed in all areas of society, politics, science, morality, technology, education, lifestyle, freedoms etc. Moreover, we are told we must protect our hard-won resources and superiority from the threat of the uncivilized barbarians.
This is so taken for granted that it seems impossible to argue anything other than the total superiority of the West. This is the pernicious nature of racism and its implicit notions of superiority – where social values are attached not to human beings, as emotional and intellectual beings of ‘equal standing’, but rather as units of an economic powerhouse whose economic advantage and cultural development is assumed to provide moral authority in all matters cultural and political. So that when people of other ethnicities attempt to articulate the nature of discrimination, the default position is that there must be some intellectual or cultural deficiency behind it.
There is a tremendous irony here. People of colour fought tooth and nail (as did many whites) for civil rights to be enshrined within the core of Western democracies. Not merely enshrined, but enacted, defended and supported by legislation and institutions to defend those rights. And now, this very advancement in civil and human rights is offered as part of the key evidence that maintains a sense of social superiority over the developing world. Time and again you hear today attacks on Muslim or African immigrants on the basis of human rights or civil organisation, with little or no thought to how those rights were actually won and by whom.
Today, the naturalistic (genetic) parts of racist dogmas have to a large extent been abandoned, but the ‘order’ and cultural hierarchies remain, and the ‘order’ is almost exactly as it was before, except that in addition to Jews, Gypsies, Africans and Indigenous peoples, you now have Muslims added to that list of untouchables. And for many of those opposed to Muslims, a very cynical strategy of the enemy of my enemy is my friend is adopted, much to the disbelief and disgust of the vast majority of Jews.
The ideology of the big noses today tells us that the West has fought hard to win its dominant position in the world and must therefore defend itself against the barbarian horde waiting at the gates (infamously dubbed the ‘Gates of Vienna’ by the fascists). In the cold light of day you could see this as a justifiable form of self-preservation, were it not for the fact that it’s totally unnecessary. It’s quite feasible to accept that economically, the West must preserve a border and control levels of immigration. It’s merely a practical necessity related to the difficulties of any migrating population. Even if the most educated of Americans were to head en masse for Europe, the difficulties of catering for increased housing, increased jobs in the economy, language training, cultural adaptation and integration would require time and resources to manage effectively.
So when it comes to controlling immigration, the notion of having to defend cultural superiority is a red herring. Deprivation is not the sole preserve of cultural Others – all parts of Europe have experienced varying degrees of social deprivation over the centuries, brought about not by any innate cultural inferiority, but by exploitation, poverty and an enforced class system.
The new class system being put forward by Europe’s and Finland’s populists demands second-class citizenship for citizens whose origins are outside of Europe, or who are Roma, or who are Muslim, or who are homosexual. This class system says it’s okay to take immigrants from North Africa to clean and cook for Europe’s capitalists just as long as they go home again when the economy starts to tank due to the excesses of the banking elites. This class system says it’s okay to bleed the developing world of its very limited resources in health care personnel to cater for the ever growing numbers of older persons in Europe. This class system says that it’s okay to put financial and practical obstacles in front of immigrants that result in parents being kept apart from their children and husbands from their wives.
Indeed, a further irony is that today’s populism serves only to detract attention from the excesses of corporate elites by focusing on immigration as the pressing problems of the day. We are encouraged to turn a blind eye to the problems of growing inequalities within European societies. Better yet, for some, all inequalities can be reduced in their final analysis to those evil immigrants sucking out the slack from the welfare economy.
The whole notion of cultural superiority, while a useful distraction for those that cook the books in the guise of ‘investment practices’, is unnecessary to understanding or debating how to manage immigration effectively. It’s a practical issue after all. If you accept a new population to exploit and then fail to properly finance the transition process, then deprivation and all of its evils will emerge. If the global community fails to properly address economic development outside of the wealthy economies, then this will create migration pressures, the conditions for war and its subsequent population displacements, and provide further fuel for extremists within the developed and developing countries.
Today’s racists are somewhat immature. I’m being kind, of course. They see the barbarian hordes waiting at the gates. That’s the narrative and they push it at every single opportunity. They ignore social problems as facets of all societies. Crime becomes a problem especially of ethnic groups. Human rights violations become a problem especially of ethnic groups. Language problems become the problems especially of ethnic groups. Cultural tension and misunderstanding become the problems especially of ethnic groups. They ignore the fact that each of these issues applies to every population regardless of ethnicity. They ignore the significant problems of stigmatisation that result from their peddling of this narrative. They ignore the problems of heightened inter-ethnic tension and increased assaults against visible minorities. They see only the barbarians – like Trojan horses – attacking the fabric of their superiority from within and waiting at the walls to attack from without.
So, in defending the rights of Westerners they actually envisage ways in which the barbarians are to be denied the full rights of citizenship: the right to family, the right to equal status before the law, the right to political advocacy, the right to security, the right to dignity.
The racists of today run around in nappies. It’s a fantastical notion, I know, but quite telling. These nappy-clad racists wallow in their own ideological manure, completely oblivious to the crap that swims in their underwear and the stench of racism that fills the air wherever they go. They wave imaginary swords and play at heroes fighting the barbarians. They imagine themselves belonging to an order of knights sworn to protect the virtue of Western superiority.
In one sense, this has nothing to do with the grown-up world, but the victims of this would-be macho heroism are real nonetheless. The harms of racism, overt or covert, are very real. The potential for undermining the rights-based society they say they value is very real too, as populist groups make inroads into the political establishment across the EU by exploiting this narrative of the barbarian hordes and its implicit notions of cultural superiority.