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Podcast / March 19 2020

Marc Lamont Hill: Racism & Refugees

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How do we solve a problem that has displaced 25 million people globally? Nelufar talks to journalist Marc Lamont Hill about the role racism plays in the global refugee crisis.

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Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.


This is Course Correction from the Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem…and meet the people who are actively working to fix it.

We’re not just a podcast — we also put on a series of live debates, with speakers who have inspiring ideas about how to change the world. Unlike other debates, we try to build bridges between people with different opinions, not pit them against each other. We’re looking for what connects us, rather than what divides us. And we want to focus on solutions.

Our first debate tackled the global refugee crisis. Now, it’s an enormous challenge that threatens to divide our world…and it’s a deeply personal issue for me and my family, because 24 years ago, we fled war in Afghanistan and sought refuge in the UK.

Today, there are 25 million refugees in the world. That’s like the entire population of Australia. All of these refugees have been forced to leave their homes, their communities, their families — only to be met with uncertainty. They don’t know where they’ll end up, which country will take them in or how they’ll rebuild their lives when they finally get there.

At the debate, each of our three speakers presented a possible path forward for solving the crisis.


All those people are human beings, like all of us. They fled difficult situations, just because they believe in a better life. Why we label them and sometimes judge them in a negative way at the time those people want hope?

I would suggest first of all, find a very clear line between people fleeing for their lives from war zones and people fleeing economic deprivation. Find and hold to a very clear line on it. If you do not, I predict with absolute certainty that you will continue to erode public sympathy with people who need sympathy the most.

We must also consider the crisis of memory. Far too often, the people clamoring to close the borders forget that they themselves were beneficiaries of openness, either as former refugees or otherwise desperate immigrants looking for new possibilities in a new land. Rather than closing the door behind us once we’ve safely passed through the door, we must do the difficult but necessary work of creating sites of safety for those who come after us.

NELUFAR: That last speaker was Marc Lamont Hill. Marc is an award-winning American journalist who’s worked as a commentator on both Fox News and CNN. He’s also a professor of media at Temple University, and was named one of America’s 100 most influential black leaders.

During the debate, Marc highlighted the important role bigotry plays in reactions to the global refugee crisis.


MARC LAMONT HILL: Simply put, we live in a world where we believe that some lives are inherently worth more than others. This belief, undergirded by white supremacy, Orientalism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, allows us to view some lives as worthy of protection, and others as disposable.


NELUFAR: I wanted to talk with Marc a little more about the role of racism in the crisis, the West’s moral responsibility and the importance of the language we use when we talk about refugees.

NELUFAR: If we look at refugees in particular, how does race play into the refugee crisis that’s affecting the world globally right now?

MARC: A big part of it is even how we decide who is a refugee and who isn’t, and under what circumstances. In the United States, sometimes we’ll use the term domestically — we’ll use the term “refugee” for people who we actually want to take care of, as opposed to people we don’t. So after Hurricane Katrina, there were people who we called “refugees” when they were looking for food and then — they were white — and then the black folk, we called “looters” when they were looking for food in the same water. Globally, sometimes the term “refugee” becomes a way to think about who’s worthy of protection and who’s not. So if someone is from Russia or 2000s Kosovo, we can say, “OK, these people need our help.” Then there are ways that darker-hued refugees — people from, say, Darfur, or Muslims. People from, say, Syria, or Somalia — we’ll say, “Well, do they share our values? Are we safe? Are they a security threat?” Even though none of the evidence suggests they are, race often shapes, colors even, how we talk about who they are and what they deserve.

NELUFAR: To that effect, then, are there deemable “good refugees” and “bad refugees” and immigrants? And what do we mean when we use those terms very loosely? That language is so important here.

MARC: Absolutely. I mean, in my political imagination, I’d say there’s no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” refugee. You’re just a refugee. And you’re a refugee because of a set of processes that are always outside of your sphere of control. You know, if you’re in Syria, you’re not a refugee because you decided to be a refugee. You’re, you’re, you’re the victim of decades of internal and global policies. For me, that’s the key. But to me, the idea of “good and bad” or “acceptable or unacceptable” isn’t the right framework. Unfortunately, we either use that language explicitly, or we smuggle it in through other means when we talk about the process. So for example, we talk about people who’ll be burdens on our economy. “Oh, we can’t let them in, they’ll be a burden.” Or “We can’t let these Mexicans in the United States, they’ll be a burden on our economy, they’ll steal the jobs!” You know, this becomes the language we use to really say they’re not the right kind of immigrants. In other countries — say, for example, in France — we’ll say, “Well, what do we do with these Algerians? I don’t know, will they disrupt our way of life?” What does that mean? It means, are they going to change our Eurocentric, white supremacist, Christian-centered norms of how the world should operate?

