Elite discourse and institutional racism

Teun A. van Dijk

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona

















Second draft, March 29, 2005

Elite discourse and institutional racism

Teun A. van Dijk

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona





In this paper we examine some discursive aspects of the role of the elites and the institutions in the production and reproduction of racism in European societies.

There are several reasons to focus on elite racism, rather than on ‘popular’ racism (for details, see Van Dijk, 1993). First of all, many of the elites often claim that they have ‘of course’ nothing to do with racism: Rather, respectable politicians of democratic parties, journalists of mainstream newspapers, or reputed scholars tend to blame others of racism, typically those at the extreme right, or the ‘uneducated’ people in popular neighborhoods who are daily confronted with immigrants.

Secondly, prejudice and discrimination are not innate but learned, and they are primarily learned from public discourse. Such discourse, such as political debates, news and opinion articles, TV programs, textbooks and scholarly works, are largely controlled by the elites. If such discourse would be systematically and predominantly non-racist or anti-racist, it is very unlikely that racism in society would be as widespread as it is, assuming that in many respects the elites are the moral guardians of society and usually give the good or the bad example of social practices.

Thirdly, we know from the history of racism that various elites have always played a prominent role in ethnic and racial domination. The very notion of ‘race’ was ‘invented’ by scholars as was the notion of racial superiority, as we know from the prevalent scientific literature in the 19th and large part of the 20th centuries (Barkan, 1992; Chase, 1975; Haghighat, 1988, Shipman, 1994; Unesco, 1983). Colonialism, eugenetics, segregation, the Holocaust, Apartheid and “ethnic cleansing” were racist practices engaged in by (then) ‘respectable’ politicians, and legitimated by journalists, scholars and scientists. Their discourses found their way into novels, movies, textbooks and ‘commonsense’ discourses in everyday life. Wherever we find forms of ‘popular’ racism, it is largely preformulated by the elites and their political leaders and mass media, or taken populist advantage of to limit immigration. And finally, where the elites did not explicitly engage in the production of prejudices and stereotypes and the exclusion of the Others from their own realm (politics, media, science, etc) they may at least be blamed for insufficiently combating popular racism where they had the means and the opportunity to do so.

In sum, there are a number of reasons to forward the thesis that the elites always have been, and are still today, part of the problem of racism, rather than of the antiracist, multicultural solution. However, since elite racism is often quite subtle and indirect, and to be distinguished from the overt and blatant racism of the extreme right, we still need to investigate which forms such racism takes today. We may be so much accustomed to this kind of racism that we may not even notice it anymore – as has been the case with many forms of sexism, similarly often denied by men.

The racism of the elite is primarily discursive. Politicians, journalists, scholars, judges, and managers primarily write and talk, and it is through their multifarious dominant discourses that they express and reproduce their beliefs, ideologies, plans and policies. One speech of a prominent politician, one opinion article of a star reporter, or one book of a renowned scholar may have more negative effect than thousands of biased conversations in the street, on the bus or in a bar. In this paper, I examine some of the properties of this discursive racism of the elites.

At the same time, I thus define the notion of ‘institutional racism’ as the organized discursive practices of the elites, as is the case for debates in parliament, news reporting in the press, bureaucratic text and talk of the city or national administration, or the textbooks at school and the university. Although a sociological account of institutional racism may abstract from individual social practices and speak of the actions or policies of organizations and institutions, it should be borne in mind that the discourses of these institutions are individual or collective products of their members, and legitimated by their elite leadership. An institution is as racist as its members, and especially its leaders are. This does not mean that we reduce racism to personal prejudice, but only want to stress that socially shared prejudices are jointly and collaboratively produced and reproduced by (collectives) of social members through the institutional discourses of the domains of politics, the media, education, scholarship and business enterprises.




The notions of ‘elite racism’ and ‘institutional racism’ presuppose the concept of racism, which we briefly need to define in order to understand the role of discourse and the elites in the reproduction of racism. Racism is primarily a system of domination and social inequality. In Europe, the Americas and Australia, this means that a ‘white’ majority (and sometimes a minority) dominates non-European minorities. Domination is defined as power abuse of one group over another, and is enacted by two interrelated systems of everyday social and sociocognitive practices, that is, by various forms of discrimination, marginalization, exclusion or problematization, on the one hand, and by prejudiced and stereotypical beliefs, attitudes and ideologies, on the other hand. Indeed, the latter in many ways can be seen as the ‘reasons’ or ‘motives’ that explain and legitimate the former: People discriminate others because they believe that others are somehow inferior, have less rights, and so on.

