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The Relationship Between Migration And Racism Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3052 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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A common definition of racism is the belief “that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster online dictionary). “Racialism is the unequal treatment of a population group purely because of its possession of physical or other characteristics socially defined as denoting a particular race” (Sociology Oxford Dictionary, 2005). Attention should be paid to the words ‘socially defined’. Because racism is not a natural occurrence, as some may believe, and it does not exist at all times to the same extent for the same reasons, it is difficult to coin a universal definition of the subject. Racism exists when people create and allow it. It may vary in different countries, amongst different nations and within different societies. The meaning of racism constantly changes, being constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed, in response to historical, political, and social developments (Wasserstrom, 1978).

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In Britain colonialism brought many slaves as well as immigrants from the commonwealth countries who stayed in Britain to build a new life. While at first they were invited as a welcome workforce, they later became targets of racial discrimination and violence, providing a scapegoat for the decline of British economy. British history is packed with accounts of open racism against ethnic minorities, incited by the British parliament and its political parties.

This essay will give a brief account of immigration of the nineteenth century and the almost immediate creation of racism in Britain. It will then more fully examine the link between migration and racism and the issues surrounding the topic. The essay will conclude with the drawing together of the main key points.

Main Body

It is commonly believed that immigration in Britain is a very new phenomenon which dates back from the 1950s with the arrival of black Caribbean and Indian workers. British people liked to think themselves as a pure race, untainted by contact of the outside world and by foreigners. However, right from the beginning, the population of Britain has been composed of Celts, Vikings and Saxons who invaded Britain on different occasions and mixed before the British nation was formed. Therefore the British, though they imagined it, cannot call themselves a pure race.

Migration on a large scale started with the deportation of African slaves into Britain to serve as a needed workforce in order to fill the demands of rising capitalism. Brown (1995) believes that immigration goes hand in hand with the development of the capitalist system and the capitalist state. Capitalism demanded labour and labour was available in abundance, with not enough people to fill the positions. Not that these positions demanded any skills, neither were they easy to carry out. Slaves carried out the manual work, which white people did not want to do. Slavery carries early feelings of racism, as the white class felt superior to their slaves, as man feels superior to their pets. The difference is that pets are actually treated more humanly than were many of the slaves of the 19th century. One can say that racism then was different from the type of racism that exists today. The difference between then and today is that people are more aware of one another, are more educated and while it is not so much a problem of superiority anymore, it is increasingly a problem of ethnical discrimination due to social fears and insecurities which people in this time have to live with. Therefore they might release their tensions in form of racist outburtsts.

Besides slavery, the rise of capitalism depended hugely on the free movement of labour. The trend has been that workers move to developed areas to meet the demand for manual labour. It is a process in which people escape unemployment and poverty in their home country with the hope and prospects to start a better life elsewhere. As capital is moved from one area to another, in search of the most profitable location, so too moves labour after it (Panayi, 1994). Therefore immigration is closely related to the demand of labour in a rising economy and to job prospects in the immigrant worker’s country of origin. This proves the strong link between immigration and availability of work. During the years of economic growth Britain recruited high numbers of workers to fill job positions, but when the economy started to decline, there were an abundance of workers who were left unemployed and poor. As the economy declined further the huge number of immigrants became apparent. With the situation getting worse, and the country’s economy in depression, British people started to formulate claims that immigrants were the reason for the struggle and hardship. However these thoughts were put into their heads by governmental rulers. This was the beginning of racism and discrimination in Britain.

At first the Tory government campaigned against further immigrations, followed by the Labour government, later taken over by the Tory government again. Each of these systems called for stricter immigration policies and the deportation of immigrants who were not white or British. In extreme cases, even those immigrants who were lawfully British were not seen as British, because British people were purely white and at a time many of them were made stateless and deported back to their original ‘home’ countries, leaving them to their own fate.

An important link between racism of the early 20th century and today is that people everywhere in the world, feel the need to blame foreigners for their misfortunes and their country’s hardships. Immigrants have always been made scapegoats for problems which they directly have nothing to do with. One of the most common things that are said about immigrants is that they take away citizens jobs and abuse the goodness of the welfare system. This saying has proven to be very popular throughout history as well as today. People are still making senseless accusations in order to draw focus away from their government’s own shortcomings. In addition, that saying is contradictory in nature, as a person who has a job cannot live on welfare, legally speaking.

