In his short time in office, President Trump has signed an order to construct his long-promised border wall with Mexico, and another which would stop refugees from entering the US and placed a 90-day ban on immigrants from seven Muslim countries. Eric Kaufmann writes that Trump’s Muslim ban classifies as ‘racist’ as it is based on an irrational fear of Muslims, but the Wall is not, as it normal for states to wish to control their borders. It is important, he argues, that we should not apply the label ‘racist’ indiscriminately, or it will become harder to spot real racism when it appears.
Trump’s wall is not racist, but his ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries is. It’s extremely important to make the distinction. At a time of rising polarization between liberals and conservatives, we need to guard a rational centre which condemns racism but doesn’t smear reasonable differences of opinion.
Donald Trump released two bombshells this week. First, he signed the order to construct a border wall with Mexico. Then he ordered a halt to the admission of Syrian refugees and a 90-day ban on immigrants from a series of Muslim countries. Both actions were condemned by progressives as racist, stoking a predictable counter-reaction from conservatives. But if we want to defend reason and liberal democracy, it’s important to reserve the racist charge only for clear violations. This won’t change Trump’s thinking, but it could draw moderate conservatives and liberals together. To do otherwise is to invite conservative resentment and a politics of unreason.
Few issues polarize like Trump’s Wall and Muslim immigration. Back in January, during the Republican primary, the American National Election Study (ANES) asked Americans whether they favoured Syrian refugees coming to the United States. This question split the Trumpians from other Republican and Democratic candidates better than any of the many questions in the survey. You can see the strength of the relationship in Figure 1, restricted to white Americans, which controls for a person’s state and whether they are a Republican, Democrat or Independent. Recall that this was a tight primary race with many competing Republican candidates. Even so, those most in favour of admitting Syrian refugees scored him 66 out of 100, and those most against only 5 out of 100.
Figure 1: Trump rating and opinions on Syrians by US whites
Source: 2016 American National Election Study pilot survey.
In addition, most liberals view both policies as racist. In December, after Trump’s election, I ran a small pilot survey on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform as part of a Birkbeck College-Policy Exchange project. I asked a sample of around 200 people what they consider racist or not. MTurk has a strong skew toward white liberals, but this shouldn’t affect comparisons between groups.
The first point is that whites and minorities largely agree on what is, and is not, racist. Look at the results by race in Figure 2. Notice how small the differences are between the white and minority responses (green and red bars). None of the gaps (in blue) are significantly different from chance, including views on whether the Wall is racist.
Figure 2: Which of the following do you consider racist? Whites v. Nonwhites (% saying ‘racist’)
Source: Amazon Mechanical Turk survey, Nov. 29. N=46-56 minorities, 119-139 whites. Excluding don’t knows.
Now let’s see what happens when we compare Trump and Clinton voters in Figure 3.
Figure 3: Which of the following do you consider racist? Trump v. Clinton voters (% saying ‘racist’)
Source: Amazon Mechanical Turk survey, Nov. 29. N=117-144. Excluding don’t knows. *Statistically significant at the p<.05 level; **p<.01; ***p<.001. N.S. – not significant.
All of a sudden, big, statistically-significant canyons open up. 72 percent of Clinton voters, but only 4 percent of Trump voters, think the Wall is racist. This is not just asking people whether they approve of the Wall or not, but concerns racism, one of the most serious accusations you can make in American society. In short, 72 percent of Clinton voters are accusing Wall supporters of racism. In a Birkbeck-YouGov-Policy Exchange follow-up survey of 2600 Americans, the same pattern of partisan divisions vastly exceeding racial ones emerged over whether it is racist rather than racially self-interested for whites to want less immigration. Jon Haidt notes that group loyalty is part of conservative, but not liberal, moral psychology – and Figures 2 and 3 clearly show that Trump and Clinton voters, regardless of race, divide sharply over whether favoring one’s group is racist. Who’s right?
Let’s begin with the Wall. I define racism as an irrational fear or hatred of another race, a sense of racial superiority or a desire to maintain race purity. By this yardstick, Trump’s comments suggesting Mexican immigrants are disproportionately rapists are racist. But while Trump’s comments are racist toward Mexicans, there are many reasonable motives for constructing a more extensive border wall. For instance, the head of the union representing US Border Patrol staff argues that this will greatly improve security. It’s normal for states to want to control their borders for a whole host of reasons, including sovereignty, security, economics and cultural demography. The US-Mexico border is the only part of the world where a first-world economy shares an extensive land border with the developing world. Europe, Britain and Australia are all insulated by moats which are much easier to control and harder to traverse. When people try to cross, they are easy to apprehend and send back to Turkey, Calais or Nauru.
