Racism 2.0

This year (2014) has seen the publication of two extraordinarily important academic monographs on racism – its histories and legacies. In drafting a primer on racism entitled Hva er rasisme? [What is racism?] due out for publication in Norwegian with Universitetsforlaget in Oslo (a main academic publisher in Norway) in early 2015 in a series modelled on Oxford University Press’ excellent Very Short Introductions together with senior researcher Cora A. Døving at the HL-Centre in Oslo, I have found Prof Francisco Bethencourt’s and Prof Robert Wald Sussman’s  to provide a wealth of interesting material. These are dense and detailed scholarly work, so I will not even attempt to summarize their content, but rather zone in on what to my mind is the most important lessons for the analysis of racism in the past and in the present that these works provide us with.

Firstly, there is the question of definition, or what exactly we are talking about when we are talking about racism. This is crucial, in that not only have definitions of racism varied over time since the term was first used by the Belgian colonial archivist Théophile Simar in 1922 and popularized by the German Jewish medical professional and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeldt in 1935 as the late historian Prof George M. Fredrickson has documented , but in that the modes in which racism articulate itself have changed and adapted to circumstances, a simple yet important analytical point made by Prof Ian Haney López in a recent book.

In Norway, liberal and hegemonic concepts of racism have long restricted its meaning and application to the forms of biological racism which had its high tide in the era of ‘scientific racism’ in Europe – from roughly speaking 1850s to 1945. The fact that ‘scientific racism’ culminated in the horrors of the Holocaust or the Shoah, in which an estimated 6 million Jews were massacred in the name of the German Nazi pursuit of ‘racial purity’ across Europe, along with the Nazi German attempts to exterminate Romas, homosexuals and the mentally and physically disabled in the period between 1933 and 1945 meant that this most explicit biologically inflected form of racism has long since been discredited. With relatively few exceptions, Norwegian academic scholars writing about racism have insisted on restricting the term racism to biological racism. These academic scholars have more often than not been of white middle-class background, and as such belong to a class which have long been among the least likely to have direct and everyday experiences with racism in Norway. They have generally also failed to consult or reflect upon the changing international theoretizations of racism which starts with the late French-Martinican psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon’s coinage of the term ‘cultural racism’ and develops into an extensive literature on what Martin Barker and Etienne Balibar among other international scholars have referred to as ‘neo-racism.’

In the Norwegian context, academic scholars wedded to a most restrictive usage of the term racism have also systematically failed to register that far-right actors and activists in the Norwegian context have ever since the 1980s known perfectly well that to avoid accusations of racism, one had better cease referring to ‘race’ and skin colour at all, and have adapted their language in public accordingly. The Norwegian sociologist Prof Katrine Fangen, who did ethnographic fieldwork among Norwegian neo-Nazis in the 1990s, points out in her monograph about the Norwegian neo-Nazis of  that period that though the discourse of these young, largely uneducated and socially marginalized white males from Eastern Oslo were shot through with racist and nationalist assumptions, they generally preferred using the terms ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’ and avoided the term ‘race’ in talking about the immigrants and minorities they despised and targeted. It was from this very neo-Nazi milieu that the murderers of the fifteen year old Benjamin Hermansen, a young Norwegian man of mixed Norwegian and African descent and a random victim of murderous racist violence would emerge in 2001. We learn from Fangen’s monograph then, that even the least educated and least bookish of Norwegian far-right activists had by the 1990s already learned to avoid the term ‘race’ precisely so as to avoid accusations of engaging in racist thought and practice. Further examples of this deliberate avoidance for mere strategic reasons can be found among Norwegian far-right activists even today: Far-right organizations from Stop The Islamization of Norway (SIAN) through the Norwegian Defence League (NDL) and onto The Popular Movement Against Immigration (FMI) all now routinely proclaim on their websites that they are ‘against all forms of racism and xenophobia’ and only ‘opposed to the Islamization or Islamic colonization of Norway’, ‘the introduction of shari̒ a in Norway’ etc. etc. Another cue is provided by the Norwegian far-right blogger Peder Are Nøstvold Jensen, known in international far-right and Islamophobic circles under the alias ‘Fjordman’, who became a household name in Norway when it turned out that the Norwegian extreme right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik had reproduced some forty-three blog essays of Fjordman’s in his chilling cut-and-paste tract 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, which he sent to well over a thousand would-be sympathizers across the world before setting out on his mass-murdering spree in Oslo and at Utøya on July 21 2011.