During periods of economic decline, strict immigration laws were imposed, whereas at times of economic growth, the government loosened its legislations. The British government only welcomed foreigners when they were in need. Once that need was met, it wanted to be rid of those foreigners. However, history shows that only certain immigrants were wanted. All non-white immigrants, in other words black people, were not to be employed as the government feared the assimilation of black people with white people. (Brown, 1995) With the economic boom of the 50’s and 60’s, there was another labour shortage and demand for migrant workers. Britain thought about inviting members from the Commonwealth and the Indian-sub continent. Here again the primary aim of the immigrants was to find work.

In general it is quite sad to realise that those migrant workers found themselves in the poverty and unemployment which were a direct result of economic problems caused by years of British colonial exploitation. The customs of inequality seem to take no end, as poor people and countries continuously are exploited by developed countries, who put them in their misery in the first place. This is one of the reasons why the West is increasingly getting richer while the South is getting poorer. As a consequence poor people immigrate to the West in hope for a better life, but are often met by racism and discrimination instead.

At the end of the 50s the Tory cabinet were the ones to create the artificial link between social problems and immigration. They proclaimed that foreigners bring diseases, that black people are prone to violent crime and West Indians were muggers. These tactics were used to win votes and to remove focus from their failures. Institutionalised racism became a common tool for governmental parties and is therefore central to other forms of racism in Britain today (Brown, 1995).

Between 1984 and 1886 the Thatcher regime had one of the strictest asylum legislations in British history. It reduced the number of refugees accepted for asylum significantly and implemented laws that made it nearly impossible for asylum seekers to be granted. It set punitive measures for airlines and shipping companies carrying refugees without proper or false identification. This in turn had a major impact on the amount of asylum seekers arriving in Britain. Further Tories made sure they prevented a flow of refugees by imposing visa restrictions on their countries. This of course made it literally impossible for refugees to enter Britain let alone seek asylum. It was obvious that people who fled from war and other dangers often did not have the money or time to wait around for a slim chance of attaining a visa. The British government was well aware of this fact as they intently put those laws in place. Asylum seekers therefore face a different type of discrimination than mere immigrants. It is unfortunate, as asylum seekers should be a priority, in order to ensure the protection of their lives (Fekete, 2009).

However, Britain was not the only country to toughen its immigration policies. In 1993 the European Commission imposed visa restrictions on 128 countries, which were mainly Asian and African countries. This encouraged states like France to add further countries to their list of restrictions (Brown, 1995).

Media exaggeration and representation of asylum seekers have also helped to fuel racism. Its stereotypical portrayal of refugees was appalling and very racist in nature. Bhavnani et al (2005) report that wrongful imagery was used to demonstrate a threat of young refugee males and negative language was used to describe asylum seekers, for example as ‘cheat’ and bogus’. The media only increased peoples’ fears and dislike of refugees which resulted in increased attacks on refugees and asylum seekers.

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Many scholars have tried to understand the occurrence of racism. While unrelated racism might have a different meaning, migration related racism is invoked out of fear, insecurities and social and economic unrests. Especially during such times immigrants become an easy target for locals who feel that their social status is threatened by foreigners who ‘come and take what they want’. This panic is felt amongst citizens of various nations around the world. South Africa saw one of these events just recently. In 2008 poverty stricken South Africans were enraged by the flow of immigrants from other parts of the continent. The immigrants were physically attacked and harmed. The event led to the death of approximately 50 people and the escape of thousands who feared for their lives. South Africans believed that migrants would take their jobs and increase their already appalling poverty (The Independent, 2008).

France has had to deal with two outbreaks of violent street riots against the police. The riots took off after the accidental deaths of two teens in a car crash with a police patrol car. The youth living in the poor suburbs of France feel discriminated against and racially harassed. These are second generation youth, who though they were born in France, do not feel that they belong, due to the racism they experience. They are seen as immigrants so they feel alienated and may not conform to notions of French national identity. The deaths of the two teens triggered hatred towards the police who two years earlier were blamed for the deaths of two other teens. Experts say that the situation got out of hand, due to the poor conditions these youths and their families live in (CBC News, 2007).

