What is universal anti-racism good for?
By Houria Bouteldja and Sadri Khiari
As polls suggest a rapid rise of the National Front Party (awakening "the phantom of April 21"1), the anti-racist movement seems to have found a new vitality, as can be seen with the activism emerging from the organization Dailleurs, nous sommes d'ici[i]. We are sympathetic to the initiative, and certain PIR activists[ii] (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic[iii]) have participated in these actions. This openness however, does not preclude certain doubts and criticisms that we feel we need to express publicly. Beyond the transparency we owe to PIR allies on our political choices and commitments, the opportunities for discussion provided by D’ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici (meetings and e-mail lists) are clearly too limited for the questions we would like to address, questions we believe merit a broader debate among all those involved in the fight against racism. The observations we make with respect to D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici signal, beyond this particular group, recurring features of the anti-racist movement that we must question critically—especially as it still seems possible to shift away from the approach of SOS-Racisme[iv].
These are a few of the concerns that motivated us to write the following lines and propose them for debate.
Universal Anti-racism and the Tropism of SOS-Racisme
You are no doubt familiar with the sunflower. In Arabic, it's called "the flower enamored with the sun", reflecting its irrepressible tendency to turn towards the sun. And although only the tail remains of the comet SOS-Racisme once was, it has become difficult to delink universal anti-racism from the model that SOS-Racisme presented of it for so long. A "don’t touch my pal[v]" kind of anti-racism; paternalist, moralizing, abstract, whose principal adversary is the extreme right, and still obstinately stuck to the coattails of the Socialist Party (PS).
D’ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici distances itself significantly on a number of points from SOS-Racisme, although we can point to a number of tendencies similar to both. SOS-Racisme didn’t hesitate to stand in for those most directly affected by racism (who are perceived as pure victims), which is certainly not the case with D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici. But is D’ailleurs actually immune to such an approach? It is a legitimate question, even if it’s easy to imagine that asking it might offend some activists.
Indeed, we have observed with apprehension the complacency that followed the May 28[vi] demonstrations, especially because, aside from the sans-papiers[vii] (forced to take advantage of any occasion to make their cause more visible), very few Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, and residents of low-income neighborhoods felt that these initiatives had anything to do with them—something altogether predictable given the composition of the collective. A report circulated on the Internet (see here) gives a surprising interpretation of the demonstration that took place in Paris. Organizers (anti-racist White activists) succeeded in making the White demonstrators invisible (to the delight of some, if the rumours are to be believed), showing almost exclusively sans-papiers and Tunisians arrived from Lampedusa. Why was reality distorted in this way? Was it to hide the failure of D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici to mobilize other indigenous groups aside from the sans-papiers? We would have to summarize the report by pointing out the apparent paradox in which indigenous people are used to mask the absence of indigenous people.
While we don’t equate the motivations of D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici with the manipulative electoral strategies of SOS-Racisme, we must mention that both movements aim to halt the influence of the most racist far right. They want to fight it on the electoral stage, joining forces with all those who claim to be on the left without taking into account the direct complicity of some (and especially the PS) in racist policies. The PS has not aligned itself with D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici, which doesn’t benefit from the media power of the social-liberal left the way SOS-Racisme did. As a result, D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici has a certain amount of political autonomy from PS strategies and calculations, an autonomy that is reinforced by the constituencies and individuals who founded it and who we know hold little affection for the social-liberal party. But how long will this last? Fault lines can already be detected that, if widened, could spell the end of such autonomy. One concrete example is the movement's reticence to explicitly denounce Islamophobia and combat Islamophobic laws (such as the veil or niqab law), for fear of drawing the ire of the Republican[viii] and secularist left. And it is not enough to make some links with Mamans, Toutes Égales[ix]. It is necessary to come out publicly in support of the struggle against Islamophobia in all its forms. Their reluctance on this point should give us pause. After all, where will such an approach take us in the coming months if polls confirm the rise of Marine Le Pen's electoral support?
