Racism and the refugee problem

In a less racist country, the reasoning would go like this: the people fleeing ISIS from Syria hate ISIS more than we possibly could, more even than the French could. Attacks on the scale of the tragedy in Paris are routine in ISIS-controlled areas, resulting in entire cities being levelled. If we let them in and generously provide for them, we would be building up a community of grateful, patriotic Americans whose presence and loyalty would undercut the message on which ISIS thrives.

Note that I didn’t say a more “rational” country or use any other vague and formalistic word. Yes, people lack logical reasoning and long-term thinking on this issue, but it’s not like they had a spontaneous brain-fart — it’s racism that’s deluding them. Only extreme racism could make you think that people’s shared ethnic background would create a bond of loyalty that transcends murder, rape, destruction of homes and livelihoods, etc.

Note also that I didn’t say a “kinder” or “nicer” country. Yes, people are being exceptionally heartless, but again, it’s not some random moral failing on the part of individuals. Racism is what makes people see refugees as less worthy of concern, just as it’s what makes people inclined to explain away the murder of unarmed blacks by police. Only racist logic could make the extremely remote possibility of an ISIS “sleeper” sneaking in among the refugees into an excuse to deny thousands of people the chance to rebuild a livable life.

The Republican governors who are refusing admission to refugees aren’t simply idiots, or crazy ideologues, or heartless bastards — though they are undoubtedly all those things. The root cause of all of that is that they’re racists.

Posted in race. 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “Racism and the refugee problem”

  1. Joe Calandrino Says:

    I agree with the general thrust of all of this, yet I am troubled by reducing everything to ‘racist’. Are all xenophobes racist? Are all Racists also xenophobes? Is racism really the substrate for this latest ugliness?

    The thoughtlessness on display by our 21 governors etches their own red line in the sand. On the surface of things rests a fear that there will be rams among the sheep—that refugees will incorporate the destroyers among their ranks. Certainly this fear is largely irrational: the vetting process will be draconian.

    Cheney once said he would have supported the 2nd Iraqi war if there were only a 1% chance of finding WMDs. A similar mentality is at work here. But it is truly amazing that some of us will not extend hospitality and hope to those living among genocide and ethnic cleansing.

    Gandhi once quipped, after being asked what he thought of Western civilization, that he thought it would be a wonderful idea.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If you hold a minimal view of racism as “having prejudice against people of other races,” then I guess I can see being worried. But it should be very, very obvious to a regular reader of this blog that I have a maximal view of racism as a system that goes far beyond unfortunate individual attitudes. We can perhaps imagine a situation where xenophobia wouldn’t be racism in the latter sense, but that would be an extreme hypothetical that’s more fit for a Star Trek episode than for real-life political analysis.

  3. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Perhaps I’ve not been readings AUFS long enough to fully appreciate just how deep your robust view of ‘racism’ really goes. Does it go down far enough to explain what is going on here, namely, a failure of civilization itself; or if ‘civilization’ is a reach, perhaps ‘American culture?’

    To see the suffering other and say ‘no’ seems to cut to deepest strata of what is means to be ‘a people’ and what we seem to find there is a negation of everything on which a viable civilization should depend: a negation of any kind of relationality, of the meaning of the other, of ethics, and any rudimentary sense of truth, beauty, the good.

    If your view of racism cuts that deep, I’d very much like to hear more about it.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s not some huge complicated thing. Racism is a system that creates a hierarchy of value among human beings based on their appearance and/or descent. There is no biological basis for the racial categories, and so other categories (such as “Muslim”) can be effectively “racialized.” In almost every case, the supposedly inferior race is not only considered subordinate but is viewed as dangerous and irrational — hence to be both feared and controlled. It is a system that works domestically through racist instituions and abroad through imperialism (both overt and indirect). In my view, racism in this sense is a defining feature of modernity that runs every bit as deep as capitalism.

    Your account sounds like “we” just up and decided to fail at our moral obligations — it explains nothing, it’s at the level of a David Brooks column.

