STRUCTURAL RACISM

This concept was developed by the PAR Barcelona group of BRIDGES. You can read about the Common Conceptualization Process for all their work here.

  • SUMMARY
  • ACTIVITIES

Today, there is a naive idea that racism is mostly a matter of moral behaviour, of individual attitudes that refuse to accept diversity. This is dangerous in that it makes invisible a fundamental dimension of racism, and one that directly affects the people considered “others”, their lives and their possibilities: racism is structural in European societies, it is not just an individual inclination. As Garcés and Amzian (2017) point out, racism is a modern pattern of Western power, whose fundamental product is the nation-state, sustained and reproduced through institutional regulations and practices, not only at the level of social interactions between individuals.

By pointing out the structural dimension of racism, we seek to highlight how the production of racialized hierarchies is at the very heart of the systems of power that govern us. The modern state is based on the systematization of a hierarchy that places Western identity above all others (Garcés and Amzian, 2017). The construction of an allegedly superior Western identity is strongly linked to colonial processes, in which racial difference was forcibly established as a structuring category of the colonial social order (Espinosa-Miñoso, 2010). In the colonial history of Europe, the fictions categories of “us” and “they” become normalised, being delimited through borders that are naturalized symbolically and materially, based on a false internal homogenization and the idea of the “other” as a threat (Mbembe, 2018).

This border between “them” and “us” is what constitutes the nationalist discourses, constantly invented and reproduced through the intersections of racist ideologies, institutions and practices (Yuval-Davis, 2004). At the base of the notion of nation lies the idea of “cultural purism”, related to essentialist traditions, homogenizing and exclusionary practices, as well as building identities that are presumed to be self-evident and immutable (Hernández and Suárez, 2008). In this sense, one of the nodes of contemporary racism is the construction of cultural differences as preexisting, immeasurable and unchangeable, tracing different types of “others” that can be included or excluded from society. In contemporary Europe, ‘the other’ may be a migrant or a member of a racialised minority, as any sign perceived as culturally different becomes a signifier of a border to divide the world between “us” and “them” (Yuval-Davis, 2004).

The development of the concept of structural racism was fed by the shared context of Barcelona’s PAR group. It is in this sense worth mentioning the position from which we produce knowledge. Most of us are migrants who have gone through a bureaucratic process in order to legalise our situation in the country. This has importantly defined our position and chances in this society. When discussing discrimination and inclusion we always came to the issue of power structures and the related laws that create a hierarchisised ladder including different steps or levels of access to rights. In this sense, an important part of our discussions dealt with how these structures demarcate our chances to be and to participate in society. And in relation to this, we were driven by an interest to problematize and transform these systems, as we often see that a greater centrality is given to the effects of discrimination, and less to its causes. Thus, this text aims at grasping how these structures work, what their main elements are. From there, we hope to be able to formulate possible political alternatives.

This tool thus seeks to account for this active silencing by offering points that must be considered in order to understand and intervene in situations generated by structural racism.

Today, there is a naive idea that racism is mostly a matter of moral behaviour, of individual attitudes that refuse to accept diversity. This is dangerous in that it makes invisible a fundamental dimension of racism, and one that directly affects the people considered “others”, their lives and their possibilities: racism is structural in European societies, it is not just an individual inclination. As Garcés and Amzian (2017) point out, racism is a modern pattern of Western power, whose fundamental product is the nation-state, sustained and reproduced through institutional regulations and practices, not only at the level of social interactions between individuals.

By pointing out the structural dimension of racism, we seek to highlight how the production of racialized hierarchies is at the very heart of the systems of power that govern us.

It is possible to identify these processes of differentiation both in the source and destination of narratives around identity, as well as alongs lines of belonging and exclusion. Institutions regulate society according to axes of gender, race, class, age, among others, ordering various aspects of social, political and economic life (Herrera, 2011). Likewise, public policies correspond to the institutionalized discourse and function as a system of qualification and classification of situations, establishing processes of social inclusion or exclusion, delimiting what is allowed or prohibited (Agrela, 2006).

Both the production of racialised hierarchies and migration control are at the heart of the creation of the European Union (Santamaria, 2002).

The erasure of internal borders comes at the cost of the erection of stronger external borders: the constriction of what is often referred to as Fortress Europe. This ‘paradox of globalization’ (Pérez, 2006) , engenders a neoliberal system that pushes for the elimination of economic borders, whilst strengthening those barriers that prevent the freedom of movement of human beings, at the cost of human rights and human lives.

