As I walked through Zurich’s old city to meet my friend Anne for a beer on a warm, late summer night, I paused at an intersection to wait for the signal to cross. A cyclist approached from across the intersection, and I noticed that he rode on the wrong side of the street. As he approached the corner on which I stood, he lifted his arm and shouted forcefully in the face of a man on a scooter, “Sieg heil!” Stunned, I turned toward the scooter rider, and noticed that he had dark skin. The signal changed, and I crossed the street as the man on the scooter rode away. Disheartened, I noted that this was not the first instance of open racism that I had witnessed in the city.
Earlier this month, at the start of my current stay in Zürich, my friend Stefanie and I took the tram into the city center for a day of sightseeing. As we exited the tram, I saw a few tiny, white pieces of paper flutter from the tram steps onto the sidewalk. It seemed as if they had been dropped by someone who had exited. Curious, I picked one up and read the following message: “Stop the nigger invasion.” We were deeply disturbed by this sight. It reminded me that my friends living here had recounted a story to me about an advertising campaign for the Swiss People’s Party, the right-wing political arm of Switzerland, which featured white sheep kicking a black sheep off of the Swiss flag. The party also ran an ad that depicts black crows pecking at the nation.
I know that some of you are probably thinking that I am naive for being shocked and disturbed by these experiences. To that end, I assure you, I am not naive to racism. As a sociologist who studied critical race theory extensively in graduate school, I am well versed in the many forms of systemic and everyday racism that structure contemporary society. I have critical eyes and ears that pick up many instances of both coded and blatant racism in film and television, in print, in politics, the judicial system, and in daily interaction. I am certainly not ignorant to the problem.
What shocked me about these instances was their public nature. They are public performances of hate, the likes of which we do not often see in the post-Civil Rights context in which I grew up and came of age. We are taught to embrace multicultural pluralism, to appreciate that the U.S. is a “melting pot” of cultures, ethnicities, races, religions, and national heritages. Plainly spoken public hate is not acceptable in our society. Racism in the U.S. does take the form of public policy, social segregation, and everyday microaggressions born of white privilege and perceived superiority, but rarely, if ever, is it openly stated in public. This is not to say that public, violent forms of racism do not exist in the U.S.. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that in 2009 nearly fifty percent of 6,589 single-bias hate crime incidents were motivated by race, while about twelve percent were motivated by bias against (perceived) ethnicity or national origin. In total, there were nearly 4,000 incidents of crime motivated by racial, ethnic, or national bias that year, or an average of eleven incidents per day. In all likelihood, there were many more that were not reported.
Racism, both overt and covert, continues to be a major social problem in the U.S.. But, in terms of discourse, we promote and pretend a colorblind society. Plainly spoken public racism is not acceptable. When it happens, the offender is usually ridiculed and shamed into contrition. Last year Harvard Law student Stephanie Grace was lambasted in a variety of digital media fora after a racist email she wrote to a peer was made public. More recently, people around the world expressed outrage in response to a video posted to YouTube by then UCLA student Alexandra Wallace, who used racist discourse to express her frustrations about some of her classmates. And, most are now familiar with the controversy that swirled around Mel Gibson after he unleashed an anti-semitic and sexist tirade against officers who arrested him for drunk driving in 2006. In all cases, backlash ensued, and public apologies were offered by the offenders.
Incidents like these become media events in the U.S. because we pride ourselves on being a colorblind nation, however false that notion may be. When personal racism is made public, it tarnishes the image that many wish us to have on the global stage. So, people tend to keep their racism private, or convince themselves that the racism they think and feel is something else–a response to certain people, or specific to the context of an unpleasant experience. Most of us have been trained to never publicly express the racism that lives within us. The public nature of the racism I have observed in Zürich is what makes it, to me, so shocking. There is a boldness about it that we do not typically see in America. It caught me off guard, and I felt implicated in it by my white skin.
This openly racist hostility seems to be in response to an upsurge in immigrants from African nations. Switzerland has a high foreign-born population. In 2008 foreigners accounted for over twenty-percent of the total population, and in the largest cities nearly half of the child population under six years of age is foreign-born. Since the early 1990s the rate of immigration from African nations has skyrocketed. This reaction to darker immigrant populations is, however, not unique to the Swiss. In a previous post I reported recent comments made by comedian John Cleese wherein he lamented that London no longer seems like an “English” city because of its racial and ethnic diversity. When I first read of his comments, I thought immediately of the rhetoric of the Swiss People’s Party. Both cases signal dissatisfaction with immigration from within and beyond Europe. For those who make such statements, immigration compromises the integrity of the nation’s identity. Some statements are coded, as was Cleese’s, while others are overt, but the underlying racist ideology is the same.