Since 1970, millions have crossed the US-Mexico border in search of a better life. This is a major reason why a third of babies born in the US are now Hispanic, up from a few percent in 1970. Yet if Britain, where I live, or Canada, where I’m from, had hundreds of thousands entering illegally each year, there would be an outcry.
Mexico is now a middle-income country with a birth rate similar to America’s, so as many leave as enter the US. But migrants from Central America, Africa and Asia are replacing Mexicans in the flow across the border. Despite Trump’s racist statements about Mexicans, many who make the case for building or extending the Wall do so on the basis of legitimate motives, rational thought and evidence.
Banning Muslims from certain countries, or Syrian refugees, is an entirely different matter. This is racist because it’s based on an irrational fear of an ethno-cultural group. While Muslims are not an ethnic group, all but a few converts are Muslim because they were born into Muslim ethnic groups. Why is fear of Muslims irrational? I approach this like an insurance adjuster: is the risk of a Muslim immigrant harming an American appreciably higher than the risk of a non-Muslim immigrant doing so? There should be a presumption against discriminating against cultural groups, but this is not absolute. I have no problem excluding dangerous ones like ISIS or Aum Shinriko. On these grounds, Muslims simply don’t qualify.
Shias have never committed terrorism on western soil. A Sunni Muslim from a war-torn country is more likely to commit a terrorist act than a non-Muslim and less likely to kill someone driving drunk. On both counts, the difference is infinitesimal – nothing like the risk of admitting men between the ages of 18 and 30 into the US, who account for almost all violent crime. If people want complete security, then ban young men. Banning Muslims from war-torn countries is a disproportionate response, not based on rational calculation of risks, but on an irrational fear of a cultural group, which is racism.
Partisan lobbyists and the media will always make their case in a biased way. But when mainstream news outlets chastise conservative unreason while failing to criticize liberals who accuse Wall proponents of racism, they betray the cause of reason, and, by extension, a civilized centre ground. Taboos such as racism are meant to induce a gut, emotional response of disgust. This should be reserved for clear cases. As David Goodhart writes, when the racism label is applied indiscriminately, this de-sensitizes people to this charge. This permits real racism to be smuggled past conservatives who may once have resisted it.
It also creates resentment and polarization. Those who feel a wall is justified but are uneasy about Trump’s remarks about Mexicans are pushed into the hardline corner because there is no trusted centre to present a nuanced rather than tribal perspective.
Trump seamlessly intertwines racist policies such as banning Muslims from certain countries with legitimate conservative positions such as the Wall. His #NoWallNoBan adversaries label everything racist, bundling Trump’s disgusting and merely conservative policies together. Right-wing media respond accordingly, fueling the spiral of Us and Them. It’s time to elevate the discussion.
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Joe Piette (Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0)
Eric Kaufmann – Birkbeck College
Eric Kaufmann (@epkaufm) is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College and is writing a book about the White majority response to ethnic change in the West (Penguin).
Well, President Trump certainly has got the lefty liberals in a tizz and what a delight it is to watch, while they fall over themselves to denounce him in barely controlled hyperbole.
To read this article you would think that President Trump is somehow unique in what he says and what he is doing, there is no mention of the permanent blanket on Jewish people travelling to a number of countries, or the avowed intention by certain countries to wipe Israel and its people off the face of the world.
There is nothing racist about the temporary travel ban he has imposed and there is nothing racist about what he says or does.
The standard “but Muslim countries hate Israel/stone women so why can’t we be abhorrent too?” argument. Of course you don’t think Trump’s policies are objectionable. Your only intention seems to be to churn out boring, by the numbers, anti-immigration cliches. Trump could set up concentration camps for Muslims and you’d dance on the head of a pin to claim that it was perfectly justified. Maybe (for once) you could try taking a subject seriously and write something constructive instead of sending us all to sleep.
Muslims share a religion, not a race, and given that it concerns the citizens of certain countries irrespective of their religion, it isn’t a Muslim ban. Whilst the majority of citizens in the countries involved are the same race, they are not by any means the entirety of their race.
So it isn’t a Muslim ban and it isn’t racism.
How would you describe Obama’s ban of Iraqi refugees, that lasted twice as long as Trump’s 90 day ban?
As for this “Trump’s Muslim ban classifies as ‘racist’ as it is based on an irrational fear of Muslims” I really laughed. I think Eric Kaufmann needs to look up “irrational” in the dictionary!
“Muslims share a religion, not a race”
This particular line is one of the worst arguments anybody ever uses in these debates. You hear it constantly, endlessly going back and forth over what the word “racism” means rather than addressing the actual issue which is about discrimination. The author was wrong to use that word just because it would inevitably provoke this standard response.
Geert Wilders said the same thing in the Netherlands when he attacked Moroccans – he didn’t argue about whether he said it or actually discriminated against anyone, he just spent hours pedantically trying to argue that “Moroccans” aren’t a race, as if somehow discriminating against a group based on their nationality is perfectly fine so long as you can’t attach the word “racist” to it. If that’s really the best argument we can use to defend someone’s behavior then it speaks volumes.
