21 November 2019

The Age of Weaponised Racism

We have entered a resurgent age of racism wherein discrimination is globalised, normalised and weaponised.

“He died like a dog”, said President Donald J. Trump on 27 October 2019 at the press briefing announcing the killing by US special forces in Syria of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. These invocating words could have been uttered, in the same tone and to the same gloating effect, by a Ku Klux Klan posse leader circa 1919 coming back from a night lynching of African-Americans in the Tennessee or Arkansas backwoods. The next day, at a political rally, Mr. Trump cinematically mimicked the sound of the guns used: “Boom, boom, boom, they were out there, perfect”, glorifying the extra-judicial killing of the terrorist leader he said – with no evidence to that effect – had been “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way”.

Two days later, in an umpteenth national drama over the hijab, the French Senate was meeting to adopt a bill of law prohibiting mothers wearing the Islamic head scarf to take part in school trips. In between, a former candidate of the right-wing National Front party attacked a mosque in southwest France and, inspired by a conspiracy theory, shot two people to ‘avenge’ the Notre Dame cathedral accidentally catching fire last year. Two weeks earlier, in the Saxony region of Germany, a man had tried to set off explosives in a synagogue and opened fire on several passers-by. Live streaming his attack online, the terrorist expressed his desire to “kill anti-Whites” and his admiration for the individuals who led earlier similar terrorist attacks in Norway, New Zealand and the United States. 

The previous month, a new wave of violence against African immigrants swept through South Africa resulting in the death of twelve people. A week later, a Hispanic man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin had acid thrown on his face and told to “go back to [his] country”, and, in Italy, Liliana Segre, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor was provided with police protection as a result of threats she received following her call for parliament to set up a committee to combat racism.

Taking into consideration the specificity of each local context, these events could be examined in isolation. However, a further interrogation is legitimate: what if current racisms were somehow connected? 

If so, formulations such as ‘global racism’ warrant a number of clarifications. Firstly, racism is a phenomenon that, in its various manifestations, travelled beyond national frontiers with colonial and imperial conquests long before the birth of the nation-state and modern nationalism. Secondly, racial hierarchies have always been co-substantial, inherent dimensions of colonial rule and imperial domination. Thirdly, these hierarchies are not an exclusive Western phenomenon, especially if we expand our analytical temporal horizons in any possible comparative direction.

Yet when we look at the nineteenth, twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, alongside colonial and imperial racism, another – connected – manifestation of racism emerges. Over the past two hundred years or so, race and racism became near-indispensable elements defining the nation. Within national contexts, racism often came to justify the act governing (within a given polity). Racism was particularly ‘useful’ in the imperial metropolis as it reinforced and justified the mission to civilize. Racism was also useful in small, non-imperial and non-colonial nation-states. There, it was a handy marker of distinction; allegedly differentiating the Swiss from the Austrian or the Swede from the Dane.

What was and still is global is the idea that races exist and that racists believe their own race to be superior to other human races. Today, twenty-first century racists maintain a symbiotic relation with the nation that is with the nation as they imagine it. Without its carcan, they would be utterly unable to express their boxed and boxing views. Racists would need to re-invent themselves and their objective enemies if the international system and its community had truly moved beyond nation-states and sovereignty. In a genuinely global world, racism would look profoundly different and could certainly not exist in its current identity-anchored shapes.

Popular science-fiction provides, as it were, a cosmic mimicking of that same frame, namely that of the world united against the alien. It is often a populist repetition of the resistance paradigm, and in such pulp novels and B-movies, the arch-enemy becomes the alien, a monster of a different race, invading the vital space, a species that has to be exterminated. This may be the shape of racism in a fully-globalised, post-nation-state world.

Still, an evolving global dimension of twentieth-century racism is already discernible.