  5. Craig McFarlane Says:

    It is puzzling to me, given the long-standing historical association between racism and civilization, that Joe somehow thinks racism has no place in civilization. The whole dichotomy of civilization/barbarism is premised upon racism.

  6. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Insult taken. Didn’t realize I was offering a comprehensive ‘account’ or expect to offer one. Thanks for the nutshell version of ‘racism.’

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I just didn’t see any possible path from the kind of claims you were making to anything like an explanatory account. The moral exhortations seem well-intentioned, but naive.

  8. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Against my better judgment, I will continue along, at least for a bit.

    Craig, it’s not that I do not see the obvious place racism occupies in ‘civilization’, but Adam’s claim is that it is *structural*, as structural as ‘capitalism’ is. That is certainly a bold claim, and one I am very willing to take seriously. I take Adam to mean that much of what we call ‘civilization’, such as ‘society,’ ‘great books’, philosophy, politics would not be what they are apart from ‘racism.’ Even if this discussion limits racism to ‘modernity'(as Adam seems to) it pertains to civilization as it has existed since Descartes. But as you plainly note, “the whole dichotomy of civilization/barbarism is premised upon racism,” pushing the whole megillah into antiquity. To the extent that the racism of modernity has its antecedents in the ancient world, the West has as its very foundation “a system that creates a hierarchy of value among human beings based on their appearance and/or descent”.

    Adam, I was not presenting ‘moral exhortations,’ but a (obviously poor) ‘framing’ of the denial of entry of refugees into the US (congress has just voted to sanction the governors’ will on the matter). In any event, I am unsure that enriching ‘racism’ to your maximalist version is very useful at the practical level of politics (voting rights, election districting, etc.), though certainly it has use for the kind of political analyses you offer on AUFS. Be that as it may, I would suggest that those who hold to a minimalist ‘racism’ would find a maximalist ‘racism’ offensive, diluting, as it seems to do, the lived experience of those who have been victims of what is more commonly called ‘racism.’

    Nonetheless, it is interesting to visit a maximalist version of ‘racism’ upon the structures of the academy. Modernity has certainly left its imprint in the manner that the disciplines are laid out, and play out. Each discipline seeks its version of ‘purity’, and it is chic to chide anthropology for gettin’ all sociological or political, and it is certainly chic to chide philosophy for mingling with theology. Academia certainly embraces a hierarchy of values that demeans what it finds intolerant, and sometimes its fear of miscegenation is often paroxysmal. I believe I have witnessed that kind of distrust of the ‘other’ in AUFS in its recent depiction of the “Sokal Affair”, and the suspicion science in particular has earned, making any dialogue between the humanities and the sciences something to be “both feared and controlled.”

    Academia certainly has its reasons for its intolerance; perhaps when one discipline gets too cozy with another, the hybrid that might emerge is just plain bad (un)systematic thinking. There are always good reasons to keep things separate. There is clarity in separation.

    Certainly there is a kind of clarity in keeping the refugees out. “We” and “us” are clear; ‘they’ and ‘them’ are clear; we just need to stay clear of them. We might not ever even know about the ‘other’ if we didn’t have a clear sense of ‘I’ and ‘you’. What I thought I might be getting at was how “I” am less without ‘you’. That perhaps I am not even a “I” without ‘you.’ And perhaps that is at least as constitutive of ‘civilization as ‘racism.’

    And I admit that that’s a little naïve.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I have no idea how to respond to what you’re saying. If the idea of systemic racism is new to you, I suggest you do some serious reading, because that is a huge gap in your education and understanding of the world. I personally do not have the time or inclination to educate you from scratch on this matter.

  10. Joe Calandrino Says:

    I’m a bit unsure of the tone of your recommendation, if you really are saying that such a ‘gap’ impoverishes any understanding of the world, or if it is yet another insult. If the former, it lands no harder had you said that if one does not know the work of Gustav Mahler or if one is not conversant with ‘queer theory’ a huge gap fetters one’s understanding. In my case, neither these nor your ‘if’ apply. But you do allow me wax nostalgic.

