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Racism is more than ignorance

Last update - Monday, July 15, 2013, 16:36 By Ronit Lentin

Racism is in the news again in Ireland. Not only has the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) uncovered a high incidence of discrimination against migrants and people of colour, perhaps more importantly it was highlighted by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter in his speech welcoming new citizens in the capital last week. 

“The history of this State is now your history and the narrative of your life is now part of our history,” he said to his delighted audience – and it made me wonder how a person can acquire another people’s history.

Racism, according to the minister, is defined by “attitudes based on hatred and ignorance” that “have no place in our society”, rather than a system of categorisation and discrimination. As the seasoned politician he is, Minister Shatter told his captive audience – some of whom, according to The Irish Times, shouted with joy at their newly bestowed citizenship, the cost of which is the highest in the western world – about his work on a European level to highlight and combat racism. He did this, he said, “because failure to live up to the values of the EU in one part of Europe is something that affects all of us”. As if Fortress Europe itself is not based on systemic racism.

The minister further assured his audience that the Garda and the section in his department in charge of the promotion of migrant integration are keen to assist anyone who experiences racism and invited them as “new Irish citizens, whose personal knowledge and experience would be of great value to us as we consider what further action we could take to address this very important issue”, to write to him with their views and suggestions.

While I welcome Minister Shatter’s accelerating and improving the process of gaining citizenship in Ireland, his speech – though seemingly tackling racism head on – failed to address several crucial points. The first important point is that racism is never only about individual prejudice or attacks, and always part of the political system which, in differentiating between citizen and non-citizen, racialises as it grants the favour of citizenship to these who have ‘earned’ it (and who can pay). 

The main perpetrator of racism is the State – a State which, in 2004, abolished the right of people born in Ireland to migrant parents to access jus soli citizenship. A State that keeps thousands of asylum seekers for years in direct provision holding camp and in legal limbo is a racial state. Most surveys of racism in Ireland list state agents such as the Garda, immigration officers and the education and health systems as acting in a racist manner.

The second and more specific issue the minister glossed over is the failure of his Government to review the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act, which has proven to be unworkable. That’s interesting, as I remember Deputy Alan Shatter telling me at the time of the enactment of the act that it would not work. That was 24 years ago.

The media coverage of the ESRI study stressed the effects of the recession on increasing racism. Indeed, job losses and unemployment are more prevalent among migrants, who are also experiencing difficulties in accessing housing, education and health services. Yet while new migrants contributed hugely to the success of the defunct ‘Celtic Tiger’, racism is also experienced by Irish Travellers and older migrants. Comforting words about tackling racism together are not enough. 

The survey also highlighted the budget cuts in the immigrant support and anti-racism sector, not to speak of migrant-led organisations that stand at the forefront of the struggle against racism, and whose budgets have been slashed with the withdrawal of the philanthropists. Restoring some of these budgets, reviewing the useless 1989 legislation and admitting State and institutional racism, rather than blaming individual acts of ‘hatred and ignorance’, would be good first steps to begin to address the problem.



Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann.

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