The good conscience of the universal anti-racist movement
Several factors explain the enduring appeal of the SOS-Racisme model on the left, including the radical left. We will only mention one: most White anti-racist activists are convinced that racism is nothing more than an ideological throwback of the right alone and are reluctant to recognize that they themselves participate in institutional racism. They have little awareness of the material and symbolic privileges they enjoy as White people or of the social supremacy granted to them by racial inequality. They are therefore unable to distinguish their anti-racism from indigenous anti-racism, and unfortunately the mere mention of this difference is enough to anger them.
The deliberate ambiguity of the name itself, "D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici" [as a play on words in French][x], conceals the social hierarchy of Whites and indigenous people by assimilating them into an "us" belied by reality. Whether we like it or not, the fact of racial hierarchies implies there are different perspectives on the content and priorities of an anti-racism strategy. This is not meant to question the commitment of the movement’s initiators; it is even likely they chose the name because they wanted to align themselves in support of those who suffer racism on a daily basis. However, this very desire demonstrates their failure to understand the nature of the racial division that defines French society and the anti-racist movement itself. In fact, we use the expression universal anti-racism here precisely to avoid fruitless arguments, knowing the concept of White anti-racism is upsetting to many White anti-racists.
The overwhelming involvement of universal anti-racism in the cause of the sans-papiers illustrates the different approaches of the two anti-racisms—even though, once again, we are not contesting the importance of this issue, nor the sincerity of the motivations of those who devote a portion of their time to the defense of these immigrants denied all rights. But it is certainly worth examining the propensity of white anti-racists to mobilize easily, and often quickly, in support of the sans-papiers, while only a small minority mobilize around equally important anti-racist causes such as police brutality, Islamophobia, and racial inequality in housing and the workplace (among others)... Our hypothesis is that this tendency to give priority to the sans-papiers is due to their significant vulnerability and their need to find support wherever they can get it, despite the impulse for autonomy among some of their organizations. They have no other choice but to rely on the support of leftist organizations. The sans-papiers then corresponds to the tropism of SOS-Racisme: he is the ideal ally. Another explanation is that the sans-papiers are not Black, Arab, Muslim, Rom or Chinese; in the eyes of white anti-racists, their singular identity is sans-papiers. The sans-papiers are seen as rejects of liberal globalization. Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, and possibly soon Asians, who have their papers or are French, are rooted in and have more radical demands of a France they aren’t prepared to leave.
Can a unified anti-racism exist without excluding indigenous people?
The opposite of the sans-papiers is the one who calls himself a French Muslim. He has no friends. More than any other victim of racism, his very presence is divisive. More generally, the struggle against Islamophobia is divisive. We have seen this with the veil and other similar issues, and we see it each time the mainstream left tries to regroup. The first question put to the side is Islamophobia. Anti-racist convergences trip over this question. To avoid tensions within universal anti-racism, it is necessary to dodge an issue that interests a large number of indigenous people, and therefore to preclude their participation in the movement. One has to be blind not to see in this situation, which is paradoxical from the point of view of a coherent anti-racism, the reflection of a racial logic to which the anti-racist left is itself subject.
PIR has been criticized for lacking tactical flexibility, and even sectarianism, for refusing to make even the slightest concession on the issue of Islamophobia. However, putting aside Islamophobia – partially or fully, implicitly or explicitly, is not comparable to making compromises on a particular strategy or agreement in order to arrive at a unified platform. Islamophobia (and the laws that institutionalize it) constitutes one of the major expressions of institutional racism in France today, and to leave the question unresolved carries serious consequences. Indigenous people most affected by Islamophobia cannot see themselves in any anti-racist mobilization that does not take on this primary concern. Such a mobilization simply reproduces the logic of exclusion similar to the one under which Muslims live on a societal scale.
It is particularly strange that universal anti-racism appears unable to see the logic of exclusion to which it contributes. It has come to the point where it is reasonable to ask whether universal anti-racism is really interested, as it claims to be, in involving indigenous people into the movements that it animates or if it is actually content with a situation in which indigenous people do not exist other than as a defenseless, outside body, to be protected.