In Britain, the English Defence League (EDL) has taken the expulsion of perceived immigrants (re: non-white people) as its cause. In an article on the group published in The New Yorker, Lauren Collins notes that the EDL is reflective of the unease Britons feel about immigrants, particularly Muslims. The population of Muslims in Britain has increased by seventy-four percent since 2001, and over half of all Britons blame these immigrants for problems in their communities. The league, whose leadership fancy themselves modern-day knights defending England and her people, took shape in 2009 after conflict erupted in the city of Luton between Muslims and Anglos. The people of the city had gathered for a homecoming parade for British soldiers who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and confrontation occurred when a group of Muslim Britons criticized the soldiers. With chapters all over the country and in other nations in Europe, the league makes its views known by destroying property owned by Muslims and those they perceive to be Muslim, and by committing acts of violence against them. The group now has upwards of 100,000 fans on Facebook.
The origins of the EDL has both ideological and social ties to Anders Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed seventy-six people in dual attacks in Oslo in July. In another piece for The New Yorker, Collins notes that Breivik claimed in his massive manifesto to have met with the leaders of the league in its early days to help them “refine their ideology.” He also wrote in his manifesto that his “movement” began in London in 2002 with a meeting of some who wished to resurrect the Knights Templar in defense of “indigenous Europeans.” Per his manifesto, Breivik hoped to inspire a movement that would “seize political and military control of Western European multiculturalist regimes and to try, judge and punish Western European cultural Marxist/multiculturalist perpetrators for crimes committed against the indigenous people of Europe from 1955 until this day.” This, in fact, is exactly what Breivik did in July when he killed sixty-nine young people at a summer camp affiliated with Norway’s leftist Labour party.
Similarly, France’s ban on women wearing full veils in public has been characterized as an effort at preserving French culture, and curbing a feared Muslim separatist movement. French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly said of the ban, “The truth is that in all our democracies we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new arrivals and not enough about the identity of the country receiving them.” What Sarkozy articulates is a backlash against liberal multiculturalism. This is evident in other Western European nations too. Despite, and perhaps because of, the multicultural politics of Germany since World War II, a neo-Nazi movement thrives in the country today. The expression of Nazi ideology and symbols was outlawed after the conclusion of WWII, but since the German reunification in 1990, neo-Nazi groups grew as young people suffering poor economic conditions in East Germany sought expression for their angst. In 2010 the German government reported that there were 25,000 right-wing extremists in the country, and over five percent of these were known neo-Nazis. While researching his recently debuted feature film “Kriegerin” (“Combat Girls”), about two young neo-Nazi women in Germany, director David Wnendt found through conversations with young neo-Nazis in the country that many had come to the ideology and lifestyle through poor economic and social conditions, and blamed immigrants for their problems.
While we may not typically see the same kind of open racist hostility in the U.S. as I have described above, I conclude this post by encouraging readers to consider why, then, we have a society of inequalities cleaved by race. If we are a colorblind society, why do Hispanic and Latino people earn only seventy percent of what white people do? And black people only sixty percent? Why do we still not have racial parity in federal politics? Why do black, Hispanic,and Latino children continue to far out-number white children living in poverty? Why did the home foreclosure crisis disproportionately affect black, Hispanic, and Latino homeowners? Why do black, Latino, and Hispanic men far outnumber white men in prisons across our country?
With their theory of “racial formation,” sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant explain that how we see and understand race and racial difference is directly connected to how our society is structured. From their perspective, the racial inequalities I pointed to above result from individual perceptions of race. The racial structure of American society, wherein white people (and many of Asian descent too) have more money and access to resources than do black, Hispanic, and Latino people, is a consequence of how we evaluate those around us.
There are no two ways about it. Americans make decisions about others based on skin color, and a vast chasm of race-based inequality results. We have these broad patterns of inequality because despite what we would like to believe about ourselves, the society we know is organized by racist expectations and beliefs. While we may not see regularly the kind of open hate that I have seen in Western Europe, we will not be able to combat racial inequality in America until we truly take stock of the subtle, covert racism that pervades our society, and exists inside of us.