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(Refer to Assignment for the sections relating to the following comments)


What contribution do the theoretical perspectives on race and racism make to the understanding of

racism in Ireland?


The inclusion of the words “race” and “racism” in the assignment title is salutary since their

validity as descriptors of particular groups of people within sociological discourse is a matter of debate,

and thus illustrates the case in point. Miles (1984) contends that despite the fact that these terms have

become commonplace and pedestrian in the public psyche they remain inadequate for the sociological

study of different populations. Gilroy (1987) asserts that use of these terms compel sociologists to adopt

an analytical approach to the study of tradition and collective identities. However, adopting the language

of racism in order to analyse it is at best paradoxical, as highlighted by Garner (2010) or at worst could

be viewed as endorsing the essentialist tenet that underpins common sense approaches to this subject.

Hence, the terminology itself is stricken to confound those within the very discipline that seek to pull into

focus its subject matter with clinical precision.

Notwithstanding the lexical issues endemic within sociology as it attempts to deal with the “race”

question, there is general agreement about what the term does not mean. It is not a delineator of

physical characteristics by which groups can be categorised (Garner, 2010). This conclusion was not

arrived at vis á vis recent reflections on our historical evolution; to the contrary, it was a view expressed

in 1911 by eminent physicist and physical anthropologist Franz Boas who challenged the very idea of race

as a signifier of distinct human categorisation when he asserted that

“‘differences between different types of man [races] are, on the whole, small as compared to

the range of variation within each type” (Boas cited in Caspari, 2009:11).

Anthropologically and biologically speaking then the term “race” has had no foundation for over a

hundred years. However, across the academic, political and cultural spectrum the determination to create

a hierarchy of “races” has been dogged, persistent and dedicated, so the question a sociologist must ask

is; why? In answer to this question the problem of definition must again by addressed, however it is

pertinent to alter the perspective slightly. To ask what is “race” is fraught with difficulty, as demonstrated

below, but to ask why must there be “races” is an altogether more sociologically probing query. This

assignment will trace the main theoretical perspectives to provide an overall summary of the sociological

viewpoints that contemplate questions of race and racism. It will then consider in detail the perspectives

of new racism and the racial state in order to superimpose these positions on the uniquely Irish situation.

While all sociological conceptualisations of racism are relevant to the Irish case, the central argument will
treat the process by which the language and mechanism of new racism became structurally incorporated

into Irish state institutions.

Race – Academic Reflections

Sociology has benefited from psychological levels of analysis that attempt to explain prejudice

and racist attitudes in the individual, and the means by which these attitudes become incorporated into

the collective psyche of the population through conformity and normalisation (Garner, 2010). The

psychology of prejudice is developed from several inter-related elements; the emotional, the cognitive

and the behavioural, which give rise to prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination respectively (Aronson,

Wilson & Akert, 1999). These phenomena can be incorporated into sociological discourses and related to

various theoretical perspectives, for example how the racialisation of specific groups is justified and

supported through forms of social stratification. Psychological approaches seek to explain how people

internalise perceptions of inequality and project their frustration onto others in order to help create their

“imagined community” (Anderson, 1983). These approaches can also illuminate sociological perspectives

of the social construction of race and the role of the social “narrative” (Bhabha, 1990).

Race relations theory as proposed by Bryce (1902) posited that various races competed for

resources and that this process had a number of possible outcomes for both the “weaker” and “stronger”

races. Whereas Bryce attributed the competition between groups to natural differences, Park (1950)

posited that it was the perception of those apparent differences that was responsible for the various

social outcomes. Shortly thereafter, sociological definition of race emerges (Garner, 2010) as Park's fluid

view of race relations was further explored by Mac Griél (1977). Race relations were framed within a

sliding scale of stances or group postures towards each other. Ranging from genocide to pluralism, these

stances can be applied to many situations throughout recent history, e.g. the genocide of the Acholi and

Langi tribes during the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda during the 1970s, the expulsion (or ethnic cleansing)

of Croatians from Bosnia and Herzegovinia by the Serbian military during the mid 1990s and the

segregation (separation by law) of Blacks from Whites in the U.S.A. The race relations paradigm

influenced the language register used in related legal enactments e.g. the Race Relations Act of 1965 in

the U.K. and the Civil Rights Act 1964 in the U.S. Ironically, while sociologists were busily arguing over

the validity of the terms, the resultant discourse copper-fastened the term “race” within equality theory,

and, ultimately, public perceptions of difference between people (Garner, 2010).