There is another glaring problem continually ignored by White anti-racists convinced that having strong anti-racist convictions is enough to eliminate the difference between them and indigenous people (or, in the worst-case scenario, any remaining differences of opinion will transform into a “concrete universalism” after a respectful democratic exchange that takes into account the plurality of experiences). The problem that we have identified many times since the Declaration of the Indigènes, is that in a common framework, whatever the will of one person or another, equality does not reign: those with political privilege in this situation are those who are racially privileged in society. We could fill pages and pages listing the many initiatives where this powerful logic has been reproduced. Let us not close our eyes and let us not seek to calm ourselves by invoking the "free choice of the individual", capable of hoisting itself up over social determinations. We, the indigenous, are very often authors of our own political dispossession when we accept the veiled admonitions of universal anti-racism without complaint, out of fear of not appearing sufficiently "civilized" or "progressive."
We don't have to be married to go to the movies together
Is it therefore necessary to seek a common strategic path for anti-racist action so single-mindedly? Does it not paralyze all of us or, worse, force Blacks, Arabs, and Muslims, as well as residents of low-income neighborhoods, to accept goals that they didn’t define themselves all the while preventing them from organizing together independently? Does it not make more sense to organize separately and come together from time to time to act, negotiate and debate? To this last question we respond, as you may suspect, positively: indigenous people must organize autonomously, while seeking out convergence when it is of common interest. And no one doubts that there are many common interests that unite those who suffer racism with the rest of the oppressed. The way to resist the tendency to reproduce racial hierarchies within the anti-racist movement is not to avoid all alliances but to ensure that Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, and residents of low-income neighborhoods are in the position to use their collective power to fight it. That is to say that they must be equipped with their own autonomous political spaces. Is this an act of sectarianism or rejection of all alliances? Obviously not! We therefore have to question the motivation behind such accusations, which have been proved untrue in the PIR's writings and practices.
The main raison d’être of universal anti-racism should be, on one hand, supporting the struggles and autonomous spaces that the indigenous carve out for themselves and, on the other hand, supporting the struggle against itself. To be clear: we will not fight a racism where the only adversaries are the Sarkozy-allied right and the extreme right given that one of the main pillars of racist politics is the PS and certain Islamophobic bands of the "left of the left". Transforming the relations of power requires profound transformation of the left itself, in addition to the mobilization and autonomous organizing of indigenous people. This is one of the tasks of sincere universal anti-racism: shaking up the left, denouncing it, requiring it to adopt an anti-racist approach to the point of risking splits, instead of looking for the lowest common "anti-racist" denominator to oppose Le Pen/Sarkozy. One must mobilize against these as well as the PS in order to force that set of forces that claims to be leftist to make anti-racist politics a priority.
"You are playing into the hands of the right. You don't know anything about political tactics". This is essentially what some will say to us, forgetting the politics of the PS government, supported and endorsed by its allies, forgetting as well the denials of these very same parties when they were the opposition and the racist practices of the majority of their elected officials. "Marine Le Pen will be worse", they'll say on the eve of the next presidential elections, and our White anti-racists will without a doubt unite behind the PS to make sure that the "lesser of two evils" wins. More serious than the short-term politics of desperation is the conviction among many people in the universal anti-racist movement that we are all in the same camp with the PS and that a rebuilding of the left must involve this party.
We have already given the PS a chance as the "lesser evil" and we do not want to repeat that mistake, thank you. We will not give in to such blackmail, which can now be detected in most recent anti-racist initiatives. We are convinced that an effective and reasonable anti-racist struggle requires that we stop being the captive electorate targeted by majority currents in the left. For us, the real test of their commitment to our struggle will be whether the universal anti-racist movements commit themselves to this refusal.
Working for a long-term anti-racist and decolonial majority
Some will see in this article a new provocation by the indigènes. It is no such thing. Our intent is not to blame anyone or doubt the sincerity of anyone’s commitments. The issues we are addressing do not have anything to do with particular individuals, whom we can respect, but rather the social and political logics in which they find themselves "trapped" like flies in honey, logics that they will not be able to counter if they refuse to recognize that honey is sticky! Our objective is to help get rid of some of the illusions encumbering the overly naive anti-racism of the White left in order to find the most effective way to fight the racist and repressive policies that threaten not only immigrant populations, but also the French victims of racism who live in low-income neighborhoods. In other words, we have chosen to put our opinions on the table, at the risk of causing hurt, in the hope of bringing about the conditions necessary to make real convergences of action possible and, over time, give birth to an anti-racist and decolonial political majority in France 12.
