The racism that dare not speak its name

By challenging the ‘xeno-racist’ immigration policy and practice of European states, Liz Fekete’s A Suitable Enemy makes a refreshing change from the sanctimony of official anti-racism and its tendency to bash the white working class.

Chris Gilligan

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Everyone agrees that racism is a scourge, a malignant cancer which eats away at the body of a healthy society. But we don’t all agree about what racism is. In contemporary Britain the dominant view is that racism is something peddled by ignorant and prejudiced people. It is part of the everyday life of ‘white trash’.

This kind of view underpinned the vitriolic attacks on Jade Goody, following her catty comments about the Indian Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, on the British reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother. It also underpins much of the hysterical reaction to the recent election in the UK of two British National Party (BNP) candidates to the European Parliament. In this context, Liz Fekete’s A Suitable Enemy, with its focus on the racist policy and practice of European states, is a refreshing change from the usual condescending lectures from the sanctimonious guardians of institutional ‘anti-racism’.

The institutionalised version of anti-racism is concerned with racism ‘as a destabilising influence upon “good community relations”, “social cohesion” and “national unity”’ (1). It aims to regulate and control destabilising influences; it attempts to assert moral norms, chastise and punish transgressors, and prescribe etiquette; it presents integration and tolerance as antidotes to socially disruptive racism. This approach to regulating racism became institutionalised in Britain in the 1960s with various Race Relations Acts which sought to promote better relations between different racial groups in Britain. Since the 1960s the issue of racism has undergone many significant changes, as British society itself has undergone significant changes.

In the 1970s one of the slogans of the far-right National Front was ‘there ain’t no black in the Union Jack’. Today the vast majority of people see no contradiction between being black and being British. In 2001, when Robin Cook, a former Labour MP, claimed that chicken tikka masala is Britain’s national dish he elicited nods of recognition rather than howls of derision (2). The inclusion of black people in British society is commonly understood to be the result of race relations policies by successive British governments. What is often forgotten is that the supposedly anti-racist race relations policy was explicitly premised on racist immigration controls.

In the 1960s and 1970s the promotion of good race relations went hand-in-hand with legislation to restrict immigration from Britain’s former colonies. The Labour MP Roy Hattersley provided the most clearly articulated rationale for this when he said that: ‘Integration without control [of immigration] is impossible, but control without integration is indefensible.’ (3) Radical anti-racist campaigners accused the government of double standards and argued that immigration controls were racist.

During the 1980s anti-racism became increasingly institutionalised through the state-funded race relations industry. In a parallel process, many radical anti-racists shifted away from universalist and internationalist ideas to embrace the particularism of identity politics. One consequence of these shifts is that opposition to immigration controls became increasingly marginal to anti-racist activity.

Fekete attempts to re-establish a link between racism and immigration controls. She talks about xeno-racism, a new form of racism which ‘is not just directed at people with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors’. Fekete, works for the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), and is the editor of its European Race Bulletin (4). In A Suitable Enemy she puts this experience to good use to provide an accessible outline of the extent and breadth of state-organised actions against people born outside the European Union (EU), and Muslims (both EU nationals and non-EU nationals) deemed as security risks.

One of the strengths of A Suitable Enemy is its highlighting of a shadow justice system for foreigners (5). Fekete draws a parallel between the ‘war on terror’ and a war on refugees. She notes that Britain’s detention centres, in which ‘migrants and failed asylum seekers are warehoused’ like the inmates at Guantanamo Bay Dentention Camp, exist in a legal limbo. The ‘so-called guests [incarcerated in these detention centres] are not prisoners under domestic UK law, for then a court would have had to detain them for a specific criminal offence’.

There are also parallels between deportation flights which carry refugees and ‘failed’ asylum seekers and extraordinary rendition flights. Both involve the forced removal of people from Western states; both are shrouded in secrecy; and both involve cases where deportees ‘have been systematically handed over to the security services [of countries they have fled from] and subjected to harsh interrogations and torture’. Fekete notes that the use of deportation via immigration laws, rather than extradition, circumvents ‘a lengthy process with in-built legal safeguards, which, crucially, give lawyers and human rights activists time and opportunity to challenge the order’.

