Jon Fox looks at the racialisation of migration in the UK. While immigration policy can be seen as managed to maximise economic benefits, it is also done in a way that seeks to minimise social disturbances. Migrants are often portrayed in the tabloids not as upstanding workers trying to eke out a living, but as dangerous social parasites preying on their well-meaning hosts. However, for tabloids, shared ‘whiteness’ is not enough; cultural differences operate as a criterion for exclusion.
In many ways, recent East European migrants to the UK look like past migrants to the UK: they left poorer parts of the world in search of work and the better life in the UK. But in other respects, they look different: they are white. The link between migration and racism is well established. But what happens when the migrants are supposedly the same ‘race’ as the native majority? Evidence from the historical record suggests that shared ‘whiteness’ does not afford full protection from the deleterious effects of racism. Racism against the Irish immigrants to the UK would seem to be a case in point. Evidence from the current East European migration which I collected with colleagues Laura Moroşanu and Eszter Szilassy would seem to suggest that things haven’t changed much. Our research, focusing on Hungarians and Romanians, has uncovered a number of ways in which these migrants have been subjected to different forms of racialisation.
It starts with immigration policy. The door was opened (in the form of relaxed immigration controls) to East European migrants in 2004 for economic reasons; to fill gaps in the low skilled sector of the labour market:
‘With an expanded European Union there is an accessible and mobile workforce already contributing to our growing economy, closing many gaps experienced by employers. In a changing environment where our European commitments provide many opportunities for the UK to benefit from this new source of labour (…) [o]ur starting point is that employers should look first to recruit from the UK and the expanded EU before recruiting migrants from outside the EU’ (Home Office 2006, p. 6).
There’s of course no hint of discrimination against East Europeans in these or other policy pronouncements. To the contrary, East Europeans feature as the beneficiaries of relaxed immigration controls that were designed to channel them into the low-end sector of the economy. But racialisation doesn’t only degrade, it can also upgrade. Despite racist attitudes toward the Irish, they too were the beneficiaries of an immigration policy that viewed them as more racially desirable than New Commonwealth immigrants. As the door was being shut on ‘coloured’ immigrants arriving from the Commonwealth in the 1960s, a backdoor was being held open to the Irish by exempting them from all forms of immigration control (despite the fact they were neither citizens of the UK nor subjects of the Commonwealth).
We might view East Europeans then as the next generation of beneficiaries of racialised immigration preferences. Of course there’s no smoking gun in the current case (as there was back in the days of Irish migration). Now immigration policy is carefully layered with anti-discrimination laws that are explicitly intended to correct for possible racist biases. But this new approach to migration makes no mention of the ‘race’ of the migrants because it doesn’t have to: by favouring migrants from the EU, immigration policy implicitly favours white migrants; those who are by extension unfavourable are non-white.
Whilst migration now as before is managed to maximise economic benefits, it’s done in a way that seeks to minimise social disturbances. As spelled out by the Home Office in 2005, ‘migrants must be as economically active as possible; put as little burden on the state as possible; and be as socially integrated as possible.’ The correlation of the A8 migrants’ economic desirability with their European and racial affinities suggests that the logic of racism that was explicit in immigration policy in the past continues to inform current policy as well, albeit in subtler forms. This isn’t to say that the architects of today’s policies are racist. These East Europeans have been identified as neither desirable nor undesirable with reference to their ‘race’. But institutional routines in the governing and administrative bodies that set and enforce immigration policy are making choices that at least implicitly reproduce these same colour-based logics of old.
In some sense then, these East Europeans may have benefitted from policies that favoured them for a combination of explicit economic rationales and implicit racialised preferences. But immigration policy is not the only source of racialisation. In our research we also examined the role of the tabloid media in proffering racialised interpretations of East Europeans. Here a different story emerges. If immigration policy favoured these migrants, the tabloids have been considerably less sympathetic to them. Some of that antipathy has had racialised undertones.
