The roots of anti-immigrant violence

By Tunde Obadina

The recent outbreak of mob violence against foreigners in South Africa illustrates the point that racism is not peculiar to any one race or historical period.  Xenophobic attacks that claimed lives in Durban and Johannesburg targeted black people from other African countries as well as other non-white immigrants.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is not limited to treatment of foreign nationals by local people. It also relates to the uneasy relationship between host communities and migrants from other parts of the same country. In recent decades thousands of people have been killed in different parts of Nigeria in bloody clashes between so-called indigenes and settlers, often stemming from xenophobia similar to what occurred in South Africa.The display of xenophobia has been especially disturbing because it made victims of citizens of African countries that actively supported the struggle to end apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa. The violence was seen by many on the continent as a stab in the back perpetrated by black South Africans who having gained power behaved with the same bigotry as did their former oppressors. But there is more to it than ingratitude. Anti-foreigner sentiments and violence has been present in virtually every country in the world. It was not that long ago when Nigerian leaders expelled Ghanaians after blaming them for their country’s economic woes.

One of the underlying causes of anti-immigration hysteria is nationalism. This is when individuals identify with a particular group, based on geo-political origin or ethnicity or race, and believe the interests of this community are of primary importance. Nationalism often stem from the belief that those who share a common race, language, history and culture have an affinity which not only makes them different from the others but also ascribes them certain exclusive rights.

Nationalist rights often relate to property. People who identify with a particular nation or race invariably believe that their membership of that group affords preferential rights or access to things that belong to that community.

This is why rioters in South African accused outsiders of stealing jobs and business opportunities that rightly belong to the South African community. Protesters blamed their poverty or inability to prosper in their homeland on foreigners who occupy jobs, use resources and exercise opportunities that “belong” to them.

This nationalist perspective is not unique to South African. Ethnic nationalists in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta contend that the mineral resources in their region belong to local people. They demand that local inhabitants must have job preference in the oil industry on the basis that such work opportunities rightly belong to them.

This world view of entitlement raises the question, what, if anything, are the property rights that come with being a member of an ethnic or racial group? Do locals in Johannesburg, Lagos or London have intrinsic claims to products or services or other intangibles in preference to outsiders? In a society based on private property rights the answer is no. There is no birthright to jobs, housing, healthcare, transport and other goods or services that are produced by individuals or companies. Individuals possess ownership rights only to those things that they have created, purchased or been given by their owner. So it is absurd to cry that outsiders have stolen jobs or grabbed other economic opportunities because these benefits stem from private property. Even public property, such as roads and government buildings, are the property of the state.

Being a part of a community does not confer entitlement to things we have not created. If it means anything it is being given an entitlement to contribute to and to build for a common good.

The culture of entitlement that fuels anti-migrant views has been encouraged by government policies that discriminate in favour of indigenous groups. For example, affirmative action schemes that reserve jobs and benefits for local people encourage the belief among the beneficiaries that they have preferential rights to scarce resources. The Black Empowerment programme in South Africa that provided a launching pad for creating a black African wealthy elite encouraged ordinary black South Africans to think that they too, as surviving victims of apartheid, are entitled to the fruits of liberation.

What was not understood is that freedom from racial or colonial subjugation did not entail transfers of entitlement to private resources. The struggle against slavery, racism and colonial rule were not about individuals assuming control of resources that were never theirs. It was about them having the right to choose how they use what does belong to them, including their body and mind, without coercion from the state. It was a struggle to enable every individual in society to have the right to choose how and where to live; how and where to work; who to marry or not marry; etc.

Put another way, racism was the violation of the private rights of individuals based on their racial, ethnic or national origin. The oppressors used force or the threat of force to exclude members of a castigated group from participating in certain markets. Under slavery, slaves were denied self-ownership, which is the most fundamental human right, and were barred from virtually all markets. Under apartheid, the law curtailed the rights of non-whites in terms of where they could live, work, eat, school, etc. The system was not terrible because it denied black Africans entitlements to unearned benefits.  It was obnoxious because it systematically constrained black people from using resources they owned, including their labour, to the best of their ability.

When considering the underlying cause of institutional racism there is a tendency to focus on prejudice and other emotions that engender dislike of people of different origin. There is more to it. Racism and nationalism are also forms of protectionism. By excluding subjected people from participating in certain markets, discrimination protects members of the favoured community from competition. For example slavery, colonialism, apartheid and Jim Crow segregation in America protected white workers from the entry of black workers into job markets that were the preserve of whites. Hatred that many white workers felt for black people stemmed partly from fear of losing their privileged status and livelihoods, especially considering that oppressed black workers were likely to accept lower wages for jobs occupied by whites.

Unfortunately, black South Africans who attack migrants behave in a similar manner to white racists who used force to keep black people out of markets they wanted exclusive rights to.

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