Discourse is the social practice that relates these two realms of racism. It is itself a prominent social practice like others, and the nearly exclusive social practice of the symbolic elites and the institutions: what these ‘do’ they do by text or talk. At the same time, discourse is virtually the only way racist prejudices are expressed and reproduced in society: these social cognitions are generally acquired through the mass media, textbooks, and everyday conversations with family members, peers, friends or colleagues – conversations which themselves may again be inspired by what people see on TV or read in the newspaper. Nearly everything most people know about non-European countries, about immigrants and minorities, they know from the mass media, and the same is true for their opinions and attitudes, which in turn are the basis of the social practices of discrimination and exclusion.

The processes of the public production and reproduction of knowledge, opinions and ideologies should thus be primarily defined in terms of the discursive practices of the dominant institutions and their elites. This also holds for the reproduction of racist practices and ideologies.

By the same logic, this holds for the reproduction of antiracism. As a consequence of minority resistance or outside pressure, some change agents among the political, media and scholarly elites may begin to formulate alternative discourses that question, criticize and oppose dominant discourses and other practices. As soon as these voices of dissent have access to the means of public discourse, they are able to stimulate the formation of opposition movements, NGOs, parties or pressure groups, as is also the case for antiracist movements in Europe and the Americas.

Again, though, serious and systematic change is only possible when the majority of the elite leadership in politics, the mass media and scholarship endorses the antiracist ideologies of dissenting groups, as has been the case in post-segregationist USA, post-Apartheid South Africa, or post-Holocaust Europe for the most extreme forms of racism and anti-Semitism.

For the forms of ‘modern’ racism currently prevalent in the countries where Europeans are dominant, antiracist resistance has so far played only a minor role in politics, the media or scholarship. Indeed, some forms of racism, especially in politics, may even be said to be increasing, both in the USA as well as in Europe, sometimes also as a backlash against earlier civil rights movements and antiracist actions, and generally as a consequence of real or perceived increases of immigration (for details about contemporary racism in general, and ‘white’, European, racism in particular, see, e.g., the following books, among many others: Back & Solomos, 2000; Boxill, 2001; Bulmer & Solomos, 1999a,b, 2004; Cashmore, 2003; Doane & Bonilla-Silva, 2003; Essed, 1991; Essed & Goldberg, 2002; Feagin, 2000; Feagin, Vera & Batur, 2001; García Martínez, 2004; Goldberg, 2002; Goldberg & Solomos, 2002; Lauren, 1996; Marable, 2002; Sears, Sidanius & Bobo, 2000; Solomos & Back, 1996; Wrench & Solomos, 1993; Wieviorka, 1994, 1998).




Most studies of racism focus on forms of discrimination and exclusion, or on prejudices and ideologies, and tend to ignore the fundamental role of language, discourse and communication in modern societies, also in the reproduction of racism. Politics and policies, whatever else they (also) are, are expressed, engaged in or practiced as so many forms of text and talk, from laws and legislation and parliamentary debates, to government deliberations, decrees and decisions or party programs and propaganda. The media are broadly discursive, including images, film and multimedia messages. The same is true for the law and the courts, as well as education and scholarship. That is, the symbolic elites are primarily discursive elites. They wield power by text and talk. Racism without text and talk would probably be impossible. Indeed, how else would people acquire prejudices and stereotypes about other people, especially since these are seldom based on everyday observation and interaction with the Others. How else could groups share the beliefs that give rise to discrimination and exclusion?

It is therefore crucial that we study racism, and especially elite racism (as well as antiracism) through a detailed analysis of the discursive practices of the elites and the institutions – of parliamentary debates, political propaganda, news reports, editorials, opinion articles, advertising, textbooks, scholarly books and articles as well as business policies, deals and negotiations. Such a detailed analysis is especially relevant because, as suggested, many forms of elite racism today are indirect and subtle, as is also the case for sexism. We need sophisticated discourse analysis to show how such institutional practices are informed by racist underlying beliefs, or to explain how elite discourses may have deleterious effects on public opinion.

