It is becoming nearly impossible to avoid political debates about immigration. The question whether these debates are racist or not is also hotly disputed. But answering this question requires a clearer explanation of what racism is than is usually given by those engrossed in these debates.
Let’s have a look at two examples of opposite positions. British Future’s recent report, How to talk about immigration, says that ‘it isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist’ (p. 51). Pukkah Punjabi, on the other hand, notices how all this talk about immigration heightens race awareness so that immigrants and their children feel less at home in their country. Intuitively, there seems to be some truth in both these statements. This makes sense once we consider how these two different positions use different conceptions of what racism is.
When British Future say that many of the concerns and fears people raise about immigration are quite legitimate and not really racist at all, they mean that when people worry about jobs and housing, for example, they are not necessarily thinking about race. They think migrants put pressure on public services, not that they are racially inferior. Even where people express concerns about cultural change, they do not need to believe in racial hierarchies. Racism here seems to be understood much like the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: ‘The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races; Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’. David Goodhart argues that the term racism should indeed be restricted to intentional race-based hostility and not extend to other forms of race awareness such as racial stereotyping, mild prejudice, discrimination or preferring your own group to others – a preference he suggests is often more based in culture than ideas of racial hierarchies anyway. Clearly, thus understood, we can talk about immigration without being racist as long as we avoid ideas of racial inferiority.
But when Punjabi states that the terms in which the immigration debate is held make her feel alienated, something else is going on. As she points out, a recent report by Migrant Voice found that 63% of migrants now feel less at home in the UK: their sense of belonging is negatively affected by the immigration debate. And this is not difficult to imagine when you think of the stereotypes about them stealing jobs while also claiming benefits, engaging in criminal activity and abusing the health system bandied about in parts of the media. Even the concerns about, for example, public services expressed by British Future’s ‘anxious middle’ in a much more reasonable way may have similar effects. This is why some argue that the immigration debate is racist. But this classification operates with a rather different understanding of racism to the one we saw above, one that broadens out the concept in two ways. First, racism is no longer strictly understood in terms of race – reflecting the common use of the term to refer to a range of phenomena including xenophobia, discrimination and Islamophobia. It now captures a notion of fear or hostility towards people from different backgrounds, no matter where that difference comes from. This way, concerns about EU migrants – who are predominantly white – can be termed racist. Secondly, racism is identified not only in the intent of speakers but also in the effects of what is said: even if what is said appears race-neutral, it may negatively affect race relations in the way that Punjabi suggests. This is the case particularly as it may often be difficult to distinguish between immigrants – targeted by the immigration debate – and their children or grandchildren who were born here but may have a different skin colour or accent and also become subject to the stereotypes mentioned above. Even if certain concerns do not start by being about race, they thus become racist on this definition for they end up attaching stigmas to particular groups.
Now people talking about racism obviously are not all talking about the same thing. I hope to have shown the outlines of two ways of thinking about racism that can be recognised in recent debates about immigration. While acknowledging this is in itself helpful as it can help to avoid a dialogue of the deaf between proponents of different positions, the obvious question this raises is which conception of racism we should be using. Rather than ending with a clear answer showing why one is better than the other, I want to encourage an open debate about what racism means in today’s Britain. Should we limit the use of the term to cases where a person obviously thinks some people are lazy, criminal, stupid or untrustworthy because of their race, so that we can use other terms to talk about different phenomena that may have different explanations and may require different objections and justifications, thereby adding precision to the debate? Or should we think of racism as something that exists in degrees and is to some extent ubiquitous so that we can recognise and challenge it where we find it? What do you think?
UKREN Project Intern