All the talk of racism in this election reveals how poorly we understand it

Alana Lentin

Watching this election has been frustrating for anyone with even a cursory understanding of the history of race and racism. There has been more talk of racism than during any other political event in British history – but the more it is spoken about, the less understanding there seems to be about what racism actually is.

Black people, Muslims, people of colour and Jews would have looked on in horror last week when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, faced with a hostile crowd in west Suffolk, brandished the “race card” – abruptly becoming “passionate about ridding from our politics … the antisemitic, outrageous, racist attitude of Jeremy Corbyn”.

The idea that race is a “card” that minorities use to gain social, economic or political advantage is a longstanding myth. But the way in which racism is being deployed in these elections reveals that many of those suddenly claiming to be “outraged” or “determined to stamp racism out” have exactly this view of race – as a device to be used when convenient.

Rather than understanding that all racisms, while distinct, are entangled with each other, we are encouraged to regard racisms as organised on a hierarchy of severity

It is even more curious to see how central racism has been to the reporting on this campaign, given how uncomfortable most quarters of the media have been with talking about it until now. Race and racism are placed in scare quotes; they are always subject to “debatability” – with an obsessive attention to what counts as racism and who can define it. Euphemisms such as “racial undercurrents” or “racial connotations” are used to describe what is sometimes referred to as “racial animosity”, but rarely as simply racism.

The question of when it is all right to talk about racism and when it is not has usually been answered by those with the least experience of it – because they deem themselves to be most objective. There are some cases, of course, when an allegation of racism is accepted as obviously true – usually involving overtly racist statements. But in many other situations there is a quick pronouncement of “not racism”.

Politicians often refer to themselves as not having a “racist bone” in their bodies, a cliche used by Donald Trump after he accused six women of colour who are members of Congress of being “savages”. Darren Osborne, who used his van to run over Muslims in Finsbury Park in 2017, killing Makram Ali, was described as troubled but “not racist”. The political scientist Eric Kaufmann has argued that white voters who dislike immigration were expressing “racial self-interest” but “not racism”. His associate David Goodhart opines that the “normal definition” of racism is “irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group” – so anything short of that is “not racism”. And yet in many instances, past and present, racism has been a rational choice for white people. The fact that white people benefit from racist arrangements, from slavery to protectionist immigration policies, is the main reason why it seems there is no post-racial future in sight.

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On the one hand, then, our concept of racism is frozen in the past – held to apply strictly to only the most serious cases from history, generally the Holocaust, Jim Crow and apartheid. On the other, it is paradoxically detached from history when convenient and equated with a generalised prejudice, as can be seen in references to “anti-white racism”. In this view, racism is a failure of individual morality that exists in society as a “poison” – something so toxic that to wrongly accuse someone of racism is a crime worse than the racism itself.

With unprecedented attention being given to antisemitism in these elections, anti-racists have asked why there has been a dominant tendency to treat this form of racism as so much more severe than that facing black people, Muslims, Roma people, migrants and asylum seekers.

Rather than understanding that all racisms, while distinct, are entangled with each other, we are encouraged to regard racisms as organised on a hierarchy of severity – one that perversely mirrors the power imbalance established by the idea of race itself. The reason why antisemitism is seen as more representative of “serious” racism is precisely because it has largely been seen as belonging to a “more racist era” in the past.

In contrast, the fact that Facebook ruled Islamophobic posts did not violate its “community standards” shows that Islamophobia has seeped so much into the everyday as to be seen as something other than racism. The same can be said for the racism facing black people, migrants, asylum seekers and Roma – especially as the Conservative manifesto has explicitly committed to confiscate the property of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. Similarly, nearly 700 people drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of Europe this year alone, but the rising death toll of Fortress Europe is never identified as “racism”, due to our poor public understanding of race and racism.

‘Black people, Muslims, people of colour and Jews would have looked on in horror last week when the health secretary, Matt Hancock, faced with a hostile crowd in west Suffolk, brandished the “race card”.’ Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

This lack of “racial literacy” comes down to the fact that the dominant interpretations of racism in public discourse are very far removed from what race actually is – “the centerpiece of a hierarchical system that produces differences”, as the late Stuart Hall described it. In contrast, racism is largely seen as a matter of intolerant attitudes and discriminatory practices. That is why much education about racism focuses on micro-aggressions and privilege-checking over the harder work of showing how a global regime of racial capitalism sorts the world into those who deserve to move freely and those who may die trying.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that “race is the child of racism, not the father”. But it was only after centuries of racial rule, under colonialism and slavery, that the term “racism” was introduced in the 20th century, in the context of rising German fascism and antisemitism. (Many of the people outraged by this racism were nevertheless comfortable with the long-standing idea that black people had “inferior brains’”– and, like the French anthropologist Jacques Millot, who founded the journal Race and Racism, continued to do race research in the colonial arena.)

Race – as a technology of power for the management of human differences, whose ultimate aim is the maintenance of global white supremacy – continues to exist despite formal opposition to racism. But this definition of race is lost in views of racism that see it as a personal, moral failing and not a structural condition that determines the life chances of those racialised as black, as migrant, Muslim, Roma and so on, for no other reason than that they are not white.

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It is easier to point the finger at “the racists”, be it antisemites in the Labour party or “ignorant” Brexit voters, than to deal with the fact that white people do not face state-sanctioned harm in the same way. White people’s life expectancy is higher; we are less likely to be arrested or incarcerated; we can move more freely; we have more economic and educational opportunities; and we are less at risk of mental illness. Paradoxically, 10 years of austerity in the UK may have narrowed the gap between black and white poor people – even though hopes of solidarity between communities ravaged by cuts have been badly damaged by the elite obsession with the “left behind” white working class.

The white compunction to define what racism is, and especially what it is not, is a form of racist violence. It should be a basic principle that those who face racism should be permitted to define their own oppression. In these elections, the volume of commentary about racism from those whom it will never affect, is understandably viewed with cynicism by Muslim people facing two decades of over-policing, black people for whom the daily degradation of anti-blackness is compounded by the scandal of the Windrush deportations – and by Jews such as myself who know that unconditional solidarity is rare when there’s not an electoral motivation.

To really stamp out racism, we need to begin with a commitment to deepening our racial literacy, and for a majority white society to depersonalise its reaction to racism. It’s literally not about you.

• Alana Lentin is an associate professor in cultural and social analysis at Western Sydney University