Racial Realities: Social Constructs and the Stuff of Which They Are Made
Eric C. Thompson
Ronald R. Sundstrom
More than Nothing: The Persistence of Islamophobia in ‘Post-Racial’ Racism
Requirements for an Ethics of Race
Racism and Indigenous People in Australia
Intolerant Europe: The Drive against the Roma
The End of Multiculturalism
Beyond Race, Gender, and Class: Reclaiming the Radical Roots of Social-Justice Movements
Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy
Forging National Unity: Ideas of Race in China
India’s Dalits: Racism and Contemporary Change
Taking Sides on Latin America: The ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Left
India and the New Great Game
Volume 12 ● Number 2 ● Summer/Autumn 2010—Race and Racisms
The hospitable minority, those for whom hospitality is either a sacred or ethical obligation or both, is overwhelmed by the masses’ noisy demands to shut the door. As if that were not enough, the inhospitable, using the same holy and constitutional texts, glory in denying sanctuary. They cry out in fear and anxiety that their country is being overrun, that it is under siege, and that denying hospitality to threatening foreigners is right and good. Foreigner-hatred is justified and foreigner-fear is embraced. Hence, the organisation “Stop Islamisation of Europe” (SIOE) declares: “Racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the height of common sense.”2
SIOE’s message is clear: racism is evil, Islamophobia is not racism, ergo Islamophobia is not evil. Racism is sidestepped, and xenophobia is eluded by its explicit absence. Muslims are condemned as a historic, monolithic, and invariable threat against every aspect of Western liberal–democratic societies, and thus judged worthy of phobia (fear). Indeed, Islamophobia is judged, in contrast with racism, to be reasonable and rational, and the label “Islamophobe” is embraced as a rallying cry. Yet, xenophobia lingers in the structure of the term (“Islam” + “phobia”). Muslims simply and terrifyingly are the xenos, the “stranger” or “foreigner”, in this instance. Moreover, and beyond this superficial syntactical similarity, the history of xenophobia lingers in today’s Islamophobia. Just as other ethnic, racial, and religious groups have been demonised as a foreign, total threat, so are Muslims in the current wave of fear and hatred. Do not be fooled by submergence of the general term xenos in SIOE’s prideful slogan: Islamophobia is a form of xenophobia.
Taking Xenophobia Seriously
To counter this hubristic hatred, many fronts against xenophobia should be opened up: it should be roundly denounced; social scientists should point out how peoples are pushed and pulled across borders by global capitalism and world politics; ethicists and political theorists should debate the moral and political responsibilities that are generated toward immigrants and refugees by those international forces; religious organisations should, as acts of religious obedience and civil disobedience, provide sanctuary to immigrants and refugees; and civil associations should work to counter the strong currents of inhospitality that run through society. All of that and more should occur, but in addition, a robust discussion about xenophobia should be encouraged.
SIOE’s blatant embrace of xenophobia is more than bold rhetoric: it is an act made possible by the loss of meaning of the term “xenophobia”, and by an accompanying lack of moral outrage over xenophobic beliefs, attitudes, and acts. To counter this dual loss and lack, the idea of xenophobia should be clarified and its moral status explained. In this essay, I discuss one reason why the significance xenophobia has been diminished. I concentrate on how theories of membership in liberal–democratic societies relegate xenophobia to a minor moral concern. I claim that how liberal–democratic nations imagine membership shelters xenophobia.
Deciding Who Belongs
Nations assume a sovereign right to determine individual membership in themselves. The rights of residency and citizenship are granted by nations to those whom they judge meet their constitutional criteria for either. This power is rooted in the idea of national self-determination—indeed, it is the basis of the civic “self” that seeks political autonomy—and is thus considered fundamental to national sovereignty. In the United States, the right to determine membership is instantiated by the judicial branch’s granting of plenary power to regulate immigration law to the executive and legislative branches.