Fortunately, the last decades has seen a broad development of discourse analysis in most of the humanities and the social sciences, not only as a ‘method’ of more explicit analysis of discourse data, but also as an independent cross-discipline of discourse studies (of the many studies on discourse, see, e.g., Schiffrin, Tannen & Hamilton, 2001; van Dijk, 1997). This means that in linguistics we now know much more about language use than the analysis of words and sentences in grammar, and now also focus on the large number of other structures and strategies of text and talk – such as their coherence, overall topics, schematic forms, narrative or argumentative structure, style, rhetoric, speech acts, conversational strategies, and many others. In psychology we now know much more about the cognitive processes of the production and comprehension of discourse, how discourse is memorized and how we learn from discourse (Van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983). In the social sciences, the interest in natural forms of discourse and communicative events had led to a broad movement of detailed ethnographic analyses of the forms and conditions of text and talk in interaction and communities. Although there are still vast areas unexplored, we now know much more about the structures, processes, social and cultural contexts of discourse. Parliamentary debates, news reports, classroom and courtroom interaction, textbooks, scientific publications, everyday conversations, and a host of other discursive practices have been studied in great detail.

These developments in discourse studies also allow a more sophisticated approach to the study of racism practices, especially of the symbolic elites. We now are able to study, among many other things, the subtle modifications of intonation or volume in speech, syntax, lexical choice, topic selection, storytelling, argumentation or conversational strategies, in order to detect underlying prejudices of language users and the institutions they represent. And beyond such studies of discourse, we are now also better able to gauge their effects in the public sphere, because we know how discourses are understood, and how people form mental models and socially shared representations about other people in this way, including prejudices and ideologies. In sum, a detailed discourse analysis of racism is a powerful tool in our understanding of the reproduction of ethnic and racial inequality in society (for studies on racism and discourse, see, e.g., Blommaert & Verschueren, 1998; Jäger, 1992, 1998; Reisigl & Wodak, 2000, 2001; Van Dijk, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1993; Wetherell & Potter, 1992; Wodak & Van Dijk, 2000).




For many reasons, the racism we are interested in here is ‘European’ racism. Not because white people are inherently racist, but because historically European racism has been most pervasive and most destructive in the world, until today (Lauren, 1988). More specifically, we are here interested in the specific racisms practiced in contemporary Europe. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to describe the details of the political and social forms such racism takes in various countries. We are only able to sketch a general tendency and then illustrate this with some examples of discourse racism in various countries (for detail, see, e.g., Bataille & Wieviorka, 1994; Bjørgo, 1993; Butterwegge & Jäger, 1992; Evens Foundation, 2002; Hargreaves & Leaman, 1995; Kalpaka & Räthzel, 1992; Mudde, 2004; Poliakov, 1974; Wrench & Solomos, 1993).

It is customary to describe, explain and even excuse current racism in Europe in relation to massive increases of non-European immigrants – a form of explanation that might be characterized as another form of blaming the victim. There are however arguments that show that this immigration merely triggered or exacerbated what was there already. First of all, there are many forms of European racism directed at existing minorities in Europe that are not triggered by increasing immigration, as is most spectacularly the case for widespread anti-Semitism anywhere (Reisigl & Wodak, 2001; Wodak et al., 1990) and the discrimination of Roma people (“gypsies”) especially in Eastern Europe and Spain (Garrido, 1999; San Román, 1986).

Secondly, during colonialism many Europeans engaged in many forms of racial discrimination and violence in the colonies, and again such racism can hardly be attributed by immigration of the Others: it was the Europeans who immigrated, stole the land and dominated the Others.

Thirdly, throughout the history of Europe, the European elites have been writing racist texts about non-European Others even when these were not immigrants in Europe.

And finally, examining patterns of contemporary racism in Europe, we find that precisely the elites, whose racism we examine here, have less everyday contacts with immigrants. This is also true for popular racism, which is not most blatant in poor neighborhoods with many immigrants, but precisely in the (popular or elite) neighborhoods where people fear possible immigration.

In other words, contemporary racism in Europe is not a new invention, but continues a long tradition, and is not caused by immigration, but by the consistently negative portrayal inherent in the social representations about the Others throughout the ages (Barker, 1978; Delacampagne, 1983; Fredrickson, 2002). One just has to read everyday texts in politics, the media, scholarship, the arts, literature, travel, and so on, until at least the Second World War, to notice how widespread and blatant racist prejudices about Africans, Asians or American indigenous people were. Racist practices and ideologies against non-Europeans were the official norm, not the exception. It is only as a consequence of the Anti-Slavery movement in the 19th century, and then later of the post-war reactions to the Holocaust, decolonization, the Civil Rights movement in the USA, the struggle against Apartheid and the shame about the ethnic slaughter in Rwanda and Bosnia, and the activities of politics of the UNO and UNESCO, that a more generalized but fledgling norm against (blatant) racism developed in the world, and hence also in North America and Europe (Barkan, 1992; Lauren, 1988).

