Xenophobia and Racism

By: W. Gunther Plaut
From: Currents Vol.7, No.1 p.3
© 1991 Urban Alliance on Race Relations

Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, is as old as humanity. Strangers have always represented a danger-laden intrusion into a well-structured society, whether tribe or nation. No wonder therefore that the Hebrew Bible commands more than thirty times to befriend (or love) the stranger, reminding the Israelites that they themselves had been strangers in the land of Egypt. The moral law was directed at controlling deleterious human impulses, and treating a stranger justly became an important demand of biblical ethics.

As an apparently fundamental human trait, xenophobia has persisted into our day. The threat of the unknown seems to evoke an ingrained reaction to one's sense of stability. Emulating the biblical model, contemporary human rights law means to minimize the impact of this sentiment on societal behaviour.

Xenophobia usually stereotypes strangers and ascribes to them a panoply of negative traits. To the Romans, strangers were barbarians, incapable of appreciating the splendor of civilization; to the American slave holders, blacks were the paradigmatic strangers and therefore were invested with all manner of puritative racial shortcomings. For us, immigrants and refugees become the ready objects of xenophobic fears and racial discrimination.

From xenophobia to racism is only a short step. But while we may not be able to fully control the former we can control the effects of the latter and that is the function of law and education. The two are linked, and law itself is an educator. Thus, when a human rights code prohibits discrimination it sets up social norms; and when the code is violated and the offender brought to justice, it demonstrates the inadmissibility of such behaviour in our society. The common saying, "You can't legislate morality", allows for the continued presence of xenophobic elements, but it does not negate nay, it underscores the need for legislative education and enforcement of xenophobia's racist consequences.

In time, one may hope, the model of people from many backgrounds and cultures living peaceably together may lessen our tendency toward xenophobia and make it less likely to have it degenerate into expressions of socially harmful acts.

W. Gunther P laut, rabbi and author of 17 books, was a founder of the Urban Alliance. He holds an earned doctorate in international law, and honourary LLD degrees from University of Toronto and York University. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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