European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI)

10 years of combating racism

Palais de l’Europe, Room 1
Strasbourg, Thursday 18 March 2004

Workshop III

Paper prepared by Dr Neil MACMASTER, School of Economic and Social Studies, University of East Anglia

The views expressed are those of the author only.

On its 10th anniversary ECRI can with justification be proud of its track record in monitoring racism throughout Europe, identifying and promoting good practice, and supporting the difficult task of creating a more tolerant society. In this paper I want to reflect, not so much on the detail of this achievement, but on one of the central problems facing the anti-racist movement, the extent to which prejudice can lie so deeply entrenched within civil society that it often seems to be immune to any counter-strategies. Time and again significant initiatives, backed up by government support and legal powers, fail to achieve their goals and get blunted or rendered ineffective by intolerance embedded within popular culture. In Britain for example the government implemented many of the recommendations of the 1999 Macpherson Report to eliminate institutional racism within the police force, but within two years researchers were reporting that initiatives were failing to produce significant impacts. In October 2003 considerable shock was produced when an undercover BBC television journalist filmed horrific levels of racism among police officers while on a training programme. This revealed a dramatic gap between the public façade of the policemen, diligently conforming to all the tests of anti-racism training, and the concealed and extreme racist sentiments of these officers.

A number of points can be made about the gap between official anti-racist policies and the deeper levels of intolerant public opinion:-

  • Institutional or legal measures to combat racism, in themselves crucial, are dependent for their effectiveness on genuine changes in public opinion that may not be readily amenable to external pressure or intervention by the state.
  • As anti-racist measures, backed up by law, become increasingly sophisticated so racist interests become skilful in finding strategies to side-step government policy.
  • Populist racial prejudice is reproduced and sustained within civil society not only by extreme right-wing or neo-Nazi organisations, but also through the pivotal role of main stream politicians and the media. There exists a contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy by which government ministers, politicians, newspaper editors and journalists who strongly oppose certain forms of racism (most typically extreme-right wing or neo-Nazi movements) can simultaneously reinforce other forms of popular prejudice that weaken or subvert much of their good work. Highly respected opinion formers are capable of using negative language towards asylum seekers or refugees, or deploy a discourse that is tinged with islamophobia or antisemitism. This `benign' racism is all the more damaging since the sources carry high levels of legitimacy.
  • Research has shown that a close connection exists between media reporting and the sudden appearance of new waves of intolerance and xenophobic violence. The media has the capacity for rapid response to events and to produce a huge (and sometimes repetitive volume) of up-to-date reporting that can trigger a very rapid spiral of violence to which anti-racist organisations or legislation may be slow to respond.

Racism has always proved difficult to define since the phenomenon varies at any moment from one society to another, according to the particular historical, cultural and social context, while it also undergoes constant mutation through time. For example, in the post-war era of labour immigration the extreme right across Europe began to conceal its core anti-semitism in order to target African, Asian, Maghrebian and other groups. As Pierre-André Taguieff noted (La Force du Préjugé, 1987) in relation to cultural or differentialist racism, this constant mutation could generate major problems for anti-racist movements and legislators since a failure to quickly identify the new forms could leave them misdirecting attention to an opponent that had simply stepped side-ways. The reformulation of racism in Europe during the last two decades is particularly insidious since extreme-right wing and conservative politicians and ideologues, faced with the challenge of anti-racist legislation, multicultural policies, and institutions which monitor and combat discrimination, have applied themselves to inventing forms of racism in a guise that will make them invulnerable to official intervention, and even allow prejudice to appear legitimate to the general public.

The most well-known of these strategies, often referred to as the `New Racism' or the `Nouvelle Droite', the basic shift from a biological to cultural discourse, is no longer in any sense `new'. The think-tank GRECE (Groupement de Recherche et d'Etude pour une Civilisation Européenne) was founded as long ago as 1969, and the structures of cultural racism had already been dissected by academics between 1980-5. Twenty years on how far has the project of the `New Racism' been successful in inducing a deep shift in civil society?

