An Introduction to ‘Beyond hate crime: Perspectives on racism in Ireland’

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Dr Ronit Lentin, Editor

When I first started teaching race and racism in Trinity College in the mid-1990s, many, mostly Irish, students expressed doubts that racism had existed in Ireland long before “these people came.” They didn’t really believe that historically Ireland was far from ethnically homogeneous, as was the common perception, with waves of in-migration throughout its history (yes, Celts, Normans, Saxons, Huguenots, Viking, and whatever you are having yourself…) making it hugely heterogeneous. They also doubted that the problem of racism only arose with the 1996 “in-migration turning point” (Ruhs 2005), when the number of non-EU people migrating to Ireland was larger than that of Irish people emigrating. The Irish, students were arguing, could not possibly be racist; after all, “we” were colonized and racialized by the British and in “our” diasporas and lacked power to be racist.
Most students being privileged Trinity students, with just a smattering of working class, mature or migrant and ethnic minority class mates, my students questioned accounts of anti-Traveller racism which most of them tended to dismiss (after all, some said, Travellers ARE dirty, they ARE drinkers, and hotel and pub owners DO need to protect their properties, thus cancelling weddings or not allowing Traveller funerals to take place was “reasonable”…) Though mostly sympathetic to Jewish suffering during the Nazi Holocaust, students were amazed when I told them that neutral Ireland took only 60 Jewish refugees during the Nazi era, and that this was the precursor of Ireland’s mean-spirited appalling asylum and migration policies.

As for anti-migrant and anti-refugee racism, students often repeated the economic mantras of some other sociology and economics lecturers who posited migrants as causing economic conflict, considering them, at best, as filling labour shortages during the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom years, and at worst, as lowering Irish wages and causing increased inequality. Amazingly, despite research to the contrary in recent years, this argument was made again recently, in January 2019, by retired TCD sociology professor James Wickham who links “mass immigration” to the growth of inequality  (Wickham 2019).  Such spurious arguments, just like those made by conservative “Migration Studies” scholars elsewhere in Europe, do not take race into account and regard migrants merely as economic units, never fully human. In fact, in an article titled “Racism and Crisis,” the French sociologist Etienne Balibar links racism with long standing social structures and problems that are “integral part of what is called national identity.” Viewing immigration as a “problem” and lining every social problem – employment, social security, schooling, health services, morals or criminality – to the presence of “immigrants” serves to spread the idea that the reduction (or ending) of immigration (and the expulsion of as many immigrants as possible) would solve “our” social problems (Balibar 1991, 217), which in effect precede the current migration from non-EU states, many of whom not only fill labour market shortages,  but make a huge cultural contribution.

When I spoke about projection – the tendency to project the problems of society (in fields such as housing and homelessness, health, education and other social services) onto incoming migrants or other racialized minorities (as in Jews being supposedly obsessed with money, as if there had been no financial scandals in Ireland; and Travellers being “dirty” as if Irish towns are the cleanest in Europe; and African being sex predators, as if there had been no sexual abuse scandals in Catholic Ireland) – students, including student teachers and social workers, dismissed me as “bitter” because I am a migrant myself (and  to this day I am often vilified online as a “migrant intent on committing genocide against the so called Irish race” by alt right Irish racists).

Denial that Ireland and the Irish could be racist, and particularly the denial of race even when racism is admitted either as a set of individual acts and hate crimes, or as state policies, is, according to sociologist Stanley Cohen (2001), a paradox. Using the term “denial” to describe people’s statement “I didn’t know”, we must assume they know what they claim not to know. So when Irish students, like other Irish people, deny the prevalence of racism in Ireland, playing instead the role of the racialized, we must assume that they rather choose to close their eyes to the realities of race and racism, particularly in recent years.

I persisted teaching race and pushing my point Over the years I was reading new race scholarship, including the work of racialized scholars writing about race, colonization, decolonization, genocide, Islamophobia and antisemitism. At the start, answering questions such as “do you really think Ireland is more racist than other countries?” all I could do was cite early works such as Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White(1995) on the racism of Irish migrants in the US, and Robbie McVeigh’s ground breaking Race and Class article “The specificity of Irish racism” (1992) – and I was fortunate to publish two books on racism and antiracism in Ireland together with Robbie McVeigh (Lentin and McVeigh 2002; 2006). Theorizing race, after the Caribbean-British cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall, as a “floating signifier,” that changes and mutates, taking different shapes in different contexts but always shapes by coloniality and European white supremacy. We were also reading and attempting to grasp Black British sociologist Paul Gilroy’s call to eliminate the use of the term race (Gilroy 1989), which, until we got a better handle on how central to structuring social and political life it was, we were putting between scare quotes. Gradually, as Ireland’s racial landscapes were beginning to change and expand, students were beginning to accept that racism was a lived experience for many in Ireland, including Travellers, black Irish people, migrants and asylum seekers. Race, however, remains unspoken and under-theorized.

