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. When the term "racism" emerged in the period between the two World Wars, some of the theories from the past were refurbished. Above all, racist attitudes spread all over the world in the wake of the social upheavals that are at the root of various forms of racial violence.
Racial violence is no longer only the crude expression of colonial-type domination. It may also stem from an economic crisis, in which a deprived group, threatened with a decline in social status or exclusion from the mainstream, turns against another group in an attempt to oust it, on racial grounds, from a shrinking job market. The racism of the poor whites, which led to the lynching of blacks in the southern United States at the end of the nineteenth century and to race riots in the big cities of the northern United States in the first half of the twentieth century, came about when the whites saw their black neighbours as dangerous competitors on the industrial job market.
But racial violence may also occur among more affluent classes, which want to maintain the gap separating them from the less privileged. The method they use is a combination of social and racial segregation, which may in fact lead to more cold-blooded and calculated forms of violence. At the beginning of the century, well-to-do white citizens in the southern United States organized lynching parties to punish black men accused of raping white women or of theft.
However, racist violence does not always stem solely or directly from social factors. It may originate in a real or imagined threat to the identity of a group, or it may accompany the expansion of a state or religion, sometimes claiming to represent universal values, as often happened during the colonial period.
The urge to uphold a particular identity can lead to unlimited violence, fuelled either by an obsessive fear of "racial intermingling" or by reference to an absolute difference that prohibits all social intercourse and all contact between races except in war. Such forms of racism are intended to keep others at bay, to ensure that they are segregated or even expelled or destroyed. The aim is not so much to establish the inferior status of a given group on the grounds of its physical attributes as to ensure that a community remains homogeneous or a nation remains pure, or to justify their unimpeded expansion.
Identity-related racism and the violence that goes with it can have three quite distinct motivations.
In some cases, this form of racism is founded on the affirmation of an identity that claims to be universal and seeks to crush everything that opposes it. The history of colonization contains many instances of this phenomenon. Conversely, it may be based on the resistance of a nation or community to the modern world, in which case the chosen target is a group that is seen as the incarnation of evil, intrusion, or the corruption of culture or traditional values. The Jews have long been denounced and attacked as representatives of a hated modernity. The explosive violence of the pogroms and the more methodical violence of the gas chambers largely grew out of criticisms, phantasms and rumours that reproached the Jews on the grounds of their cosmopolitanism, wealth, political power and influence in the media.
Thirdly, this identity-related racism may flare up as a result of a clash between two or more communities within the same political entity or a multiracial or multicultural society. In such cases, violence results from strained relations between communities, from a process of interaction in which one group's real or imagined attempt to assert itself prompts reactions from other groups and triggers off a spiralling power struggle that may end in an outburst of violence and political chaos. The civil war in Lebanon and the breakup of Yugoslavia are recent examples of conflicts where overt or implied references to race can be sensed behind rhetorical appeals to the nation or to the cultural, confessional and historical community.
When violence is associated with racism, therefore, it is governed by various conditions that dictate the course it takes and is rooted in a wide range of social and identity-related factors. But the important thing about violence is that it compresses into a single action factors that may be not only different but contradictory. Perpetrators of racist violence may wish, for example, to exclude a specific group from their society, and also assign it an inferior position in society so as to exploit it. This happens frequently in industrialized countries, where immigrants are employed to do low-grade jobs and rejected on account of their culture. Or to take another case, in Czarist Russia and central Europe at the beginning of the present century, it was the rich, assimilated Jew, symbol of modernity, who was regarded as an intolerable threat, yet the victims of the pogroms were the culturally conspicuous and poverty-stricken Jewish masses.
This is the paradox of violence: not only is it unembarrassed by its inherent contradictions, it also creates its own logic and its own dynamics, so that in the end it alters the conditions that allowed it to emerge in the first place.
MICHEL WIEVIORKA, a French sociologist, is a lecturer at the University of Paris-Dauphine and assistant director of the Centre d'Analyse et d'Intervention Sociologiques in Paris. His published works include Terrorisme a la une (with Dominique Wolton, 1987) and Societes et Terrorisme (1988).…
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Publication information: Article title: The Ruses of Racism. Contributors: Wieviorka, Michel - Author. Magazine title: UNESCO Courier. Publication date: February 1993. Page number: 13+. © 1984 UNESCO. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
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