It echoes the images, semantics and rationale displayed by white supremacists in the West: migrants are stealing our jobs and housing; are faking poverty, are criminals, are invading us, are here as part of a conspiracy to replace us. One woman’s testimony is particularly telling: “She [a sub-Saharan African woman] can buy a package of couscous, I cannot even buy one. She can buy a bottle of oil, I cannot even afford one. And you’re telling me they’re blacks?” This train of thought reflects a complex situation in Tunisia, where rapid socio-economic deterioration combined with an entrenched feeling of superiority over black Africans and the president’s mounting authoritarian populism has produced an outpouring of overt racism similar to what we have witnessed in the United States. The video in question displays what falls within a broader organized campaign against sub-Saharan African migrants, one that is guided by the narrative of the Great Replacement, a theory dear to western white supremacists. This article is an attempt to frame anti-Black racism in Tunisia within its sociopolitical context, both local and global.
Racialized International Division of Labor and the Neoliberal Monster
Let us start with the basics. Since Marxist economist Samir Amin’s dependency theory, we have a pretty clear image of how postcolonial capitalist world economy functions. As a formerly colonized country, Tunisia is at the periphery of capitalism, a mode of exploitation that relies on cheap labor, the extraction of raw materials from the periphery for the benefit of Western multinationals and the monopoly of wealth in the hands of an increasingly reduced number of individuals and States.
This organization of world economy has deep racial roots. In the 1970s, a new global regime of capital accumulation was born: neoliberalism. Through privatization, commodification and financialization, neoliberalism set in motion the most accelerated and extensive process of primitive accumulation in world history. Neoliberalism generates massive surplus populations in the South and the North who are not hired as wage labor by capital, even for short periods of time. They are, as Achille Mbembe writes, “incapable of being exploited at all. They are abandoned subjects, relegated to the role of ‘superfluous humanity’. Capital almost no longer needs them to function.” Kalyan Sanyal calls these populations “wastelands”, defined by their total exclusion from capitalist exploitation, unable even to serve as a reserve army of occasional labor.
Race is the means by which neoliberalism organizes the complex boundaries between these populations and others, between the “exploitable” and the “unexploitable,” the “free” and the “unfree,” the “deserving” and the “undeserving”. To borrow from Albert Memmi, the “toothless racism” against sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia should be understood within the political economy of those who are fighting for neoliberalism’s crumbs; those who are competing over broken economies and the failure of so-called development models. We might recall here the haunting and frequent images of drowning boats transporting both Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans. This does not, of course, mean to say that racism in Tunisia is to be ignored. Rather, the idea here is to recognize that, in the grand scheme of power relationships, Tunisians themselves are at the periphery of white privilege and capitalism.
Globalization of White Supremacy: Tunisian Nationalist Party as a Symptom
When talking about whiteness, one automatically thinks of the West, far-right fascism and perhaps, if one has a good understanding of history, colonialism. For some, the question of race is outdated and could not serve any analytical purpose in the present. Race, however, both as social construct and power relationship, continues to structure today’s world. Racism today takes different forms, perhaps the most prominent being culturalism, the belief that there exist insurmountable cultural differences between certain groups, and that one culture is superior to the other. It is this belief which likely most often drives the all-too-common qualification “I’m not racist, but …”.
Whiteness is not exclusive to the West, although its modern conception was created and exported by colonial Europe. The northern part of Africa has been identified since French colonization as white, as opposed to a black sub-Saharan Africa (Afrique blanche, Afrique européenne). This distinction was institutionalized by French colonial rule, eager to divide the world according to 19th century Europe’s theory of races in order to offer a moral justification to enslaving and colonizing peoples. The colonized were framed as “savage”, “barbaric” and “primitive” so that the civilizing mission could be advanced. It is not an understatement to say that these notions still shape the way we think about Africa and Africans.
