A lot has been talked about racist issues recently, whether it be new racism, reverse racism, or more broadly whether it be the darkness of a person’s skin who identifies as an Aborigine, or whether it be the unacceptable customs introduced in our country by the migrant population (boat people, for example), or those wanting to enter our country.
Racism is a subject I claim to know a bit about so I thought I’d provide a bit of a background to all the recent media talk about other peoples. People were once racist against Aborigines because they were black. Now that they are no longer as black as they once were, people find other reasons to be racist against them. This is new racism. And this is what I’ll be talking about.
New racism uses bad science as a source of new arguments for racism. Its discernible features are the replacement of biological models and racial hierarchies with an emphasis on the incommutability of cultural alienness. However, I believe that new racism is merely old racism re-labelled and that both advocate the separation of social groups in the interests of social harmony.
With the hegemony of Britain, in particular, threatened by unassimilable migrants, the discourse of new racism has been articulated within political arguments and fueled and legitimised immigration control. This was not built from a political or economic base, but out of instinctive human nature to defend a way of life against outsiders. The political disquisition that advocated that the barriers of cultural difference were insurmountable and the ensuing public suspicions became a central weapon conceptual to the theory of new racism.
The new racism yielded its influence in capitalist societies in the wake of labour migrations and rising unemployment. In the mid 1980s, fanned by the Blainey attacks on Asian migration, the discourse of new racism had entered the Australian rhetoric. The Australian argument rekindles – perhaps even echoes – the British argument in pervading that social cohesiveness within the community would be jeopardised by the size and composition of the migrant population.
In recent decades, many influential writers and politicians have used arguments about cultural difference and a natural preference for one’s own kind in debates about immigration, national identity and multiculturalism. Such arguments explicitly state that they do not assume any biological superiority, and therefore deny being at all racist. Rather they are presented as defensive proposals designed to preserve our way of life form external threat or internal subversion. Yet, some argue these are a new racism.
The emergence of this new form of racial discourse raises important questions about the nature of racism, about constructions of otherness and difference, and the variegated tenets of racism. Termed the new racism by following a study of British political rhetoric – a rhetoric characterised by a denial of racism (or indeed, any reference to it) – the new racism’s culture rather than physical differences was an attempt to deny the discredited overt (old) racism of biological inferiority.
There has been a shift in political discourse from the scientific racism of the past whereby groups were perceived to possess distinctive characteristics that determined their capacities and behaviour: traits once graded as superior or inferior. However, the defining features of new racism are the replacement of biological models and racial hierarchies with an emphasis on ethnically based nationalism. Rather than declaring one’s own culture or country superior to others, there are references to natural or inevitable separation and suspicion. Immigrants – especially non-white immigrants – are said not to be racially inferior, but rather their cultures and values were threats to the preservation of a homogenous society. It was a racism whose dominant theme was not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences. This new racism, the propagator of cultural alienness may best be summarised as a cluster of beliefs which holds that it is natural for people who share a way of life, a culture, to bond together in a group and to be antagonistic towards outsiders who are different and who seem to threaten their identity as a group. In this, the proponents of the new racism claim that they are not being racist or prejudiced, nor are they making any value judgements about the others, but simply recognising that they are different. Whether people’s fears about the threat from outside are justified does not matter. What matters is what people feel.
This interpretation has gained wide media. It introduced a constitutional theory of human nature and instinct, and most important among such instincts is the supposed desire of human beings for the company of their own kind. With Britain, in particular, being peacefully ‘invaded’ by unassimilable population, it was a theory that was articulated within political arguments and fuelled and legitimised strict immigration controls. The new racism avoided any statement of racial inequality, alleging that recognition of racial differences did not postulate the superiority of one group over another. The whole question of race is not a matter of being superior or inferior, but of being different.
One similarity of the seemingly disparate contentions of old and new racism is that their basic belief systems are upheld by appeals to science. The applications of Social Darwinism – supporting the ideal of white dominance and the biological inferiority of the dominated – can be compared to their more modern counter-parts where sociobiology (the study of human social behaviour in biological terms) is frequently resorted in order to provide an intellectual justification for the new racism. Pivotal to this process is the way racism becomes intertwined with issues of nationalism – and perhaps in the guise of xenophobia – in defining the parameters of the (homogenous) nation-state.
