Elite discourse and institutional racism
Teun A. van Dijk
Second draft, March 29, 2005
Elite discourse and institutional racism
Teun A. van Dijk
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
elites in the reproduction of racism. Racism is primarily a system of
domination and social inequality. In Europe, the
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
reproduction of antiracism. As a consequence of minority resistance or
pressure, some change agents among the political, media and scholarly
may begin to formulate alternative discourses that question, criticize
oppose dominant discourses and other practices. As soon as these voices
dissent have access to the means of public discourse, they are able to
the formation of opposition movements, NGOs, parties or pressure
groups, as is
also the case for antiracist movements in Europe and the
Again, though, serious and
change is only possible when the majority of the elite leadership in
the mass media and scholarship endorses the antiracist ideologies of
groups, as has been the case in post-segregationist
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
interested in here is ‘European’ racism. Not because white people
are inherently racist, but because historically European racism has
pervasive and most destructive in the world, until today (Lauren,
specifically, we are here interested in the specific racisms practiced
It is customary to describe,
even excuse current racism in
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
the European elites have been writing racist texts about non-European
even when these were not immigrants in
And finally, examining patterns
contemporary racism in
In other words, contemporary
This means that we have two
political currents in ethnic relations in
On the other hand, and parallel
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
hand more subtle and indirect forms of discrimination and exclusion,
cultural, demographic or other ‘reasonable’ grounds. Limiting
immigration, also of refugees, is the most obvious, public form of this
legal exclusion of the Others, not coincidentally affecting especially
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
In the current situation these
combine in complex ways. Thus, we may see that countries – such as the
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
Whereas politics in Europe
during the last
decade has thus veered to the right, increasingly integrating
policies, the media have played the same contradictory role, especially
after the deadly terrorist attacks by Islamist radicals, allowing and
exacerbating more and more legitimation of anti-immigration or
sentiments in the country. Indeed, with some exceptions, the dominant
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
properties of elite discourse and racism in the major institutions of
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
of positive self-presentation, this time in terms of nationalist
(about the ‘long tradition of hospitality for refugees’, etc.), and
the systematic, but subtle ways the newcomers are negatively presented
problem, a financial burden, if not as a threat for ‘Our’ welfare
state, the job market or western culture, norms and values. Arguments
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
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
restrictions on immigration and civil and legal rights, these are
presented as ‘firm, but fair’. And for those countries, such as
This general trend in political
has reached hysterical heights after the terrorist attacks of September
Whatever the occasional European distance taken with respect to Bush
The press, through its usual
national and party politics filling much of its pages, essentially
suit, with minor variations as also reflected between center-left and
right in politics – the real left being virtually eliminated in Europe
(except in such poor countries as Portugal). That is, the topics
the politicians in parliamentary debates are very much also those
headlines in the news. And vice versa, evidence from the analysis of
parliamentary debates shows that politicians, obviously, not only read
papers, but also use them as ‘evidence’ in their debates about
immigration and minorities. In countries where the right-wing tabloid
press is powerful, such as the
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
limited to a handful of topics – where other people may be covered
a large number of different topics. As we have seen for political
media discourse in most EU countries primarily focuses on new arrivals
illegal entry, on reception and integration problems of immigrants, and
crime and deviance. Problems experienced by
immigrants receives hardly any attention. If racism is dealt with at
tends to happen for the ‘official’ racism of the extreme right
(such as Le Pen in
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
agents of the reproduction of social representations in general, and of
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,
and the (other) social sciences. Textbooks are also known for their
even nationalist biases, in which the glory days and deeds of the
magnified and its crimes and misdeeds are mitigated or even totally
‘forgotten’. Thus, few are the textbooks in
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
Europe and the European dominated former colonies (the
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
elite discourse and institutional racism in
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
racism is not caused by the massive
immigration and presence of Others, but continues a long tradition of
ideas and practices against Asian, African or American Others, and
and Roma within
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
other political discourses shows that whereas on the one hand racism is
officially rejected, elite discourses increasingly represent
minorities and refugees as a threat to the welfare state, western
of course our economic, political and social domination. This process
exacerbated by the terrorist attacks perpetrated by some Islamist
both in the
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
the institutions of the domain of education have played a prominent
exploring some of the tenets of a multicultural society, for instance
areas of language teaching and some aspects of the curriculum. Yet,
we find many traces of a long history of racist and sexist curricula,
preformulated by the social and natural scientists of an earlier
Although improvements have been made during the last decade, textbook
show that teaching the multicultural society is fragmentary at best,
minimal information and still frequent stereotypes and prejudices about
minorities or the countries and continents where they come from.
Eurocentric bias remains dominant, in which ‘we’ Europeans (Dutch,
English, French, etc.) are superior in all relevant domains, and the
generally inferior. University textbooks may be more detailed and
sophisticated, but hardly give a much better example, and also largely
critical analysis of the pervasive and systematic nature of society in
In sum, elites and institutions
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
the everyday lives of minorities. There is a major way to oppose such
racism, namely by consistent and critical antiracist discourses of
(supported) by both majority and ethnic minority groups and scholars.
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