This is of course familiar ground for the tabloids. East European migration to the UK might be a recent phenomenon, but it is only a variation on a much older migration theme, one that has been a favourite whipping post of the tabloids. The tabloids have thus been able to draw on various plotlines from previous migrations to frame their coverage of the current migration. Recycled references to ‘floods’, ‘invasions’, and ‘hordes’ act as linchpins to past migrations: they evoke racialised understandings of migration by juxtaposing past migrations against their current versions. They also remind the British public that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now as before, the tabloids present immigration as a problem. They oftent don’t stop at criticising immigration policy, it impugns the integrity of the migrants themselves. Repeated associations of East European migrants with crime, benefit shopping, and a host of other unsavoury activities, particularly when those activities are sensational, portrays these migrants not as upstanding workers trying to eke out a living but as dangerous social parasites preying on their well-meaning hosts. Racialisation occurs when those migrants are collectively disparaged with reference to a combination of cultural, social, and/or biological traits. Here again we don’t find the crude racism of epithets, slurs, and insults; rather, racialisation gets packaged as innuendo and inference.
The sort of racialisation found in the tabloids does not rely on somatic differences but instead invokes and valorises various cultural and social attributes of the migrants. This is a kind of cultural racism: criminal tendencies, uncivilised behaviour, and moral deficiencies are indiscriminately imputed to the migrants. Though even though cultural racism doesn’t make explicit reference to somatic differences it can still contribute to its reproduction. Ideas like ‘the west’, Europe and modernity that are conveyed through these associations all carry unambiguous colour connotations. Those to whom membership is bestowed in these categories are lightened and those to whom membership is denied are darkened.
Our focus on immigration policy and the tabloid media has thus uncovered distinctive though ultimately complementary forms of racialisation. In current immigration policy, assumptions about shared whiteness operate as implicit criteria for racialised inclusion: East Europeans are desirable because they conform to racialised understandings of what it means to be European. In contrast, the tabloids have consistently if unevenly resorted to racialised framings in their reporting on these current migrations. However, for the tabloids it is not shared whiteness operating as a basis of inclusion, but rather cultural difference operating as a criterion for exclusion. Our analysis shows how these distinctive logics of colour and culture combine to produce complementary effects: the dissemination and legitimation of public discourses on racialised difference.
This article first appeared on the LSE’s British Policy and Politics blog.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Jon Fox – University of Bristol
Jon Fox is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology, at the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, at the University of Bristol. His main areas of research are in nationalism, ethnicity, and international migration. His research to date has examined these issues around questions of nationalism and ethnic return migration in Hungary, Romania, and the UK. He recently completed an ESRC funded project on the racialisation of East European migration to the UK entitled ‘Hungarian and Romanian migrant workers in the UK: Racism without racial difference?’.
Yes, there is racism towards newcomers regardless of racial difference. It needed saying, and it needs repeating, but it’s no surprise. To generalise, as a nation we are nasty. We are unkind.
I agree that Eastern Europeans generally do experience a great deal of racism here in the UK, and this is not acceptable. However what seems to be ignored is the widespread racism displayed by many Eastern Europeans towards Black people and other people of colour. As someone who has personally experienced a great deal of this, it makes it very difficult to feel much sympathy for Eastern Europeans who are having their lives blighted by racism. If you know how awful it feels to be treated in a racist manner, then surely you should not act in that way towards anyone else?
There are clearly important lessons to be learned on all sides, but whilst so many Eastern Europeans within the UK retain their own racist beliefs and continue their racist behaviour, any complaints about the racism they are experiencing do not have the same impact.