To get back to the aforementioned definition of racism, that it is a belief that race is the ‘primary determinant’ of human traits and that racial differences produce an ‘inherent superiority’ of a particular race. Gellner (2006) argues that nationalism involves the identification of an ethnic identity within a state. Therefore people would generally identify themselves as members of the state they reside in. Nationhood is promoted by shared beliefs, culture and a common language. People are concerned about the link between nationalism and racism. Because nationhood is promoted to unite a people, it seems that at the same time it blocks out people who may not have the same shared beliefs but have their own culture at heart. This can have two effects on the population of a country. Firstly, blocking out people makes them feel unwelcome and makes it harder for them to integrate into the culture. They may feel discriminated against which in turn will make them more likely to associate with people of their own background. Subsequently this again draws outrage amongst locals because they do not feel that the immigrant is doing enough to integrate into their society. It might first lead to irritation of why the immigrant is ‘here in the first place’ and then to racial outburst against immigrants because they are seen as crowding and benefiting from the nation without contributing to it.

Secondly, the nation needs to feel a sense of unity in order to prevent a decline of its culture and values. People may belief that the unity has to be protected at all costs and that blocking ‘others’ out is a protective measure of one’s identity and beliefs against foreign flows of influence. These arguments may be possible explanations of how racism develops.

However to oppose the argument, there have been instances were racism has been a problem within the same nation-state. For example in Nigeria two major oppositions are continuously trying to pull the strings of the country. Since Nigerian independence in 1960 there has been constant collision between Christians of the south and Muslims of the north. Over time the clashes have resulted in many violent deaths. Both sides continuously engage in religious forms of racism and hatred towards another. (Time, 2010) Problems are made worse by the multiple diversity of the country, not just in terms of religion and culture but also in terms of language. Though Nigeria is seen by outsiders as one nation, it is far from it, as the country is made up of over two hundred different tribes, who themselves could be seen as mini nations due to each nations strong shared values. Each tribe sees itself as an entity within a country, not a union of many entities. Discrimination amongst people of different tribes is very common as each tribe is assigned certain stereotypical characteristics and the country is plagued by distrust of one another.

Another way of which today’s racism differs from earlier forms of racism is its ability to go beyond national borders. Advancements in communication technology made it possible to reach farther breaking through international borders. Racist groups have formed online who aim to share their ‘beliefs’ to others around the world and recruit fellow ‘believers’. One can say that the Al-Qaeda is a racist group that spreads its ideologies via the web as well. However it is necessary to distinguish that the Al-Qaeda is not racist towards the whole white race, but towards their cultures and religion.

Nowadays racist images and comments can also be seen on social network websites. Though there are certain regulations put in place to ban racist comments, not all people adhere to those regulations and not all of them are banned from reusing those social sites. One of the most popular social networking sites is ‘facebook’. It has millions of members worldwide who can all interact with each other regardless of distance. In its terms of agreement, it does not state that racist comments or pictures should be prohibited and will be banned from its site. Now people do not have to be in the same place, and not even on the same continent to be victims of racism.

The victims of racism and discrimination are still of the same ethnic minority groups. Blacks and Asians have had to face centuries of resentment and hostility by the self-proclaimed ‘superior’ white group. Not much has changed; instead a new ‘enemy’ is getting everyone’s attention – Muslims (Fekete, 2009). In order to reduce xenophobic tension, discourse needs to be promoted and people should learn of other nations or be made aware of the beauty of other cultures and people through the input of positive media presentations.


In summary the main arguments of this essay are that racism is socially constructed, its force is dependent on economic and social situations and its definition may vary from time to time in different spaces. Migration in history as well as today largely depends on demand of capitalism and labour, but it can be followed by racism and discrimination. Citizens’ fears and insecurities are magnified through negative media influences through its exaggerations and distortions of the truth. The increase insecurities makes people uneasy and more likely to blame immigrants for their aggravating situations and can therefore lead to racial outbursts. The British government has led civilians to believe that foreigners are to blame for their bad conditions. However in times of economic growth immigrants are welcomed and even invited to come to Britain to work, but not to stay. Furthermore, Asylum seekers experience a different kind of racism than colonial immigrants. Asylum seekers are hugely discriminated against and often denied access to protection, although their lives often depend on it. Racial animosity however does not only occur between different nations but can also be found within a nation-state.

In the end, in order to end racism, people have to actively learn to tolerate one another by learning off and from each other.


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