In 1997 I established the first “Ethnic and Racial Studies” (now re-titled “Race, Ethnicity, Conflict”) Masters programme in Trinity College Dublin, of which I was the director for 15 years. Many of our graduates have gone on to challenge accepted discourses of “diversity”, “integration,” “multiculturalism,” and “migration management,” even though the emphasis on managing ethnic diversity and assisting the Irish government in managing, mainstreaming and coordinating migration policies remained prevalent. We ran conferences on Ireland’s new ethnic landscapes, emerging Irish identities, race and state, and migrant activism. We invited ethnic minority and migrant groups to speak to our students in Trinity College, supported migrant-led groups through the Trinity Immigration Initiative Migrant Networks research project and through giving them free spaces to hold their meetings.

However, despite my initial intention to expand and radicalize the study of race and racism in Ireland based on the increasing body of literature worldwide, I now know that my academic work has not managed to break away from the obsession with upholding “ethnic diversity” as a panacea that exonerates the Irish state of its racialized regimes of immigration and asylum. Nor did I succeed in bringing about a change in Irish attitudes to racism as individual prejudice and “hate crimes” at the expense of theorizing race as structuring society and polity.
Ireland was the longest standing settler colony in Europe – a fact often forgotten when discussing settler colonialism in the US, Australia, Canada, South America and Palestine – and Irish people were definitely racialized both at home and in their countries of diaspora. However, Irish people were also racist in very specific ways, as Robbie McVeigh argued already in 1992. Being forced by colonial conditions and economic necessity to serve in the British army and colonial administration, and siding with the slave holders rather than the abolitionists in the United States of America, as argued by Noel Ignatiev, Irish people, initially conceived as “black” and racialized migrants in the US, became white in Australia and the Americas, and imported structures of race and white supremacy back home.

Race, not merely racism, remains central to understanding social and political structures, as Alana Lentin argues in her article: “despite the many efforts by social scientists to debunk race, it continues to make sense to so many people.”  According to race scholar David Theo Goldberg (2015, 7-8), race emerged as an expression of dehumanization, established lines of belonging and estrangement for modern European social life. It was Frantz Fanon (1967) who termed the mode of dehumanization in the name of race “racialization”, as race was invoked in delineating a European (and in our case Irish) “we” as opposed to those considered Europe’s outsiders: Jews, Muslims and blacks.

Rather than merely focus on racism as acts of individual prejudice, violence and “hate crimes,” rather than systemic and institutionalized and constructed in order to establish and uphold white supremacy, we need to put race front and centre. As argued by race scholar Barnor Hesse (2004), racism was a Eurocentric concept, conceived by Europeans following the Nazi genocide, and positing the world as divided into distinct (inferior versus superior) “races.” The privileging of racism obscures the analytic frame of race that must be understood beyond the European context, by referring to European colonialism, Atlantic slavery and Apartheid, and not merely dating back to the Nazi Holocaust, horrific though it was. Racism must be understood as a colonial technology of imperial power, and the failure to begin with the Middle Passage instead of the Holocaust obscures the link between the degradation and exploitation of black people and the establishment of Western dominance, in which, despite Ireland’s history of colonization and racialization, Irish people played their part.

The articles collected in this journal aim to close the gap in understanding race and racism in the Irish context, beyond the limited understanding of racism as hate crimes. Articles go from the theoretical (Alana Lentin’s article on expanding the meaning of race beyond social construction), to the conceptual (Robbie McVeigh’s article on the origins of the term “hate crimes” in FBI terminology, and my own article on the erasure of race in conceptualizing direct provision and its historical antecedents), to specific case studies (Ebun Joseph on whiteness in the Irish labour market, Jane Xavier on the racialized experiences of migrant women, Karl Kitchin’s article on racism in the Irish education system, and Eugenia Siapera and her colleagues’ article on acts of race talk in online Irish websites).

We hope the collection inspires readers to re-think the meaning of race and racism in the Irish context and look forward to your comments.

Go to the Beyond hate crime: Perspectives on racism in Ireland main page 

Ronit Lentin is a political sociologist, writer, activist and former Associate Professor of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin. Her books include After Optimism: Ireland, Racism and Globalisation (2006, with Robbie McVeigh), Race and State (2006/2008, with Alana Lentin), Thinking Palestine (2008), Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorializing the Palestinian Nakba (2010/2014), Migrant Activism and Integration from Below (2012, with Elena Moreo), and Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism (2018).


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