Houria Bouteldja and Sadri Khiari
Paris, June 10, 2011
Translation by Alex Cachinero-Gorman.
Edition by Karen Wirsig and Stefan Kipfer.
Original text in French available here.
1 April 21, 2002, a political earthquake in French history: far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of the presidential election by winning almost 17% of the vote, enough to knock out 14 other candidates, including the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, and thereby becoming the sole challenger to Mr Chirac, who won the election with 82,21% of the vote.
[i] TN: Dailleurs, nous sommes d'ici is an anti-racist collective born in France in January 2011 that aims to “make a call for national, unified mobilization against racism, against the government's immigration policies, and for normalization of the undocumented“.
[ii] TN: PIR, Party of the Indigenous of the Republic is, as defined by its spokesperson Houria Bouteldja, an anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist political party created in 2010. It was created in the wake of the anti-racist protest movement of the same name that appeared in France in 2005. The official website (in French) is available at http://www.indigenes-republique.fr.
[iii] TN: The term indigènes (indigenous) is used by the members of the PIR to define themselves in relation to French society, making a clear reference to its colonial history. The French empire used this term to refer to its colonial subjects in colonies across the world. It is worth mentioning that the movement known as "The Indigenous of the Republic" in France is comprised mainly of French youth of African, Arab, and Antillean origin, born and raised in France, living the experience of colonial racism and its concomitant marginalization and social exploitation.
[iv] TN: SOS-Racisme: French NGO founded in 1984 and very close to the French Socialist Party (PS)—in fact, some of the members of PS helped to found the organization. Official website (in French) is available at http://www.sos-racisme.org.
[v] "Don’t touch my pal" is the slogan of SOS-Racisme.
[vi] On May 28, 2011, a national demonstration against racism, immigration policies and for the regularization of undocumented migrants was organized by D'ailleurs, nous sommes d'ici.
[vii] TN: Literally, "without papers", referring to undocumented migrants.
[viii] "Republican" in the French context has nothing to do with the way it is understood in the American context or in other parts of the world. Republicanisme refers to people in France who hold on to the myth of equality in the French Republic. Republican ideologues support the French state's abstract notion of equality over more concrete and material versions of equality.
Communitariste has no equivalent in English. It is used by French "republican" ideologues as a pejorative term to accuse minorities who fight against discrimination of privileging their own "particularistic" interests over the interest of the French citizens and the French Republic at large. It is a term used to dismiss demands against discrimination by groups organized along racial, ethnic, sexual and/or gender lines. The meaning of the term would be equivalent as to be accused of "selfishness." When a group is accused of "communitarianisme" in France they are basically discredited and expelled from the public domain.
[ix] TN: The French collective MTE, Mamans Toutes Égales (Mothers, All Equal), fights the prohibition against mothers who wear the Islamic veil to pick up their kids from class. This collective questions the supposed parity between all mothers and denounces the situation of exclusion that they find themselves in. Official website can be seen at http://mamans-toutes-egales.tumblr.com/
[x] TN: The play on words is based on the use of the expression “D'ailleurs", which has a double meaning. On the one hand, it connotes something like “By the way", as one would say in a conversation to call attention to something, and other hand, it means “from a far away place". Thus, the phrase remains ambiguous because of the dual idea that it transmits: “By the way, we're from here" and its opposite, “We're from elsewhere, We're from here".
12 See “General principles of the PIR", available in French at <http://www.indigenes-republique.fr/article.php3 ?id_article = 738>. The Spanish translation can be seen at <http://www.decolonialtranslation.com/espanol/pirprincipiosEsp.html>. See also “The political objective of the PIR: a decolonial government", available in French at <http://www.indigenes-republique.fr/article.php3 ?id_article = 929>.