The Ruses of Racism

By Wieviorka, Michel | UNESCO Courier, February 1993 | Go to article overview

The Ruses of Racism


Wieviorka, Michel, UNESCO Courier


Racist violence has recently resurfaced. What conditions encourage its growth?

RACISM is not always overtly, brutally violent--it does not always kill. Racial discrimination, expressions of prejudice and racist tracts can all carry ominous overtones of violence, but they cannot be ranked alongside the physical violence perpetrated in pogroms, lynchings, immigrant-bashing, murders and other types of assault, which is what I wish to discuss.

What is more, the most violent forms of racism do not necessarily grow out of other varieties of racism. Contrary to popular belief, prejudice does not invariably and inevitably lead on to acts of violence. Deep-seated racism may be widespread in societies where there is no outward sign of naked violence.

For racist violence to erupt, a certain set of conditions must exist. One conditioning factor is the attitude of those in authority: what they are willing and able to do in order to deal with those who engage in racist acts. When a government is weak or remote, or even tinged with racism itself, it encourages political groups and forces wishing to turn their message of hatred, contempt, subordination and rejection into deeds. It may even become actively racist itself or manipulate racist violence, as happened in the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, where the Czarist regime was largely instrumental in setting off the pogroms.

But there are other factors. Some institutions--particularly the legal system and the police--may use methods which, although not deliberately or explicitly racist in themselves, nevertheless contribute to the spread of serious outbreaks of violence. Many official enquiries have found that when police behaviour has exacerbated ethnic and social tensions instead of defusing them, it has often led to an escalation of violence in which racism occupies a prominent place.

Yet another factor is the existence of political forces capable of providing racist violence with an organized structure and an ideological foundation. As long as such forces do not exist or are relegated to the sidelines of society, violence is always possible and sometimes erupts, but it crops up in the form of sudden outbursts and short-lived explosions, in other words of acts which, numerous though they may be, are not linked by any apparent unifying principle.

When such forces do gain a political foothold, however, the violence for which they provide a structure, even if it is not directly organized by them, nonetheless becomes more cold-blooded, methodical, and active. It becomes a matter of schemes and strategies; it channels popular feelings of hatred and hostility towards the group marked out as a racial target, but does not allow them to be expressed spontaneously. It may even prevent them from being expressed at all, on the political grounds that any act of violence should be consistent with the aims and thinking of the party or organization.

This is why the emergence of a political force with a racist ideology and plans does not necessarily mean that there will be an immediate increase in violence, for violence may actually be detrimental to its attempts to achieve legitimate political status. Violence may create an image of disorder and accordingly be played down until the movement achieves power, when it will be able to indulge in violence in its most extreme forms. Conversely, there may be an increase in violence when the power of a racist force or party is on the wane, because some of its members may take a harder line if they feel they have no political future. The end of apartheid in South Africa is providing scope not for more racism but for more racial violence.

Since the beginning of the modern era, racism has been linked to patterns of domination, especially those of colonialism set against the background of empire-building. But it has also informed trends in thinking which, from the nineteenth century onwards, influenced aspects of physical anthropology and other doctrinaire intellectual movements. …

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