Along with this, according to Óscar Pérez (2006) two more paradoxes define contemporary society: the paradox of universality and the paradox of democracy. The first refers to the fact that all human beings should be equal rights holders, whilst immigration policies imply the erasure of migrants’ rights; the second consists of the fact that democratic decision-making requires a political community that, by definition, is exclusive. In order to function, when we speak of democracy in these terms, it requires that part of the population suffer violence through exclusion in a sustained manner.

Nation-states, in their exercise of sovereignty, have absolute competence to set the terms for the admission and presence of migrants in their territories, which generate forms of discriminations and exclusions that call into question their adherence to human rights treaties (Muñoz, 2009). This situation is reinforced by the scarce existence of international laws on citizenship, leaving nation-states full powers to delimit the conditions of acceptance or denial of citizenship status, exempting them from legal duties towards non-citizens (Peña, 2012; Usher, 2004).

Citizenship is a social, political and historical construction, which accounts for the relationship between State sovereignty and people’s rights, and is often intended as the precondition for political participation and empowerment of people who, historically, have been excluded from the full exercise of their rights, such as women, religious or ethnic minorities, and migrant communities (Muñoz, 2009; Usher, 2004).

Political participation cannot be understood solely according to axes of citizenship, but as a broader and deeper relationship to non-state spaces, common spaces from which to deliberate, decide, control and influence state policies. In this regard, Mezzadra (2012) proposes an understanding of social and political autonomy in frameworks that exclude the category of citizenship, and to think about the political power of migratory movements and conflicts from the perspective of the subjective practices, desires, expectations and forms of mobilisation of migrants themselves. In that sense, migrants constitute important political subjects and actors, beyond and outside of socio-legal conditions. Here, border-work figures as a contested process in continuous transformation, constantly redefined and shaped by those forces that attempt to escape controls (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013; Walters 2015). The novelty of this approach is to shift the focus from migration as a marginal reaction to the centrality of political and economic structures, to conceptualise it as a constituent force that actively defines political and social structures (Karakayali and Tsianos 2005; Papadopoulos, Stephenson and Tsianos 2008; Mezzadra 2012). This shifts away from politics concerned with the realm of citizenship-related rights, and instead highlights those horizontal practices, experiences and modes of contestation that circulate through borders, as well as the strategies and tactics that groups of migrants mobilise in their everyday encounters with border controls and security technologies (Papadopoulos et al. 2008).
We understand that structural racism has to do with the differentiation and hierarchization of differences based on discrimination by sex, gender, class, race and citizenship status in a given territory. In the first place, structural racism corresponds to a legal-political structure, where the State and its legal and institutional forms (the constitution, public, financial, educational institutions, etc.) play an important role, in implementing formal inclusion and exclusion from the political community. Secondly, it corresponds to an ideological structure, mediated through cultural production or the media, which contribute to the naturalization of several forms of oppression and discrimination, such as border controls or daily police controls further reproducing exising stigma, as well as implementing racialised forms of repression, segregation and criminalisation. In this structure, three concepts appear to overlap and determine individual and collective destinies in various ways: institutional racism, immigration policy and citizenship status. Immigration policies are exercised by bureaucrats and police forces that implement institutional racism in their work and contribute to social inequality, by creating different classes of citizenship based on bilateral agreements with countries of origin. It is important to work to deactivate stereotypes and prejudices based on differentiation with a negative charge, such as racialised, cultural, classed and gendered discrimination, which place some people in a privileged situation with respect to others, fostering poverty and lack of opportunities for the vast majority of people in the context of the European Union.
FILE DETAILS

Name

Barcelona - STRUCTURAL RACISM
Size
750 KB
Reading Time
20 min

The objective of this activity is to show students how structural racism affects various social groups in their immediate contexts. For this draw on the Spanish Law on Foreigners (Ley de Extranjería) as a starting point in order to illuminate how legal regulations condition the life of many individuals who are labelled as illegal by them, thus generating a sort of “second-class citizens” who have to go through labyrinthic bureaucratic procedures to stop suffering the violence associated to such labels. Below you may find information on how to use this exercise in a national setting different to the Spanish.

Accompanying files:

FILE DETAILS

Name

Barcelona - STORIES OF STRUCTURAL RACISM
Required materials
All accompanying files
Activity Times
2H