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Manifesto for a political anti-racism

Miri Davidson17 June 2015

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Nearly six months after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French government continues to push through "anti-terrorism" legislation and challenges to Islamophobia continue to be silenced, absurdly, in the name of "freedom of speech". The following statement is signed by a collective of anti-racist activists, intellectuals, academics, and association members in France, including Christine Delphy, author of Separate and Dominate. Translated by David Broder; visit Libération to read the original statement in French.

Have the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly won a posthumous victory in the battle of ideas? Since 7 January the public debate has been structured around a series of false alternatives. Are you for or against terrorism? Of course, everyone is against it (to the point of accepting a creeping extension of its definition). For or against freedom of speech? Of course, everyone is in favour, or almost everyone (except when it comes to the freedom of speech of school students accused of making apologias for terrorism).

The result: six months after the anti-terrorism bill, now comes the communications bill, which is just as serious an attack on our freedoms. And the litany continues. For or against the Republic? Everyone is in favour, in the name of a patriotism opposed to those who (as prime minister Manuel Valls put it) "don’t believe in France any more". The proof? The UMP has appropriated the term "republicans" and the Front National is trying to patent the word "patriots". We are waiting impatiently to find out what the Parti Socialiste’s new name is: perhaps "the secularists"? After all, they keep interrogating us as to whether we’re for or against laïcité [secularity]. Well, everyone is in favour, or almost…

Such unanimity provokes exasperated reactions: fine words can’t make people forget reality. So we can criticise this "imposture". Nonetheless, doesn’t opposing ourselves to "the spirit of 11 January" still mean participating in the same "debate", in terms that we did not choose? The Prime Minister was not mistaken in entering the arena to defend the union sacrée [national unity]. But let’s gamble on taking back the initiative: not by reacting, but by acting, with our own words. We have to refuse to allow ourselves to get caught up in false oppositions.

It’s no longer time to respond, but time to impose our own terms. It is time to talk about something else. Something that threatens democracy and is pulling apart French society. It is not religion (or a religion) but racism, which designates some of us as racialised "others": from immigrants from Africa or Roma people from Europe to the French heirs of slavery, colonisation and immigration, Black in appearance or of North African origin.

When people start waving laïcité around, it is rarely because they want to denounce the public funding for Catholic schools, the Concordat between Church and state in Alsace-Moselle or the bishops exerting pressure in opposition to equal marriage. Normally, it’s a matter of "concerns over Islam"; but what we ought to be worried about is Islamophobia. Let’s stop beating around the bush, and confront the question head on. In a country where the former president can refer to a "Muslim police prefect" and speak of "French people of Muslim appearance", it is less a question of religion than a euphemised form of racialisation. Marine Le Pen has understood this very well: her father attacked Arabs, while she denounces Islam. We are easily able to see the anti-Semitism that underlies anti-Judaism, attacking Jewish people independently of their religion. The same goes for Islam: you don’t have to be a believer to be a victim of Islamophobia or to identify as a Muslim, for better or worse.

Of course, our rulers condemn "racism and anti-Semitism" (and even counterpose these two terms). But are they really fighting them? It is imperative to go beyond a moralistic anti-racism, which gets worked up about the phenomenon while remaining ignorant of its causes: and if it doesn’t see them, that’s because it doesn’t want to. It is urgently important to revive a political anti-racism. In the 1980s people believed racism was just about an ideology and a party, and in the 1990s we understood that systematic and systemic discriminations constitute a structural racism: whether we are racists or not, we participate in social logics whose exclusionary effects are racist. Intellectuals, politicians and journalists all join together in their anti-racism: but they are almost uniformly whites. Racism is measured less by the supposed intentions of those who renounce it, than by the proven consequences for those who are subject to it.

What is more, since the 2000s the state has appeared less and less of a recourse against racism: on the contrary, it has increasingly revealed itself to be the main actor in an institutionalised racism. Without doubt, this is nothing new: indeed, from the colonial empire to postcolonial France, from the colonies to the overseas territories and from the overseas territories to "metropolitan France", from slavery to anti-black racism, from the Muslims of French Algeria to the Muslims in France today, and from the internment of "nomads" (from 1940 to 1946) to the Roma slums today… we’ve inherited a certain kind of history. But it’s not a matter of repentance. Without doubt, the past cannot be repaired; even so, reparation is all the more necessary because this past continues to weigh on the present. For how else can we understand "racist inequality"? Again, from the debate on national identity to the attacks against Muslims, not to forget the hunt against the Roma, which has become yet more aggravated under François Hollande, the state’s role is now strikingly apparent.