This should be viewed as a critical point, for it is this approach which has to be termed the ‘new racism’ to distinguish it from the more traditional kind. Such a distinction is not seen as a manifestation of racialist attitudes, but as a natural response to the presence of people of a different cultural and racial background. We may all share a common human nature, but part of that very shared nature is the natural tendency to form bounded social units and to differentiate ourselves from outsiders. This, then, is the characteristic of the new racism. It is a theory called biological, or better still, pseudo-biological culturalism. Nations on this view are not built out of politics and economics, but out of human nature. It is in our biology, our instincts, to defend our way of life, traditions and customs against outsiders – not because they are inferior, but because they are part of different cultures.
Although the new racism produced a ‘breathtaking’ analysis of human nature, it still had the task of proving that non-white people, in effect, did not share in a way of life with white people and that they were different. A significant point on the theorising of the (‘culturally powerful British’) nation is that it not only emphasises and affirms the idea that this is the most important natural expression of the bonding of similar people, but that it bounds other people, those who are different as outside of the nation. Further, in the course of such discernment of differences, the new racism frequently implies, although rarely makes explicit, that white society and culture are not just different from others, but superior to them.
The new racism took root in political Britain and Toryism kept in touch with its theory-building tendencies. In the late 1960s and the 1970s Enoch Powell was a prominent critic of coloured immigration – and imported cultures – and highlighted the differences between us and them, assuming that the barriers between ‘racial groups’ could never be overcome. Other politicians also entered into the disquisition.
Churchill had issued earlier warnings about a bitterness that exists among ordinary people who one day were living in Lancashire, and woke up the next day in New Delhi, Calcuttta or Kingston, Jamaica. Such sentiments aroused genuine fears against immigrants and were a central weapon conceptual to the theory of new racism. These fears were amplified within media and political discourse. In January 1978 Prime Minister Thatcher publicly shared these fears about the British way of life being swamped by black immigrants:
If we went on as we are, then by the end of the century there would be 4 million people from the New Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people with a different culture. And, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law, and done so much throughout the world, that if there is a fear it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.
The new racism rose to prominence in capitalist societies in the wake of large scale labour migrations and of the crisis in international capitalism that generated massive economic restructuring and rising unemployment. More notably were Britain and then the USA and Canada. By the mid 1980s, signalled by the so-called Blainey debate in 1984 and incorporating attacks on Asian migration, this new racism had clawed its way to Australia. These attacks were also coded in terms of our way of life, citing community attitudes in a way that constructed a narrow and exclusive community. While the arguments similarly purported to be about cultural difference, the deterministic association of culture with race or country of origin reflected a tapping into the old racism. The claim that government policy on immigration and multiculturalism was at odds with public opinion, and therefore invalid, was a central premise in the Blainey argument. Social cohesiveness, employment and harmony within the Australian community, it was passionately argued, would be jeopardised by the size and composition of the migrant intake. This sounded all too familiar to the British argument, and indeed, echoed many of the sentiments expressed earlier by Enoch Powell and others. Blainey had asked:
How can anyone not be upset at the falling standards, the deterioration of our way of life and a feeling of being a stranger in one’s own town?
Although the ideologies of old and new racism were built on distinct, separate arguments, it can be argued that there are rather significant degrees of similarity between them. New racism is merely old racism re-labelled, with some commentators stressing that both advocate the separation of social groups in the interests of social harmony. Their interpretation provides an emphasis of what the new discourse means in an understanding of racism. They contend that the threads that bind the racisms together are that firstly, many of their techniques of persuasion, including their appeals to scientific credibility, are alike. Secondly, they have played similar roles in the struggle for power in society. The final and most important resemblance is that they both foster the idea that it is natural to resent aliens, leading to polarisation within the community. It is this which makes new racism equally suited to being considered as racism. As the traditional form lost its power in contemporary society racism has developed a new and more acceptable face.
Although, I repeat, the ideologies of old and new racism were built on distinct, separate arguments, there are identifiable similarities between them. New racism, per se, is merely old racism re-labelled, and both ideologies advocate the separation of social groups in the interests of social harmony.
One only need look at the racial divisions being promoted in this country by the likes of Abbott and Bolt, for example, to confirm this. I dread to think where it will lead us.
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