The sections of A Suitable Enemy which focus on state actions against Muslims cover more familiar ground. She argues that there has been ‘a general trend to shift the focus of anti-terrorist powers in the direction of criminalising ideas’. Many of her criticisms of the demonising of Muslims are also well made. Her extensive knowledge of the European scene allows her to provide less familiar examples of anti-Muslim policies from across the EU. The inclusion of Muslims in Fekete’s analysis, however, stretches the coherence of ‘xeno-racism’ as a concept. Fekete argues that ‘Europe’s Muslims are routinely represented in the media as untrustworthy citizens, subject to foreign allegiance and divided loyalties’ (p. 102). Fekete has a point, but it’s not a very sharp one. The media coverage of Muslims is much more ambivalent than she suggests. The media often highlight the disaffection of Muslim youth, rather than their foreignness. Governments aim to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of their Muslim populations, not to expel them.

A Suitable Enemy is a useful resource for an Open the Borders campaign. It draws attention to the illiberal and dehumanising nature of immigration policy in contemporary Europe. It documents the racist nature of immigration controls in practice, something which has been studiously ignored by official anti-racists. Fekete herself, however, never makes the case for open borders. Her motivation is humanitarian rather than humanist. She laments ‘the failure of large sections of the intelligentsia to come to the aid of vulnerable and demonised communities’ (pp. 15-16). It is this motivation which helps to explain her inclusion of Muslims in an analysis of xeno-racism. It also helps to explain her particular focus on the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers within the immigration system, rather than a broader critique of immigration controls themselves.

Ironically, Fekete tends to highlight those aspects of immigrants’ experiences which emphasise their distinctness as non-citizens, rather than the ways in which contemporary European states work against the interests of citizens and non-citizens alike. She argues, for example, that the ‘target-driven removal process has coarsened the culture within immigration services’ (p. 181). This provides her with an opportunity to make a connection with the coarsening of the culture of many aspects of the public sector – from the health service to education – under the tyranny of target-driven processes which attempt to automate decision-making.

Such processes are dehumanising because they deprive us of the opportunity to exercise our human capacity for making judgements. It enables the kind of ‘banality of evil’ that facilitated the Holocaust (6). Instead of making a connection between the dehumanising effects of contemporary state practices against undocumented migrants and the rest of us, however, she goes on to say that the target-driven approach ‘inevitably leads to justifying the use of force against children in the name of preserving the integrity of the asylum system’ (p. 181). Fekete’s focus on victims is unfortunate. It suggests that we should identify with immigrants and Muslims because of their suffering, not because of our shared interests.

Her call to the intelligentsia also suggests that intellectuals, rather than the wider public, are her intended audience. In the absence of politically active, radical class-conscious organisations this is perhaps understandable, but she will never win a wider audience if she does not develop arguments that have wider appeal. There is also the danger that overlooking the working class as agents of progressive social change can easily shade into dismissing the working class.

This brings us back to the point made at the beginning of this review: that racism is today often understood to be something which is practised and promoted by the white working class. This understanding is commonly employed to chastise the working-class. In the absence of radical anti-racist movements that challenge immigration controls, however, this understanding can easily also be used to restrict immigration on the grounds that more immigration will be socially disruptive. Fekete would probably be horrified at any attempt to use the idea of xeno-racism to restrict immigration, but she does not provide any arguments to prevent this happening.

Chris Gilligan is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of Scotland. Read his blog here

(1) Alaistair Bonnett (2000), Anti-racism, Routledge, London, pp. 4-5

(2) Speech by foreign secretary to the Social Market Foundation, Guardian, 19 April 2001

(3) Cited in Kenan Malik (1996), The Meaning of Race, Macmillan, p. 18

(4) The European Race Bulletin was established in 1992, the year of the Maastrict Treaty.

(5) Chris Gilligan, The Disappeared, Indymedia

(6) Hannah Arendt (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil

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