Firstly, the state creates the objective conditions for racism, from segregation and exclusion to its policies regarding city planning, housing, transport and schooling, as well as institutions like police and the justice system. Then it adds the subjective conditions: it legitimises racism by assigning different "vocations" to two different categories of human beings, "them" and "us". "Them"—well, that’s the people who we allow to die (or even have killed) in the Mediterranean or Mayotte, and the people whose lives we make unliveable in the Roma slums or in the "New Jungle" in Calais. With xenophobia feeding racism, French people also think it all the more natural that we make "them" live dishonourably or let "them" die with impunity, because they aren’t "us", despite our common nationality; and there’s plenty of our compatriots that are eternally being called on to integrate, better to show them that they will never truly be "us".

So being an anti-racist isn’t just about fighting the Front National; it isn’t just about rejecting the racial stereotypes that feed systemic discrimination. It is also about fighting the policies that racialise French society. And it can’t be said that this anti-racism sets us at a distance from class problems, as if the "racial question" somehow obscured the "social question". Discriminations founded on origin or appearance redouble socio-economic inequalities. To counterpose them is to fall into a trap. Just as the European Union is also "fortress Europe", in France as elsewhere neoliberal policies are accompanied by a state racism, which sets some people against others—the "working class" against the "racialised", as if the latter were not, in their majority, part of this class.

This whipping up of resentment serves to divert the anger that results from the injustice suffered by the working class and racialised. Those who make political capital out of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and racism against Black and Roma people, just like other, mirror-image ones who profit from anti-Semitism, are all contributing to one same logic. They play some people off against others, silencing those who denounce "double standards", even as the "old anti-Semitism" that "equally rejects Jews and Arabs" still persists: as the recent CNCDH study demonstrates, these racisms are linked. And the competition that some people try and aggravate—between white workers and their neighbours "of foreign origin", or indeed between Muslims and Jews, at the same time as rallying everyone against Roma people—is an obstacle to posing the questions that urgently need addressing. It’s not the fault of Roma people, immigrants from Africa or Blacks or Muslims that inequalities are increasing, any more than it is Jews’ fault that these racialised people of all kinds are victims of social and state discrimination.

Fight against discrimination or against economic inequalities? Fight against Islamophobia, or against anti-Semitism? These are just so many false alternatives, preventing any coalition forming: they divide people who must unite and unite those who ought to divide. To fight this, we have to answer this question: beyond people’s real or proclaimed intentions, what does racism serve? It is time to demand that politicians account for themselves, and to demonstrate their responsibility. This is to lay the basis for a repoliticised, and thus renewed anti-racism, and to resume the initiative against racialising policies: an effort that the Gennevilliers Forum of 9 May 2015 threw itself into. It will continue this work together with those most directly affected by racism, the women and men who pay the price. And this battle will also be fought together with all those who reject the nightmarish political fantasy of a white France. It is high time, but still time, to answer racialisation with politicisation.

First signatories: Farid Bennaï - Social worker, coordinator of the Reprenons l’initiative contre les politiques de racialisation forum; Saïd Bouamama - Sociologist, spokesperson of the Front uni des immigrations et des quartiers populaires; Christine Delphy - Sociologist, emeritus research director at the CNRS; Rokhaya Diallo - Journalist and author; Fatou Diome - Writer; Eric Fassin – Sociologist, professor at the Université Paris-VIII; Nacira Guénif  Sociologist, professor at the Université Paris-VIII; Serge Guichard – Founding member of he Association de solidarité en Essonne avec les familles roumaines roms (Asefrr); Almamy Kanouté – Education specialist, association Rezus; Laurent Lévy – Essayist and political activist; Saimir Mile – President of the Voix des Rroms; Marilyne Poulain – trade unionist, CGT-immigration; Isabelle Saint-Saëns – Member of the Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés (Gisti); Michèle Sibony – Union juive française pour la paix (UJFP); Louis-Georges Tin – President of the CRAN …

The manifesto and full list of signatories at can be found here