Welcome to Free Radikal... a blog by Dr Ronit Lentin
The moment Nelson Mandela died at 95, together with the mourning and celebrations across South Africa, tons of hypocritical ink have been spilt by commentators and politicians, some of whom – such as Britain’s prime minister David Cameron – had called him ‘terrorist’ during his time in jail. I have been struggling to organise my thoughts about Mandela – after the first tears and sadness came outrage. Outrage at the way he has been presented by obituary writers and opportunistic politicians as a ‘peace maker’, a man who forgave his erstwhile prison guards, working above all for reconciliation in constructing what newscasts didn’t tire of calling South Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’. And outrage at how his story is another building block in constructing present day European, US and South African societies as ‘post racial’.
Mandela indeed led to ending Apartheid and constructing a new South Africa. But he was also involved in armed insurgence against the regime. Like other iconic leaders such a s Martin Luther King, his struggle was political, not merely ‘humanistic’, and the ceaseless images of his beautiful smiling face should not erase his radicalism. While never a revolutionary, as Gary Younge writes in the Guardian, he was always a radical. Unlike other African leaders who embraced Pan Africanism or Socialism, Mandela was mostly an astute political leader guiding his country through a transitional move to democracy. He was comfortable with communism, refusing to ditch his comrades in the name of pragmatism or negotiate with the government as long as he was still in jail. In his recent condemnation of the Iraq war he said the US was “a threat to world peace”. And, like Franz Fanon, whose death occurred 52 years ago last week, he became a galvanising icon for resistance and for international solidarity with colonised and oppressed peoples, although Fanon, of course, didn’t live long enough to be appropriated as a post racialism symbol as did Mandela. Read the rest of this entry »
When I started teaching race and racism about twenty years ago, students’ response was brutal: ‘how can you, a foreigner, say that Ireland is racist? We are a friendly, welcoming people. And anyway, Irish people were victimised by the British – how can they possibly be racist?’ And my favourite: ‘There was no racism in Ireland until “these people” came’ – as if immigrants carry racism powder in their luggage.
It was the ‘as a foreigner’ bit that puzzled me. I was teaching a course that my colleague and co-author Robbie McVeigh had taught before me but there was no objection to him – a Northern Protestant – as there was to me, despite my personal experiences of antisemitism in ‘friendly’ Ireland. Perhaps I was telling it too bluntly. My first students in Trinity were teachers – I shudder to remember how opposed they were to accepting that Ireland is racist, wondering how they were going to deal with black Irish, Traveller, ‘foreign’ children? I do hope this has changed since.
And the denial continues. The ‘I am not a racist but…’ brigade keeps claiming that ‘it is not really’ racism; that it’s ignorance, personal prejudice, ‘bad apples’; that Irish immigration, asylum, direct provision and deportation policies are not ‘really’ racist’ – after all, don’t ‘we’ have the right to determine how many immigrants we let in?
But then in November 2013 you read about the treatment of members of ‘Call to Action Mixed Race Irish’ in state care in the 1950s and 1960s. As Evo Brennan says: ‘you weren’t held because of your colour. When you are held the carers wear gloves because you are contamination. You are the colour of excrement…’ She was told ‘your mother is a whore, your father’s a savage, you’re treated as a robot, as an object, as a monkey.’ Many of these mixed race people had fled to England where they could get lost in the crowd, yet they were and still are part of Ireland’s history, long before ‘these people came’. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s November 5th 2013 and I have just returned from the protest to express solidarity with the Roma and to call for an end to State racism, organised by Anti Racism Network Ireland, the Irish Traveller Movement, and the Ireland branch of the European Network against Racism. It was heartening to see so many people there, yet some of us ‘old’ antiracists, reflected on the déjà vu element: we oldies have been going on such remonstrations since at least 1997, and our first thought was ‘here we go again!’ Now as then a couple of maverick TDs spoke, representatives from various antiracist groups, and representatives of the main racialised group involved – the Dublin Roma – but one wonders how many times more shall we meet holding banners and chanting old reliable slogans… The following are some of my reflections on the most recent incident of racial persecution… here I go again…
When my mother was growing up in a picturesque spa town in northern Romania as part of a thriving Jewish community (most of whom were exiled by the Romanian fascist regime to Transnistria during World War II), she was constantly warned about children-snatching ‘gypsies’. When the family made its way to Palestine in 1940 and stayed for a few weeks in Bucharest, her parents warned her not to go out during what was a pogrom of Bucharest’s Jews – as a blonde, she would be identified as a Jew. Such are the complexities of the racialisation of Europe’s most persecuted minorities at the time – Roma and Jewish people.
The recent abductions by the Gardai – abduction is the only appropriate term (by the state, not the Roma) – of two blonde Roma children in Dublin and Athlone bring to mind not only the issue of racial profiling, but also the position of Roma people, Europe’s largest ethnic minority, in so-called civilised Europe.
A lot has been written about Roma people in the past weeks resulting from the discovery of three blonde children in Roma families in Greece and Ireland. In all three cases, it was the vigilance of ordinary (racist) members of society that led to the children being removed from their families, in Ireland in total contravention of the Child Care Act. I do not wish to reiterate these cases, even though the injustice in the Irish case is worthy of comment, but rather reflect on the way Roma people epitomise European racism at its crudest. Read the rest of this entry »
A couple of weeks ago Israeli anti-occupation activist Tamar Fleischman wrote on Facebook about an incident she witnessed at the Israeli Defence Forces Qalandia checkpoint on the West Bank, concerning a six year old Palestinian child, whose head was injured by a metal rod: ‘The father telephoned a friend, a brain injuries specialist, who told him the child had to reach an operation table within an hour if there was any chance of saving his life. It was Friday, after three o’clock, because by the time the occupation machine permitted the child and his mother (not his father) to go through to a Jerusalem hospital, five hours had passed. Perhaps five crucial hours. The child was concussed, his eyes open, his gaze unforced, his arms lifting and falling aimlessly. The father begged the soldiers to let him go with his child, but no, only the mother was permitted to go. And the man stood by his child, who didn’t really see him, and kept touching him, but the child didn’t feel it, speaking to him, but the child didn’t hear him, saying to him: ‘This is daddy, it’s daddy, my child…’ And he kept saying this, bending to touch his son’s body and the bit of his head that wasn’t bandaged, as if saying goodbye, keeping his tears until after the ambulance left, and only then burst out crying’. Read the rest of this entry »
I don’t suppose that tourists, lured to Lampedusa’s Rabbit Beach, off the southern coast of Italy, voted the world’s best beach by the travel site TripAdvisor as having ‘snow-white beaches, unspoiled nature and the crystal-clear sea filled with life’, spare a thought to the island being the primary European entry point for migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. At least not until last week’s disaster in which some 300 migrants drowned in a desperate attempt to reach ‘Europe’. Lampedusa, I suggest, epitomises the paradox of European asylum policies at their most acute.
After Lybia and Italy reached a secret agreement in 2004 that obliged Libya to accept African immigrants deported from Italy, there was a mass return of many people from Lampedusa to Libya. This didn’t last and by 2006, African immigrants were paying Lybian people smugglers to help get them to Lampedusa by boat. On arrival, most were transferred by the Italian government to reception centres in mainland Italy. Many were then released because their deportation orders were not enforced. Read the rest of this entry »