The Entanglements of Race and Nationalism in the Politics of Immigration

Posted on September 24th, 2014 by Joe Turner

In the second of our blogs on nationalism following the Scottish referendum ‘No’ vote, Joe Turner argues that understanding the politics of immigration means understanding the blurred lines between race and nationalism. Arguing against Clara Sandelind’s claim that anti-immigration parties are not racist (but instead nationalistic), he suggests that we need to recognise the different ways that race emerges in nationalist politics and how the persistence of racist thought is influenced by the history of European colonialism.

In a recent blog post Clara Sandelind made the case that it is not helpful or accurate to understand the UKIndependence Party (UKIP) and Social Democrat (SD) politics and campaigns as racist. Nor racism as a motivating factor for voting for such parties. Instead, she argued that we should understand these views as negative attitudes towards immigration and this sentiment as nationalistic – not about race.

Whilst welcoming such a subtle and articulate analysis of these issues, I think this perspective fails to recognise some important elements of the immigration debate. It fails to take into account the subtle ways that race emerges in the question of immigration, and how race is used by both populist and ‘mainstream’ political parties.

Furthermore, I think we need to treat nationalism and racism as forms of politics which have overlapping and complex histories. This means recognising that, especially in the UK, but also in many other European contexts, questions of immigration are influenced by the history of colonialism in which race was a central organising principle.

It is a mistake to treat racism as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question as Clara proposes. Rather than focussing on racism as a fixed belief, we can better observe how race emerges in contemporary politics by: 1) Understanding how people are racialized (how race is given meaning in a specific context) and 2) Exploring how forms of representation rely upon and enact race. This also means understanding racism as more complicated than the deployment of negative perceptions, or prejudice of culture or skin colour.


By Jiri Hodan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The history of race

Race has historically been used to understand, exclude and colonise a huge variety of different people. As Chloe Taylor argues, biological racism relied upon the categorisation of different ‘races’ through ‘skin colour, bodies, morphologies’, but it has also been used to understand other ‘abnormal’ subjects who threaten the purity of a ‘race’, such as the mad, diseased, homeless. Remember, the eugenic racism of the Nazis concerned the extermination and sterilisation of Jews, Gypsies, the diseased, the disabled, and homosexuals as well.

So, racism is not only revealed through linguistic markers (‘black’, ‘white’), it is a logic that underpins certain forms of political action and representation. In its contemporary form it is about categorising certain traits, behaviours, practices and connecting them to certain people as if they were pre-determined and natural – ‘incivility’, ‘backwardsness’, ‘eroticism’, ‘mysticism’, ‘slothfulness’. Racism is concerned with dehumanising people.

We should appreciate how race is activated and drawn upon in the campaigns and pledges of parties voicing anti-immigration sentiment. UKIP and SD are obvious examples but mainstream parties equally do this. Clara argues that debates on immigration rely upon negative ‘stereotypes’ and not race. However, to fixate on the act of begging or play on the idea that migrants only come to Britain to claim benefits, works to describe migrants as a homogenous mass which possess instinctive and predetermined sets of behaviours.

Equally, the poverty of migrants makes their existing differences (e.g. language and culture) more pronounced and hides any socioeconomic reasons for begging or claiming benefits. While not relying on overtly racist language, such stereotyping does rely on racial stereotyping where the migrant is only known as ‘bad’; represented as socially useless and a dehumanised object, not a full person.

Populist parties and race

We also need to appreciate how populist parties rely upon and reactivate race (as well as gender and class) in order for their campaigns to make sense. Race is not only used to describe migrants, but national identity is equally understood in terms of race. Whilst their campaigns do not voice active racist languages or slogans, they are made meaningful precisely through norms of race.

For example, UKIP’s EU policy at work poster is effective because it is based on the assumed familiarity (and victimhood) of the white male worker. The white male in this setting becomes the representative of all British jobs and the British Nation (which is under threat). The white male represents the ‘normal’. This image is directly contrasted with the ‘unlimited’, and unseen, foreign horde ready to stampede over the border and threaten normal life.

Clara argued that the support of UKIP and SD relied less on people being racist but instead on an ‘anti-immigration’ sentiment. What this fails to recognise is how questions of immigration are made meaningful and knowable through images of race.

Debates around contemporary immigration do not appear in a historical vacuum. They draw upon existing understandings of who immigrants are and practices which demarcate who is ‘British’ (or ‘Swedish’) and who is not. In the case of the UK, knowing who an immigrant is has relied upon ideas of race born from a colonial and postcolonial legacy of immigration.

One of the successes of the UKIP campaign has been to make immigration visible through a sustained media campaign which foregrounded the essential differences of Romanians and Bulgarians. We can only hope to make sense of this strategy if we look at the broader ways in which Eastern Europe has been understood as peripheral to ‘true’ Europe and constructed as a less civilised social space. As with UKIP’s depiction of Roma people, this relied upon drawing a line between who is part of European liberal modernity/ who is trailing ‘behind’.

Race and nationalism

This is where I fundamentally disagree with Clara’s argument that nationalism explains anti-immigration discourse in contrast to race. Instead we need to recognise how race has been a central organising principle of nationalism. The codes, knowledge and practices which make it possible to qualify as ‘British’ are complex and historically contingent but they are heavily influenced by Britain’s colonial past. Drawing from this legacy, Paul Gilroy has argued that knowing who is ‘truly’ British has long invoked a fantasy of ‘whiteness’.

In many configurations, the British nation is made knowable and imaginable through both its past history of whiteness and its current (reluctant) multiculturalism. ‘Whiteness’ is enhanced by qualities of language, behaviour, cultural practice. For example, the Irish diaspora were long excluded from ‘belonging’ to the British nation. However, whiteness remains a standard bearer of Britishness against which other markers have to be fought over and ‘integrated’ (‘Black British, ‘British Asian’).

Against Clara’s claim that debates around immigration are best understood without an analysis of race, we need to recognise the subtlety and persistence of racist thought (as well its interconnections with class and gender). This is central to grasping the complex politics of citizenship and immigration which populist parties exploit, but also applies to mainstream parties. Racism is a historical discourse and is not inevitable, but before we celebrate its demise we should be careful about recognising the logics and forms of representation that underpin our understanding of modern nationalism.


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Joe Turner has a PhD from the Department of Politics, University of Sheffield where he also works as an Associate Tutor. His current research explores the formation of British citizenship through the experiments of Empire. His latest article has been published in Citizenship Studies.

 Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. For more follow our twitter discussion #understandingpolitics.

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