The sovereign right to determine membership is embedded in liberal political theory: it is present at the constitutive, original moment (both the mythical monumental historical and theoretical moments) of the social contract. Parties to the social contract, through the act of constituting the body politic, get to determine membership—with its rights, duties, and obligations—in that body. Social justice, then, is defined, through this act of self-constitution, as fair relations between members; it becomes an intra-national idea, and is used, in ideal political theory, to judge and regulate the effects of the basic structure of society on members, their life-chances, and the distribution of the benefits and burdens of society between members.3 Additionally, this act of self-constitution, with the power of inclusion and exclusion, is credited with the creation of communities of character and meaning: the emergence of common forms of worship, language, manners and mores, narratives and monuments, and virtues and values.4
In itself, the sovereign right to determine membership creates many obstacles to would-be refugees and immigrants who are seeking shelter, a livelihood, and a guarantee that their basic human rights will be honoured. Some of these obstacles are justified (a fair immigration process of reasonable length) and many are not (the flouting of international laws and treaties governing migration).5 First, the dynamics of nationalism transform whole territories—enormous areas of land and collections of faiths, cultures, and languages—into “ours” and “not theirs”. The nation-state becomes concerned with inclusion and exclusion, with the creation and division of friends from enemies.6 Second, nationalism delimits social justice as an intra-national idea. Third, immigrants, and those associated with immigrant communities, including naturalised citizens or citizens ancestrally related to immigrant groups, are seen as a threat to national communities of character and meaning.
This narrative is so powerful it has determined modern Western conceptions of sanctuary and hospitality. Sanctuary and hospitality are no longer duties or obligations derived from religious authority, moral or political theory, or social and environmental conditions. No, instead they are now gifts and acts of charity. Nationalism, indeed, makes the modern concept of sanctuary, which is fundamentally incredible on a national scale, credible. This is not the sanctuary of Abraham’s tent, or of a home, church or synagogue, or community: it is the presumption that a vast nation—despite the massive pulls and pushes of the world economy, and the nation’s self-interested geopolitical machinations—could have the audacity to offer or, more often, deny, with a straight face, sanctuary to “outsiders”.7 Additionally, in the years after 11 September, Americans’ frustration with immigration from Mexico and Latin America combined with their fear of Arabs and Muslims to transform further the idea of sanctuary from a moral burden into a threat to national security. American cities that declared they were “sanctuary cities” (local officials, such as the police, would not inquire about the residency or citizenship status of residents seeking municipal services) were accused of harbouring criminals and potential terrorists. Sanctuary is deprecated as a threat to the rule of law.8
What I have identified as the second obstacle, the delimitation, or distortion, of social justice to an intra-national idea, has further negative effects. First, since the ordering of the basic structure of society did not determine the beginning or the progress of the life of the refugee or immigrant, then their life-chances are not a matter of social justice. What has happened to them may be a matter of international justice, but it is not the concern of social justice, and is not a concern of “ours”.
This reasoning is similar to that of so-called “lifeboat ethics”, the idea that each nation is like a lifeboat floating in the sea. Each lifeboat has a specific “carrying capacity”—it can hold only so many people—and taking in more than it can hold will sink the lifeboat and all its passengers. The moral of the story is that saving those in the water (or incautious sexual reproduction in the boat) endangers everyone else. The proponents of lifeboat ethics say to those who want to extend sanctuary, “Fine, but you will have to make room for those you want to save by jumping overboard yourself!” The unfortunates in the water are there presumably because they did not pay attention to the carrying capacity of their own lifeboats, or their lifeboats were poorly captained; all the same, we are not morally required to save them, because that would be akin to a moral obligation to kill oneself. Of course, in this story, the lifeboats float in one world, but do not have the complex global environmental, economic, political, and social interrelations and interdependencies of actual nations on Earth.9
The callousness of lifeboat ethics is the kind of moral disregard about non-citizens to which the delimitation of social justice gives rise. Although the marginalisation of immigrants and refugees is mediated by constitutional law, and discouraged by the cosmopolitan inclinations of some liberal theories,10 nonetheless, the message to citizens is clear: the problems of immigrants and refugees are not ours; as long as we did not push them into the sea, we do not have to save them—let them drown.