As opposed to traditional Marxists, neo-Weberians do not view issues of race and ethnicity as

distractions or states of false consciousness that allow the continued domination of workers through the
control of the means of production. For neo-Weberians such as Rex (1986), ethnicity and race are defined

by the structures of class and inter-group conflict which are inexorably connected to the means of

production and the political systems supporting them (Spencer, 2006). Race is viewed as part of the

system of social stratification where “racial” groups compete unequally (due to membership of a

particular race) for power and resources; this is similar to but distinct from the Marxist focus on economic

relationships. The markets, that is, the sites of competition between groups that Weber labelled “classes”,

“status groups” and “parties” (Weber, 1968), are located in structural institutions such as employment,

housing and education. Rex (1986) connected various groups' positions within the market situation to

their ethnicity (Garner, 2010).

Rex (1988) also demonstrates acute awareness of the connected nature of the historical and

social; he links capitalism in the colonial era and contemporary times, and highlights the lasting effect it

exerts upon people of different races. In summary, Rex (1988) states that in colonial times a rigid

interpretation of most societies with regard to Marxist economic classes was not strictly valid due to the

number of “functional” entities that lay between classes, that is, missionaries, freed slaves, poor whites,

etc. As a more modern and liberalised society evolved and social mobility became more commonplace

these functional groups developed into the more recognisable collectives within a traditional Marxist

interpretation of a class structure. However, the resultant class structure was “...profoundly affected by

the historical colonial legacy” (Rex, 1988:71) and this in turn had direct consequences for the formation

of groups involved in forms of social action e.g. trade unions or political parties that became formed along

racial and ethnic lines. Hence, despite someone experiencing substantial social mobility in a more modern

society, their rights and choice of social action groups was still defined by their ancestor's place in society,

as determined by colonialism. This is similar to the experience of individuals within groups which are

traditionally perceived of as troublesome, such as travellers in Ireland or affirmative action group

members in the U.S. Membership of such a group can be often associated with a certain biological

ancestral heritage, and perceived associated problematic behaviour, on occasion determined by historical


Marxism is a theoretical approach based in conflict and therefore could be viewed as uniquely

appropriate when attempting to explain racism. However, the major obstacle for neo-Marxist writers has

been the prevalence of racism throughout various societies and at different points in time while

simultaneously they contend that race is not a significant factor when analysing class. As Garner (2010)

highlights, neo-Marxist writers such as Miles (1984) and Hall et al (1978) have to explain the divisive

effects of racism in a society in which they deem class and not race as the defining factor of people's

identity. In response Miles (1989) argued that in the labour market, it is only when there is an over-
supply of labour that colour becomes a significant discriminating factor; before this scenario all workers

are exploited equally based on their class position. Other neo-Marxist scholars do not agree, however,

and for them it is the degree of emphasis attributable to race within a class level of analysis that should

be at the heart of the debate. This was the interpretation of Griffiths and Hope (2000) when they

expounded the perspectives of Hall (1980), and also that of Gabriel and Ben-Tovim (1979), who suggest

two autonomous models of race. Gabriel and Ben-Tovim (1979) see race as strictly autonomous i.e. as

arising from practices within political and historical processes and so independent of both social relations

and the class structure. Hall (1980) also posits that racism does emerge as a result of historical

consequences but affects social relationships, even though it may occur independently; therefore race

and class should be examined in conjunction with each other. However, Gilroy (1987) criticises the neo-

Marxist position on racism for failing to give adequate weight to other factors that de-emphasise class as

a separative element e.g. forms of solidarities that consolidate people regardless of class such as ex-pat

communities in the Middle East. It also ignores culture as a domain for conflict and cannot account for the

resistance to racism in domains outside “...traditional work-related arenas...” (Garner, 2010:19-9) by

other forms such as music and dress.

