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Illiberal Racisms, Extremism and the Discursive Reconstruction of the Far Right


An excerpt from Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream by Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter.

In western societies, it is commonly thought that the defeat of Nazism and segregationist Jim Crow laws, together with the end of colonialism and passing of the Civil Rights Act, signalled the defeat of racism. These events are thought to represent the victory of the new, post-war or post–civil rights egalitarian liberal order, which would eventually inform the so-called post-racial narrative that emerged decisively with the end of Apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election victory in 1994, and culminated with Barack Obama’s in 2008. Both were powerful symbols, as they became leaders of countries with long and notorious histories of racism. On the day after Obama’s election, Richard Cohen wrote in the Washington Post: ‘It is not just that [Obama] is post-racial; so is the nation he is generationally primed to lead.’ Cohen quoted former president Lyndon B. Johnson, who had overseen the passing of the Civil Rights Act, declaring: ‘My fellow Americans, we have overcome.’ In an iconic editorial cartoon, Riber Hansson showed Obama walking up to the White House past a downcast Klansman leaning on his cross, a pile of spent matches at his feet.1 The idea that the United States had overcome racism with the election of Obama was not surprising, as the phenomenon remained deeply misunderstood. According to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Victor Ray, most mainstream social analysis, and most Americans themselves, view racism as ‘individual-level animosity or hatred towards people of colour’, associated primarily with its most explicit historical manifestations and representations, such as ‘Archie Bunker-type rhetoric, Klan rallies or overt racial behaviour like hanging a noose from a tree’.2 This is similar to what Alana Lentin terms ‘frozen racism’. According to Lentin,  

Frozen racism serves its concomitant motility because, by freezing so-called ‘real racism’ in historical time, we allow discrimination and abuse to continue polyvalently under the guise of purportedly postracial arguments about cultural incompatibility, secularism versus religion, or sovereignty and security.3  

The situation is similar in Europe, where Nazism and fascism are frequently referenced as a stain on its history, but also as part of a story of overcoming and defeating racism and hate. Of course, manifestations of crude racism remain a reality in the post-war and post–civil rights eras, but they are usually constructed as a remnant of the old order or a return of the repressed, out of time and out of line with the contemporary liberal order and consensus. As such, they are often used as examples of what is right and wrong, what we had in the bad old days, and what we should be grateful for in imperfect but ultimately post-racial times. This was the case, at least, until the most recent resurgence and manifestation of illiberal trends. We argue that it is precisely this liberal narrative which frames our times, constructing racism as illiberal, tied essentially to the past and extreme right. It is constructed as antithetical to our contemporary liberal-democratic politics, and thus as concealing more acceptable and coded articulations of racism, central to the liberal system. The term ‘articulation’ is used here to highlight not simply how these are types of racism, but the ways in which they act together and are expressed in society. However, before turning our attention to liberal racism, it is essential that we first examine the way illiberal racism has come to be posited as the continuation of traditional forms of racism, limiting our understanding of racist practice to exceptional and outdated modes of politics, beliefs and social relations. Again, this is not to deny the historical and contemporary threat of the extreme right; but it is important to examine how it is often used to deny and diminish the significance of less overt, more deeply embedded systemic racisms.  

Racism: A Brief History of a Bad Idea  

To clarify what we mean by ‘liberal’ and ‘illiberal’ racisms, we must first provide a brief overview of what we will call here ‘traditional racism’. While the term is not perfect, we can differentiate it from the liberal and illiberal articulations central to our argument, even though it is linked closely to the former as a point of reference and core to the process of discursive reconstruction. We call it ‘traditional’ as it is also widely considered in the mainstream as the canonical form of racism. First, it is crucial to recall that, while racism is a reality both for those who suffer and those who benefit from it, race is a human invention. Therefore, contrary to what is often claimed in traditional racist theories, it is neither natural nor immutable, and does not come down to us from time immemorial. While it is difficult to know exactly when racism emerged as an idea, and debates are ongoing in the field, what is clear is that it is a modern idea that is intricately linked to the advent of our contemporary world, notably through colonialism and the formation of the nation-state system.  In popular culture and discourse, many tend to associate racist ideas and practices with particular evil periods, regimes and practices in history, such as slavery, colonialism, Nazism and the Holocaust, or Jim Crow segregation. But it is important to stress that traditional theories and articulations of racism, from which illiberal racism emerged, were not on the fringe or considered extreme. They were often produced by the scientific establishment and policies of the political elite, informing the management of racialised populations and their empires.4 The concepts and theories were themselves racist, in that they presumed the authority of the white European, as ‘racially’ superior, not only to define the other (racialising them as central to the process), but to dominate them based on the justification contained in their own ‘ideas’ and constructions. The other was not a subject of knowledge or agent of action, but an object. For Michael Banton, ‘Physical differences between peoples have been observed throughout human history; all over the world people have developed words for delineating them. “Race” is a concept rooted in a particular culture and a particular period of history which brings with it suggestions about how these differences are to be explained.’5  

