Notes on: van Dijk, T.  (1992) Discourse and the denial of racism.Discourse and Society 3(1) 87--118

Dave Harris

There are lots of common disclaimers, discursive strategies, with cognitive and social function. He was involved in an interdisciplinary program at the University of Amsterdam, and there are several projects. Prejudice is acquired and shared among Whites 'through everyday conversation and institutional text and talk' (87). Discourse analytic approaches ought to be able to reconstruct cognitions about other groups and their societal, political and cultural functions, the way they signal group membership, allegiances and at the most general the 'conditions for the reproduction of the White group and their dominance' (88).

The work requires an explicit theory of discourse involving 'mental representations such as models, attitudes and ideologies' about ethnic groups, a psychology of social cognitions, and a study of the functions of discourse in-groups, located in a broader perspective of social cultural series of racism. The proposal is that the reproduction of racism operates first at the micro level of everyday interactions, but that this micro level implements overall structures and processes of dominance and inequality at meso and macro levels, 'groups, social formations, neighbourhoods, institutions, organisations and even nations and whole world regions'. There is an interdependency between cognition and action, mental models and practices at the micro level, social attitudes and ideologies and social structures at the macro level. Political media, academic and other elites play an important role because they have access to public discourse and a large stake in maintaining White dominance. There is a continuous interplay between elite and popular forms, but on the whole elites '"preformulate" ethnic beliefs which become popular, especially with modern everyday or new forms cultural racism. Some elite groups also oppose and promote antiracist ideologies.

Earlier work looked at topics of discourse, 'text schemata… storytelling and argumentation… local semantic movements (such as the disclaimer)… style, rhetoric and specific properties of conversational interaction' (89). The work suggested that many White people pursue 'a double strategy of positive self presentation while expressing various forms of 'negative other presentation' on the other, and the two are combined especially in public discourse.

Denial is a common strategy of in-group positive presentation since norms and values and the law prevent blatant forms of discrimination. Denials are more common within all racist discourse, suggesting that users are well aware that they may be infringing social norms or laws. Denials are both individual and social, designed to deny individuals are racists, and defending the in-group as a whole. The first type is more common in individual everyday conversation, the second in public discourse. The social forms are more influential and damaging and they help form 'the dominant White consensus', especially because few White members would 'have reason or interest to doubt, let alone to oppose such a claim'.

Keeping face and presenting positively are well known techniques of impression management [and Goffman is one of the sources]. They involve mental schemata with categories by which people are judged according to several 'social norms, interests or criteria'(90). Judgements may be local or situational, or more permanent and context independent, sometimes seen as '"personality" characteristics'. It is those that people are most concerned about, and being categorised as a racist is seen as one of these more enduring characteristics and therefore it is 'particularly face threatening'. Denial often tries to block inferences from particular instances to more general judgements, since the first kind might be more justifiable. Alternatively, negative attitudes that apply to specific characteristics are more acceptable, such as the illegal entry of refugees, and thus racism is more deniable. There can be inverted racism where accusers are seen as exaggerated, intolerant or inventing problems, serious social infractions themselves because they also affect in-group solidarity, ruin the atmosphere, prevent free speech or sincere expressions.

There can be situational or general denials, personal or group based ones, and sometimes they might be intentional. Usually denials are complementary, so individuals claim they comply with general group norms. However sometimes individuals might acknowledge that they differ from groups, but these are 'rare' because they might give too much ground to anti-racists. They can have a strategic function, however involving a 'transfer move'— I have nothing against Black people but my customers have.

Denials are usually defensive, which presupposes explicit accusation, sometimes that they've broken the law or that they have some negative personality characteristic. Denials can also be pre-emptive as in positive self presentation. Action can be a combination of cognition, intention and activity, and one may admit to being engaged in action that has been interpreted as negative but deny the negative cognitive counterparts. This places responsibility for negative action on intentions. Good intentions mean good attitudes. This is a distinction found in much criminal law as well, and here we find excuses for accidents or emotionally defined or non-planned actions, especially in spontaneous interaction. These are 'intentional denials' and are 'strategically very effective' since negative intentions are hard to prove, as we can see in discrimination trials — newspapers claim to publish in the public interest and so on [reporting minority crime prominantly is seen seen as 'among the most classical cases of media racism' (92)].

