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The Limits of Multiculturalism


Since the antiracist debates of the 1990s, it has been proper parlance in leftist circles to speak of multiculturalism as a particular kind of racism.

But what does the subject of racism have to do with multiculturalism? Even if one were to disregard the unreasonable conception that the subject is racist in the sense of a “full subordination of the individual under a paranoid system of meanings and perceptions of the world” (Demirovic, 1991), a link is all too quickly forged between the violent racism of Neo-Nazis and a concept of multiculturalism that was originally located in the context of antiracist practice. Succinctly put, “In the antiracist scene, it has lately become a common position to criticize multiculturalism in civil society as racism” (Bojadzijev/Tsianos 2000).

The use of the concept “racism” thus plays a dual, ambivalent role. In the 1990s, it took hold on the left as a political concept to describe local relations; throughout the 1980s, the term had been used more broadly in relation to South Africa’s apartheid regime or to describe “racial unrest” in the USA. In contrast, racist practices and ideologies in the Federal Republic of Germany have been identified in part with the concept of xenophobia. While xenophobia appeared to have more to do with a subject’s diffuse and irrational disposition, “racism” engaged in a systematic dispute with discriminatory, racializing practices in state and societal relations. At the same time, in the post-War era in Europe, the term racism was linked with the folkish-racist politics of National Socialism to the extent that the political weight of western liberal democracies’ condemnatory declarations resonated with the racism concept as well. Against this backdrop, allegations of racism were a political weapon not to be underestimated.

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