Neo-Marxism may have been considered colour-blind with regard to race and racism, but

according to the Black-feminist movement it was also gender-blind, or more specifically, it neglected

gender entirely. Hill-Collins (2000) does postulate on the role and position of minority female groups,

particularly black women within the U.S. “matrix of domination” (p. 230). Yuval-Davis (1997) delineates

women's issues within a framework of nationalist thinking, that is, motherhood, fertility and women as

symbols of nationality. Hill-Collins (2000) builds upon this to specify the role of women in U.S. Society in

general. The role being perceived as production of the next generation, instruction of that generation in

accepted American national values, and the acceptance of those values themselves. However, according

to Hill-Collins these processes have become completely racialised and occur in a class-specific domain.

This leads to a hierarchy of accepted “American values” the structure of which is race dependent i.e. the

values of white, middle-class women are more desirable than those of poor black women. This places all

women in different positions “...within gender, class, race and nation as intersecting systems of power”

(Hill-Collins, 2000:230). There are strong parallels between Hill-Collins' views on women's positions in

the U.S. and the role of women during the nation building exercise that took place in Ireland from the

1920s onwards. Religion (as opposed to a racially connected value system) was used in Ireland as part of

the dominant ideology to control women's fertility and ingrain into the Irish practical consciousness an

ideal stereotype for women, i.e. married, domiciled, hard-working and a producer of children. In the U.S.

“unsuitable” women were marginalised through coercive population policies designed to discourage
reproduction (Roberts, 1997). In contrast, the Irish Catholic church and government colluded to

physically remove unsuitable non-married mothers from the nation's population landscape altogether by

placing them in institutions where they worked and “...lived in prison-like conditions” (Nic Ghiolla

Phádraig, 1995:200).

A New Beginning, and State Racism in Ireland.

In 1998 the American Anthropology Association issued a formal position paper on “Race”. In

conclusion it stated that,

“"Race" thus evolved as a worldview, a body of prejudgments that distorts our ideas about

human differences and group behavior” (American Anthropology Association, 1998).

Unfortunately, the association appears to have missed a significant shift in racist ideology by

roughly twenty-five years. As Garner (2010) explains, as of the mid-1970s, arguments based on

racial differences have been conceived of as crude and thus unsuitable as a basis for political policy

within western liberal democracies. New racism re-coded “racial” differences as “cultural” ones,

thereby side-stepping the awkward associations with overt racist ideology. However, replacing

racist words with racist connotations does not remove the racism. Public reaction to Margaret

Thatcher's 1978 statement regarding immigration was negative, despite her references to cultural

rather than racial differences:

“I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather

swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so

much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear

that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”

(World in Action, 1978).

In the Irish case, blatant references to “cultural” difference rarely find public approval. However,

the “cultural” differences question is one that plays on the mind of the public and this concern is

expressed in opinion polls (European Commission, 2007). This demonstrates that people in Irish

society seem to carry dual perceptions of the representation of new racism, and the appropriate

response to these new representations.