The aim of the New Right was to subvert and displace dominant ideologies by offering through discursive or language strategies new ways of understanding the world that would become hegemonic, embedded in the mind-set of the general public. The discourse is complex, but it maintains the following:-

  • National identity is defined in relation to a traditional core (history, culture, language, sentiments) that can only be shared by the dominant `white' group which is bound together by `natural' ties of kith and kin.
  • The foreigner or outsider can never belong to this group; indeed the culture of the alien can only subvert and destroy organic national identity, as well as damage the cultural integrity of the ethnic minorities themselves. This leads implicitly into a segregationist or exclusionary agenda. Cultural identity is also essentialised and is, in reality, synonymous with `race', as typified by Samuel Huntington's thesis of a `Clash of Civilisations'.
  • This agenda, it is claimed, is not racist since the dominant group can deny that it is in any way biologically superior to any other ethnic/national group, it is simply different.
  • The nation has a right to defend its cultural existence and integrity, as do all ethnic groups and peoples, so racism can disguise itself as sharing the core values of a liberal and multicultural agenda, the `droit à la différence'.
  • However, national identity is not only polluted by culture contact (mixaphobia), but is actively destroyed by dangerous and unpatriotic state-backed interests; anti-racist organisations, promoters of multicultural educational policy, the so-called `race-relations industry'. Through a classic inversion, the dominant xenophobic majority which holds most of the wealth and power presents itself as the victim, its very cultural survival threatened by intolerant, politically correct zealots backed by misconceived legal power.

The objective of new right think-tanks like GREECE was not simply to engage in esoteric ivory-tower debate, but to seek ways to transform public opinion. Has this goal been achieved?

Firstly, the last two decades has witnessed the dynamic growth of a new type of xenophobic national-populist party across Europe (the French National Front, Austrian Freedom Party, Danish People's Party, the Swiss People's Party, Flemish Bloc, BNP, etc). From 1983 onwards Le Pen was quick to see how the new right discourse could be utilized to gain public legitimacy, to conceal a racist agenda, and to outwit political opponents who tried to expose him as a biological racist of the old neo-Nazi school. The electoral success of the National Front through the 1980s made a big impact on far right movements throughout Europe which began to model themselves on the French party and to adopt identical forms of cultural racism.

Although some political scientists argue that this type of movement has already peaked or is incapable of forming stable and successful governments, they have had a major impact on public opinion well beyond the ranks of their own supporters. Le Pen, Haider, Carl Hagen, Umberto Bossi, Christoph Blocher, Pim Fortuyn and others have received enormous media coverage during which they have had every opportunity to disseminate the discourse of cultural racism. Secondly, politicians from main-stream conservative or social democratic parties, wishing to fend off the electoral challenge offered by the extreme xenophobic movements have been all too ready to make use of an identical language. Indeed, some of the key ideologues of the new racism have been leading members of centre-right parties or governments: for example, in Britain the Conservative Philosophy Group, which included the racist ideologue Enoch Powell, formulated policy for Mrs Thatcher who in 1978 recognised the legitimate concerns of the extreme-right National Front: "people are really rather afraid" she said on television, "that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture".

Secondly, I want to emphasise the ongoing role of the mass media as the main instrument for the perpetuation or deepening of cultural racism in European society. As Gill Seidel has shown, from the late 1970s the discursive assault of the British new right aimed to reach beyond low circulation specialist journals like the Salisbury Review through the positioning of its leading exponents as regular columnists in the mass daily and populist press. In France the GREECE had direct links to press barons Raymond Bourgine and Robert Hersant who facilitated access of its members to key editorial positions or appointed them as columnists and journalists.

