Prince Harry & Elite Racism

Royal plonkerPrince Harry, the second in line to the British throne, got in some very public hot water for racist remarks he made on video.  In the video, Prince Harry refers to one of his fellow cadets as a ‘Paki’ and another as a ‘raghead.’  For American readers, the impact of the terms Harry used may not be clear, and this statement by Iftakhar Raja, uncle of Ahmed Raza Khan, the fellow cadet that Harry demeaned, illuminates this a bit:

“I am proud to be British and if someone called me Pakistani I would be proud to be called that, but Paki is definitely a derogatory remark. We expect better from our royal family, on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.” [emphasis added]

More about the schooling in a moment.   The video was made three years ago and only just now been heard in public, but the elasped time is no excuse, according to Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadan Foundation a Muslim youth organization in the UK, said he was shocked and saddened:

“This rant, whether today or three years ago is sickening and he should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.”

While some have pointed out to the supreme irony of Harry’s military service which makes it an offense “to call them ragheads, but not to shoot them,” as a commenter at this blog noted, others have suggested that they do not find such expressions surprising given Harry’s appearance at a party in a Nazi uniform (Creative Commons License photo credit: psd).  Still others have said that this is merely an aberration that demonstrates ‘racism is a dying activity.’

What strikes me about this very telling incident is the way that it reveals a rupture in the usual operation of what Dutch scholar T.A. van Dijk calls the elite discourse and reproduction of racism.  In his research, van Dijk writes the following:

“Elite racism today is seldom overt and blatant. Rather it often takes the modern form of ‘new’ or ‘symbolic’ racism and is typically enacted in the many forms of subtle and indirect discrimination (in action and discourse) in everyday situations controlled by  these elites. It is also enacted whenever elite interests are threatened, for instance in hiring and affirmative action, cultural beliefs, political power, and so on (Barker, 1981; Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986; Essed, 1990, 1991; Wellman, 1977). Because of their positive self-image as tolerant citizens, elites’ racism is typically denied and therefore hard to oppose (van Dijk, 1992). One of the strategies of denial is precisely to attribute racism to the white lower class or the ‘poor inner cities,’ or to identify racism exclusively with the ideologies of the extreme Right (van Dijk, 1993, p.5).”

The outrage over Prince Harry’s recently revealed racism has everything to do with his class position.  As the uncle, quoted above, noted,  “We expect better from our royal family, on whom we spend millions and millions of pounds for training and schooling.And, indeed, it’s true that British citizens do spend millions of pounds on the royal family, who did little for this enormous sum beyond appearing at ceremonial occasions. It’s interesting then that this, rather than anti-racism or simple, human decency, are the standards to which Prince Harry is held.  He’s a disappointment for his overt expressions of racism, when as van Dijk points out, elite racism is seldom overt and blatant. Again, Sheila MacVicar, blogging at World Watch for CBS News, once again captures the class expectations around expressions of elite racism when she writes:

“No one thinks Harry is a racist, at least in the visceral Ku Klux Klan sense of the word. But he is part of a culture where this casual, everyday racism is prevalent and no one seems to pay much attention.”

One wonders what it would take for Harry to be a racist.  What seems clear from this incident is that there are different expectations for expressions of racism. The kinds of asinine remarks and behavior of Prince Harry are, in many ways, inconsequential even if offensive.   What we need to be more attuned to are, as van Dijk points out, the articulate, seemingly well-argued, apparently moderate and humane expressions of elite racism that effectively establishes, maintains, and legitimates the dominance of the white group in the increasingly multiethnic societies of Western Europe and Northern America.