However people are usually assumed to have control over their activities and to be responsible for consequences of them. This sometimes means that they should have realised these consequences, despite their intentions. This produces four types of denial: 'act denial; control denial; intention denial; goal denial'. This may be extended, for example by claiming that if there are negative consequences, one does not have control over them, as when the media claim that the audience is beyond their control. Again there are difficulties legally here, unless acts are repeated in different situations or tacit expressions of intentions or goals were revealed. There might also be statistical calculations of consequences, sometimes regardless of intentions in law cases.

There can be mitigations, including 'downtoning, minimising or using euphemisms'. These might be particularly important where norms are stringent [so the actual offence is clear?]. Sometimes the very notion of racism can become 'virtually taboo in accusatory contexts because of its strong negative connotations' (93), and may only be used in public enclosed in quotes, or accompanied by some markers of doubtful distance such as' alleged'. Sometimes this can imply that the charge is unwarranted or preposterous, made by minorities or other anti-racists. Where racism is undeniable, other terms tend to be used such as discrimination or stereotyping, or bias [media examples?]. Terms like racism tend to be reserved for extremist right wing groups outside the consensus, or episodes in the past, or by minority groups and anti-racists. Euphemisms can therefore presuppose denial especially of systemic racism and this is 'also the case in much scholarly discourse about ethnic relations'.

This is partly because the concept of racism is still largely understood in classical terms, standing on the inferiority of other groups or the official overt practices and institutions, as in aparthedi. There are more modern and indirect forms, based on cultural difference, incompatibility. This can be seen as xenophobia, even as 'legitimate cultural self defence'.

Along with denial there are similar strategies such as 'justification' where a newspaper justifies its readers right to know, or people can justify a negative act directed to an ethnic minority by saying it is legitimate defence, that the other person was really guilty. [Compare with techniques of neutralisation]. Negative acts may be excused, seen as the result of special circumstances, [such as overcrowding]. There may be please of 'provocation and blaming the victim' (94) as when the police justify their actions against people who have failed to learn the language, do not seek jobs, pursue deviance, have other negative characteristics.

The strongest form is reversal, found among the radical right although there are also moderate forms of 'anti-– anti-– racism'. Anti-racists are intolerant busybodies and racist themselves, anti-British. This is a 'strategy of (counter) attack'.

These are strategies that individuals use to preserve their role as 'competent and decent citizens', but this depends on racism being seen as something immoral. If the elites advocate or condone racism, there is less need to denial. Now they do not do this, so they share strategies of denial, sometimes in the form of 'a consensus about the ethnic situation' (95), an assertion that there is an official belief that discrimination and racism no longer exist, so any episodes that do are mere deviations — 'institutional or systemic racism is denied'.

So public discourse is also concerned with self presentation face keeping, especially universities who brag they are equal opportunity employers as 'good PR'. Tolerance and affirmative action are 'symbols of social progress and modernity' [examples of convergence then?]. However some forms may conflict, as with positive quotas or other forms of affirmative action. There may be other functions of denial, to mitigate the effects of inconsistencies [with actual equal opportunity?].

The denial of racism has a role in reproducing it and overcoming resistance (96). Tolerance can be promoted as a national myth which makes it difficult to mount a challenge without appearing to be oversensitive and inflexible. Refusing to acknowledge that there is a serious problem, or explaining incidents away as nothing to do with racism, as with high unemployment, manages the problem. Overall the ideology 'skilfully combines humanitarian values and self interest' (96). Racists are out-groups of extremists and this helps ingroup solidarity. The management of everyday racism by other means is probably no longer possible [maybe].