In a key excerpt from a blog essay by ‘Fjordman’ in his tract, the reader is cautioned against using the term ‘race’ openly and publicly in that this will automatically lead to ‘accusations of racism’. ‘Fjordman’ reveals his true nature as a biologically racist some passages later, however, when he in a fit of paradoxical unguardedness goes on to warn about the dangers of ‘racial mixing’. Anyone who knows anything about the racist regimes under Jim Crow in the USA, apartheid in South Africa and Nazi Germany will of course know perfectly well that one of the more significant obsessions of all these regimes was the fear of white women and men having sex with ‘non’-white men and women. So much so that this was prohibited by law under all these regimes. For such sexual relationships of course constituted a threat to ‘racial purity’, the presumed supremacy of the ‘white race’ through conjuring up the prospect of biological offspring that would be ‘racially degenerate’. We might think that we have left the era of biological racism behind us, but as a matter of fact, it is still found in Norway too: Earlier this year, a popular Norwegian folk singer by the name of Hans Rotmo facing the ignoble end of a long career by making profits out of penning and singing racist ditties defended his characterization of asylum seekers as ‘lice’ in a song by making reference to the supposed existence of ‘four races’ in mainstream Norwegian media.

The affable IT engineer Ole Jørgen Anfindsen, who has long warned the Norwegian public about an impending national and societal ‘suicide’ through immigration in a self-published 500 pp.+ book from 2010 calls for restrictions on the immigration of black Africans to Norway on the basis that these supposedly have ‘lower IQ levels’ than native Norwegians and that allowing them to settle in Norway might lead to ‘degeneration.’

The racist apartheid regime in South Africa from 1948 to 1990 actually provided an important template for later rhetorical strategies pursued by anyone wanting to avoid accusations of racism.

The distinguished South African-born historian Prof Saul Dubow has amply documented that the seeds of apartheid ideology were sown by a group of social scientists at the Afrikaaner-dominated Stellenbosch University outside of Cape Town in South Africa in the 1930s – among them the psychologist Hendrik Verwoerd, who would go on to be prime minister at the height of apartheid, W. H. Eiselen, a volkeskunde anthropologist who later became the central administrator in the Native Affairs Department (NAD) tasked with implementing apartheid policies in the 1950s and 60s, and Geoff Cronjé, a racist obsessed with the presumed dangers of ‘interracial sex.’

But in the wake of the horrors of German Nazism and World War II, white South African politicians of both liberal (Jan Smuts) and nationalist (Daniel F. Malan) orientation understood very well that biological racism had been thoroughly and utterly discredited. And so the racist system of apartheid would on the international arena purport only to be designed to ensure that people of variegated cultural backgrounds – who were in any case all supposedly better off if they could preserve their own ‘cultures’ through residential segregation and prohibitions against ‘interracial sex’ – would live happily in ‘enjoying the beaty of a collection of closed boxes’ as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has so splendidly formulated it.

The apartheid regime according to Dubow by and large avoided direct inferences to ‘race’  even whilst pursuing an official policy which categorized citizens on the basis of alleged ‘racial characteristics’ – with borderline cases in South Africa’s substantial ‘coloured’ population being subjected to the humiliating public ‘pencil test’ by representatives of Afrikaaner officialdom in order to determine their ‘racial’ affiliation, forcibly removing millions of coloured and black South Africans from the more privileged spaces in urban areas and segregating public facilities of all sorts. The international community by and large stopped being fooled by the apartheid regime’s rhetorical pretenses after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when South African Police Forces gunned down sixty-nine largely unarmed protesters against the racist pass laws in a township on the Witwatersrand.

In the Norwegian context, activists with far-right affiliations had by the early 1980s already shifted their main focus of attention from Jews to Muslims as a purported threat to Norway. It is in this period we see the first court cases in which Norwegian activists with extreme-right wing orientations being prosecuted for racist and/or discriminatory speech against people of Pakistani background under Norwegian General Penal Code § 135 (a), first introduced in its present form in Norway in 1970 as a direct result of Norway having ratified the UN International Convention Against Racism and Discrimination in All Forms (ICERD) (1966).

Though not all Norwegians of Pakistani background in Norway are of Muslim background, and it would still take some years until Pakistanis in Norway were categorized as Muslims rather than as Pakistanis in and through public and media discourses, the extreme-right wingers who target Pakistanis in this period are in fact centrally concerned with their targets religious background, as for example the case of one Vivi Krogh, sentenced by the Norwegian Supreme Court for distributing thousands of racist leaflets in 1981 makes perfectly clear. In light of the fact that Norway’s Jewish population is and remains very small in numbers – partially as a result of the very fact that by virtue of the Nazified Norwegian state police in Norway having willingly collaborated with the German Nazi occupiers of Norway in rounding up Norwegian Jews for transport to the death chambers of Auschwitz in 1942-43   – it made more sense for Norwegian far-right activists to target the growing population of Muslim background in Norway. It also made much more sense in terms of appealing to more mainstream political opinion and discourses: A by now well-rehearsed argument found in the most surprising circles in contemporary Norway is that Muslims cannot under any circumstances be the victims of racism, since Muslims ‘are not a race’ (as if Jews were ever ‘a race’ – or indeed – as if ‘races’ actually exist in the real world):

And so in an era of what Prof David Theo Goldberg has memorably described as ‘raceless racism’  Muslims proved eminently useful targets for the far-right in avoiding accusations of racism by enabling racist discourses which centered on ‘culture’, ‘religion’ and ‘lifestyle’ rather than ‘race’ and ‘skin colour.’ In Prof Matti Bunzl’s apt characterization, by the 1990s all across Western Europe “migrants became Muslims, and Europe’s right wing found its target.”