This means that we have two social and political currents in ethnic relations in Europe. The first is the contemporary variant of an old form of indigenous European racism and anti-Semitism with a very long history, directed against non-European peoples in general, and more concretely against ‘close’ and hence ‘threatening’ Turks and Arabs in particular, the latter combined with islamophobia, as well as against Jews and Roma. Whereas under colonialism especially focusing on Africans, Asians and indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia and the Pacific, and hence taking a more ‘racialized’ form, contemporary European racism rather also focuses on culture and cultural differences. This is most clearly the case in the rejection of Islam, and especially Islamist fundamentalism, exacerbated by the terrorist attacks of September 11 in the USA and March 11 in Spain, among many other places (Goody, 2004; Halliday, 2002). It should be noted though that the cultural grounds of contemporary racism should be seen as a more ‘acceptable’ form of discriminating and excluding those who are also seen to be ‘racially’ different – as is typically the case for the discrimination of Jews, Turks and Arabs.  

On the other hand, and parallel to the daily manifestations of this ‘old’ European racism, we witness developments that incorporate on the one hand the official and ‘international’ norms against blatant prejudice and discrimination as they also have been enshrined in laws and constitutions, but on the other hand more subtle and indirect forms of discrimination and exclusion, e.g., on cultural, demographic or other ‘reasonable’ grounds. Limiting immigration, also of refugees, is the most obvious, public form of this kind of legal exclusion of the Others, not coincidentally affecting especially people from Africa, Asia and Latin America, that is, those that can be seen as ‘racial’ others, and much less immigrants from Eastern Europe. Indeed, this kind of exclusion has become the norm in Europe, and not only on the Right.

In the current situation these two currents combine in complex ways. Thus, we may see that countries – such as the UK, Germany and France -- on the one hand legislate against anti-Semitism and racism, and on the other hand, restrict immigration, tolerate explicitly racist parties, and barely take energetic action against the many forms of everyday racism, both in the institutions as well as in the public sphere. In Italy, Austria, Denmark and Holland more or less explicitly racist parties may win up till 30% of the vote and even become partners in government coalitions.

On the one hand, such developments are at first officially condemned and decried, on the basis of the prevalent non-racist norm, as happened with Haider in Austria. But on the other hand liberal principles or Realpolitik usually get the upper hand, and tolerate racist parties as part of the ‘democratic’ consensus – as one opinion among others, as is the case in Denmark, France and Italy. And worse, what were ideas and policies of racist parties one or two decades ago, are now increasingly the generally shared arguments of mainstream parties to limit immigration and to restrict the civil rights of refugees, immigrants or other minorities. Traditionally ‘tolerant’ countries such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries, have thus become hotbeds of increasing xenophobia, islamophobia and racism. But on the other hand, we witness multiculturalism in the schools, neighborhoods, NGOs and many other domains of civil society, including opposition against dominant government politics.

Whereas politics in Europe during the last decade has thus veered to the right, increasingly integrating anti-immigration policies, the media have played the same contradictory role, especially also after the deadly terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals, allowing and exacerbating more and more legitimation of anti-immigration or anti-Islam sentiments in the country. Indeed, with some exceptions, the dominant mass media in Europe have failed to energetically oppose the increasing forms of racism and xenophobia in European politics and public opinion. On the contrary, as was the case for political phenomenon Fortuyn in the Netherlands, also the press and many other elites went at great lengths to emphasize that his anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance should not be seen as forms of racism. Indeed, as soon as xenophobia becomes the generalized commonsense, as something ‘we’ agree with, it should no longer be called ‘racism’.

Finally, even the antiracist norm seems to be waning in force when we witness that an increasing percentage of Europeans openly recognize, in the Eurobarometer studies, to be ‘racist’ – if that means to be against immigration and ‘spoiling’ immigrants. It is not surprising to see that many voters, also those who have no daily dealings with immigrants, vote for parties that explicitly oppose or limit immigration. That is, the people have learned the lesson from the very elite discourses in politics and the media, and support the politicians who have given the bad example in the first place. Elite racism thus becomes legitimated by popular racism, and this also allows openly populist policies in order to reproduce political power, and not only on the right.


