The Politics of Racism
It seems like racism is in the news every day.
In January 2015 Maclean's ran a cover story that called Winnipeg the most racist city in Canada, pointing to the treatment of indigenous people here. In the federal election campaign, "Stephen Harper and the Conservative party peddled hatred of Muslims, fear of refugees, disregard for First Nations communities," as Toronto journalist Desmond Cole aptly put it.
Bilan Arte, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, was clear: during the campaign "Time and again we witnessed the people running to represent our country pander to blatant racism." Racism was "harnessed and manipulated as a political tool." It's possible that we'll see something similar happen in the 2016 Manitoba election.
South of the border, Donald Trump is skillfully using blatantly racist signals about people of colour as part of his maverick campaign to be the Republican candidate for president. Trump has called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers. He has also pledged to keep Muslims from entering the US and claimed that in Jersey City thousands of people cheered when the World Trade Centre was hit on September 11, 2001. Meanwhile, as US journalist Paul Waldman points out, "his opponents tiptoe around the issue, unwilling to criticize him too severely."
Across Europe we're seeing a rise in racist words and deeds directed against Muslims. Repressive "national security" measures are spreading. France is just one example. In the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the Socialist Party (France's NDP) government proposed to strip dual citizens convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship -- a policy long advocated by the extreme right-wing National Front party, which is enjoying unprecedented support (the Harper government's Bill C-24 allows the Canadian government to do the same thing). The French prime minister has said in a speech that migrants "put the concept of Europe in great danger." The government is also pledging to maintain its repressive state of emergency measures until Islamic State has been defeated.
So what's going on? Racism isn't new. Although it hasn't always existed, it's been part of European society and countries founded by European settlers for several hundred years.
In Canada and the US, one reason that racism has been getting more attention recently is that indigenous people and people of colour have been shining a spotlight on it and demanding change. It's people organizing against violence and harassment against indigenous women and people of colour that deserve credit, not journalists or governments that respond to their courageous efforts.
But it's not just that everyday racism is getting more attention. Around the world, racism is being used as a political tool more frequently. In Canada, Muslims and indigenous people in particular have been targeted, though African-Canadians and other people of colour have been too.
Some politicians and pundits use racist scapegoating of certain groups of people to win votes and divert attention away from the many harmful things that governments and corporations are doing. They fan the flames of racism. However, they don't create it. Racism can be used as a political tool because racist beliefs already exist.
Those beliefs aren't part of human nature. Racist attitudes exist because of how our society is set up. They're perpetuated by racist realities. Certain groups of people who are seen as inherently and unchangeably different are oppressed on that basis. They're subjected to a specific kind of systemic harm -- that's what racism is. They have less money, less power and worse jobs. They have worse health and are more likely to be jailed.
It's objective realities like these that racist ideas pretend to explain. After all, the racist thinker says, if so many "of those people" are poor or in jail it must be their own fault, right? This kind of blame-the-victim thinking would have little appeal if those it targets weren't oppressed.
Who gains from racism? Although well-meaning people often say that racism hurts everyone and benefits no one, this isn't true. In our racist society, all white people have some advantages relative to people who face racism. Better access to jobs, better treatment by landlords, business owners, the police and the courts -- these and other advantages are white privilege.
Yet racism benefits some people much more than others. Employers reap higher profits because racism divides and weakens workers, and bosses can make divided workers work harder. Workers who face racism are often forced to work for lower wages and in worse conditions. Also, governments have an easier time keeping people in line and implementing policies that hurt most people when indigenous people and people of colour are blamed for problems like unemployment, bad jobs and inadequate public services that are caused by capitalism. That's why white privilege isn't in the interest of white workers -- it's poison bait.
Bob Dylan's 1964 song "Only a Pawn in Their Game" put it this way:
“But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
Winnipeg today isn’t segregated Mississippi, to be sure. But what Dylan sang about racist workers in the Jim Crow South still applies to working people who buy into racism today.
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