Trumpian racism

The global resurgence in racism and discrimination since the early 2000s and its accelerated manifestation since the mid-2010s have raised questions about the phenomenon’s historical continuity and its perceptible evolution in the early twenty-first century. Book-ended by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the 2016 presidential election in the United States, with the Mediterranean migrant crisis of 2014 in between, the trend is importantly impacted by these episodes. It is not, however, limited to their consequences.

To be certain, the nature of racism is timeless (though it revolves around specific geo-physical and political spaces) and the contemporary projection of discrimination is to a large extent merely replaying familiar dynamics of dehumanisation, dispossession, denial and demonisation that have long existed across the world and amongst societies. Similarly, many of the current episodes of racism – either in their own expression or in the analyses of their materialisation, or indeed in artistic representation – establish themselves an overt link with earlier forms.

The current wave of renewed racism owes its acuity to the fact that perception of a resolution of the issue on the mode ‘never again’ has shown itself to be a chimera built on a faulty narrative of linear global racial progress and achieved societal atonement. In many places round the world, the perception is that racism had become a passé issue. Would that it were so. The United States has not been able to solve its racial question, France has not resolved its colonial legacy and the murmur of antisemitism in Europe has never ceased since World War II – to name but these places. 

Elsewhere, Japan belatedly signed up to the United Nations Convention on Racial Discrimination in 1996. Notions of Japanese racial and ethnic purity have underwritten reactions to foreigners, migrants and local minorities: the Buraku, the Ainu and the people of Okinawa, as well descendants of former Japanese colonies – Koreans and Chinese. In May of this year, social activist Ngurang Reena denounced racism and discrimination faced by the minorities in India, mostly towards the people of the North-Eastern region.

Amidst these diffusions, latter-day Trumpian racism is emerging today with three cementing characteristics that warrant further examination, namely an internationalised form of expression whereby racists echo each other’s views and action in global unison; a deepened normalisation of the practice with societies seemingly less and less troubled by the issue and its rationalisation, as they would have been during the Cold War decades; and a weaponisation of discrimination whereby ideas, discourse, behaviour, laws and institutions can come to be aligned against others – vehemently, strategically and creatively.

In and of themselves none of these dimensions is wholly novel. Rather it is their combination, intensification, expansion and loosened expression that are enabling the current rebooting of racism in a more insidious form than the more familiar in-your-face colonial, segregation or Apartheid earlier configurations.

Transnationalisation is a striking and paradoxical form of the revitalised racism. As it were, the nation is in 2019 still the incipient locus where racism begins and thrives. And so, in that sense, racism can never be fully globalised as its fundamental pillar and indispensable ground remains the nation. However, today’s manifestations of racism beyond national frontiers increasingly show themselves to be at once synchronic and diachronic. Within nations, racism continues to take well-known shapes and patterns; racists’ tropes are developed and re-enacted against the backdrop of specific national political, social and economic contexts and narratives. 

The scapegoat: the Black, the Brown, the Yellow, the Muslim, the Jew, the Latino, the migrant (often non-White and non-Christian), the foreigner are the mono-causal and simplistic reason explaining why things are ‘not good’ and how xenophobia can be invited in. These ‘people’, it is peddled, must be hit – verbally, physically and possibly eliminated from a given nation or national community.

This is certainly nothing new. Racists are not particularly creative thinkers. Rather, the phenomenon that is unfolding before us is the result of the unpacking of globalisation patterns, namely the mimicking beyond national frontiers of the analogous racist discourses and their concomitant normalisation in various places around the globe: South and North America, West and Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This is a spiral in which racists observe each other, listen and watch each other, reach out to each other and at times try to build alliances. It is a new and dangerous real and virtual territory, since various racisms previously otherwise disconnected now find common operational and international grounds to fuel their discourses and actions – and hence magnify the global broadcast of their causes.

