Two concepts of racism

I think I’ve previously recommended Juan Cole’s blog, Informed Comment, as a valuable source of expert opinion on the Middle East. This week, however, he’s got a guest post that’s of much broader interest.

It’s by Anne-Ruth Wertheim, a Dutch journalist and scholar. She’s trying to explain the “Islamophobia” or anti-Muslim racism promoted especially by Geert Wilders (whom we’ve come across before) in her homeland of the Netherlands. In doing so, she distinguishes between two different types of racism, which she calls (using terms pioneered by her father) “exploitation racism” and “competition racism”.

“Exploitation racism” is the attitude people take to those that they think are inferior, and whom they can use but need to keep in their place. Typical cases are the native peoples exploited by colonialism and the blacks who were victims of chattel slavery. As Wertheim says, “These workers are usually spared mass violence, since they have to be kept in good enough shape to do the dirty, hard labour.”

“Competition racism” comes when people suspect that the target group might actually not be inferior, but might be a threat to jobs and status, making it more important to demonise them. Examples include the Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda, the Chinese in South-East Asia, and of course the Jews in Europe. “It is not uncommon for their centuries of life in a country to end with expulsion or extermination.”

Wertheim’s argument (which she has been developing for a while) is that attitudes to the Muslims in Europe have been moving from the first category to the second. From initially being guest workers to be exploited, they have begun to arouse more dangerous passions:

As long as they knew their place, it was fine for them to do the work the established population felt was too poorly paid or too unpleasant. But step by step, their descendants are qualified for all the work there is. So they are increasingly formidable rivals, especially with a recession going on.

Characteristic of the shift, she says, is that cultural factors become more important than purely racial ones. This gives a certain deniability to those who are inflaming opinion against the target population. But it also suggests that they are being disingenuous when they claim to support assimilation, since their real goal is the disappearance of the competing group (although of course assimilation can be a means to disappearance).

Do read the whole thing: it’s one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’ve read on racism. I’m not entirely convinced – I’m not sure it’s invariably true that “The driving force behind racism is economics.” (For one thing, the shift to actual genocide against the Jews of Europe was marked by greater rather than less emphasis on strictly racial criteria.) But at the very least Wertheim has an important angle on a serious and troubling issue.


6 thoughts on “Two concepts of racism

  1. Of course you are right, Charles, the driving force behind all racism is not economics. That old Marxist perspective is indispensable, but it’s obsolescent as competition for all resources, including status (independent of economics), becomes more apparent in our overcrowded world. Look at the over-testoteroned blokes abusing each other in Sydney recently:

    Then consider the addition onto this by the retreat to fundamentalist religion that purports to offer a complete explanation and salvation to those who refuse to admit that life is tragic, complex, incomprehensible and much shorter than most of us like. We see more fundamentalist religious groups growing and exerting themselves against other fundamentalists. There’s no war like an internecine war!

    Incidentally, as Islam is not/Muslims are not a race, it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to anti-Islamic sentiment as racism. I think I know what you mean, but you are using ‘racism’ in a new way here – a venture wide open for people to project onto what you say whatever it suits them. I may be one of them.

    I really don’t think Wertheim is doing more that playing the sort of games intellectuals play – cleverly inventing categories, dualities and paradoxes for the sheer delight of the exercise and to bask in the light of her own brilliance. Her analysis totally ignores the over-riding fact that we live in a finite world, with limited resources, depleting ‘environmental services’ and a growing population. No clever depiction of how minority groups are perceived by the majority as transitioning from one of her categories to the other is going to have any impact in the real world.


  2. Thanks Keith. Fair points, but I think I’m a bit more sympathetic to Wertheim’s view than you are. There does seem to be something in the idea of distinguishing (a) racism that confines itself to terrorising the subject group to keep them in their place (eg the KKK), with no thought of exterminating them (because they’re economically necessary), from (b) racism that just wants to be rid of them, even if that carries economic costs, because they’re seen as a pollutant (eg Amin’s Uganda). But I doubt that economic competition can fully explain it. She does try to address the point of “Muslim” not being a racial category, but I’m not sure how successful that is. The religious fundamentalism thing overlaps with that, of course. Anyway, food for thought.


  3. I understand that the definition of racism is that one considers someone or people inferior or superior to oneself because of their origin in their genetic heritage?

    Is one nation that is raped and pillaged by another nation or vis a versa and makes blatantly inferior comments about that nation theoretically racist ?


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