We’re right back to the “it’s not racist to be racist” debate, courtesy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Speaking to House magazine, Welby said it is reasonable for people to fear the “colossal crisis” of migration currently experienced by Europe (not to be confused with the crisis experienced by the actual refugees fleeing brutal war and persecution; after all, migration isn’t about them). Adding that it is “outrageous, absolutely outrageous” to describe such anxieties as racist, the Archbishop also noted that the UK should find a way of “taking its share of the load”.
Welby’s comments may well be an attempt to expand the debate about migration, but their inevitable effect is to reinforce the ludicrous idea that people who express concerns about migration are being constantly shut down. Because you never hear anybody complaining about migrants, ever, do you? And our media and politicians aren’t constantly panic-mongering about dangerous, scrounging migrant “floods”?
Nobody has ever said that it is racist for British people to worry - especially during a time of crippling austerity cuts, wage stagnation and job instability set against spiralling living costs - about access to employment and resources. What definitely is racist, however, is the idea that migrants are somehow to blame.
With tedious reliability, Ian Duncan Smith, the man responsible for so many of those savage cuts, supported Welby's view, claiming on the Today programme that for years “elites have said it’s terrible to talk about migration, and if you do, you’re racist”. Even worse, Duncan Smith suggests this supposed muzzling of debate has fuelled the far right across Europe. Yet what has actually fuelled the rise of the far right, and its attendant racism, is austerity - of exactly the kind imposed by the Work and Pensions Secretary and his Conservative government.
Here is how Daphne Halikiopoulou, professor in comparative politics at Reading university, put it a few months ago: “When a crisis hits, those who have a job fear that they will lose it. Those who don’t have a job… fear that they will have no safety net or alternative." The more insecure people feel, the more support swings in favour of the far right.
Britain’s main political parties have also fuelled this process, deliberately and cynically shifting ever rightwards on the subject of migration, in attempts to stem any potential voter exodus to the migrant-bashing Ukip party.
The suggestion that we are being “swamped” by migrants, and that “elites” (presumably latte-drinking and metropolitan, for the full-scope insult) are stifling the concerns of white, working class Brits manages to patronise and diminish both groups of people at the same time. It’s a way of outsourcing your own prejudices onto people worse off than you, while simultaneously creating a terrifying migrant bogeyman to scapegoat for the result of austerity policies imposed by the government.
Time and again, research suggests that tolerance is higher in migrant-dense and ethnically diverse parts of the country. Prejudices fall away in the face of positive interactions within diverse communities - an effect given it’s very own label: “passive tolerance”. It is fear of the unknown, fuelled by scaremongering politicians and the media, and not the actual experience of living in ethnically mixed areas, that causes prejudice.
If we want to talk about migration, let’s talk about it. Nobody is stopping us. But let’s also talk about why, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, people are so worried and insecure about work and access to public services. If we do that, the conversation we end up having might not focus on migrants at all.
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