Gone are the days of segregation and fascism, when your life chances depended on the colour of your skin or eyes. Now your job prospects depend on how qualified you are, rather than where you came from. Equal opportunity is the mantra, we all begin at the same start line, the winner being he who works hardest. We are all equal.
Except that this is not how it works. We find crafty excuses that mask the truth. We are meant to have equal opportunity, but some of us are born into it, while others don’t even know where to look, because nobody cares to tell them.
New racism is not embodied by segregation and blatant discrimination, but rather by persistent and systematic inequality, racial differentiation, and social stigma. Old racism was based on blood and biology. New racism is based on culture and religion.
21st century Europe is a paradox, in theory we celebrate diversity, we laud that the world is more connected today than ever before. But, when it comes to religion and culture, your label is still as important as your skin colour once was.
We are all guilty of this.
Europe: a place to call our own
Europe was founded on the ideal of a community that could peacefully exist, tolerance of one another being one of the aims, along with economic cooperation and prosperity. It started out so well, but Europe has evolved from a community that rejects division, to quite a divided union.
On one hand, we like to get along with each other, Europe sees itself as a self contained paradise, all of our beautiful freedoms to be enjoyed by the Europeans.
But bring outsiders into the mix, and we suddenly get protective of what we have. France and Britain are the most obvious examples to discuss at this time, but we in Ireland are also culpable.
France: from unité to division
France’s historical struggle against the Catholic Church is characterised by their secular state. No religion is to be favoured. In the 1800s, laicité, secularism, was one of France’s strengths, setting them out as a modern society, accepting of all religions, favouring none.
This should have meant that they didn’t get involved at all. How inconsistent though, they banned the Burkini, for goodness sake. That’s not disinvolvement, that’s control. They had also banned the hijab for a while, luckily that did not last long either.
But they didn’t ban nuns wearing their habits, or modest women from wearing full length skirts.
The secular policy was meant to unite the French people by something other than religion; their French nationality. Religion was to become part of the private sphere. But this secular policy has swung so far in the wrong direction that your religion is as defining as your skin colour used to be in America.
Rather than not getting involved in religious affairs, the state has taken an interventionist role in ensuring that no religion has any advantage, resulting in public hostility to minority religions.
But the Catholic church is already at an advantage. By the time France became secular, the magnificent churches were already built, the communities already established, the power and wealth already in the hands of the bourgeoisie.
When the Muslims want to build a new mosque they are refused state funds, as that would be favouring Islam over another religion.
The injustice lies in the fact that the Catholics don’t need to ask for state assistance. Firstly because they already have a church on every street corner, and secondly, because they have money. It’s old money, money that comes from wealthy benefactors.
The wealthiest French people are very likely Catholic. Take Versailles, one of the wealthiest regions in Paris. It has a very strong Catholic presence.
Secularism in a French context, in some situations, is a guise for racism. The old-French don’t like the new face of their country, that is to say, the immigrants. But the French Muslims are no less French than the Catholics. The reality is that the French are no longer all white and blonde.
I know an athlete who has competed for France, he is Muslim, but he had as much right as his team mates to wear the French singlet. In an everyday setting where I knew him, he was French born and bred, and very proud to be, but the colour of his skin and his private religious views are still enough to matter.
The rise of Le Front National, the extreme right-wing and racist political party led by Le Pen is a testament to the growing unrest at the multicultural face of France. It doesn’t make sense, we thought such ridiculous discrimination was over – World War II taught us enough. Yet there they are, being outright racist to their own countrymen.
The United Kingdom
Brexit. Anyone trying to deny that race and immigration played a part in this decision is in denial. It was scare tactics at its finest, only comparable to Trump’s baffling popularity. Incomprehensible. In response to the migrant crisis, Britain decided it wanted to take control of its borders once again, lest the foreigners come and infiltrate the homeland.
The unstated, but obvious aim of the Leave campaign was to reclaim British whiteness. The working class were told that they were suffering economically because of the mass immigration, burdening public services and filling up their jobs. The wealthy are just as guilty, they were also persuaded that immigration was going to make them poorer.
But the people arguing that economic issues arise due to immigration do not identify as racist, rather they see it as a logical explanation; Britain can only let in so many people.
It’s hypocritical, because according to the 2011 census, of the 63 million inhabitants, 87% were white, meaning that 13% of the population are not. 13% may seem small, but it still amounts to about 8 million people. These 8 million did not just arrive on the doorstep in 2016, they are first, second, third generation immigrants, as British as the next chap.
It’s hypocritical, because while the UK was a willing member of the EU, its students were sent abroad on erasmus programmes, its graduates had their choice of country in which to work, and its families roamed freely on holidays. At the same time, they didn’t want migrants. They wanted to have their cake and eat it. But now, it’s pretty clear that once your cake is eaten, well, it’s gone.
It is worth noting that the UK’s most decorated distance runner, Mo Farah, is an immigrant from Somalia. He arrived when he was eight. But when celebrating his success his race does not come into question. Well, the racists will bring it up, but they are quickly dismissed. Is this the standard? Does one have to be an Olympian and record holder in order to prove their Britishness?
He says that although he is African born, when he runs, he runs only for the United Kingdom. He is as British as the next person, just listen to him speak.
The Irish do not seem to be as outwardly racist as the others. We don’t hear of hate crimes, or race-themed attacks too often. But what does not sit right is our silent inactivity on the European migration crisis. Ireland has a shocking amount of diaspora, an estimated 50 to 80 million people around the world have Irish roots.
In our desperate hour the world allowed us to move. We migrated due to famine, conflict and economic issues. Sound familiar? These happen to be the same reasons people migrate today. When the going got tough, we left in search of better. On the famine ships, the biggest fear was a shipwreck due to treacherous waters, not due to corrupt people sending unequipped little lifeboats out into the ocean.
On the other side, we were allowed work. We were not sent to Direct Provision centres, not fit for living, but within which migrants are trapped. This is not to deny that the Irish abroad encountered some racism themselves as immigrants, but at least they were allowed into the country, and were allowed the opportunity to work. Our immigrants are denied this chance.
In the Celtic Tiger years we welcomed the influx of Eastern Europeans because it suited us. They minded our babies, cleaned our houses, made our sandwiches. They were glad to have jobs and we were glad to have them filled. New migrants are no different to those that came in 2007, they just want a peaceful life where they can earn an honest living in safety.
Why the hostility? What is our problem with migrants, and why won’t we let them in? When it does not suit us, we change the rules.
So yes, we, as Europeans, are still racist. Though not explicit in the way things used to be, it seems that we have become craftier at harbouring our racist views. Culture and religion are now as defining as skin colour used to be (and still is), as we move towards a world of new racism.
While once we were poor and needed to move abroad, we saw no problem in migration. While once we had a job market that needed filling, we had no problem with foreign people filling those positions. But once we gather a bit of wealth, we mount our high horses, and look down at those below us.