“The Crises of Multiculturalism” Uncovers Changing Discourse of Racism
Anyone interested in understanding racism and the history of multiculturalism in the United States and Europe will find this book insightful, enlightening and will come away with a new approach to analyze the world we live in.
by Rani Salas Mclean
The authors of “The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age,” Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley, argue that these crises has been framed in three ways: as a failed experiment, a failed philosophy, and an era of liberal elites. In truth they contend, they are neoliberal anxieties manifesting themselves. The authors focus on the power of narratives that surround 9/11, recited truths, the discourse of good and bad diversity, and the culturalization of race. They make a compelling argument as they untangle the complex narratives that have become ‘lived truths’ in the consciousness of the masses.
Alana Lentin, a political sociologist and social theorist at University of Sussex, and a frequent contributor to The Guardian, has previously authored “Racism and Anti-racism in Europe” and “Racism and Ethnic Discrimination.” This is Gavan Titley’s first book, but he has published on a breadth of topics dealing with multiculturalism, media, diversity, globalization and migration in Europe.
The authors focus on the gaps within narratives of blame and the failure of multiculturalism. By using detailed examples they dispel what they call recited truths. They make a clear and concise argument that by focusing on recited truths we are able to fully understand how social facts are produced through the process of narration. Social facts are maintained through the reiteration of those narratives, and ultimately the narratives of recited truths appear not to be constructed by anyone. In particular, a detailed and critical review of how the recited truth of multiculturalism is circulated and produced is the only way to deconstruct these narratives, which is exactly what the authors undertake through this book.
One of the many powerful narratives identified in the book is the “war on terror.” The authors make a compelling argument about how the politics surrounding anti-immigration coupled with other socio-political factors have helped to revitalize cultural racist assumptions and defenses. The 9/11 narrative is used as an “instrument of control” that legitimizes the argument of a “crisis of multiculturalism” thus providing a moment to shift already recognized methods of anti-immigrant racism. The authors argue that political forces used 9/11 as a platform to call for political action in opposition to the supposed overabundance of multicultural people by working to normalize the necessity for “balance.”
Muslims in Europe are seen as the source of the anxiety calling into question multiculturalism. Muslims in Europe embody non-Western migration that is perceived as undesirable and bad for diversity. One notable reaction to this anxiety cited by the authors is in the passing of the Nationality Act in 1982, by the United Kingdom. This act removed the right to citizenship for some and restricted citizenship for commonwealth subjects, essentially creating “aliens” and second-class citizens within the borders of the U.K.
Further, the authors dispel the claims that the Brixton uprising in the U.K. was due to the “weak culture” of African-Caribbeans and contend that it was the passage of the Nationality Act that was to blame. What is the purpose behind this narrative of “weak culture?” The authors state that it is meant to defend or protect “European, Christian and white civilization against Third World Muslim or black populations.” Legal actions against immigrants occurred in Ireland, France and Denmark. The 2004 Citizenship Referendum passed in Ireland “removed the birthright of citizenship from children of non-nationals in Ireland.” France and Denmark used citizenship reform, migration restrictions, integration initiatives, and forced civic lessons to compel immigrants to respect the “laws and values” of these states in order to control the expression of the “wrong freedom.”
A focus on “cultural norms, values, traditions and the lifestyles of outsiders” as problematic rather than racial characteristics has been occurring in Europe since the 1970s. But as the authors point out, race and culture have always been intertwined. One example used is the earlier case of Germany, “where Jews were for the main part assimilated, they were hated for the very fact of their invisibility, seen to be able to move like an unseen force, all the more damaging for the fact of being able to go unnoticed.” In effect, Germans racialized the cultural attributes of Jews in order to make Jewish people visible.
These multicultural discourses have been used to recode and re-caste racisms today, argue the authors and “the rejection of multiculturalism depends on a repudiation of racism, while being important in the shaping of racism.” The narrative that racism no longer exists in the U.S. or in Europe is one that is repeated frequently on the political level. But as the authors point out, race may have been “semantically conquered, but it remains deeply ingrained in the political imaginaries, structures and practices of the West.” An example of this is the citing by conservatives of the election of Barack Obama and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court as examples that the “end of racism” has occurred. And yet, in the case of Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor, the authors argue, she was seen first and foremost as a Latina candidate, instead of as the candidate with the most judicial experience “of anyone confirmed for the court in seventy years.”
The authors conclude that post-racialism must be understood in terms of the threat contained in the promise of a post-race society.
Thus to invoke racelessness or recommend integration is not really to press for a future without racism or with full equality for all. It is rather to say that these differences do not matter long before race has ceased to have lived significance for the great majority of racialized people. Thus by claiming the end of racism when the political system still structurally provides exclusive and differential privilege is the new form of racism today. So even when racial language is erased it does not erase the imbedded structural racism in structures of power. Racism has taken on a new form, it is now the refusal of immigrants to adopt the national lifestyle of their host country.”
This mentality justifies protests against immigration as “natural” for “ordinary people,” i.e. white Europeans, to defend themselves. As a result, the so-called absence of race or supposed racial neutrality can really be interpreted as whiteness, argue the authors. But the very act of identifying one’s whiteness is highlights white privilege, which is problematic for people “who pride themselves on their anti-racism” in Western society.
The authors also give details on how cultural tropes, such as the hijab, veil, and headscarf are now being used in place of skin color to infer the race of Muslim women. The veil in particular is “implicated in a meta-discourse of nationalized liberalism versus Muslim illiberalism across Western Europe.” Specifically the authors use the cases of Norway and France, in particular the French government’s fixation on the burka and their claims that it is a barrier to Muslim integration, and the headscarf controversy in Norway. The national immigration and integration debate is always ongoing and yet never really happening, thus ensuring the creation and maintenance of the narrative that multiculturalism is bad.
The argument put forth by the authors about diversity is central to understanding multiculturalism in the European Union. Europe’s claim that it embraces diversity is hypocritical because only the diversity that is seen by white Europeans as the right kind of diversity is celebrated. This facilitates controlling subjects by “specifying and acting upon forms of “good” and “bad” diversity in (post-) multicultural societies”. Further, this “fantasy of integration is central to the stratification and control of migrants and racialized populations in contemporary Europe.” The push for “integration” is clearly a question of control, and a way of managing flows of “good” and “bad” diversity through neoliberal governmentality and new discourses and policy frameworks.
The authors end with a discussion on how the current debates around the veil, burka and headscarf bans, honor killing, forced marriage, female genital mutilation are associated with “illiberal Muslims in Nordic counties, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and Belgium.” They conclude that “sex, gender and sexuality have emerged as the new frontiers of democracy, citizenship…in the introduction of new social movements.” Anyone interested in understanding racism and the history of multiculturalism in the United States and Europe will find this book insightful, enlightening and will come away with a new approach to analyze the world we live in.
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