The U.S. is currently in a new era of racial debate, in which xenophobia and fear of outsiders is having a clear moment. The rhetoric of presidential candidate Donald Trump — calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants, for example, or suggesting that the typical Mexican immigrant is a criminal — is only a symptom of this fact.
This is according to Washington State University professor Richard King, who has focused much of his studies on race relations in America’s post-Civil Rights era. Last week King was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the effects of xenophobia in Austria, and to teach university classes about American racial politics.
In Europe, hate speech laws set up to guard against overt racism are failing in the face of new populist, xenophobic political movements. But he argues the same thing is happening in the United States, where unspoken codes of civility have mostly kept strident racism out of mainstream American political conversation for decades.
“I think the election of Barack Obama has facilitated people talking about race,” says King, “in more diverse and more extreme ways than would be the case if we had a white president for the last eight years.”
In some ways, King sees this as positive. Many of his students have “never gotten the opportunity to be in a space” where they could talk about these sorts of issues. “Those who do get that opportunity often have to wait until they’re 18 or 20 years old,” he says, “and by then they’ve developed habits of thought, and certain explanations, that are hard to go against.”
But King observes that participants on all sides of conversations about race “tend to see each other as problems or obstacles, or people who need to be changed.
“We’re in a moment of outrage,” he says. “We rarely have instances in which people contemplate what others are saying. We’re in a reactive kind of space.”
Few issues under discussion provoke negative emotion like issues of immigration. As in the U.S., the issue of immigration has brought racial hostility to new level in Europe. This is particularly true for hostility against Muslims, who constitute a large percentage of European immigrants, and a small but highly politicized segment of U.S. immigrants.
In both the U.S. and Austria, xenophobia has risen hand in hand with a resurgence of political populism. But King argues that the former doesn’t always have to go with the latter, as it has in what he calls the “Trump moment.” In fact, he claims, there was a 10-year period during and after the Civil Rights movement when populists united around a shared idea of how to fight racism.
Populism “is activated by particular kinds of binaries about us vs. them,” King says, “and being part of the ‘us’ is very important for the kind of energy and emotion that keeps the movement going forward. Why is xenophobia the glue or spark that makes [Trump’s] movement meaningful? Why isn’t it good education for their kids, or healthcare? Why is it that division can be so much more powerful as a political tool as opposed to unification around a shared need?”
In Austria, a ruling coalition that was stable for half a century is also being threatened by a surging “right-wing, populist, anti-immigrant party,” as King puts it. “The sense of a ‘we,’ an ‘us,’ is being congealed around xenophobia.”
When the professor travels to Austria a year from now, debates about race in both America and Europe will have changed dramatically. King will likely be a person of interest to Austrian students grappling with new questions about nationalism and diversity — all the more so since, as King recalls from early days teaching in Germany, these students often look to the U.S. as a reference point for racism.
“I asked my students in Europe, ‘Where’s racism at?’ And they said, ‘The U.S.’ Then I asked students in the U.S., what does racism look like? They say ‘Nazis.’
“Racism is never you. It’s always someplace else — which is fascinating.”