Is there a neo-racism?

This post is a summary of Étienne Balibar‘s brilliant chapter, Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?. Balibar argues that the new surge of racism is centred around culture rather than race. For the neo-racism, cultural differences are insurmountable. Although this differential racism consciously avoids talking about race, it implicitly relates biological reactions to cultural differences. Despite its claims of egalitarianism, neo-racism still advances hierarchy.

Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein
Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein

Racism is a ‘true total social phenomenon’. It is inscribed in various aspects of practices, discourses, and representations in our lives. It confers a stereotyped form upon subjects and objects of those aspects. A network of affective stereotypes consisting of those practices, discourses, and representations enables us to discern a racist community or a community of racists.

Such a network also discerns those who are victims to racism. It exerts constraints on them, forcing them to recognise themselves as a community. Such constraints cannot be interiorised without conflict. It defines those subject to it and deprives them of the possibility to define themselves.

The destruction of the racist complex requires both the revolt of the victims and the transformation of the perpetrators. Thus, it presupposes ‘the internal decomposition of the community created by racism’. This is what anti-sexism movements have achieved through the revolts of women and the transformation of men.

You might also enjoy: 7 Arguments against Racism

For Balibar, there is ‘no racism without theory (or theories)’. Racism and racist acts are always rationalised by intellectuals. Theories of academic racism mimic scientific discursivity, in relying on visible ‘evidence’ or in articulating ‘visible facts’ to ‘hidden causes’. Thus, Balibar suggests, ‘the racist complex inextricably combines a crucial function of misrecognition and a ‘will to know’, a violent desire for immediate knowledge of social relations’. Misrecognition is necessary for this combination as violence is not tolerable without it.

In most disciplines, there is a distance between ‘esoteric speculations’ and ‘doctrines designed for popular consumption’. However, successful racist ideologues have always developed ‘democratic’ doctrines that are immediately intelligible to the ‘masses’ while maintaining elitist themes. They simultaneously provide the ‘masses’ with an explanation of their ‘spontaneity’ and denigrate them as a ‘primitive’ crowd.  Even the use of the category of the ‘masses’ is never neutral. It communicates the logic of a naturalisation and racisation of the social.

The new racism focuses on ‘immigration’ as a substitute for ‘race’ and a solvent of ‘class consciousness’. However, this change of focus is not just a camouflage nor a result of society’s transformation. The new racism is the racism of the ‘decolonisation’ era. In this era, the movement of population is reversed and is now from old colonies to old metropoles. This era, at least formally, is conscious of the fact that there are ‘no human races’. Thus, the new racism has developed enough to fit into a framework of ‘racism without races’.

Instead of biological heredity, the new racism is centred around the insurmountability of cultural differences. At the surface, it does not give primacy to certain groups or peoples over others. Instead, it ‘only’ postulates ‘the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-styles and traditions’. Taguieff calls the new phenomenon a ‘differentialist racism’.

Displacing the centre of racism from race to culture has two significant consequences:

  1. It destabilises the traditional anti-racism. Their arguments are attacked or turned against themselves. In Taguieff terminology, it is the ‘turn-about effect’ of differentialist racism.
  2. If cultural differences are ‘insurmountable’, then their abolition will, naturally and dangerously, engender aggressive reactions and ‘interethnic’ conflicts.

Anthropological culturalism provided humanist and cosmopolitan anti-racism of the post-war period the power to counter the hegemony of standardising imperialism and the elimination of dominated groups (‘ethnocide’). Differentialist racism took this argument and used it against that anti-racism by cautioning against ‘mixing of cultures’ and the suppression of ‘cultural distances’. In this sense, culture also functions as a nature and forces individuals into an immutable genealogy.

With the rise of the neo-racism, there is a displacement of the problematic, from the theory of races to a theory of ‘race relations’, ‘which naturalises not racial belonging but racist conduct’. The cultural differentialism rejects biology as the explainer of race conflicts since there are no races. However, it posits biological reactions to cultural differences. Differentialist racism, thus, is a meta-racism or a ‘second position’ racism.

Placing the centre of racism on cultural differences is not entirely new. Modern anti-Semitism, crystallising in the Enlightenment Europe, is a ‘culturalist’ racism. It is indeed differentialist. From a formal point of view, current differentialist racism is a generalised anti-Semitism.

In neo-racist doctrines, the suppression of the theme of hierarchy is not real. It is present in the way the doctrines are practically applied and in the criteria by which cultural differences are discerned.

Balibar views neo-racism as a merely transitional ideological formation. It will develop towards a ‘post-racism’. He, however, does not explicate in this paper what he means by ‘post-racism’.

You might also like: Anti-racism: universalist or relativist


Balibar, É (1991), ‘Is there a ‘neo-racism’?’, In Balibar, É & Wallerstein, I (eds), Race, nation, class: ambiguous identities, London; New York, Verso.

Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) (photos)



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