Monday, August 29, 2011

Erik Bleich's "The Freedom to Be Racist?"

Erik Bleich is Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College. He writes on issues of race and ethnicity in European and American politics for both scholarly and public outlets.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Freedom to Be Racist?: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, and reported the following:
One of the most important challenges in politics involves reconciling incompatible goals. My book examines how the political process in the United States, Britain, France, Germany and other European countries sifts through the competing values of preserving as much individual freedom as possible and countering insidious forms of racism. How do we balance these values when confronted with those who insist on using liberal democratic freedoms to engage in overt racism?

The final paragraph on page 99 captures this dilemma well with respect to Germany’s struggle to contain the far right National Democratic Party (NPD) by threatening to ban it altogether from the political arena:
Pursuing the NPD was a hotly contested strategy. On the one hand, many public commentators had long argued that significant political parties should not be hounded into submission by the state—that this was a counterproductive strategy that would limit democratic freedom and that would disaffect far right sympathizers, potentially driving them underground and into more dangerous activities. On the other hand, media hype about the growth of “national liberated zones” in the East (where minorities were said to go at their physical peril) suggested that the far right in Germany was taking on new dimensions that tested the ability of the country to tolerate organized racist activities.
In most scenarios like this one, there is no clear-cut answer to the dilemma. My book examines racist speech, racist associations, and racist opinions when used as a motive to action (such as in cases of racial discrimination, or in hate crimes). I show that countries’ positions have evolved over time, and that they are often inconsistent across these different dimensions. The United States, for example, stands up more strongly for the freedom of racist speech than any other country in the world. However, it has been quickest to punish people for relying on their racism to make decisions about whom they choose to work with, or for speaking racist words while committing a crime.

In the end, I argue that we as individual citizens have to make our decisions about how much to restrict freedom in the name of fighting racism based not only upon our abstract principles. We also have to take into account national and historical contexts and the likely effects of the policies we advocate with respect to each individual case. In the end, I also suggest that it is not enough for citizens to figure out where they stand when confronting these major value clashes. We also have to ensure that our elected representatives—rather than our courts—are the primary institutions responsible for determining where our country stands in these grand democratic debates.
Learn more about The Freedom to Be Racist? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue