The Political Economy Of Racism

“Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” ― Audre Lorde

In the opening speech at the congress 15 jaar Algemene wet gelijke behandeling Gelijke behandeling, de realiteit: Dilemma’s, verlegenheden en kansen Laurien Koster remarked that, “The impact of discrimination is severe: less profitable results when women are underrepresented in [your] company’s workforce. Discrimination and harassment lead to reduced efficiency and attention span in the workplace.” (my translation)

The impact of employment discrimination is often expressed in capitalist terms that reflect corporate interests, i.e. loss of profit, less innovation and diminished overall results. Quite often the implementation of a rigorous diversity policy is offered as a counter to these adverse economic effects. Diversity, so it goes, is good for business. However, many advocates of diversity within the Netherlands fail to think critically about the material and cultural conditions in which diversity policies are produced, circulated, interpreted, and enacted. Who sets the agenda, and what are the consequences? Who eventually benefits, and who loses from diversity policies?

As shockingly as it may sound, corporations are not the only ones being negatively affected. Minority workers, too, face significant adverse effects, such as “inequity in the distribution of income and wealth,” unequal pay, poor employment prospects, which may include less training, job insecurity, and lead to fewer promotions. The inattention to how these negative ramifications, and an entrenched “ethnic ranking system,” converge to create labour market hierarchies, and pockets of disenfranchised groups, leaves the structures of institutional racism, and White Autochtoon Dutch privilege all but invisible. Clearly, White Autochtoon Dutch privilege puts White Autochtoon Dutch folks at a competitive and comparative advantage.

National labour markets are never, as Michael McDonell insightfully remarks, strictly “economic.” The labour market is continuously “mediated by other institutions such as the family and school-system,” which, as he notes, “tend to favour established citizens and second-generation immigrants,” that is those who are integrated, who belong, and, who, most significantly, are White. Diversity within such a stratified White-centred neoliberal capitalist market does little to dismantle institutional racism.

What’s more, capitalism as a mode of production is premised on racialized, colonial economic hierarchies. As such, it  inherently reproduces racial economic inequality. Historically, Black leaders have acknowledged this and challenged capitalism specifically for this reason—employment discrimination only further intensifies the structural inequalities of capitalism. To echo Audre Lorde, capitalism is based on the free (cheap) labour of a racialized underclass of non-citizens (or non-humans), and needs them as “surplus people.”

Institutional diversity as a strategic advantage, then, places even greater significance on the economic dimension of the raced body. Diversity is, as Sara Ahmed notes, often centred on “getting more of us, more people of colour, to add colour to the white faces of organisations.” We become useful at the point where our racialized experience, the politics of neoliberal “equality,” and corporate interests meet. However, if both capitalism and diversity rely on the usefulness of the bodies of racialized Others (racial capitalism), then it becomes imperative we look critically at the work raced bodies perform, both physically and ideologically, in a neoliberal capitalist society.

‘Had jij je nu ook maar met Dobbelman's karnemelkzeep gewasschen?’ (1910) Collectienr. 1766
‘Had jij je nu ook maar met Dobbelman’s karnemelkzeep gewasschen?’ (1910) Collectienr. 1766
Albert Hein-reclame met Donald Jones voor koffie (roodmerk, goudmerk, paarsmerk, groenmerk). Jaren vijftig
Albert Hein-reclame met Donald Jones voor koffie (roodmerk, goudmerk, paarsmerk, groenmerk). Jaren vijftig

We need to examine which experiences are chosen, as Carole McGranahan writes in Narrative Dispossession: Tibet and the Gendered Logics of Historical Possibility “to circulate as representative.” She points out that these experiences are not chosen randomly, “but [instead] tend to be those that validate existing power structures as a condition of their existence.” Both the transmutation of experience into vignettes and the social recognition of biographical narratives engender, at once, dispossession and possession. As avatars of diversity not only have our bodies become politicized, but also our biographies. Our personal histories are ours—and yet not. As embodiments of corporate diversity, our experiences become subsumed into the image of the “diverse, equal-opportunity” business.

Our biographies, the valuation of human capital, the formulation of indices of risk and undesirability, and the promotion of “social responsibility” of incoming migrants have all acquired, in the political economy of racism, a racial tinge.

Let’s Do Diversity, Y’all

What does diversity look like in a so-called post-multicultural society? What kind of diversity is desired? Which bodies are “useful”? How do bodily mobility, the flow of capital, migration, notions of “useful” bodies, and the discursive construction of raced bodies, intersect?

Is this the Face of diversity?
Is this the Face of diversity?

Curiously, the original text in Dutch “Ik lust ze rauw” (I’ll eat them raw) has been translated as “raw deal,” i.e. unfair treatment. Freudian slip much?

The Council for Social Development (CSD) advocated in a recent advisory report that immigration policy has to be tailored in order to meet the (future) needs of the labour market. Mobility in an open society contributes, according to the CSD, “to prosperity and welfare development for individuals and for society as a whole.” Mobility is, however, simultaneously stimulated and constrained. In the same report the CSD also proposes a “sharper selection of migrants.” Paul Frissen and Albertine van Diepen, both contributors to the report, suggest we have to ask “what migrants the Netherlands will require in the future, and establish how [we] can ensure that these migrants are successful.” (my translation)

Currently, economic participation is generally regarded as the most significant sign of successful integration. If you cannot, as it goes, contribute economically you are deemed “useless,” and a threat to “our way of life.” From the report,

“The open and positive attitude towards migrants, which is aimed at maintaining prosperity and welfare in the Netherlands, must not result in a large and disproportionate reliance on welfare so as to undermine the welfare state, both financially and in normative terms.”— Migratiepolitiek voor een Open Samenleving (Migration Politics for a Welcoming Society)

“Immigrants are an asset to The Hague when they are economically independent and socially active.” —Municipality of The Hague in Different Pasts, One Future 

As Richard Alba remarked in a speech given at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam last year, the main purpose of policy is “the promotion of mobility in which the progress of [young migrants] is not at the expense of the [native Dutch].” Our movement on the social ladder is tolerated only insofar we don’t undermine the position of the White Autochtoon Dutch. Such policy is simply aimed at protecting the ordinary, which is, as Sara Ahmed contends, “already [her italics] under threat by the imagined others whose proximity becomes a crime against person as well as place.”

Goed volk is niet snel bang
Good folk are not easily afraid.

Ronen Shamir posits, along similar lines, that the primary driving force behind the administration of contemporary mobility is “a “paradigm of suspicion” that conflates the perceived threats of crime, immigration, and terrorism.” In the Netherlands immigration, and the proximity of imagined Others, have become metonyms for a nebulous threat, which materializes in the discourse of unemployment, violence, crime, insecurity, human trafficking, and drug use and smuggling.

The Dutch government is continuously planning for the security and well-being for its citizens in order to keep these threats at bay. Such vigilance requires a comprehensive “integrated risk management” programme. Integrated Risk Management is premised on the idea “that security partners working together can most effectively manage risk.” The nebulous nature of the “threat to the object of love,” i.e. “our way of life,” requires “coordination among many different emergency management, law enforcement, private and non-profit organizations, and State.”

Shamir asserts that the technology of control that enables this type of risk management is biosocial profiling. That is, the mobility of transnational migrants is criminalized, and regulated, based on identity markers. Biosocial profiling constitutes, as Shamir notes, “an emergent technology of social intervention that objectifies whole strata of people by assigning them into suspect categories, thereby enabling the paradigm of suspicion to be translated into elaborated practices of containment.” Read as undesirable certain bodies are, thus, subjected to detainment, arrest, or deportation. In order to predict behaviour and control mobility biosocial profiling situates subjects in “categories of risk.”

What’s more, the social construction of “target populations” has, as Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram argue, “a powerful influence on public officials and shapes both the policy agenda and the actual design of policy.” How does biosocial profiling affect diversity policies?

“That’s Not How We Do Things Around Here!”

No! Amy

The perceived risk racialized bodies pose, coupled with an emphasis on the usefulness of racialized bodies, reinvigorates an archive of colonialist constructions of the racialized body as uncivilized, a “threat,” and a justified object for classification, examination, and control. The construction of  the uncivilized, racialized body has, as Roxanne Lynn Doty writes, “centered on the body and its usefulness, on overcoming idleness, not on the intellect.”

