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Race and Racism in Europe

Race And Racism Today

Since World War II, debates about race in Europe have remained rooted in the same tensions that drove European racism of the past. The incorporation of foreign-born immigrants emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the economic expansion that followed World War II and the decolonization of former European imperial holdings. Attacks on immigrant workers in most European countries have proved that the old conflict between liberal notions of the nation as one of rights of all citizens and ethnic notions of the nation as a community of similar-looking, similar-acting, and similar-sounding people still exists.

Yet, racism in Europe today also reflects some of the same tensions that define it elsewhere. Racism festers when the economic future is cloudy or desperate, when more people seem to be vying for fewer social services, and when the state seems to struggle to meet its obligations. In fact, the harshest attacks against immigrants have taken place where social protections and guarantees are strongest. Race riots in Brixton and Nottinghill Gate in England in the 1970s and 1980s, or the attacks on Turkish workers in Rostock, Germany, in the 1990s and, most recently, on West African immigrants in El Ejido, Spain, all indicate that racism relies on a sense of threatened stability. Immigrant peoples are perceived as drains on the system; those who "don't belong" are more than an economic threat and are seen as enemies who weaken national strength from the inside. Hence, fights over cultural assimilation in France involving the wearing of headscarves in secular French public schools and the granting of citizenship to multigenerational families of Turkish guest workers in Germany maintain the racial component of the "outsider" as inherently different and dangerous. Yet, the real cause of concern is no longer the notion of physical differences signifying biological weakness in the national stock; the racial conflict remains a struggle over national identity and the basic definition of citizenship. In the words of Enoch Powell, a conservative member of Parliament in England who became infamous for racist diatribes against foreign guest workers in England in the 1960s and 1970s, "Racism is the basis of nationality."

In many ways, the particular historical experience of racial thought, especially as embodied in the Holocaust, has given an added weight and sense of foreboding to events that unfold today in Europe. Incidences of anti-Semitism and the rise of ultranationalist political parties that base national membership on an ethnic sense of nationalism, like Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front Party in France, Jörg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria, or the Northern League of Italy, all have energized much public concern and debate. Yet, the most important lesson of European history is that race and racism are rooted in that continent's best traditions such as the Enlightenment, science, and social welfare, and its application in the most murderous and barbaric of ways both inside and outside the European continent.

The opening stanza of Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" (1899)

Take up the White Man's burden
Send for the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered fold and wild
Your new-caught, sullen peoples
Half-devil and half-child

encapsulates the idea of proper inheritance and European supremacy over other races that drove the racist imagination of the late nineteenth century.


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Joshua Goode

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