In Britain over the last decade the popular press has engaged in an extremely virulent and inflammatory campaign against asylum seekers, a constant stream of vilification that became so worrying that in August 2001 Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees both expressed concern at the links between press hatred and a growing wave of violent attacks on refugees. This message has been re-iterated by the UN secretary-general in his speech to the European Parliament (29 January 2004) in which he warned against a `fortress Europe' mentality and the campaign by which immigrants have been "stigmatised, vilified, even dehumanised". Editors have justified the press assault on asylum seekers by denying that this has anything to do with racism: on the contrary the whole agenda is legitimated or underpinned by reference to culture and identity. For example: in 2000 the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain published the `Parekh Report' which outlined an agenda for tackling racism by changing exclusionary national identity towards a more pluralistic and inclusive model that would be accepting of rich diversity. On the publication of the report the popular press ignored all of its recommendations and unleashed a wave of vitriolic disinformation: for the Sun the report was comparable to "what Stalin and the Soviet Politburo did". Roger Scruton, a leading ideologue of the new right, in the Daily Mail (March 6, 2001) underlined the dangers of Britain being `invaded' by asylum seekers and turned into `a foreign land': in particular he berated those who through `mendacious propaganda' undermined `our' culture, history and institutions. We British, he claimed, had `the right to be ourselves', against those who would impose the concept of a `multicultural society'. The strategy of the new right discourse is to radically undermine the legitimacy of progressive anti-racist agencies and policies by representing them as the source of the problem: of an alien (i.e Jewish, Muslim, communist, etc) agenda to subvert national identity. This attack is extremely damaging to attempts by government to counter racism, since the very institutions at the forefront of the campaign for a more tolerant society, such as the British Commission for Racial Equality, lose credibility in the public eye. There is today extensive evidence that the discourse of the new right has become appropriated and internalised by a wider general public which, while claiming not to be racist, feels completely at ease in making intolerant or xenophobic statements disguised as traditional nationalism.

Into this framework of cultural racism has been injected new and virulent forms of islamophobia and antisemitism, particularly after 9/11 and the deepening crisis in the Middle East. Although the attack on the USA deepened islamophobia we should not lose sight of the fact that hostility towards Muslims had already emerged during the 1980s and would still be with us today regardless of 9/11. Leaving aside the issue of terrorism, growing intolerance did not come about because there was a dramatic increase in the arrival of Muslims in Western Europe, since these ethnic groups (Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Turks etc) had already settled in an earlier phase of post-war labour migration (1945-74). Rather Muslims became more `visible' to majority populations as they integrated into European society: for example, in an early phase immigrants established prayer rooms in secular buildings and flats, but as they put down roots and became committed to permanent settlement they began to construct purpose-built mosques. The contradiction here is that while mosque construction can be interpreted as a sign of integration, of insertion into the host society, for many Europeans the same religious buildings were perceived as a symbol of `invasion', and a refusal to assimilate into the nation.

Most insidious of all was that the assault on religious difference enabled racists to continue to target, and in an open way, precisely those minority groups that had for many decades been the object of most intolerance and physical violence. Islam, as a universal religion, is not in principle specific to any ethnic groups yet the term `Muslim' has become a barely disguised code for specific peoples selected for their perceived `racial' difference . After 9/11 many street level assaults took the form of a `chasse au faciès', violence against individuals selected for their physical appearance as `Arab' types. Islamophobia has thus enabled older forms of racial prejudice to be given a new impetus, but in the more insidious dressing of cultural politics. During and after the Algerian War of independence (1954-62) Algerians, represented as terrorists, were the target of the most virulent racism in France; but from the 1980s this hatred was repackaged as a threat from Algerian Islamic fanatics whose aim was to destroy French national identity from within.

Islamophobia has been readily cultivated by extreme-right wing or national-populist movements like the French National Front. However, and far more worrying, is the way in which intolerance towards Muslims has once again been promulgated by the media and politicians from main stream parties. Throughout Europe islamic religious and cultural practice (gender roles, dress codes, halal food, Koranic schools, etc) have been presented in a distorted and stereotypical way as evidence of the destruction of traditional national identity by a kind of `fifth column'. As long ago as 1985 Figaro showed an image of Marianne, the symbol of France, wrapped in a veil with the title "Will we still be French in thirty years time?", and it is this kind of reporting that has built up a moral panic, a kind of siege mentality in relation to national identity. Controversy raged in Britain in January 2004 when Kilroy-Silk, ex-Labour MP and TV chat show host, wrote in his regular newspaper column a piece headed We owe Arabs nothing. He claimed "Apart from oil - which was discovered, is produced and is paid for by the west - what do they contribute? Can you think of anything?…No, nor can I". Do Arabs think, "we adore them for the way they murdered more than 3,000 civilians on September 11 and then danced in the hot, dusty streets to celebrate the murders? That we admire them for being suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors?". Although forced to resign by the BBC Kilroy-Silk went on to defend his words as the true voice of the `British people', refusing to be `gagged', implying that he was the victim of powerful and intolerant interests opposed to freedom of speech. This episode is symptomatic of the way in which islamophobia, far from being restricted to far-right extremists, seeps into the language of main-stream politics and media.

