Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Image Credits: Today
In this article, I argue that racial self-interest is prima facie not the same as racism. However, I add a caveat: racism is the next step from racial self-interest. I base the context of my argument in Bhambra (2017) and draw inspiration from Curato (2016). I assume that racial self-interest cannot convert into outright racism without political backing and legitimization of ideas considered racist.
Being a member of a particular race involves deriving a considerable part of one’s individual identity from that race. The race becomes the inspiration for a collective group identity
when a substantial number of people derive from that race its individual identities. Conceptualization of a group identity has built into it a propensity for ‘othering’ (or “clannishness”). It might be posited that group identity is defined in terms of love for one’s particular group (in this case, race); however, it is hard to dispute the notion that group identity is sustained along the lines of differentiation from other groups (races), at the least.
People from a dominant (demographically, economically, or socially) race can (and do) have an in-group in interest in maintaining its privileged position, preserving its cohesiveness and continually securing its integrity from challenges from other races, whether demographic, economic or socio-cultural. This common sentiment involves a component of ‘group partiality’ (Kaufmann, 2017).
If a minority race is not censured for articulating its ‘minority partiality’ towards other race(s), then I would dole out a benefit of doubt to the majority race and submit that even the majority race is entitled to be self-interested. So far, I am in agreement with Kaufmann. As Bhambra notes, affirmative action policies, which seek to improve the standing of the minority race, also induce irritability in the majority race. The latter’s members sulk at and feel insecure about the prospect of seeing their position of superiority and relative advantage slip away. From a non-normative perspective, any race is inclined to have an emotional reaction/backlash under such possibilities due to the differentiative/othering construct in which it is imagined. It is in the interest of the race that is “threatened” with prospects of parity with the hitherto subordinate race to be anxious and harbour suspicion for the latter. This is racial self-interest.
However, this “shared sense of distress” among the people of the dominant race is at best a latent anxiety, borrowing from Curato’s terminology. It exists at the level of the race per se and is not central to the public sphere of political discourse. As per Curato, it is “publicised but not politicised.” As long as this racial anxiety is not central enough to warrant the attention of the state, it falls and is practised within the realm of racial self-interest.
It is when the populist logic of constructing the “dangerous other” is invoked by a leader with populist propensities that the people of the dominant race, which hitherto “did not have the confidence to name and shame the enemy” (Curato, 2016) because of rigid notions of political correctness, that the latent anxiety becomes politicised: it ascends into the political realm. When the leader openly voices and visibilises the dominant race’s fear of being overwhelmed by the “threatening” or “other” race, and offers hope that he/she will address and protect the “threatened” race’s concerns, that the issue is politically mainstreamed.
What was hitherto a latent anxiety: namely that of the minority race “cutting in line” (Bhambra, 2017) ahead of the majority race, who have patiently made the county “great” and are waiting to relish in its greatness, is converted into a crisis of racial strife by the populist leader. The latter scapegoats the leaders of the establishment, who are portrayed as “helping the line-cutters” (Bhambra, 2017) because of observing customs of chartibility, democracy, liberty, and so on, at the expense of the majority race. Thus, the latent anxiety is uncorked and allowed to expand into the public realm, on grounds that the establishment leaders are being “unfair” to the majority race by giving privileged access to resources and amenities to the minority race (Bhambra, 2017). In directing scorn at the “unfair” entrenched leaders, the values that they uphold are also sapped: the baby is thrown with the bath water. Racism can breed very easily now that the anchors of political correctness no longer exist to keep these racial anxieties, real or imagined notwithstanding, “latent.”
It features prominently in populist discourse because it is an issue around which the dominant/influential race’s voters can mobilise and rally the populist candidate.
Image Credits: Nate Klitch
Keeping the populism aspect aside, what this articulation of latent anxiety does is precisely this: it brings into the legitimate domain of politics, latent ideas pertaining to “solving” the menace of the “other race.” This marks the start of racism.
A case in point is that of the populist, racialized rhetoric that drove the rise of Donald Trump in the USA in 2016. Trump’s legitimization of the White race’s latent anxiety regarding being ‘overwhelmed’ by the Black race severely severed inter-race relations and provided a huge impetus for the legitimization of hate crimes against the Black community: the FBI's annual Hate Crime Statistics Act (HCSA) report stated there were 7,314 hate crimes in 2019, up from 7,120 the year before - and the highest number since 7,783 were recorded in 2008. A big source of this anti-Black anxiety also included fear of White-Black social parity stemming from the impact of affirmative action policies, which served to equalise access to jobs, education and public services to the Blacks. Since these affirmative action policies serve to diminish the relative advantage of the majority race vis-a-vis the minority race, they are latently deemed “unfair.” All it takes now is a populist leader to tap into this “latent anxiety.”
Thus, I have argued that racial self-interest stems from a latent anxiety among the members of the “threatened” race, whereas this racial self-interest converts into outright racism when that latent anxiety is mainstreamed and normalised in the public discourse by a populist leader.
Bhambra, G. K. (2017). Brexit, Trump, and ‘methodological whiteness’: On the misrecognition of race and class. The British journal of sociology, 68, S214-S232.
Curato, Nicole (2016), Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power. The Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35, 3, 91–109.
BY ASISH SINGH
Asish Singh is a rising sophomore pursuing Political Science
and International Relations at Ashoka University.