Whereas the current racisms reinforce each other in this fashion, constituencies opposed to racism are, for their part, still equally anchored in national contexts but they do not find an equivalent transnational strength. They fail to find wide support despite the manifold opportunities the digital era offers. International organisations seem particularly ill-equipped to join in national debates convincingly or react swiftly to the fast-deepening international racist drift. On the one hand, racists round the world find ways to fuel and feed fires of hatred; on the other, those who stand against racism keep fighting against it using traditional creaky weapons. This is so because the approach is bureaucratic and declamatory, and leadership and substance are missing.

Resultingly, anti-racist coalitions look tired. Problematically, the kind of fatigue that seems to go with their inability to go beyond national contexts to organise collective counter-measures ends up colouring the very issue of racism, which is in turn again perceived as an ‘old’ problem – one that would be (falsely) opposed, say, to ‘more urgent’ issues gathering momentum internationally, such as security or global health. Today’s youth (besides those that suffer discrimination) is arguably less mobilised by racism than by environmental or gender questions.

From The Fire Next Time to the fire this time, denial and attention are germane to the racism perpetuation and regeneration process. Who does not speak about it or consider it an issue of our time is a revealing aspect. The denial issue within universities has been noted in the United Kingdom by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which, in an October 2019 study, found that about a quarter of minority ethnic students said they had experienced racial harassment since the start of their course. Of those, black students reported the highest rate of racial harassment (29%), followed by Asian students (27%).

The failing narrative has been one of merely surfacing the problem culturally, as in ‘race matters’ phraseology and perspective, instead of problematising the issue at the level of ethics and politics. Such provincialism, which largely characterises the logic of new anti-racism militancy such as Black Lives Matter, has proceeded from an at-times near-apologetic stance. The result is that anti-racism militants are on the defensive and the burden of proof is on them, while racists feel empowered.

Weaponising hate

A further phenomenon characterising the revived racism is indeed its weaponisation. Presidents, prime ministers, leaders of political parties, elected parliamentarians, intellectuals and media personalities increasingly use demonstrably racist language in a casual, nonchalant way. This practice, which is not the result of discrete cases, is a calculated deliberate move, whose objective is the enforcement of racist policies. This too is an old technique that racists have used for centuries, but which again is taking new forms.

Referring to anti-Semitic words and deeds against Liliana Segre, the President of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella officially declared that racial intolerance is “concrete”. He spoke intelligible words and condemned racism in the clearest of ways. Still, his declaration seemed to resonate in an echo chamber going unheard by haters. The latter congregate in different cyber-spaces and in piazzas. They are untouched, unaffected and do not care about the consequences of such speech. Not all of these racists belong to neo-fascist or neo-Nazi groups. This is why the weaponising of hate is powerful as it readily moves transnationally. Other racists elsewhere observe. They watch what is (and what is not) happening, whether Italian racists will go unpunished. If so, they will certainly try and do the same wherever they live; in Brazil, in Israel, in the Philippines or in the United States of America.

Insisting on the notion of weaponising hate does not mean putting forward conspiracy theories. In our digital era, the amount of information allows close and distant observers to draw lessons. There is hardly a need to develop underground networks or secret societies of conspirators. The World Wide Web allows older and new generations of racists, so-called ultras supporters to join forces easily. The mechanics and dynamics of the weaponisation of hate adapt fast, certainly faster than state authorities do – and in some case the latter are accomplices.

As the dynamic cements, for instance the very notion of ‘whiteness’ has been weaponised. Thus, over the past few years, individuals have been calling the police in the United States to complain against other people engaging in innocuous activities, thereby instrumentalising authorities against people they are biased towards. Problematically, in many of these cases, the officials have reacted by de facto taking the side of the (White) people calling them. Dispatched officers have overwhelmingly approached the cases as if the ‘reported’ (Black or Brown) individuals were indeed suspicious, instead of in effect holding the ‘denouncers’ responsible for their frivolous calls, obviously driven by racist dispositions.