The term ‘race’ entered the English language in the sixteenth century to refer to family, lineage and breed, and the term ‘racism’ was first introduced to the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 1900s as a form of supremacy and superiority based on human differences. It defined racism as ‘the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race’. It was synonymous with ‘racialism’, defined as the ‘belief in the superiority of a particular race’. The term only became widespread in the 1930s, when it was used to refer to the policies advocated and implemented by Nazi Germany.6 Yet it would be mistaken to think of it as limited to these ‘extreme’ cases. Historians and sociologists of race and racism have charted the origins and development of racism through the theorisation of race and racial differences in Europe, and among the intellectual establishment, since the sixteenth century.7 In his work, Banton identifies three useful paradigms through which ‘race’ has been constructed historically, demonstrating the development of the concept, its racist rationale and implications – including the practices it justified – as well as its power and its contingency.  

The first paradigm is that of race as descent. This theological explanation for racial difference holds that the ‘two races of man’, black and white, or African and European, have either unified origins (monogenesis) or different origins (polygenesis), developed in later race science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as different and unequal moral capacities. The most well-known iteration of this can be found in the Curse of Ham. This biblical story was used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to justify slavery, and to reassure colonial settlers that their skins would not turn black. Colonial powers argued that ‘blackness’ came from the times when Ham, Noah’s son, was cursed by his father, in a bizarre moral tale in which his descendants would become slaves and be marked with darker skin.8 Older examples of the use of theology for the purposes of racism is the anti-Semitic claim that Jews were the murderers of Christ, and the ‘blood libel’ charging Jews with murdering Christian children for their blood.  

However, while these biblical and theological justifications for racism maintained some purchase and an ongoing foundational influence, racism as we understand it in the modern context crystallised with the emergence of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. It was through Enlightenment ideals and science that racist theories developed, spread and really gained hegemonic power. As a more humanistic and universal vision of society developed in parts of Europe, science and reason came to replace or complement older ideas. While the Enlightenment is often described uncritically as the origin of our progressive modern world, and used to demonstrate the west’s ‘civilisational superiority’, it was also inextricably linked to the rise of racism as a new pretext for domination by the white man. The biological classification of human beings through a number of pseudoscientific theories provided a much stronger and more permanent explanation for the exploitation of other races than Christianity had: redemption and conversion became impossible.9  

Here is where Banton’s second paradigm comes in: that of race as type. This first example of race science was based on the work of Carolus Linnaeus and Georges Cuvier in particular, which held that the different races were the product of polygenesis – of representative specimens, types and subtypes belonging to geographically specific contexts. Their rates of progress in culture were also thought to be different.10 The third paradigm is race as subspecies, based on the work of the Social Darwinists, which placed biology at the centre. While allowing for adaptation and the evolution of peoples, it informed debates and conclusions about their superiority and inferiority, and different rates of progress. Charles Darwin’s work (through its perversion) was seminal for Herbert Spencer’s notion of the survival of the fittest, and for his cousin Francis Galton’s theory and advocacy of eugenics.  

One of the most prominent theorists to lay the groundwork for modern forms of racism was the French anthropologist Comte Arthur de Gobineau. His book An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–55) provided the framework that became central to the Nazis’ understanding of racial inequality. De Gobineau separated human beings into three races: members of the ‘white race’ (also known as ariane) were leaders at the origin of all great civilisations; members of the ‘yellow race’ were hardworking but lacking imagination; and members of the ‘black race’ were infantilised and unable to thrive without the domination of others. De Gobineau was pessimistic about the future, as he believed that democracy had already led to miscegenation, and thus decay. Contrary to the idea of rebirth at the heart of fascist and Nazi ideologies, it was already too late.

