Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Migration: the make or break election topic across Europe

When an Italian citizen shouted ‘viva l Italia’ and emptied his pistol into a car of black migrants, nobody called it what it was: racism. 

Alessandra Sciurba Martina Tazzioli
28 February 2018

Massimiliano Giani/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

All over Europe migration has taken centre stage in national political campaigns. Austria, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK, just to mention some, are countries where national elections or referendums have been monopolised by a struggle over and against migrants. The racialised figure of the migrant is presented as an all-purpose potential threat in a time of economic crisis: the migrant as a job-stealer, the migrant as a parasite of the welfare state, the migrant as a rapist in waiting, the migrant as a hidden terrorist. In a nutshell, the migrant appears of paramount importance in European and national politics, even in countries where physical proximity with ‘migrants’ is not part of many citizens’ daily experience.

The recent event of an Italian white man who shot at a group of black people in the streets of Macerata, an Italian town located in a region historically governed by the centre-left wing, brings the often overshadowed question of racism to the forefront of the European discussion over the ‘migrant crisis’. As Nicholas De Genova has convincingly put it, “the putative ‘migrant crisis’ of Europe must be understood to be an historical moment of racial crisis”. Neofascist movements, which are gaining ground everywhere in Europe, profit from this racial crisis, while democratic political parties underestimate the risks of what is happening.

Indeed, they have helped bring the situation to the point where it is now. They went on for years legitimating the rhetorical link between migration and insecurity, apparently convinced of their ability to maintain control of the field while renouncing many fundamental principles of human rights. The (now acting) German chancellor Angela Merkel and former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, for example, both accelerated the processes now running out of control by promoting agreements with countries such as Turkey and Libya. In turn, anti-racist movements and critical scholars alike have not been able to find a language powerful enough to re-focus the debate squarely on the question of racism in postcolonial Europe.

Where is (anti)-racism in the debate over migrants?

The shooting in Macerata serves as a good entry point for looking at the broader European political trend of racialising migrants. Let’s briefly recall what happened: on 4 February 2018, one month before the next national elections in Italy, an Italian citizen shot at 11 black persons in a car, seriously injuring six of them, while shouting “viva l Italia” (“long live Italy”). He was later arrested, draped in the Italian flag, in front of a monument commemorating people who had died for the homeland. He justified his actions as retribution for the killing of an Italian girl by a Nigerian drug dealer who mutilated her body after killing her.

The exclusive focus on migration as a problem and threat has overtaken and replaced the debate on how European citizens handle racism.

The racially-motivated attack in Macerata has received a troubling amount of support on social media, where the perpetrator has been depicted by some as a hero who did what many seemingly would have liked to do. The minister of the interior Marco Minniti chose to criticise the vigilante nature of the attack – a critique of the method more than the merit – and by omission corroborated the idea that a crime committed by a migrant legitimates the view that all migrants (all non-white persons) are potential threats. Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, promised the expulsion of 600,000 irregular migrants from Italian territory, and the far-right party Northern League gained points in the electoral polls. No debate has been raised about the meaning of the racist attack, and instead both media and politicians have sought to portray it as an unfortunate and disproportionate but ultimately understandable reaction to the insecurity brought about by migration to Europe. In turn, national authorities evoked the necessity to ‘calm down’.

The shooting in Macerata furthermore demonstrates yet again that only some victims of attack in Europe are deemed worthy of grief. In contrast to high-profile attacks on white citizens in the rest of Europe, which have prompted leading politicians to mourn publicly, the six black persons injured in Macerata did not receive, at least in the immediate aftermath, any media attention. 

To our eyes, the exclusive focus on migration as a problem and threat has overtaken and replaced the debate on how European citizens handle racism – the question at the very core of the Macerata event and of other violent attacks against non-white persons labelled as ‘migrants’. In other words, the focus on migration in current electoral politics elides the racial question: in the street of Macerata, eleven black persons were shot at by an Italian citizen. Were ‘migrants’ actually the point of the attempted murder? And if so, what, in this case, does ‘migrant’ actually mean?

New fascisms and the prevalence of irrationality

The troubling rise of new fascist movements has, as before, taken rationality hostage and allowed for collective acts of dehumanisation to take place. As Hanna Arendt wrote about Europe between the two wars, political disintegration manifests itself in a “vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything” that turns “in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably”. This time the wave of racism sweeping across Europe was all too predictable, unfortunately, yet it was largely ignored over the last years even on the Left.

The instrumental use of migration for electoral or geopolitical aims has paved the way for new forms of racism to develop around migrants. The debate that started with hosting ‘genuine’ refugees and deporting ‘economic migrants’ has slowly slipped into the common refrains of ‘security first’ and ‘we cannot accept all the desperate people in the world’.

Step by step, we have now reached the point that grounded knowledge is no longer requested in the discussion over migrants.

Step by step, we have now reached the point that grounded knowledge is no longer requested in the discussion over migrants. No quantitative data. No statistics. No balances between costs and benefit. No empirical evidence derived from interactions with migrants. Instead, anti-migrant rhetoric is predicated upon economic or securitarian ‘considerations’ that amount to little more than a pile of stereotypes and clichés, yet which are finding ever greater purchase in political discourse. All fascisms are grounded on the production of unequivocal and indisputable ‘truths’, and the instant that these truths gain enough legitimacy to make democrats retreat the battle is probably lost; when racism finally emerges as a public reason to act it is probably already too late to reverse the process.

Re-opening political spaces to put a questioning of racism at the centre

The phenomenon of racist acts against ‘migrants’ taking place in a context where racism is not discussed makes it difficult to move beyond mere denunciations of anti-immigrant raids and to propose anti-racist policies that delink migration from security. The effective elision of an interrogation on racism, we suggest, is what historically has also been at stake in the European Left; the question of class has always been elaborated in partial disjunction from the question of racism. Far from withdrawing from the national and European political scene, in this very moment we should be planning to re-occupy and reinvent political spaces in order to bring the racial question back into the foreground.

There are some signs this is happening. One week after the attack, about 30,000 people marched in the street of Macerata – despite attempts by the government to prevent the demonstration – claiming anti-racism as an inalienable principle of the Italian society. It was a heartening sight, in part because finally their slogans targeted the real problem: the rise of racism and neofascism spreading across Europe.

In the face of rampant fake news we need a politics of knowledge that pits substantiated numbers against imaginary numbers, ‘fake’ news against ‘true’ news. But it is not enough, in particular in a moment when the ‘perception of insecurity’ is so high among so many. In order to re-open political spaces of critical intervention, we need to engage in collective projects for reconstructing a narrative on racism and migration in which numbers will eventually take part.

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