Elite Discourse and Racism


It is against this theoretical, methodological and political background that we now must deal with some of the properties of elite discourse and racism in the major institutions of Europe. I shall do so by giving a brief summary of the results of various major projects carried out over the last 20 years about the way immigrants, minorities, refugees and in general non-European peoples are portrayed, especially in political discourse, news reports, textbooks and everyday communication (for details, see Van Dijk, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1993, 2005).

The aims of these projects were threefold: (i) to examine the structures of talk and text about the Others, (ii) to inquire into the sociocognitive foundations (prejudice, ideology) of such discourse, and (iii) to study the social and political functions of such discourse in society. Although each of the discourse genres and contexts studied of course shows its own characteristics, there are also notable similarities, due to the general, shared nature of the underlying social representations about the Others, and as reproduced especially by the mass media:


a.                      Following a general pattern of all ideological discourse, also racist discourse is characterized by an overall strategy of positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation at all levels of text and talk. This polarization between Us and Them and the various ways positive or negative opinions are discursively enhanced may be witnessed in the choice of topics, lexical items, metaphors, hyperboles, euphemisms, disclaimers (“I am not a racist, but…”), storytelling, argumentation, pictures, lay-out, and many other properties of discourse.

b.                     Parliamentary debates, news, textbooks and everyday storytelling about the Others tend to be limited to a small number of stereotypical topics: illegal immigration; problems of reception and cultural integration; and crime, drugs and deviance. Overall the portrayal of the Others emphasizes their Difference, Deviance and Threat.

c.                     Part of the overall strategy of positive self-presentation is the routine denial or mitigation of racism, especially among the elites.

d.                     Ethnic minorities have virtually no access to, or control over the discourses about them, generally spoken and written by ‘white’ elites.

e.                      Similarly, discourses about Them or about ethnic affairs in general are not explicitly also directed at them: They tend to be ignored as potential recipients of public text and talk.


These general characteristics of racist discourse may be further specified for the respective genres of public discourse of the institutions:


Parliament and politics


Thus, in parliamentary debates, the initial debates are nearly always about problems of ‘illegal’ immigration, and increasingly about further restrictions on immigration. Typical of such debates is, again, the combination of positive self-presentation, this time in terms of nationalist glorification (about the ‘long tradition of hospitality for refugees’, etc.), and the systematic, but subtle ways the newcomers are negatively presented as a problem, a financial burden, if not as a threat for ‘Our’ welfare state, the job market or western culture, norms and values. Arguments and fallacies are formulated as if keeping Them out is in fact better for Them – because in this way They can contribute to the construction of their own country, can be received closer to home ‘in their own culture’ and – most cynical of all fallacies – can be spared the rampant racism – in the popular neighborhoods -- in Our country. Whatever the increasing restrictions on immigration and civil and legal rights, these are always presented as ‘firm, but fair’. And for those countries, such as Italy and Spain, where immigration was later than in North Western Europe, the pervasive if not persuasive argument is that immigration must be restricted because this is what the European Union requires. In the UK the focus is on what the Right and the tabloids call ‘bogus refugees’, whereas in most countries there is an ongoing debate on problems of cultural integration. In sum, the main topic in the institutions is the problems allegedly caused by the immigrants, and hardly ever the innumerable problems experienced by the immigrants and caused by Us, from the many forms of discrimination, to the hassles of papers, permits and related red tape and bureaucracy. Indeed, seldom do parliamentary debates deal with racism, and unlike terrorism racism is never declared one of the major problems of the country or of Europe – despite the long devastating history and the killing fields of colonialism, the Holocaust, and the ‘ethnic wars’ in Bosnia, Kosovo, and so on. And although for all countries of the EU (also illegal) immigration has always brought a significant economic bonus, instead of bogus refugees, it is rarely the case that such contributions are recognized and emphasized in parliamentary debates or the propaganda speeches of the politicians. On the contrary, they know that being ‘soft’ on immigration costs votes among a population that has for decades been brainwashed by political and media discourse to believe that immigration and immigrants are basically bad news. Political programs, policies and all other political talk and text today, throughout Europe are thus replete with alarming warnings and tough plans to keep Them outside of Fortress Europe, or to discipline Them once they are already inside, e.g. by teaching them that they not only have rights but also duties.

