Every day, we have contact with countless pieces of information. This information reaches us through newspapers, television channels, the internet, social media or radio. On a daily basis, we have to make choices about what information we process and how we process it and these factors shape our perception of the world and our actions within it. Scholars from many different academic disciplines have devoted their whole efforts to the study of these processes for centuries now – all from a different perspective. However, in terms of utility and practicability the approaches of international relation scholars might be at the forefront. For example, the feminist school of thought within international relations analyses political and societal events in international politics from the perspective of gendered power relations. In other words, they ask themselves whether the analysed event or phenomenon can be explained based on the concept of gender. Realists look at the utility of certain actions and inactions within politics, but this approach often falls short to account for more organic developments, as it strongly focuses on national interests. Structuralists claim that the actions and inactions are dependent on the broader structural framework, which enables and disables certain actions. There are many more approaches to view and analyse phenomena, events and developments in the world. However, these tools are usually only used by scholars and not by the ordinary citizen. Therefore, the ordinary citizen lacks the capability to properly make sense of many things that she is confronted with in the media. In this article, we are going to look at one specific tool that helps us to better understand the world: the concept of race. In order to illustrate it, two recent events are juxtaposed.
Race and racism: a methodological treasure
As mentioned earlier, feminism, for example, bases its analyses on the assumption that gendered power relations alter the behaviour of people. Analogous to that, race scholars focus on how to explain our world in the light of imbalanced racial power relations. For example, the founding of Israel is subject to much scholarly debate and many argue that the Jewish community was able to get more authoritative concessions from the British, because their lobby was better organised in Great Britain – a more mechanistic account. However, a perspective from race studies will actually show us that the founding can also be viewed in the following way: the Jewish people are phenotypically and culturally more similar to the Britains than the Palestinian Arabs are. Because of that similarity, the British were rather inclined to grant the land to the Jewish community, although having previously promised it to the Arabs. Race studies is, therefore, the study of the world from the perspective of ethnic power relations. It helps us to understand social policies that might directly or indirectly discriminate against certain ethnicities or to make sense of certain conflicts. Even events in the realm of economy can be explained by utilising the frameworks provided by racial scholars. For instance, we can think about North American mining companies that planned on drilling in Latin American rain forests, which the respective governments forbade. Under the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses between the countries, the North American companies sued Latin American countries and demanded disproportionately high reparation payments (multiple billions), because they estimated that this would have been their profit, if they were allowed to drill there. On the other hand, in the ISDS case Vattenfall v Germany, the company’s reparation claim was significantly less. Racial studies help us to uncover that a “white” company would act disproportionately against “non-white” actors, while “white” companies among themselves would treat each other more fairly. Hence, race studies are extremely useful to uncover fundamental premises and also helps us to anticipate certain actions.
Lesbos: Tragedy on multiple layers
Until September 2020, the Moria camp on the Greek island Lesbos was the largest refugee camp in Europe. The camp was initially designed for 3 000 refugees, but the number rose to around 20 000 refugees by September 2020. Next to the overcrowding of the camp, the standard of living there was horrendous: catastrophic sanitary facilities, food and water shortages, slow bureaucratic procedures, little to no access to education and medical care, safety issues and criminality. Although being in such a desperate situation, the Greek authorities did not rush to craft a sustainable solution and end the misery. From a technical-political perspective, the resolution of this problem is really a minor task and economically not burdensome at all. Even the work that needed to be done from the outset to prevent the whole situation was insignificant compared to other aspects of statesmanship. Nonetheless, the people were left on their own – the only task that authorities successfully managed was to prevent the refugees to leave the camp. Consequently, the conditions became so bad that riots broke out and refugees started to set the camp on fire. Thousands of people were left without shelter. It would be reasonable to expect that at least at this point politicians would have taken meaningful action, in order to the resolve the situation, which requires so little action on top of it. Contrary to that, a second camp was established, which is now equally miserably equipped. Just like in the Moria camp, life in the Kara Tepe camp is horrible.
Interestingly, most of the refugees come from non-European states, such as Afghanistan, although the camp is within the European continent. And this is where race studies begins. Many of the readers might have subconsciously thought: “Well, where else should refugees be coming from? From Sweden?” This subconscious thinking, as an underlying premise, shapes much of our behaviour, including the behaviour of politicians. In this particular case, the refugees, who mostly come from predominantly Muslim societies outside of Europe, suffer from an orientalist perception by the Europeans. First coined by Edward W. Said, orientalism (under the broader umbrella of race studies) is a specific concept of a lens that Westerners adopt when viewing Muslim societies. They view them as exotic, ruthless, orderless, yet decadent and mystic places, which do not fulfil the criteria to be considered civilised societies. Over the centuries, Western poems, books, paintings and other sources of information suggest that the East is a barbaric and dirty place. This perception was carried on to this day. Using orientalism as a tool, we are able to understand that the perception of the East and of Muslim populations prevent the Europeans from acknowledging the severity of the situation at Lesbos’ Moria and Kara Tepe camps. Moreover, lawmakers are less inclined to take action, because the conditions, under which the refugees live there, suit their subconscious perception of how ‘those people’ should live. Since there is an underlying thought that suggests that the conditions are what the refugees are “used to live under anyways”, the problem is not really considered to be a problem in the most urgent sense. It becomes clear that a racial perspective enabled us to give an account to the question why the situation in that refugee camp is still not resolved. From this point, we can assume that other similar matters are subject to similar assumptions.
Notre dame: an open air theatre
Let us now look back at the fire that destroyed a French cathedral in 2019. The historic Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, which was built in the 12th century, was considered to be one of France’s and Europe’s most prominent cultural heritage sites. Undeniably, the architecture and its history makes the cathedral a valuable asset of European culture and is worth protecting. However, not at all costs – especially not opportunity costs. On 15 April 2019, the cathedral was almost completely destroyed by a fire. On 22 April 2019, a fundraising campaign, initiated by the French government, collected more than 1 billion Euros for the restoration of the cathedral. A few months later, the restoration started. Race studies helps us to draw a line between this event and the tragic situation in the refugee camp. From this perspective, we can see that the refugees are practically left on their own and the situation is not taken care of. In contrast, we can see that the restoration of a building received significantly more support than human beings that suffer under the worst conditions. Adopting a racial lens helps us to understand that this is the case, because the Notre Dame cathedral has a much more central place within the Western world compared to the refugees. The cathedral symbolises Western culture and history and, hence, important aspects of its identity. On the other side, the situation of foreign Muslim refugees is simply viewed as their problem, as there is little empathy for their suffering. It follows that the mutual support within the Western societies is much greater, due to their shared identity, which is grounded in a common pasta and similarity of their cultures.
In this article, we looked at two independent, and seemingly unrelated, events, but utilising the concept of race and adopting a racial lens as a tool, we found out that the events can be connected. This fact alone shows the true power of uncovering underlying power relations and the potential of race studies to do so. Another good take-away from this is that we can always search for underlying power imbalances that influence politics and society and lead to poor outcomes ourselves. In this case, we have seen that racialised perspectives prevent policy-makers to bring about significant change to the misery of the refugees on Lesbos, while enabling them to raise astronomic support for the restoration of a cathedral in virtually no time. Attentiveness to such dynamics will help us to better understand the world and uncover more such unjust situations and maybe you even discover a political scientist in yourself, too.
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