So what is your point Stephie? Are you saying that, because a male has raped a female we all should ignore complaints of any male that got raped/by other male/? Or should we not feel syphathy for wounded soldiers, because they have killed? Why do we have to generalisate? Do we have to name all Eastern-Europeans rasist based on YOUR experience? How many nations are labeled Eastern-European?! Do you know that? Poland,Slovakia,Slovenia,Latvia,Lithuania,Estonia,Hungaria,Czech republic, Bulgaria and Romania! So which Eastern-Europeans did you have in mind? Should an American call all British people Nazi because he met a guy from Europe named Adolph? Well England – Germany – you know all West Europe. So thank you for your hidden racism- no matter what reason you are putting behind it! I don’t care what your views are, but all this ‘It is their fault’…’They started first’…….. !!!
If you have been a victim of racism you would know the sting else I would keep your holier than thou attitude to yourselves. I agree with Steph, the Eastern Europeans are reaping what they sow.
Reaping what they sow? That’s funny, I don’t remember them being involved in the slave trade nor going into colonial conquests like the British.
A minority of East Europeans might be openly racism, but let’s face it, at least they are saying honeslty what the majority of British keep inside themselves.
Maybe there are but I have not heard of any eastern European racially murdered in the UK but in eastern European countries including Russia, black people are randomly murdered on the streets in broad daylight and view of public and police – many of these incident do not make the global news and a silent genocide is happening in many Eastern European countries.
There was also incidents of Eastern European migrants in the UK expressing 1950s style racism against blacks and Asians. The EU, UN and other bodies have a long list of violent racism in and among Eastern Europeans anywhere you find them.
On numerous occasions to Eastern Europe the treatment of black EU citizens by KGB style immigration officers is appalling.
Eastern European perpetration of racism is nothing compared to what they experience in the UK.
I strongly suggest you get familiar with geography of Europe. For you, for example Czech Republic or Poland is Eastern Europe? Please keep your vile ignorant comment to yourself and stop embarrassing you country fellows. Such atrocities are VERY UNLIKELY to happen in any of EU countries and are highly condemned.
Academics are almost invariably of the a-priory opinion that nation-states must open their borders to all who wish to enter.Perhaps some academic could make a study of this strange phenomenon.Many,if not most countries in the world have visa requirements and limits on length of stay,extra hurdles to be overcome and conditions to be met if foreigners wish to do business,work or buy real estate in a country of which they are not a citizen.Households of smaller size have even more strict controls in place to limit the influence of those not part of the household,limit the number and the demands made upon the resources available to the household.Businesses and corporations have even more strict entry requirements and limits on who may work there,draw benefits,receive wages,etc.The globalisation push by transnational corporations is almost certain party to the blanket assumption that the resources of the nation-states are there to be plundered at will by all comers.There has been and is without a doubt a concerted effort on the part of the corporates,academics in sympathy and many on the Left to destroy the nation-state and democracy with it.The nation-state can be plundered and loaded with debt,which is what has been happening.There is a highly motivated group of people doing just that,for the money,for the power,for the fun of it,too,perhaps.Democracy is an obstacle to these designs.People must be disenfranchised,dis-empowered,in order that the nation-states can be destroyed and the people shouldered with the debt incurred by corrupt politicians,bureaucrats and the corporates who orchestrate this massive fraud.So the incumbents discriminate against newcomers.Is this a subject worthy of a study financed by the taxpayer(directly or otherwise)?These things are reported in the press.We know about it also from experience.The blog reads as if people have no right to discriminate.The people in the West have been foisted with a plethora of politically correct laws to follow and transgress as they see fit.The people are found by academics and a crowd of gravy train riders and political opportunists to be wanting.The people will not perform according to the political correctness demanded of them by the experts.Give it some more time,the people in the West will surprise the academics demanding political correctness and studying political waywardness even more.Sociology as part of the humanities has long been a political tool with a barely concealed agenda.It used to be the Left who had the running of this kind of un-academic endeavour.Well,the neo-liberals so-called,the corporate globalisers,have long ago taken over.The Left has simply merged in with this crowd,haveing been bought and brought onboard the globalising corporate gravy train,behind the gunboat diplomacy steamroller.