As we debate matters of race and racism in this country, we should keep in mind that racism is a deeply ingrained global phenomenon. Its tentacles penetrate even the rarefied world of international finance, as exemplified by the rhetoric of the current Asian financial crisis.
Westerners in advanced economies have portrayed Asian government officials and corporate managers as profoundly corrupt and incompetent. Since the crisis erupted last summer, the media and global policymakers have repeatedly condemned reckless inefficiency, self-indulgence, cronyism, nepotism and graft in the region.
The rhetoric has been so persistent that few would question the widespread perception that Asians, Africans and others in the developing world are corrupt to the core and frequently foolish in financial matters. This all leads to the process of "othering," whereby the West creates an image of the darker inhabitants of the world, an image that helps us justify seemingly universal policies, such as transparency in economic decision-making.
Westerners rarely demean the institutional investors of the advanced economies in this way. Most discussions of such investors are faithful to the spirit of 19th century neoclassical economic theory, which unproblematically focused on perfect markets and the consumer whose only possessions are rational thought and ordered preferences.
Thus, investors in today's global financial crisis take the form of disembodied "international capital flows" or "market forces." These phenomena cannot possibly act in bad faith or callously or even recklessly. Instead, as Stanley Fischer, the International Monetary Fund's first deputy managing director, recently stated, "market forces . . . exert a disciplining influence on countries' macroeconomic policies. . . .This discipline is a valuable one, which improves overall economic performance by rewarding good policies and penalizing bad."
Even when the markets are not right, that is, when they attack a country whose economic fundamentals do not warrant the assault, they are described charitably. For example, they are said to have reacted "excessively" or "overreacted."
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia has sought to counter the Western process of "othering" by addressing Asian values. Although he has been widely--and rightly--criticized for his anti-Semitic remarks, his interventions constitute a useful counternarrative that "talks back" to Westerners.
In his speech at this year's annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank, Mahathir reminded the financial world of Asia's future. Experts have predicted that by 2025, Asia is likely to regain its position as the dominant economic region in a global economy, with a share of income that will far exceed that of the less populous West. This prospect may frighten many powerful constituencies in the West. Thus, says Mahathir, "to the yellow peril of yesteryear will be added the brown peril. The Europeans will be overwhelmed. Genghis Khan will ride again."
Mahathir also has redescribed institutional investors, aiming particularly at George Soros, calling them "unscrupulous profiteers" who "rape" the economies of host countries.
It is not surprising that Mahathir has injected color into the otherwise colorless world of international finance. Due in part to British imperialism, Malaysia has had a history of racialized economic dualism. Malays, the ethnic majority, have long been subject to social and economic discrimination by a minority composed of Europeans, Chinese and Indians. Tensions among these groups eventually ignited race riots in the late 1960s, which gave rise to affirmative action programs for Malays.
All this should remind us to think carefully about the problems of race and racism in a globalized economy. Rhetoric is not used for truth's sake. It is used to support narratives that compete for power and control, whether they relate to affirmative action in the United States or Malaysia or to the anti-corruption crusade being led by the United States and other Western powers. We must carefully examine rhetoric to uncover and contest racialized power relationships.