Antisemitism has always remained at the core of extreme-right wing movements, as can be seen on proliferating neo-Nazi web-sites which spread the Holocaust denial, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the old stereotypes of a Jewish global conspiracy. Leading national populists like Haider and Le Pen have also occasionally made overt or coded antisemitic comments. However, leaving aside the exceptional wave of virulent antisemitism that surged in Russia with the likes of Zhirinovsky, the new wave of judeophobia that has swept through Europe has followed from 9/11 and the second Palestinian Intifada in October 2000. Criticism of the policy of the Israeli government towards Palestine may be perfectly legitimate, but a problem has arisen when Jews have been made collectively responsible for the actions of Sharon. Researchers have linked this to a wave of physical assault on Jews, verbal abuse, graffiti and attacks on synagogues and cemeteries across Europe. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations by Muslim, left-wing or anti-globalisation organisations have whipped up hostility towards a USA-Israeli nexus, a plot by powerful Jewish interests to promote forms of violence that has been likened to the Holocaust and genocide. One of the anomalies here is that violence towards Jews has been perpetrated by young Muslims, mainly of North African descent, who are themselves the victim of racism, social exclusion, educational failure and high unemployment.

The combating of new forms of racism and intolerance presents a formidable challenge; for example legislation that was constructed to prevent older patterns of prejudice based on `racial' or ethnic categories, may prove to be quite ineffective towards religious and cultural intolerance. But I would argue that even the most well-constructed and progressive legislation and official intervention is likely to be neutralised, as long as other powerful forces continue to buttress a bed-rock of prejudice in the general public. There is a tendency by the media and politicians to target extreme neo-Nazi organisations as the key source of racism, while overlooking the extent to which a much more diffuse and endemic intolerance is constantly generated by millions of negative `low intensity' speech acts. Politicians and governments need to become more aware of the contradictions within their own position, to assume a more consistent and responsible stance towards all aspects of prejudice. For example, do governmental initiatives in France to ban the hijab in schools on the basis of secularism and Republican egalitarianism not run the risk of infringing minority rights, deepening islamophobia and reinforcing a shift towards Islamic fundamentalism? Does the British Home Secretary improve matters when he states that the growth of the extreme right BNP must be stopped through `robust' policies against asylum seekers which turn out to be extremely harsh and inhumane? Lastly in the media, owners, editors and producers, must be persuaded to assume a more responsible code of practice and, if necessary, government should intervene more robustly to counter the vast flow of negative stereotyping that pours daily from the press in hundreds of millions of copies. The mass media completely drown out and nullify the voice of anti-racist organisations that simply lack the means to reach the public on a similar scale.

Finally, to end on an optimistic note, it is undoubtedly the case that coherent initiatives can radically erode the racism entrenched deeply within popular culture. A few years ago it seemed almost an impossible task to root out the endemic racist chanting and abuse in football crowds. However, in the UK a campaign ("Let's Kick Racism out of football") led jointly by the football federation, clubs, the police and the Commission for Racial Equality has been remarkably successful. In January 2004 a Norwich City supporter was prosecuted for shouting racist abuse at a match; but his arrest was made possible when several supporters in the crowd reported his behaviour to stewards. Quite crucially policing on its own could not produce this outcome, but only the key shift in the attitudes of fans that made racial insult unacceptable. Trivial as this incident may seem, it reflects the degree to which the intervention of the state to stamp out racism can only succeed when matched by a change in civil society.