There may be other cultural functions, seeing the denial of racism as a feature of Western culture like democracy or technology, or Christianity, a claim to superiority when compared with, say, Muslim fundamentalism. A case study would be the Rushdie affair, where Western values were claimed to be universal and to stress tolerance. World politics can draw on the same themes as in the Gulf war. Or the denial of neocolonialism in favour of international aid. It can all be seen as 'a strategy in the reproduction of hegemony'.

At the level of everyday conversation, crucial kinds of social interaction go on including information processing, and minority groups in ethnic relations are a major topic. It is mostly how White people learn about minorities and immigrants. They have pursued extensive analytic research into everyday talk about ethnic affairs and it has 'rather consistent properties' (98).

There is a small range of subjects focused on differences, deviance  and competition, often referring to threats to the dominant White group.
Storytelling is based around arguments, personal experience often of a negative kind, unusual occurrences that we are not used to and that the government should do something about
'Style, rhetoric and conversational interaction generally denote critical distance, if not negative attitudes', although this is mitigated with strangers, and strong aggression is avoided
Speakers follow 'a double strategy of positive self presentation and negative other presentation'.
There are frequent disclaimers such as a denial that I have anything against foreigners. These are often not supported by evidence, and so they appear as a face keeping move and often introduce a negative assertion following 'the invariable but'. Differences are constrained, so that people can appear to follow the normal tolerance although others can be rejected 'when they "go too far"' (99). Sometimes speakers are more aware of discrimination and racism and are more explicit about possible influences, saying they are aware that they might sound prejudiced — but this implies that they are not really prejudiced. One form is the denial of discrimination, sometimes accompanied by reversal — minorities say they are exploited or discriminated against. [Some examples contain stuttering]. [The topics that induced these examples are all 'threats or lies by immigrants… A murder… Cheating on welfare… A radio programme reporting discrimination… Neighbourhood services'. Poor Whites are victims of inadequate policies but 'instead of blaming the authorities or the politicians, they tend to blame the newcomers'. There is a close association with a general deterioration of life in the city. [Some old British stuff cited here]

There is not a universal consensus. Sometimes there are comparisons with native youths, 'or young people', and recognition that immigrants can be victims of discrimination. 'Such talk, however, is rather exceptional' (100) [NB N equals 170].

The media has an important role especially if people have few face-to-face dealings with minority groups. They tend to confirm 'common sense interpretations' about crime, cultural difference, violence and social welfare. Overall minorities and immigrants are seen as problems [even citing Hartman and Husband here]. The more liberal press also refer to problems parts ask liberals to do something about them. Other issues are routinely ignored such as contribution to the economy, indigenous culture, most of the topics that affect the everyday lives of minorities. This is itself a form of denial. Minorities and their institutions have little to say, mostly because there are virtually no minority journalists, even with ethnic events. There is also the idea of balance and neutrality, which, ironically, permits 'unwarranted or even ridiculous accusations' (101).

There are 'virtually no explicitly antiracist newspapers', although officially, all are against racism — serious accusations of racism must therefore be 'a figment of the imagination'. Newsworthy incidents include violence and extremism rather than attitudes. Racism is still seen as an ideology of White supremacy, with antiracists as 'a radical "loony" group'. The real enemies are anti-racists who are intolerant busybodies see racism everywhere, attacking venerable institutions.

Examples from the British press are revealing when the press is itself accused, for example by researchers: they have denied this research as unproven and a caricature, for example without further argument. Academic credentials or the University are attacked. Even moderate criticism is repelled. There is sometimes the token employment of a few minority journalists.

Specific strategies include an alternative version of truth, combined with positive self presentation [and several examples from the British press are included, mostly just assertions about the British and how tolerant they are, including how well they have absorbed Irish and Jewish immigrants]. Tolerance is seen as a weakness which might give an advantage to terrorists or other criminals. Affirmative action and liberal immigration is 'reverse discrimination… Self-destruction' (103). Excessive toleration is what needs to be opposed.