This Kafkaesque phenomenon – in and of itself the epitome of contemporary routinised and martialised racism – is arresting as the nature of these calls has expanded in increased frequency to include the most mundane activities: speaking Spanish, pushing a cart in the street, legitimately using a pool or a gym, listening to music, buzzing the interphone to attend a party, sitting in one’s living room, barbecuing, checking out of an Airbnb, waiting for someone in a coffee shop, delivering newspapers or mowing a lawn. The insidious nature of this process whereby officers can claim to be merely responding to a citizen call (i.e., the excuse of ‘doing their job’) betrays the problematic nature of a system asymmetrically protecting the individual whims of the racists while violating the rights of their victims.

In truth, the rerouting of law and order in such fashion towards personal racist inclinations is a conscious technique to game a system that is wittingly or unwittingly allowing itself to be used for discriminatory purposes – since the people making these calls know, suspect, hope or merely act on the assumption that the authorities will side with them. And indeed, the evidence is that “the history, violence, permanence and unconscious pervasiveness of racial fear within the criminal justice system confirms that encounters with law enforcement are fraught with racial iniquity, despite the best intentions of individual officers or precincts”.

Above and beyond, familiar racial disparities in the justice system and mass incarceration, what we are observing as almost a form of criminalisation of existence or presence is what is also happening towards Muslims and migrants in large parts of Europe whereby expressions of hatred towards them is tolerated publicly and defended intellectually. Again, this is something we witnessed in the past but today’s densified and intensified global, real-time exchanges allow for racist patterns to carve a place in international practices, which is all the time getting harder to question.

It is in such a context where the global irresistible invocation of the totemic terrorism term and the internationalised normalised stigmatisation of Muslims can allow for modern-day genocide and large-scale repression to take place in Myanmar and in China with minimal engagement on the part of the international community, including by Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. In these cases, and in Kashmir, the post-9/11 hostility towards Islam has been strategically instrumentalised by regimes to repress their local Muslim populations per an authoritarian political programme.

Another example of this travelling racism is the post-Apartheid anti-African xenophobia in South Africa. As Achille Mbembe referencing Frantz Fanon remarks, here, “South African forms of black nationalism are morphing into virulent forms of black-on-black racism. An ethno-racial project, this new form…has forged for itself two enemies, an enemy it fears and envies (whiteness or white monopoly capital) and another it loathes and despises (black people from elsewhere)”.

Finally and unsurprisingly, weaponisation is also economic. This autumn, as a French polemicist long-running racist tactics – he praised the methods of General Thomas Robert Bugeau who massacred Arabs and Jews in the 1830s and 1840s in French-colonised Algeria – were denounced by historians as paving the way to civil war in France, a leading television news channel offered him a show which became an instant success.

In the event, it is not merely the rhythms of discrimination – spelling flare-up cycles of neo-Nazism and neo-fascism – that matter here but how familiar motifs are acquiring newfound resonance.  In a place otherwise hailed as racially tolerant, The Netherlands, the reality, as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism Tendayi Achiume noted in an October 2019 report summing the trends, is that “in many areas of life – including social and political discourse, and even through some law and policy – the message is reinforced that to be truly or genuinely Dutch is to be white and of Western origin, whereas other racial and ethnic groups such as people of African and Asian descent (who have been a part of the Dutch Kingdom for centuries), people of North African and Middle Eastern descent, Roma, Sinti and Travellers – even when they hold full citizenship and have done so for multiple generations – are characterised as not really or not fully Dutch. Religion is also salient, and in the present political climate in particular, Islam is repeatedly represented… as inherently opposed to Dutch national identity, and even to liberal democracy more generally.”

In their rare 1971 conversation, "A Rap on Race", James Baldwin and Margaret Mead captured the at-once raw and urgent, elusive and slow, intimate and public nature of racism. “It is as though some great, great, great wound is in the whole body, and no one dares to operate: to close it, to examine it, to stitch it”, remarks Baldwin as the discussion starts. Close to half a century later, the operating has not taken place and the wound is still there – for all to see now.

Both authors are professors of International History at the Graduate Institute and co-teach a course on the international history of racism.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Conversation.