Recognising racism (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

Back in 2004, I wrote that

There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist.

This was one side of an unspoken agreement among mainstream politicians, the other being that no one would ever make a statement that was overtly and undeniably racist (this was the central content of “political correctness” in its normal usage). Both the use of overtly racist language and the use of the term “racist” in political debate put the speaker outside the Overton Window. The official debate was undertaken in terms of “dog whistle” coded appeals to racism on one side and euphemisms such as “prejudiced” or “racially charged” on the other. The peace was maintained by the fact that the political class as a whole shared a broad neoliberal[^1] consensus in which marginal differences over economic issues were central, and where social/racial issues were primarily seen as a way of motivating the base to vote the right way.

With the rapid rise of tribalism on the political right this tacit agreement is breaking down.

While tribalism (roughly, an identity politics of solidarity with “people like us”) need not, in principle, imply support for racism (I plan more on this soon), the distinction is a fine one, and has broken down completely in practice. There are at least two reasons for this:
* Political tribalism throws up demagogic leaders like Trump, Farage, and (in Australia) Pauline Hanson, whose appeal relies, in large measure on their rejection of political correctness, that is, on their willingness to appeal openly to racism.
* The centrality of migration to current political debate, inevitably bringing race issues to the forefront.

For the same reasons, it seems clear that overt racism is going to be a significant part of politics for the foreseeable future. Individual demagogues like Trump may (or may not) flame out, but the existence of a large base of support for overtly racist policies and politicians is now evident to all, and the agreement that kept this base from having its views expressed in mainstream politics has now broken down.

In response to this it’s necessary to recognise racism as a substantial, if deplorable, political tendency. First, and most obviously, that means abandoning euphemisms, explicitly naming racism and, even more, naming people like Trump and Hanson as racists.

More importantly, identification of policies, parties and politicians as racist needs to be the start of the analysis, not the end. It’s important to recognise that there are different strands of racism, often intertwined in the same political groups, and to distinguish their approaches and potential appeal. To give just a few examples, there’s
* “Scientific” racism epitomized, in the modern period, by The Bell Curve
* “anti-PC” racists, focused on the demand for consequence-free expressions of racist sentiments
* “separate but equal” segregationists, overlapping with
* supporters of racist immigration policies

Even more importantly, it’s important to take racist arguments seriously and respond to them, rather than regarding the fact that they are racist as putting them beyond the pale of serious discussion. As with climate science denial, we might wish that to be the case but it isn’t. On the other hand, also as with climate science denial, there’s no value in engaging with racists.

The problem is to discuss the issue in a way that influences those who can be persuaded, both on the merits of specific issues and on the need to dissociate themselves from racists. That includes people who might be sympathetic to some racist arguments such as “foreigners are stealing our jobs”, but are also open to an explanation of how neoliberalism hurts workers. Again as with climate science denial it also includes professional centrists in politics and the media who need to be pushed out of their preferred position of evenhanded superiority.

There’s lots more to be said on this, and doubtless it will be said in comments, so I’ll leave it at that.

[^1]: As usual, I’m relying on the “three-party analysis” of contemporary politics I put forward here.

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