Colonized Tunisia has been construed as Mediterranean rather than African, a way for French colonial rule to include it in the great Roman empire of which it claimed to be successor. Tunisia’s post-independence national identity, greatly shaped by Bourguiba’s fascination for modernity, did not open up to Africanity but rather cemented a local understanding of whiteness, a fascination for colonial modernity and a strong colorism that links pale skin to beauty, intelligence and higher social status, and black Africa to the colonial fiction of primitiveness, savagery and underdevelopment. The Tunisian nationalist party, recognized by the State since December 2018, is a logical outcome of the country’s attachment to whiteness. Its members call for the mass expulsion of irregular sub-Saharan African migrants, the imposition of visas on sub-Saharan African countries and the abrogation of the 2018 antiracism law.
On the surface, it may appear anecdotal that Tunisia has produced a political party which promotes a discourse of “(black) African colonialism”, which frames the presence of sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia as an attempt to “rewrite history” and to “make north Africa black”. And yet the party’s leadership is holding meetings with local and regional state representatives at a time when civil society representatives have been shunned. The party’s discourse has been regurgitated by a number of public figures. Dozens of social media pages are active in the anti-Black campaign. A core component of racist activists’ strategy is to collaborate with police in reporting where irregular sub-Saharan African migrants live and work, and which individuals and organizations are helping them—a bitter parallel with the long history of collusion between law enforcement and white supremacists in the West. Facebook pages formerly affiliated with police syndicates have been active in circulating accusations against sub-Saharan African migrants for organizing fraud and prostitution networks. In recent weeks, 300 sub-Saharan migrants are reported to have been arbitrarily arrested. It should be noted that under the 1968 law regulating the entry and residence of foreigners, it is almost impossible for migrants to obtain a work permit in the country. As can be expected, and although in writing the law is the same for everyone, white Europeans have a drastically different experience working in Tunisia.
State Complicity: Racism to Cement an Imagined National Community
The 2018 law against all forms of racial discrimination has been touted as a victory for the struggle against racism in Tunisia and across the region. And indeed, it was the outcome of years of advocacy by antiracism activists that merits recognition. However, the law at its very core frames racism as an individual problem for which the State is arbitrator. But racism is always a system in which State institutions as well as political and civil society play a role, whether or not these actors are conscious of the role they play. In the case of anti-Black racism targeting sub-Saharan African migrants, racism serves as a diversion for Tunisia’s cooperation in the outsourcing of European border management, and the current government’s failure to tackle the mounting socio-economic crisis, especially with IMF-imposed austerity measures looming on the horizon. Antiblack racism also reproduces local forms of whiteness, privilege and alterity dear to nation-states.
What may be specific to the current campaign in Tunisia is its reliance on a framing conspiracy theory: the belief that sub-Saharan Africans are part of a secret plan to take over the country and racially replace Tunisians. Which is why tackling racism as an individual problem in which culprits should either be fined or imprisoned perpetuates the State’s repressive practices while allowing it to hide behind its empty salute to diversity and openness. In times of crisis, where Tunisia undoubtedly finds itself today, resorting to the creation of an internal enemy in order to maintain unity has proven efficient. Migrants are the usual suspects and serve as a reminder that nation-states are a fragile creation that continuously require national(ist) narratives. The reliance on conspiracy theory echoes the president’s repetitive allusions to elaborate plots as a means to justify his failure to address Tunisia’s problems, as he separates the Tunisians “who are honest” and in line with his own political fiction, from the Tunisians “who are traitors” and “plot against national security and people’s livelihood”. On February 21, a presidential statement officially embraced the Great Replacement theory, stating that “there is a criminal endeavor to demographically modify the composition of Tunisia, that some parties received huge funds post 2011 in order to settle irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia, pointing out that these successive waves of irregular migration would have that Tunisia be perceived as an African country only, not belonging to the Arab Muslim nation.” Beyond its overt and horrific racism, this statement should open up a conversation around the functioning of modern nation-states, how borders produce alterity and hatred, and our own attachment to global white supremacy.
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