Islamophobia has in the course of the past twenty years appeared as the great unifier between far-right political formations across Western Europe and enabled an hitherto unseen level of transnational co-ordination and exchange of ideas, arguments and rhetorical tropes between them.  Meanwhile, maintaining the narrowest definitions of racism has in Norway as in numerous other Western European countries currently experiencing a dramatic upsurge in popular support for far-right political formations for hegemonic white liberals become one of many ways in which the racism and discrimination that people of minority background in Norway experience on a daily and routine basis is actively denied:

A few examples of such denials will suffice here: In an interview with the weekly newspaper Dag og Tid in 2007 the doyen of Norwegian social anthropologists, Prof Fredrik W. Barth, alleged that “when Norwegians talk about racism, they mean to refer to prejudices and stereotypes…Racist views are hardly found among Norwegians.” And in the immediate aftermath of the extreme right-wing terror attacks in Norway on 22/7 2011, a Norwegian professor of the History of Ideas, Prof Trond Berg Eriksen proclaimed in an interview with the daily newspaper Klassekampen that “anti-racists are the only ones who maintain the concept of race” and that “harassment of Muslims in Norway is not racism”.  Barth’s categorical assertion to the effect that racism hardly exists in Norway and Berg Eriksen’s equally categorical contention that what Muslims experience in Norway never amounts to racism bespeak a fundamental ignorance about the lived experiences of minorities in Norway, and fly in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary. It goes without saying of course that neither Barth nor Berg Eriksen have any record whatsoever of empirical research into racism and/or discrimination in Norway: these are merely unsubstantiated pronouncements from the highest of academic ivory towers in Norway.

That such narrow and hegemonic liberal definitions of racism have been and remain eminently functional for far-right activists is demonstrated by the simple fact that the risk of being prosecuted in Norwegian courts for daring to characterize a specific individual as having expressed or espoused racist views is now probably greater than being prosecuted for actually expressing racist and/or discriminatory views in public. One Arne Tumyr (1933 – ), a one-time founder member of the Norwegian Humanist Association (HEF) who has for a number of years been the chairman of the far-right Stop Islamization of Norway (SIAN), has after he won a court case against central members of HEF who had publicly characterized him in such terms in the 2005 has with the backing of a corporate millionaire funder of his organization SIAN made it a routine to threaten any media outlet who either characterizes him or permit anyone else to characterize him in such terms, made substantial profits from threatening to sue. He won the original court case against HEF on the basis of a lower Norwegian court adopting an extremely narrow and biological definition of racism.

One of the many virtues of both Bethencourt and Sussman’s recent books is that they make it perfectly clear that racism was never ever only about ‘race’. Bethencourt surveys a vast historical canvas, and much like the late US historian of racism George M. Fredrickson finds the first examples of modern racism in the notions of limpieza de sangre or ‘purity of blood’ developed in the course of the Spanish Catholic Inquisition against Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism – conversos and moriscos – suspected of having secretly preserved their Jewish and Muslim identities after the Catholic re-conquista of the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century. The term ‘race’ (raza) then meant something akin to ‘caste’ – the modern concept of ‘race’ dating only from the 18th century according to Bethencourt. For much of modern history in Western Europe, the basis for thinking about difference and rendering that difference in hierarchical terms was in fact what we have in the post-Enlightenment era come to refer to as ‘religion’ – then as it often appears to be now.

The journalist Nicholas Wade’s recent attempt to resuscitate the ignoble traditions of modern scientific racism, and the coverage that this attempt has received in the Norwegian mainstream press – Klassekampen and Morgenbladet both being newspapers catering to an educated elite readership which have this year dedicated several pages of coverage to it, and in Klassekampen’s case quite a glowing review of it penned by its ‘science editor’ – in spite of Wade’s arguments having been thoroughly and utterly trashed by serious academic scholars competent in the field of genetics, makes it perfectly clear that we regretfully still have to guard against scientific racism raising its head in academic and liberal elite circles. For there is anything that Bethencourt and Sussman’s works demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt, it is that racism has historically been at its most lethal when it becomes part of the hegemonic worldview of educated elites, and when racism and science marches hand in hand to the beat of the drums of modern state nationalism. To think that this is squarely and solidly behind us may of course be comfortable, but if there is anything we should know by now, it is that man does not necessarily learn that much from the darkest chapters of modern history and that the idea that man is forever moving forward on an unilinear road towards progress and enlightenment is false. A starting point would be to acknowledge that racism in all its forms never quite left the building in Europe – and that this in fact is the case in Norway too.




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