Is it really not racist to oppose immigration?

Michael Kappeler/EPA

Is it really not racist to oppose immigration?

In a wide-ranging interview about Britain’s relationship with Europe and the ongoing migration crisis, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that people who raise questions about the level of immigration into the UK should not be seen as racist. He said that to be anxious about “one of the greatest movements of people in human history” was “very reasonable”. He added:

There is a tendency to say ‘those people are racist’, which is just outrageous, absolutely outrageous.

Arguments that anti-immigration views are racist are not new. There have also been strong counter claims against this. One of the most famous was the Conservative party’s 2005 election posters which claimed: “it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”.

Conservative party 2005 campaign poster. Voyou Desouevre/, CC BY-SA

Whether racist or not, referring to immigrants as a group to be fearful or anxious about can be dangerous and feeds into the current anti-asylum trends in the mainstream media and from some politicians. Immigrants are simply people who have moved from another country, and in the case of refugees they are those fleeing terrible persecution. There is no reason to fear them.

Some convincing needed

As immigration refers to people moving into a country from abroad there is always part of the discussion which deals with “outsiders”. This is because the incomers by definition are from a different background. Given that there are clearly benefits to immigration, the main economic argument against immigration does not stand up. So opposition to immigration may be based on something else – and that something is more than likely going to be about “keeping others out”.

As the psychologist Rebecca Barnes and her colleagues argue:

‘Who’ can belong ‘where’ is a prejudiced topic of argument that requires an amount of discursive work to make it safely sayable.

This means that whether racist or not, there is an element of discrimination behind a desire to keep immigrants out, which means that speakers need to convince others that this is not due to racism.

Justin Welby: fear is a reasonable reaction. Gareth Fuller / PA Wire

This is why a major feature of talk about immigration is the repeated denial that opposition to it is racist – for example by saying “I’m not racist, but …”

The linguist Teun Adrianus van Dijk has argued that while denials of racism can work to present the speaker as not racist, they also draw attention to the possibility that what is being said could at least possibly be viewed as racist.

For example, people don’t tend to deny they are being racist when saying we should leave the EU, but they do when opposing immigration.

Who gets into most trouble

Much of my own research has focused on denials of racism in talk about immigration. This is not because I believe it to be racist, but because I was struck by how denials of racism are such a common feature in conversations about immigration.

My research looking at members of the public, media and political debates has shown that there is an overwhelming acceptance that opposing immigration is not racist. In fact, making accusations of racism can get people into almost as much trouble as saying something racist.

People who do make accusations of racism tend to be accused of censorship and stopping debates. This is exactly what Iain Duncan Smith said in support of Welby. Those who support immigration often have to deny that they are making accusations of racism. What this seems to show is that, rather than an anti-immigration position being linked to racism, there is an acceptance that it is not racist. Instead, it is those that make accusations of racism that tend to get themselves into trouble.

Yet at a time when the plight of refugees in Europe is more prominent than ever, it is extremely dangerous to present “fears” about wider immigration as simply not being racist, as the archbishop has done. Whether people are racist or not, arguing against immigration in the present climate often means arguing to keep refugees stuck in terrible conflict situations, inhumane conditions and to risk death attempting to reach the safety of Europe.

There is an important distinction to be made between immigrants and refugees, however the reporting of these is often misleading and can conflate the two, so anti-immigration arguments can be applied to refugees too. We must also remember that the “refugee crisis” is a crisis for the refugees, not for Europe in general which continues to benefit from immigration.

While arguing against allowing refugees to come to Europe or Britain may not technically be racist, it is hugely problematic and seems to be lacking in basic human decency. Perhaps we need a new term to describe people who argue against refugees; not racist, but inhumane.

This article was amended on March 12 to clarify that the 2005 Conservative poster said “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”, not “It’s not racist to oppose immigration”.