The peril of drowning in some cases is literal: migrants from North Africa and the Middle East attempt to sail to Spain and Malta, those from China and South Asia attempt the same to Australia, and Haitians to the United States. A few members of far-right parties in the destination countries want their boats sunk,11 but most citizens want the migrants detained offshore without consideration of their suffering or legitimate claims for asylum. In the desert south-west of the United States a similar story plays out, but instead of drowning in water, migrants are in danger of dying from the lack of it as they attempt to cross the dangerous Sonoran Desert. Americans have supported stronger border controls and crackdowns against undocumented Hispanic and Latino immigrants. Moreover, apart from the issues of border enforcement and the deportation of undocumented immigrants, Americans along the Arizona–Mexican border have even fiercely debated the morality and legality of leaving water out for the desert-crossers so they do not die of dehydration.12
The walls that shelter xenophobia within nations are made of callousness. A lack of regard for the dignity of immigrants leaves them vulnerable to economic and political exploitation and waves of xenophobic persecution. The populace nurses xenophobic attitudes, certain politicians and demagogues gain political capital from whipping up fear and resentment towards perceived foreigners and immigrants, and some businesses (those that take advantage of an underground economy of low-wage labour or whose actual enterprise is rounding up undocumented immigrants) profit from the ensuing heated, divisive rhetoric. Such was the process behind Arizona’s controversial immigration law, SB 1070, which mandates that all municipal agents (mainly municipal and state police) enforce federal immigration law by detaining undocumented immigrants.13
Callousness about the fate, livelihood, or rights of immigrants goes beyond the latter to touch the lives of all who are perceived as foreigners. This includes naturalised citizens, citizens with one immigrant parent who nevertheless gain citizenship through jus sanguinis (the right of blood), and citizens who gain it through jus soli (the right of the soil). Especially vulnerable are the native-born, minor children of an immigrant or refugee. They would eventually and rightly take on the duties and burdens of society, but their access to the rights of citizenship and the benefits of society is imperilled by the immigration or refugee status of their parents. In the United States, conservatives, a group who typically regard the Constitution as sacred and inalterable, seek to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment’s implicit recognition of jus soli and its provision of citizenship to people born in the United States.14
Blood and land, and, apparently, constitutional law, matter little when you look, sound, or act like a foreigner. Xenophobic attitudes doom those citizens associated with foreignness—a group largely made up of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities—to being perpetual foreigners and civic outsiders. Therefore, in the United States, Mexican Americans are simply Mexicans, and Asian Americans are Asians. In Germany, Turkish Germans are Turks. The Roma, in France and Italy, no matter what their residency status and despite European Union laws governing immigration from member states, are treated as simply Gypsies and expelled. Throughout the eastern European states and Middle East, Jewish citizens are simply Jews. Likewise, Muslim citizens in Europe and the United States are simply Muslims. They are not us; they are aliens, Ausländer, perpetually foreign, and a foreign element, even an infection, in the body politic.
Merkel and Multiculturalism
This puts in context the depth of the despair of the comments by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany when she addressed her party members in Potsdam in October 2010:
We kidded ourselves for a while that they wouldn’t stay, but that’s not the reality. Of course the tendency had been to say, “let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side, and be happy to be living with each other”. But this concept has failed, and failed utterly.15
“We” and “they”—there they are. It is almost incredible that the “they” she is brazenly referring to includes citizens. (It is credible to me only because I sensibly stopped believing in the historic inevitability of the “right” and the “good” so long ago.) The political leader of one of the major Western liberal–democratic nations, and Germany no less, is talking about her citizens—and their civic belonging, their fundamental relation to the state as citizens—as if they were separable from the civic “we”. What dreadful beliefs and commitments are at the bottom of her view of democracy and political liberalism?16
Merkel’s comments demonstrate the awful power of the third obstacle created by the nation-state’s sovereign right to determine membership: immigrants and citizens who are regarded as perpetual foreigners are seen as a threat to national communities of character and meaning. Her comments additionally illustrate how nationalism can nurture xenophobia. It can encourage the development both of explicit prejudices against and implicit problematic attitudes towards “foreigners”; moreover, it can allow true xenophobes to hide behind the claim that they do not wish foreigners ill, but merely do not want them “over here”. Nationalism shelters xenophobia.
