Was it the whipping up of white working-class voters in Trump’s election campaign? Or the toxic debate around immigration during the Brexit referendum? Or was it as early as the birth of social media, when a platform was handed to racists? However it happened, public discourse around race in the last decade slowly morphed from polite political correctness and justified outrage at even a hint of racism in public to a slow accommodation with extremist views on the far-right – setting up 2020 to be the year that the veil lifts altogether, finally normalising racism in ways that we haven’t seen for decades.
Racism has long existed in politics and academia, and persists in structural discrimination and everyday bias. But the idea that the ideology driving racist actions and rhetoric should somehow be given space for discussion has only recently (re)gained currency. In recent years far-right intellectuals have subtly and skilfully changed the rules of engagement, arguing for “viewpoint diversity” in the disingenuous insistence that they have been unfairly silenced. They argue that racial differences are so profound that the mere presence of immigrants is damaging a country’s genetic stock and cultural fabric.
Primo Levi wrote that the thing about fascism is that “it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not”. And it is diversity and difference that those intellectuals are against. Their argument is one that was once popular in the early 20th century, at the height of the eugenics movement, when it became fashionable to believe that certain people are good for the health of the nation and should be allowed to live and stay, while others shouldn’t. Eugenics was, at the time, accepted scientific wisdom. Then it was the precursor to Nazi racial hygiene and the Holocaust.
Today, disturbingly, we are seeing a re-emergence of eugenics-style thinking on race. Steve Bannon, chief strategist to Donald Trump until 2017, has appeared on the European political scene to promote far-right populism. In March 2018 he told French nationalists: “Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it like a badge of honour”. When in July 2019 President Trump’s supporters chanted “Send her back!”, referring to black Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar, it was clear that politics had changed. Some of us are welcome as citizens and some of us aren’t.
With the help of social media and the dark web, the new racists have found each other. The burgeoning social network known as Gab, forums such as 4chan and 8chan, and groups like Generation Identity have all enabled this. A report published by the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, following the mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, found that tweets referring to “Great Replacement Theory” (the belief that white people are being ethnically superseded) almost tripled between 2014 and 2018. The racist far-right has already become one of the biggest terrorist threats within Europe and the US.
If you’re not scared yet, you soon will be. What is most worrying is how nationalists and populists who happily fan the flames of racism are being welcomed into power across the world. The racism swilling about on the dark web will no longer be languishing in the dark in 2020. It will be in parliaments, newspapers and lecture theatres in Europe, the US and across the world.
Angela Saini is author of Superior: The Return of Race Science