This general trend in political discourse has reached hysterical heights after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Whatever the occasional European distance taken with respect to Bush & Co in the USA, especially as to the war in Iraq, terrorism became the number 1 topic anywhere, closely related to fundamentalist Islamism, and soon Islam and immigration in general. So much so, that in some countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria and Italy, racist politicians and political parties were able to gain a massive following and even entered government coalitions, even if only for some time – until the mainstream parties understood the propaganda potential of such scare tactics and essentially propagated the same (for other studies on racism in politics and political discourse, see, e.g., Ebel, & Fiala, 1983, Goldberg, 2002; Reeves, 1983; Solomos & Back, 1995, Van Dijk, 1993; Wodak & Van Dijk, 2000).



The Press


The press, through its usual symbiosis with national and party politics filling much of its pages, essentially followed suit, with minor variations as also reflected between center-left and extreme right in politics – the real left being virtually eliminated in Europe (except in such poor countries as Portugal). That is, the topics preoccupying the politicians in parliamentary debates are very much also those making headlines in the news. And vice versa, evidence from the analysis of parliamentary debates shows that politicians, obviously, not only read the papers, but also use them as ‘evidence’ in their debates about immigration and minorities. In countries where the right-wing tabloid popular press is powerful, such as the UK, Germany, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, this means that national politics also is premised on the panic reports of the press.

Despite its dependence on politicians, the press is not their lapdog. It plays its own powerful role in the reproduction of racism, as is shown by many analyses in many countries (Chávez, 2001; Cottle, 2000; Hartmann & Husband, 1974; Jäger & Link, 1993; Ruhrmann, 1995; Smitherman-Donaldson & Van Dijk, 1987; Ter Wal, 2002; Van Dijk, 1991).

First of all, even before the news is printed, we find that newsgathering is systematically geared towards the prevalent access of ‘white’ elites for the definition of the ‘ethnic situation’. Whatever the ethnic event, it is the (white) politician, mayor, police officer, professor or other ‘expert’ that is being searched, interviewed, and hence cited. Minority groups, organizations and spokespersons, also because of their generalized lack of fancy press or public relations departments and specialists, generally have less access. And even if they do, they are much less and much less credibly cited, thus biasing any story by one-sided, ‘white’ commentary. We have observed in field work that press releases of minority organizations, by definition suspected to be biased (where white people are being seen as ‘objective’), often end up in the wastepaper basket.

This is hardly surprising when further data show that newsrooms, especially at the top, are generally white. Among the elites, ethnic diversity is hardly a prominent value in hiring, especially among those who usually claim to be most cosmopolitan: journalists, scholars, and so on. This means that for a variety of often fallacious reasons, minority journalists seldom get a job at a prominent newspaper, let alone as editors. That is, discrimination already begins at the stage where not even newsgathering and news writing has begun: in the hiring process. And that the selected white (often male) journalists have less -- and less sympathetic--understanding of ethnic events, and less access to ethnic communities and spokespersons further explains why already in news gathering and news writing the ethnic perspectives of the Others are hardly prevalent in the news.

The news on ethnic affairs in the press is conditioned by this context of discrimination and exclusion. It is not surprising to find, in many studies in many countries, that topic selection and other features of news are at least stereotypical, and sometimes more or less subtly racist, depending on the newspaper – probably the most blatantly racist being the tabloids, especially in the UK, Germany, Denmark and Austria.

First of all, news about the Others is limited to a handful of topics – where other people may be covered under a large number of different topics. As we have seen for political discourse, media discourse in most EU countries primarily focuses on new arrivals and illegal entry, on reception and integration problems of immigrants, and on crime and deviance. Problems experienced by immigrants receives hardly any attention. If racism is dealt with at all, this tends to happen for the ‘official’ racism of the extreme right (such as Le Pen in France or Haider in Austria), and seldom the racisms of the mainstream. There is never news on racism in the press, as may be expected, because journalism is not known to be the most self-critical profession – not surprisingly, because journalists seldom read something negative about themselves in the newspaper. News about the everyday lives, work and leisure of minorities is rare. Their contributions to the economy – hardly a secret – seldom reach the headlines. In sum, minorities are portrayed in few, stereotypical and often negative roles.

Besides these general topics, also other properties of news are stacked against immigrants. As may be inferred from the context of news gathering, they are little cited, and if they are cited they are never cited alone. Rather, news about them is gathered from dominant group sources, sometimes even exclusively. In other words, the E.U. press in general does not define the ethnic situation in terms of the ethnic participants themselves.