The last twenty years in Ireland has seen unprecedented levels of immigration. Although the Irish

government has set up various committees and introduced legislation intended to prevent discrimination

and racism (e.g. The National Consultative Committee on Racism and the Employment Equality act 1998)

a tacit association between asylum seekers, immigration and “black” or specifically African people has
been cemented into the Irish practical consciousness (Dywer & Bressy, 2008). New Racist rhetoric is

frequently employed by politicians e.g. Noel O'Flynn who referred to asylum seekers as “spongers,

freeloaders and people screwing the system” (Ruddock, 2002). Proponents are then accused of playing

the “race card” and are publicly reprimanded by party leaders. However, the entire scenario is

contradictory: the sentiments expressed by political leaders is antithetical to actual government policy, as

highlighted by Dwyer & Bressey (2008). Asylum has been the predominant method by which citizens of

countries with largely non-white populations can gain entry into Ireland, but during the beginning of the

1990s the Irish government issued work visas, permits and work authorisations to largely white countries

in order to meet its rocketing demand for workers. These actions thereby implicitly connected non-white

asylum seekers with immigration and so created a mainly “black” immigration problem. Irish government

policies such as the Immigration Bill of 1999 and the amended Refugee Act of 2000 served to lend

legislative weight to this New Racist stance in what was becoming an increasingly racialised State.

Goldberg (2001) argues that the West's relationship with the developing world is based on

centuries-old notions of race and racial naturalism. In addition, the universal freedoms enshrined in the

big liberal-democratic nation states are based on the three conditions of property-holding, gender and

race. This is evident in the government's policy on Irish Travellers and their place in our society. While not

strictly a culture from the third world in the vein of Goldberg (2001), traveller culture and travellers are

viewed by some local and national politicians as less civilised and so not deserving of the same rights as

non-travellers (Mac Laughlin, 1995). Traveller tradition has been presented in racialised discourses. Their

nomadic life-style (i.e. non-property holding) is presented as one of the main “problems” of traveller

culture (Fanning, 2002). At a local government level, the gravity of the situation for travellers and their

difficulties in finding accommodation suitable to their way of life can be gauged by the response of many

local councils to the 1998 Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act, i.e. the non-fulfilment of the many

local councils' statutory requirements to provide an agreed number of halting sites for travellers in their

counties. From a national political perspective, the response to problems between property-owning

residents in towns and cities and travellers was the introduction of section 24 of the Housing

(Miscellaneous provisions) Act 2002, better known as the Anti-Trespass Act, which made it illegal to park

caravans on the roadside. Implementing legislation to physically marginalise travellers in halting sites on

peripheral urban locations, however, could be viewed, after Mac Gréil, as segregative. Attempting to

“settle” travellers could also be seen as an attempt to assimilate them into the dominant settled view of

Irish society (Fanning, 2002). Hence, evaluating State Racism and its effects is not straightforward since

issues surrounding non-normative (but legal) behaviour and life-styles invariably become blended with

positions on individual rights (of the property owning settled community) and the recognition or
avoidance of issues pertinent to a collective minority and their right to self-determination.


Black people in American society, travellers in Ireland or some members of the large migrant

workforce around Europe all experience levels of discrimination because of their “out-group” status.

Particular to each group however is the basis on which their difference to the “in-group” is determined to

pose a risk. For Black-Americans, religion was contorted as a means to justify perceptions of laziness and

sexual predation. This was exploited in order to justify a down-grading of their status to that of “sub-

human”, thus permitting their exploitation to fill dwindling labour stocks in the newly discovered Americas

(Garner, 2010). For Travellers in Ireland, themes of “mess” and “cost” remain predominant in public

discourse regarding their situation. This serves to deflect attention from the issues surrounding their

adverse treatment (Richardson, 2006). For migrant workers all over Europe their perceived transitory

status undermines their basic human rights and denies them equality in terms of citizenship acquisition,

therefore undermining their position within the incumbent legal system (Mac Donald & Cholewinski,


As Garner (2004) states “..collective identities are multiple and political” (p. 8) and this is evident

in the multivariate, politically-charged elements within discourse that attempts to conceptualise race and

racism. However, the reified nature of race has facilitated a few in the control of “in-group” status. Race,

along with its positive connotations for those within the “in-group” and negative connotations for those in

the “out-group”, continues to assert itself at the interpersonal and the global level. The objective for

sociological discourse continues to be the achievement of clarity of thinking regarding an issue that is so

fully influenced by the subjectivity of the participants.


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