It’s become clear that racism isn’t a side effect of far-right ideology, it is a foundational quality of radical right parties in the US and Europe.
Is racism a necessary component of the radical right’s appeal? When I was conducting my research on the radical right in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I tried to connect the rhetoric of the radical right to the literature on racism in the US and the UK. I found it difficult to make the argument that racism or “cultural threat” was the main motivation behind the vote for the radical right. In my 2005 book, Voting Radical Right in Western Europe, I used the term “xenophobic” in my definition of the radical right, rather than racist.
Part of the rationale behind my decision to use xenophobia rather than racism, was the fact that the radical right tended to focus on immigrants rather than phenotype and showed some acceptance of non-white natives. Ideas like “welfare chauvinism” focused on citizens vs. immigrants. However, in the current political moment, it is clear that racism has become a key component for many radical right parties, including the Republican party in the US.
This post draws from my 2014 chapter, “Comparative Perspectives: Race in Europe” in The Oxford Handbook of Racial and Ethnic Politics in the United States. When writing that chapter I focused on my work on anti-discrimination policy, but that work also had a direct connection to the rise of the radical right, since the EU’s Racial Equality Directive was a response to the success of the Austrian Freedom Party in 1999.
When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to study comparative politics, and Western Europe in particular. My personal experience in France as an undergraduate had given me some ideas about the kinds of issues that I wanted to study, particularly the issues of racism, Algerians and immigration. I learned very quickly that the topic of race and racism was very complicated in Europe, particularly in France.
I was greatly influenced in graduate school by Gary Freeman’s book on Britain and France, Immigrant Labor and Racial Conflict in Industrial Societies. However, the book generated considerable criticism when it was published in 1979 because of his use of the term “race” within the European context. To this day, French scholars and policymakers insist that France’s color-blind policy is superior to policies pursued by the United States and Britain that explicitly recognized the existence of race. Today, in the first part of the twenty-first century, race has gained acceptance as a legitimate, if still controversial, political concept in most of Europe.
In this post-9/11 world, a variety of developments illustrate the salience of race across a wide array of social, political, and economic issues. Riots by minority youth in the British Midlands and France’s banlieues (suburbs) illustrated the cultural and economic alienation that characterize many ethnic communities. These events and others that have transpired over the nearly thirty years since Freeman’s book was published confirm the visionary nature of his analysis.
Despite a long history of colonialism, slavery, immigration, and ethnic conflict in Europe, issues of racism and discrimination have only recently gained the attention of policymakers in many European countries. While Britain has had a long history of “race relations” policy, Europe more generally did not follow the lead of its Anglo-Saxon allies. However, with the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, the European Council empowered the European Commission to “take appropriate action to combat discrimination” based upon “racial or ethnic origin,” among other grounds. Soon after, in 2000, the European Union (EU) developed an anti-discrimination policy known as the “Racial Equality Directive,” which has been transposed into national law in most EU member states. For many countries, this was the first time that the term “race” had been used in the context of social policy.
By the early 2000s, however, immigrant integration came to the forefront as a policy issue, particularly after events like the terror attacks of 9/11, the subsequent Madrid and London bombings and the Danish cartoons controversy. The emphasis on immigration and religion, particularly the growth of Islam in Europe, led to a focus on what is now called “civic integration.” As Muslims have become more defined as a group, rather than as part of their respective nationalities and ethnicities, they have become the focus of restrictive immigration policies, punitive integration measures and citizenship tests designed to test for “anti-liberal” values.
Why have European countries been so reluctant to address the issue of race? There are a variety of factors that have played a role in the approach to issues of race and immigration in Europe. After World War II, European countries struggled to deal with the legacy of the Holocaust, where race was used to exterminate whole communities. Other factors had to do with the disdain for American policies that many felt divided people by race. However, the rise of radical right anti-immigrant parties in Europe, like the French National Front and Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party, pushed Europe to examine these issues more closely, particularly with impetus from a European Union that was expanding into the social realm.
It is no secret that race is a highly charged concept in Europe. While race is clearly a social and cultural construction, it is useful in understanding key contemporary social and political dynamics, particularly discrimination. Although not a biological fact, race is a “social fact” as described by Durkheim. In the case of Europe, there is also the fear of loss of cultural homogeneity which plays into the issue of race and religion. Since most minority groups are not large enough to present a threat to privilege, attitudes could also be considered a form of xenophobia.
The current version of the radical right has made no secret of their concerns regarding ethnic and racial minorities. Although the focus tends to be on immigrants, the type of rhetoric they are using has become more strident in terms of the desire to stop immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. The influence of the racism within the radical right has also had an impact on the Brexit vote in the UK and policies implemented by many governments.
As recently as this past September, I noted that many conference presentations on the radical right danced around the issue of race, with the exception of work by Aurelian Mondon and Aaron Winter (see their recent article on Islamophobia). Several of us, including Cas Mudde, had a recent Twitter exchange on the issue. This is clearly a topic that needs more discussion and analysis. It is also a discussion that needs more input from the immigrant and minority communities that are engaged with these issues on a regular basis. A relatively healthy discourse has developed in the US and the UK on topics of racism, but that discourse has been lacking on the European continent, and tends to get sidestepped by scholars regardless of whether they consider themselves on the left or right.
However, even in the UK, the discourse can go beyond side-stepping to actual denial of the use of racist discourses. In October of 2018, a planned panel discussion titled “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?” was an event sponsored by UnHerd and the Academy of Ideas, led to an outcry from scholars in a variety of fields, particularly those who study the radical right (including me and many others who are part of CARR). An open letter was published on the site OpenDemocracy. Despite their claims that the title was not racist and those complaining were trying to police speech, the outcry led the organizers to change the title. The controversy also led to a broader discussion about the racist discourses of the radical right and “freedom of speech.”
I looked forward to continuing to engage in these debates, as they are critical to our understanding of the movement of racist discourses into the mainstream, as well as the mainstreaming of the radical right. This is an ongoing issue that will impact politics in the U.S and Europe for the foreseeable future.
Professor Terri E. Givens is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a leading commentator and analyst of the radical right, party politics in Europe, immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-discrimination policy. Her profile can be found here:
© Terri E. Givens. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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