Hothouses for Xenophobia
If one believes that nationalism, including liberal nationalism, is inherently tied to ethnic and racial identity, such that all states are at bottom racial states, then my conclusion is not surprising. However, I do not assume that all states are racial states or that all republics are racial republics. I accept that formerly racial states have adopted liberal, non-racial conceptions of membership. But even so, liberal societies are hothouses for xenophobia, nurturing it from a sprout of an attitude to a blossom of nativism, a fully developed political ideology.
In addition, however, to arguing that liberal-nationalist conceptions of membership shelter xenophobia, I also claim that how nations imagine racism (surprisingly) shelters xenophobia.17 I have not argued for that claim here. That argument remains to be made, along with an investigation of the meaning of xenophobia, its harms, and the reasons it is immoral.
Heretofore, discussions on international or global justice have made the usual condemnatory references to xenophobia and nativism in thinking about topics such as immigration and global poverty, and draw on the history of racism to make their points. But xenophobia is endemic to societies and an intractable problem; it cannot be regarded as a marginal topic in international justice; it needs to be dealt with directly and vigorously. Moreover, drawing on well-known narratives about racism may not help since they are national narratives, which also shelter xenophobia.
For example, SIOE evades the charge of racism by condemning it as “the lowest form of human stupidity”, but then distinguishes Islamophobia from racism. Its website displays an image of a white hand shaking a black one, with the SIOE acronym and the phrase “against racism” framing the image. White and black: that is race for SIOE, and racism is the rejection of a group because of apparent colour differences. SIOE’s complaint against Islam, in contrast, is based on that religion’s allegedly hostile incompatibility with democracy, and extends to fears of a cultural takeover of European civilisation by Muslims. There are many responses to SIOE’s depiction of race and racism—it is biologically naive, cynical, and plainly self-serving—yet, it evinces my basic point: xenophobia does not look like racism, as we have imagined it through our national narratives. SIOE uses nationalism and national conceptions of racism to shelter its xenophobia.
I hope that investigations of xenophobia within philosophy and political theory intervene in public conversations about topics in international and global justice. These interventions should clarify and invigorate our conception of xenophobia, and help to reform, against the recurring rise of xenophobia, our social images of belonging, hospitality, and sanctuary.
2. These words form the banner of SIOE’s website: [http://sioe.wordpress.com/].
3. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1999), pp. 6, 82.
4. See Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 62.
5. For an introduction to the philosophical debate about these issues, see Michael Dummett, On Immigration and Refugees (New York: Routledge, 2001).
6. The division of friend from enemy is what the controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) identified as one of the primary functions of the state. Schmitt’s legacy in political theory is controversial because of his ties to the Nazi party. See Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, expanded ed. (1932), trans. G. Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
7. See Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (New York: Routledge, 2001).
8. Senator Norm Coleman, “Restoring the Rule of Law: Eliminating Sanctuary Cities”, Human Events, 27 August 2007 [http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=22092].
9. For the basic “lifeboat” argument, see Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor”, Psychology Today, September 1974. For a contrary argument, that in fact “we have a duty to try to prevent and postpone famine deaths”, see Onora Nell, “Lifeboat Earth”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 4, no. 3 (spring 1975).
10. See, for example, Seyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents and Citizens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
11. For example, British National Party leader Nick Griffin. See “Sink Immigrants’ Boats—Griffin”, BBC News, 8 July 2009 [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/8141069.stm].
12. See Joseph Mathew et al., Crossing Arizona, video recording, New York, Cinema Guild, 2006; also, Randal C. Archibold, “At the US Border the Desert Takes a Rising Toll”, New York Times, 15 September 2007.
13. Laura Sullivan, “Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law”, National Public Radio, 28 October 2010 [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130833741].
14. “Xenophobia: Fear-Mongering for American Votes” (editorial), New York Times, 5 August 2010.
16. For an analysis of the growth of xenophobic trends in Germany today, see Jürgen Habermas, “Leadership and Leitkultur”, New York Times, 28 October 2010.
17. See Ronald R. Sundstrom, The Browning of America and the Evasion of Social Justice (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2008), in particular, chapter 3, “The Black–White Binary as Racial Anxiety and Demand for Justice”.