It is not surprising that the development of racial thinking began as nations developed into distinctively political entities in sixteenth century Europe. As borders and citizenship became political realities, delimiting people between races also became easier – something most clearly found in the German Romantic notion of (and naturalizing conflation between) blood and soil. With the new political systems forcing upon their people a more delineated political space, the division hardened between a nation’s own citizens and foreigners. Through the construction of an historical legacy and destiny, it was increasingly held that distinctively French, British, German and Italian national characters had been nurtured by long-shared histories – a myth which remains anchored in our political identities to this day.  

While the development of nationalism as a political construct remained somewhat open, since it was possible for some to be ‘naturalised’, racism prevented passage between races. This proved particularly powerful as empire-building led to a competition between European ‘enlightened’ nations (as a civilisational bloc) to colonise, ‘civilise’, dominate and exploit those whom ‘white’ western racial constructs had positioned as inferior, primitive and/or savage. In time, it would also be deployed within Europe by the Nazis against internal enemies. Until the Second World War, these constructs and discourses were used openly to provide a logic for official, state sanctioned practices that sought, in varying degrees, to exclude, dominate, separate, exploit and/or eradicate the other. Examples of such practices include slavery, colonisation, ghettoisation, segregation, immigration bans, the colour bar, ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, in 1948 the UN would pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guaranteeing that ‘everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’11  

This would present a challenge to traditional racism, and to European colonialism and American segregation which continued. Following the passing of the US Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination condemned racism, defining it as ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin that has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.’12  

While many of these racist ideas and practices have since been cast aside, traditional forms of racism persist today, most clearly apparent in mimetic movements of neo-fascists, neo-Nazis and confederates in the United States, all of which continue to embrace these ideas uncritically. We have also witnessed the return in recent years of certain scientific assumptions and theories reminiscent of traditional racism. In the 1990s, debates about IQ and the ‘bell curve’ started to re-emerge in academia.13 They were widely rejected, but ever since, and particularly in the context of the current reactionary backlash, a growing movement has sought to return to this debate, and eugenics and race science more broadly, to its position as an area worthy of study.14 But this has taken place in a setting in which such ideas are no longer accepted by society at large; instead, they occupy a space in apparent opposition both to power and social norms.

1 Riber Hansson, ‘Obama and Resigned KKK Member’, Cagle Cartoons, 2008.
2 Eduardo Bonilla-Silva with Victor E. Ray, ‘Getting Over the Obama Hope Hangover: The New Racism in “Post-Racial” America’, in Karim Murji and John Solomos, eds, Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), p. 59.
3 Alana Lentin, ‘Racism in public or public racism: Doing anti-racism in “postracial” times’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 39:1 (2016), p. 3.
4 Angela Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (London: 4th Estate, 2019).
5 Michael Banton, ‘The Idiom of Race: A Critique of Presentism’, Research in Race and Ethnic Relations 2: 21–42 (1980), p. 39.
6 Robert Miles and Malcolm Brown, Racism (London: Routledge, 2003).
7 This overview is not exhaustive, and does not address a multitude of theories, scientific developments and debates, shifts in language and terminology such as ‘ethnicity’, or later scholarly analyses. For these we recommend Les Back and John Solomos, eds, Theories of Race and Racism: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2000); Michael Banton, Racial Theories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Martin Bulmer and John Solomos, eds, Racism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); David Theo Goldberg, ed., Anatomy of Racism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990); George Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
8 Frederickson, Racism, pp. 43–4.
9 Ibid., p. 64.
10 Banton, ‘Idiom of Race’, pp. 54–6.
11 United Nations, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
12 Part 1 of Article 1.
13 Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).
14 Chris Baynes, ‘University College London Launches “Eugenics” Probe after Controversial Conference Secretly Held on Campus’, Independent, 11 January 2018; Richard Adams, ‘Cambridge gives role to academic accused of racist stereotyping’, Guardian, 7 December 2018; Angela Saini, ‘Why Race Science Is on the Rise Again’, Guardian, 18 May 2019; Saini, Superior.


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