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Is it Really not Racist to Oppose Immigration?

Making the dreaded crossing – Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock

Guest post by Simon Goodman, Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement

The linking of anti-immigration views and racism is well established. Despite this there are often strong claims to counter this. Perhaps most famous was the Conservative party’s 2005 election posters which claimed “it’s not racist to oppose immigration”. Similarly, today it has been reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby has said “There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous”. What are the bases of the claims that opposing immigration is racist or not?

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Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby with some controversial views/telegraph

As immigration refers to people moving into a country from abroad there is always a racial element. This is because the incomers by definition are from a different background. Given that there are clearly benefits to immigration, it is clear to see how opposing immigration comes to be seen as keeping others out. As Barnes and colleagues say “‘who’ can belong ‘where’ is a prejudiced topic of argument that requires an amount of discursive work to make it safely sayable”.

However, a major feature of talk about immigration is the denial that this opposition it racist. There is a longstanding literature on denials of racism, with van Dijk arguing that while denials of racism can work to present the speaker as not-racist, they also draw attention to the possibility that what is being said could at least possibly be viewed as racist (so people don’t tend to deny racism when saying, for example, we should leave the EU, but they do when opposing immigration).

Much of my own research has focussed on denials of racism in talk about immigration, not because I believe it to be racist, but because I was struck by how denials of racism are such a common feature in talk about immigration. In fact, my research has shown that overwhelmingly there is acceptance that opposing immigration is not racist and that making accusations of racism can get people into almost as much trouble as saying something racist. People that do make accusations of racism tend to be accused of censorship and stopping debates and people that seek to support immigration often have to deny that they are making accusations of racism. What this seems to show is that rather than an anti-immigration position being linked to racism, there is an acceptance that this is not: alluding to the idea that people who make accusations of racism tend to get themselves into trouble.

During a time when the plight of refugees is more prominent than ever, it is extremely dangerous to present ‘fears’ about immigration as simply not racist. Whether it is racist or not, in the present climate arguing against immigration often means arguing to keep refugees stuck in terrible conflict situations, inhumane conditions and to risk death attempting to reach the safety of Europe. While arguing against supporting refugees may not technically be racist, it is hugely problematic and seems to be lacking in basic human decency, so perhaps we need a new term to describe this.

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Coventry University