The polemical focus on the social activation of “idle bodies” is indicative of the emphasis that is placed on a doing instead of a being in the Dutch imagination. Phrases such as “doe maar gewoon” and “doe normaal” demonstrate that the normative is established, as Susan Bordo argues, “through seemingly trivial routines, rules, and practices.” And it is through behaviour that “culture is “made body,” […] converted into automatic, habitual activity.”

If our bodies function, as Susan Bordo asserts, as “a metaphor for culture,” then in contemporary society (in which multiculturalism has been pronounced dead) our raced bodies have become emblems of cultures that have to be regulated, disciplined and controlled. Raced bodies, as well as racialized cultures, then, are founded through a set of restrictions that reduce the social to the biological. Embodied diversity, though potentially enriching, is concurrently positioned as threatening to the established order, and in need of disciplining. How do the government and policymakers reconcile these two seemingly conflicting viewpoints?

Cultural Otherness is disciplined primarily through the production of knowledge about the Other, which, at once, serves to define and reify “Dutch culture.” Knowledge is in “knowledge societies,” as Jean-François Lyotard identified, the principle force of production. The production of knowledge is, to quote Maurizio Lazzarato, immaterial labour, and the “immaterial workers,” i.e. the producers of knowledge, “are primarily producers of subjectivity.” Knowledge, then, isn’t solely something that people “have” it is also something that produces people, or target populations. Different kinds of knowledge produce different kinds of people. One can reasonably argue that raced bodies consistently owe their discursive construction to attempts to resolve anxieties concerning the economic rule of (human) capital.

In a country like the Netherlands, which boasts a knowledge economy—a system of consumption and production premised on intellectual capital—and depends on information to manage and control racialized bodies, it is imperative to ask who the “knowledge brokers” are. Moreover, we need to look closely at how the politics of knowledge production relates to the politics of citation in Dutch institutions of higher learning, which have traditionally privileged the academic perspectives of White able-bodied cisgender upper-class Autochtoon Dutch men—both through overtly and covertly racist, ableist, gendered, and classed policies, and a mono-cultural social structure.

On academic researchers and experts publish all sorts of articles on social issues and engage each other in debates. Here’s an overview of the appointed “pillars of societal debates.”

Dragers van het maatschappelijke debat
So much for diversity…

The overwhelming Whiteness and maleness is hard to dismiss. The Whiteness of “Sociale Vraagstukken” (Social Issues) typifies the structural inequality within Dutch academia, which is amplified by the structural inequality within Dutch media, which resounds the structural inequality of income and the educational system in the Netherlands. Social relationships in neoliberal market-driven capitalist societies are defined by relations of power, that shape bodies, and assign them to certain spaces. These relations of power go beyond formal exclusions.

Velvet-gloved racism is diffused, and sophisticated. It is supported by vested interests, and often operates under the cloak of “compassion” and “fairness” and “inclusivity” and “opportunity” and “diversity.” When we look closely at the distribution of wealth, at who are spearheading debates in immigration, at who is included, treated fairly, offered an opportunity, however, we find a society wherein people of colour are hit the hardest by the financial crisis, wherein White Autochtoon Dutch people define what is racist, wherein students of colour are predominantly put on vocational tracks through racial tracking, wherein racial steering and linguistic profiling are the order of the day, wherein “idle” racialized bodies are “doing” something that causes nuisance—a society, in which discrimination on the labour market persists notwithstanding the presumed benefits of “diversity.”

Should we be pessimistic in the face of persistent discrimination, or nurture hope?  Yes, and no. Neither, and both. We should adopt, to reference Gayatri Spivak, a “practical politics of the open end,” which is neither pessimistic, nor idealistic. It is the daily resistance against the ordinary. We need to turn these exploitative neo-colonial racial capitalist strategies, which come under the guise of benevolent promises of inclusivity, on their heads, and resist the institutional performance of “diversity.”


5 thoughts on “The Political Economy Of Racism

  1. Masha danki! Aki na Hulanda nan ta gusta mustra dede; ami ta simplemente laga nan wak nan mes den spiel.

  2. You can call race a social construct or system etc.( yes all terms are subjective) but then you have to call species social constructs too because mixed race couples get the most still births, espacially multi generation mixed( african americans 440% the white rate) this means we are closer to being differnt species then to being the same race so the different race is a construct thing.

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