Silent fears of society's cancer

July 31, 1998

According to sociologist Frank Furedi at the University of Kent, the history of racism in the 20th century can best be described as "a silent war". His new book provides a critical account of the changing balance of power between western nations and the Third World since the second world war and the unspoken racial fears of ruling elites over that period.

Given the volume of public discussion about racism, one might assume that "the silent war" is an outdated motif, which describes the world only up until the 1990s. A vital part of Furedi's analysis, however, rests on an unusually candid critique of the "fashionable" obsession with prejudice. "Today we have a peculiar situation, where the constant discussion about racism helps to mystify it," he says. "The inflation of the meaning of racism transforms the term into a banality." This is exemplified by the way "racism" is understood as the behaviour by one group towards another, so that black people are seen as just as guilty of "being racist" as white people. Thus racism has become just another label for impoliteness.

Furedi's concern is that the "silent war" has not been so much resolved as recast, in a way that makes racial fears more ingrained. By hyping the most blatant, emotive manifestations of racism in history, elites can avoid discussing their racial prejudices. "It has even become fashionable to apologise for the racial misdeeds of the past. Sorry to the Irish, sorry to the Aborigines, sorry to the native Americans. It's all very politically correct," says Furedi, "but it has little to do with the legacy of racism. This noisy war on racism only serves to obscure the silent persistence of racial fears".

Jenny Bristow The Silent War: Racism, Imperialism and Ideology in the 20th Century, Pluto Press, £14.99

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