Besides the political and media institutions, the institutions of the domain of education are the primary agents of the reproduction of social representations in general, and of stereotypes and prejudices in particular. Textbooks are defined by their ‘official knowledge’, including the dominant ideologies of the time (Apple,  This has always been true for the representation of the world and its people, for instance, in geography, history and the (other) social sciences. Textbooks are also known for their national or even nationalist biases, in which the glory days and deeds of the country are magnified and its crimes and misdeeds are mitigated or even totally ‘forgotten’. Thus, few are the textbooks in Europe that detail the horrors and the exploitation of slavery and colonialism.

Textbook analysis shows that similar conclusions should be drawn for the portrayal of non-European minorities and of non-European countries and peoples in general, which more or less subtly feature the usual stereotypes, prejudices and omissions from a Eurocentric perspective (see, e.g., Blondin, 1990; Klein, 1985; Preiswerk, 1980; Troyna, 1993; Van Dijk, 1987b).

Thus, half of Dutch social science textbooks of the mid-1980s did not even acknowledge the presence of hundreds of thousands of minorities in the country – and, even more relevantly, in the classroom. The others briefly repeated each other by emphasizing the cultural differences instead of the similarities between Us (Dutch) and Them (Turks, Moroccans), while largely ignoring the Surinamese-Dutch population, to whom no different ‘culture’ could be ascribed. Sometimes a few lines would suffice for an entire ethnic community, such as the Moluccans, and such lines in that case would not fail to recall that some younger ones once engaged in terrorist acts. Of course, within such a general strategy of positive self-presentation and negative other-presentation, not much space is dedicated, if at all, to the many forms of everyday Dutch racism against minorities (Van Dijk, 1987b).

Also many other studies of textbooks in Europe and the European dominated former colonies (the Americas, Australia, New Zealand) have shown that such representation of minorities in the metropolis is quite similar to the portrayal of non-European peoples and countries internationally. Besides the simplistic stereotypes about a rich North and a poor South (ignoring poverty in the North and riches in many parts of the South, as well as huge differences among the countries of the South), we thus may conclude from topics, lexicon, examples, assignments, maps, photographs and other discourse features, that whereas we are democratic, they are dictatorships, that we are peaceful and they are violent, that we are developed and they are underdeveloped, that we are modern and they are backward, that we live in houses, and they in huts, and so on. At the same time, we of course are generous by ‘helping’ them. The omissions are sometimes more significant than the stereotypes. Thus, we may read about their poverty, but seldom get even a mitigated account of the causes of their poverty and our riches.

In the last decade some of this desolate state of textbooks has been improved upon. There are now usually a few pages on immigrants and minorities, and a few (still mitigated) references to colonialism, discrimination or even racism – but never in terms of overall systems of ethnic domination pervasive in all domains and at all levels of society, and least of all among the elites. In this sense, the dominant ideologies of society are faithfully represented in the textbooks, also the ethnic ones.

Despite this overall situation, education and research are the few domains in society in which alternative views, policies and principles still have some space. Also under the pressure of the presence of a growing number of ‘foreign’ students in the classrooms of many European cities, a modest multiculturalism has increasingly been celebrated, although usually only in theory, in educational laws, curricula and textbooks.

Textbooks not only reproduce dominant ideologies, they also represent watered-down versions of earlier science. Given the racist (and sexist) nature of much science until at least the Second World War, it is not surprising that also contemporary school textbooks were hardly less prejudiced when writing about, say, Africans or Asians – or about women, for that matter. An analysis of sociology textbooks in the USA and the UK in the early 1990s, written by prominent contemporary scholars such as Anthony Giddens, shows that also the academic study of ethnic relations is not free of biases, stereotypes and serious omissions, most seriously when (not) dealing with racism.




From this brief survey of some forms of elite discourse and institutional racism in Europe, we first of all would like to emphasize the prominent role of the elites in the reproduction of institutional racism. Confronted with critical analysis of racist structures and strategies in their dominant text and talk in all symbolic domains of society (politics, media, education, science, law, etc.), the general tendency has been one of denial and rejection.