This is combined with attacks against those holding different views, upholding those spectacular examples of people convicted of racism as the victims of equality legislation, for example, persecuted by anti-racists. This is based on common sense, and only denied by outsiders.

There is moral blackmail, and allegations that antiracism involves censorship, while the press claimed the need to tell the truth and state the facts, even if it does break the norms of tolerance and understanding. Usually there is more than enough negative material which is not silenced, but this is a strategic ploy creating 'allies and enemies, victims, heroes and oppressors', in many ways a mimicry of antiracism [well spotted!].

There are more subtle denials, for example of official reports. Terms can be placed in quotation marks, or prefaced with textual shifters like claim or alleged, expressions of doubt or distance. This is often in contrast with opinions with which the newspaper agrees. It has become habitual to put sneer quotes around racism.

There is mitigation like downtoning, euphemism or circumlocution. — Race relations are described as 'fragile', subject to 'misunderstanding'. There may be impersonality as in '"there is misunderstanding"' (107).

There can be combinations of defence and offence, where supporting our side also involves attacking '"ideologically blinkered" opponents' (107). Apparent concessions such as acknowledging the difficulties of Afro-Caribbeans, is a euphemism which helps deny that racism is the result of these difficulties. Critics are accused of gaining pleasure by exposing racism, or inventing it. Irony is used as in references to '"pocket Hitlers"' (108). There are conspiracy theories about the influence of the antiracist left. A  main concern is to defend the right wing press's own image as a moral influence.

Parliamentary discourse can be analysed in similar terms, is an example of elite discourse, and the team examined some major Parliamentary debates. These are of course on the record, which means they usually prepared and therefore monitored: blatantly racist talk is likely to be rare, and more 'indirect and subtle ways' are more common. Nevertheless there are still similarities with other forms.

There is a nationalist discourse for example where racism is seen as 'a moral indictment of the nation', permitted in partisan debates, and countered with positive self presentation and self-congratulation — 'we are fair, respect human rights, have a long tradition of tolerance, et cetera' (110). There is sometimes a 'but' to follow, or an 'in practice', where pragmatism and realism are also required in the interests of harmony and fairness. The contrast between idealistic and practical aims is very common, as is reference to fairness and balance, and this can be positively presented, and supported by 'strategic argumentative moves' (111) . These can include 'apparent altruism', where policies are for the best interests of the group; choice of the lesser evil; national interest {again cf Sykes and Matza]. A predicament is recognized, but this is often a semblance and special interests are represented especially populist ones.

Denials of racism are insistent, although usually accompanied by 'but', explicitly or implicitly, invoking natural rights for hierarchy, for example, or the worries of ordinary people. Worry is a euphemism here. Sometimes racism is admitted as a local problem, or a temporary one. There are constant reminders of colourblindness, sometimes with supportive argumentation. Elite racism sometimes takes the form of denying racism among the elite by expressing worries that it might be increased among the poor.

Parliamentary debates feature tactics of reversal like the ones seen above, although it is uncommon apply to racism. The Front National has a theme of the betrayal of the French people by letting too many immigrants in which is '"anti-French racism"' (114). Overall it is necessary to present balanced policies, firm but fair, humane but not soft, essentially reasonable.

Overall discourses about ethnic minority groups and others is common, but they are also 'complex and full of contradictions' (115), inspired by tolerance and acceptance but also by 'distrust, resentment or frustration'. Stories often take a negative form overall, but they need to be managed or mitigated, to keep face. This means various denials of racism or mitigations or concessions, or, at its most aggressive, reversals. These techniques can be found at 'any social level and in any social context'(116) for ordinary people and elites. They are essential for social reproduction. There is an antiracist option which accepts minorities as equals, but so far White groups have not chosen that option.

[Naïve and has made his mind up already. There are academic reservations and doubts here, but also a rather suspicious certainty. In real life, this sort of work is deadly if it is coupled with personal certainty of an aggrieved person that they have detected offence and have been damaged by it]