    Back in the early 1970s when I was and undergrad (and soon to be grad) student at Stony Brook University, Altizer was still there as a professor in my department and his work was still fresh and powerful, and the news from Soweto was worsening daily. We student activists protested Apartheid and the university’s purported financial holdings in South Africa and demanded divestiture. In what seemed like moments later (it was a few years) Professor Ernst Dube dared to offer one essay question among many on one of his exams: “Is Zionism a form of racism?” In a tangential matter, I was embroiled in defending academic and artistic freedom; and both Dube and I found ourselves in the same witch hunt journalism in such low circulation newspapers as the NY Times among others, where some articles mentioned us both by name. I lived to complete my grad work; Dube was permitted to complete the academic year after which he disappeared.

    Maximalist ‘racism’ is far from new to me. I saw it being born when I cutting my teeth on Derrida and you were simply cutting your teeth. You might consider some historical consciousness as you enjoy your academic freedom and employ your Maximalist version of ‘racism’ to ‘explain’ Republican ignorance, fear and general stupidity. People like Dube advanced the idea of ‘racism’ you share with him; he (among others) paved the way for you, and paid a heavy price. Please consider this when you use hard won concepts to brow-beat others.

  11. andycatsimanes223 Says:

    Shortly after 9/11 David Foster Wallace asked: what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

    In that vein, perhaps we should acknowledge that “letting them in and generously providing for them,” may have all the salutary effects you describe, while also possibly increasing the risk of many hundreds of people dying on our soil.

  12. Paul Says:

    I have read up a little on the selection process of the US refugee resettlement program. The idea that an “undercover terrorist” could in some hide among the 10.000 Syrians that are to be resettled is simply ludicrous. All resettled refugees are first picked by the UNHCR, then interviewed by Homeland Security personell, and only then, after a selection process that lasts almost two years, their background will be checked by all the National Security agencies. So this theoretical terrorist would first have to register with the UNHCR as a refugee, then apply / be selected for resettlement among millions of other people, and then pass this selecton process without blowing his cover.

    So yes, I agree 100% that only racism could lead one to believe that because these people are Syrians, they could easily become or already secretly be sympathetic to ISIS.

    It’s also important, though, that the people exploiting this issue now for all its worth are not only personally racists, they also obviously believe this is a winning political move. For a long time Trump has had the xenophobic vote locked up, and all the other candidates just could not compete with his anti-immigration stance, because they were held back by big-donor preferences (like the Koch brothers), or the Hispanic vote, or just a modicum of decency. But this issue is perfect not only for demonstrating what a xenophobe you are but also pretending Obama is gambling with national security. And to ask, like Jeb Bush, to only accept Christian refugees may endear him to Christian voters, I guess. It seems to me a deeply dishonest and calculating performance, just sickening.

  13. andycatsimanes223 Says:

    Paul, your penultimate sentence would carry more weight if it were restated to say “deeply endear him to a cohort of Christian voters.” There are plenty of Christians who decry what’s being said in their name. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Shane Claiborne being two examples that come immediately to mind.

  14. Paul Says:

    Yes, you are right of course, and I didn’t mean it that way. I was referring to a certain set of christian conservatives that Republican candidates usually court, but even that may not be true. In the end th “Christians only!”-argument, which is also very popular in some Eastern European countries, comes down to islamophobia and racism, and I wouldn’t presume to judge that conservative christians are more susceptible to that than non-christian conservatives.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Nothing like a “No True Scotsman” fallacy first thing in the morning. At a certain point, if Christianity is so routinely misused, you have to wonder if that’s just the use of it.

  16. andycatsimanes223 Says:

    Since I didn’t say those who promote anti-Muslim sentiments aren’t Christian, the NTS charge is invalid.

    One certainly could legitimately wonder if such misuse is just the use of Christianity, but the principle of charity should at least give one pause.


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