True, the blatant and explicit racism of another, pre-war era has become exceptional and relegated to the extreme-right, even when the extreme right no longer is a fringe of a few percent today. In other words, also in the perception of many citizens, racism is (again) becoming salonfähig, and even a ‘commonsense’ reaction to the ‘invasion’ of non-European Others. More seriously, these extremist ideas – for which again Others could be blamed – increasingly and hardly in more mitigated terms were also increasingly adopted by the mainstream parties in many European countries, and not only on the Right.

It has also been emphasized that European racism is not caused by the massive immigration and presence of Others, but continues a long tradition of racist ideas and practices against Asian, African or American Others, and against Jews and Roma within Europe itself. This historical dimension of the continuity of a racist discourse combines with a contemporary social political dimension defining racism in terms of ethnic domination implemented and reproduced by daily discrimination and racist ideologies.

We have seen that in all symbolic domains of society, and especially also at the top, discourse plays a prominent role in the enactment of discrimination and the reproduction of racist stereotypes, biases, prejudices and ideologies.

Thus, analysis of parliamentary debates and other political discourses shows that whereas on the one hand racism is officially rejected, elite discourses increasingly represent immigrants, minorities and refugees as a threat to the welfare state, western culture and of course our economic, political and social domination. This process has been exacerbated by the terrorist attacks perpetrated by some Islamist fanatics, both in the USA and elsewhere. Rightwing parties, with increasingly explicitly xenophobic programs and policies, are thus able to garner popular support that may involve more than 20% of the population.

Research shows that the media generally follow suit, or initiate and emphasize such tendencies, especially in the tabloid and in general the rightwing popular press. The rest of the press is hardly explicitly racist, but many of its policies and reporting hardly contribute to multicultural society either: hiring of minority journalists is blatantly discriminatory; news gathering is dominated by white males and ignores or problematizes ethnic sources and leaders, while favoring the elite white definitions of the ethnic situation; and finally, reporting the multicultural society itself is usually limited to the coverage of a small number of ‘problem’ topics, such as illegal immigration, problems of integration or crime. As elsewhere among the elites, critical analysis of practices, and especially conclusions about the racism of the press are vehemently rejected. More generally, the media pay much more attention to the problems attributed to minorities than those experienced by minorities. And racism, where reported at all, is generally attributed to the extreme right, seldom to the mainstream elites, and never to the press itself.

With the arrival of many minority students, the institutions of the domain of education have played a prominent role in exploring some of the tenets of a multicultural society, for instance in the areas of language teaching and some aspects of the curriculum. Yet, also here we find many traces of a long history of racist and sexist curricula, often preformulated by the social and natural scientists of an earlier generation. Although improvements have been made during the last decade, textbook analyses show that teaching the multicultural society is fragmentary at best, with minimal information and still frequent stereotypes and prejudices about the ethnic minorities or the countries and continents where they come from. Generally, a Eurocentric bias remains dominant, in which ‘we’ Europeans (Dutch, English, French, etc.) are superior in all relevant domains, and the Others are generally inferior. University textbooks may be more detailed and sophisticated, but hardly give a much better example, and also largely ignore a critical analysis of the pervasive and systematic nature of society in Europe.

In sum, elites and institutions in Europe appear to combine official non-racist doctrine and policies with widespread everyday practices of everyday discrimination and ethnicist or racist ideologies. When expressed and reproduced in the many elite discourses that dominate in society, from politics and the media to education and research, these many types of elite racism seriously affect the well-being and the civil rights of immigrants, minorities and refugees. By focusing on illegal immigration, integration problems, crime, violence, terrorism, backwardness, and in general negative properties attributed the Others, elite discourses are thus able to produce, spread or confirm the generalized prejudices and ideologies that in turn give rise to and legitimate everyday discrimination in the domains of immigration, the labor market, housing, politics, education, security, culture and so on.

Discursive elite racism, thus, is not just ‘words’ or ‘ideas’, but a pervasive and influential social practice giving rise to concrete forms of ethnic inequality and domination in the everyday lives of minorities. There is a major way to oppose such elite racism, namely by consistent and critical antiracist discourses of dissent (supported) by both majority and ethnic minority groups and scholars. The future of a peaceful multicultural Europe in the centuries to come depends on such alternative elite discourses, and the ways these are able to influence the institutions. Without such dissent, the horrors of ethnic and racial conflict, strife and even extermination that defined the 20th century, are bound to be repeated again. In the contemporary world, both in Europe and elsewhere, there is no alternative for a multicultural and multiethnic society without racism. Only consequent, anti-racist elite discourses and ideologies that support such a society will be able to make it work.









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