Logical reasoning demonstrates that as all citizens of the specific countries are affected, and Muslims outside those countries are not affected, then Trump has been neither racist nor Islamophobic. If you really wanted to sling a word that could fit it would be “xenophobic”.
Given that the Intelligence Services know the areas of the World with the largest groupings of terroists, the decision to block certain countries can be justified as in the interests of National Security. Xenophobic, along with all the other labels slung about require irrational unjustifiable prejudice, which clearly isn’t the case here.
As for “Muslims share a religion, not a race” being the worst argument, it isn’t an argument, it’s a fact. The term that describes discrimination against Muslims that escaped you is Islamophobia.
Hi Matt, thanks for your response. What you’ve done here is ignore the point I actually made and continued to make the same argument you put forward in your initial comment. Nowhere in my post did I claim that the Muslim ban was “racist”. I’m fully aware that’s what you’re trying to argue against. You really don’t need to explain it to me twice, I’ve heard the particular line of argument you’re trying to use hundreds of times before.
What I actually said is that this entire debate is irrelevant and that the author was wrong to use that word simply because it would provoke the kind of standard response that you initially gave us. I don’t know why you’ve ignored everything in that comment and carried on regardless, but if we’re going to have a discussion based on logical reasoning then as a minimum you’re going to have to read the other person’s argument and respond to what they’ve actually said.
That is twice you’ve replied to me without answering the points I raised about what Obama did, why Trump is justified or why it isn’t necessarily an irrational to have a fear of Middle Eastern Muslims.
All you are focused on is looking for prejudice and making out I’m arguing a point I’m not.
Facts are exactly that
As for being repetitive, yes you have been!
I don’t think that we can call this Muslim ban a racist act.. Look at the countries who are concerned by this ban. One doesn’t need great political skills to discern that in all these countries (Syria, Iran; Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Sudan) the US had aggressive military Interventions whether be it directly by bombing or behind the scenes by drone strike attacks or supplying weapons (except Iran, but the reasons for banning people from this country are obvious). So I think US has many reasons to fear people from these countries.If it were a racist act why spare people from Marocco, Agypt, Tunesia (countries from which so many ISIS infiltrated “lone-wolf” terrorists come from), why spare Pakistan, Afghanistan, SAUDI ARABIA, QATAR (the greatest financial supporters of ISIS, Al-Qaida!! etc)? Why spare all the other Muslim countries from this ban? No, I don’t think it is a racist act (whether Trump is a racist in his thoughts, I would not say). It’s simply the logical consequence of US policy in these regions that you will find so many people in these countries who hate Americans.
“his ban on immigration from seven Muslim countries is (racist)”
1) Please quote the passage in the Executive Order that uses the word “Muslim”.
2) In any case “Muslim” is not “race”. One can choose whether to behave as a Muslim. One can do nothing about one’s race.
3) However, even if one objects on the grounds of religious discrimination, the Ban applies to 7 out of 40 (muslim) countries – so the criticism of weakens substantially.
4) Does the U.S. permit inward travel from all countries equally? No.
Canada, Mexico and Bermuda have special arrangements.
Visas are not required from Australia, New Zealand and most of the EU – but are from almost all other countries.
And what about travel from palces like North Korea?
Where are the protests about this uneqaul treatment?
5) Other countries have far less rational travel bans: e.g. “Arab” ban on Israelis or Israel stamped passports?
Street protest anyone ?
The article refers to “liberals” objecting to this Ban.
These people are hypocrites – and certainly not “liberal”.
When will Generation-E realise that they are not entitled to travel wherever they want, and to gag whoever they want?
Will they ever learn that democracy means accepting that you don’t always get what you vote for – because others may think differently?
Matt: I can see we’re getting nowhere with this. I responded to you with a very specific point about your argument on what the meaning of the word “racism” means. I was very clear in that comment that I wasn’t arguing I thought the Muslim ban was racist. In fact I’m genuinely mystified as to how anybody could read that comment and think that. But as is quite normal in these debates, you didn’t actually read my comment, you just attacked a straw man and continued to argue that the Muslim ban wasn’t racist regardless. This is quite common on the internet: people can’t properly defend their views so if you press them on a specific topic they just knuckle down and keep repeating the same standard lines they already know, even if it has nothing to do with the argument they’re supposedly disputing.
At no point did I mention Obama or your views on Muslims in the Middle East (topics that are of no interest to me in this case) I made a very specific point about a specific argument you raised. Your response has been inadequate and I can see all I’m going to get out of you from this point is a mundane name calling contest so I’ll take it that you can’t defend your opinion on a logical basis and leave it at that.