NELUFAR: But to be fair, if we just let everybody in because they don’t like where they live or they think that where they live isn’t good enough, then that is unsustainable. I don’t care if you’re Europe or America or the global north. So, so —

MARC: Agreed.

NELUFAR:  — so the idea of “good” and “bad” refugees might be ideologically troubling, but in reality we need it.

MARC: Well, you don’t need, you don’t need a distinction between “good” and “bad,” you just need sustainable policies. You could make the case that they’re all worthy of getting in, but we don’t have a sustainable framework for letting every single person in the world through the border. I would disagree with the idea that everybody who doesn’t like their country wants to leave. Most people don’t want to leave their country just ’cause it sucks.


MARC: A lot of people are really upset about Donald Trump right now, and they’re not trying to, they’re not looking to Canada. And there’s a good case for doing it! But they’re not, right? Most people stay. People leave when the conditions are so dire, so urgent, so pressing, that they’re left with little choice.

So those people who then leave and want to come to a place that we say, “Well, there’s not enough room for all of you.” Cool, but what do we do about it? If we say every person from Syria can’t come here, what can we do to redress the policies of the Assad regime in Syria? And we’ve had opportunities to, when we’ve literally — whether it’s changing the red line, whether it’s giving a hands-off approach, whether it’s — in other decades — actually funding the project. There are things that we’ve done to create that. So we now, we have to do work to undo that. It’s not enough to create a problem and say, “Well, I don’t, I can’t fix it,” right? I can’t set the house on fire and say I don’t have any water.

NELUFAR: But this idea I mean like of collective guilt that Americans should feel for what happened in America during slavery, or what the Europeans should feel of what happened to 20th century with the two world wars and xenophobia, the idea that Germans are responsible now for what happened with their ancestors. We cannot use those excuses to justify an open-border policy now. We just can’t. That concept itself is inherently wrong, surely?

MARC: I agree. That’s why I wouldn’t make that argument. I think it’s an ethical responsibility, not just a historical one. Although I do think they’re linked. One is, those who have more should do more — because they have more. You know, I would love the Jordanian government to do more for Palestinians, for example. But they do a whole lot. I’m not sure how much more Jordan could do. Do I think that the United States or the UK should play a larger role? Yes. Partly because of the historical record, to be sure, but also because there are more resources or more space and they have a more direct impact on policy.

NELUFAR: How important is language when we’re talking about refugees?

MARC: Language is key. Again, the use of particular terms can spotlight someone’s humanity, their worthiness — they need to invest in them. Or it can make them disposable. And so it’s very important for us to use language that is humanizing and that invokes possibility. I think that’s key. And throughout history, again, many groups have been looked at as social burdens and problems, whether it’s the black Irish in the United States, whether it’s Eastern European Jews — there’s been a language of burden that was unfair to them. It becomes anti-human, it becomes anti-Semitic, it becomes at times now anti-Muslim — xenophobic, more broadly. We have to change the approach or else we’ll continue to replicate, throughout history, the same problems.

So in Europe today, what we see is something not unlike what we saw in the 19th and 18th century with different populations. And we seem to be committed, not to changing that practice, but simply making sure we’re not the ones on the wrong end of the equation. And that, I think, is a fundamental problem.

NELUFAR: What is the problem with calling somebody “illegal” or an “alien”?

MARC: When we refer to people as “legal” versus “illegal”?


MARC: When it comes to the question of refugees, it’s very easy to lose sight of their humanity. It’s very easy to lose sight of their identity as people. And when you begin to refer to people as “alien” — literally something foreign, something outside of our social universe or our social sphere — when we refer to as “illegals” as opposed to humans — it becomes very easy to deploy policies and actions against them that are unconscionable. It’s easy to throw them away. They become nobody.

NELUFAR: So then, Marc, why are pro-refugee rights groups so woefully unsuccessful at speaking truth or bringing the facts across to the general public. Why is the discourse so easily hijacked?

MARC: Yeah.

NELUFAR: Why are we so bad at this?

MARC: We’ve been bad at it for a long time —

NELUFAR: Why are we bad at it?

MARC: — and, and I’ve been trying to figure out why, you know? Let’s think bigger.


MARC: You know, across a wider sweep of history. I think those in power within particular nation-states — or globally, if you think across nation-state borders — have a vested interest in having an exploited class. There’s a vested interest in having people who are at the bottom rung of the social ladder. That’s simply a reality. And the language that we use to frame that normalizes those relationships. That’s how we — that’s how you have people voting for Donald Trump, voting for a billionaire who wants to create policies to make more billionaires. Right? Knowing that almost no one is going to be a billionaire! But they bought into an idea and a dream that is more important to them than creating a certain kind of equality, because we’ve normalized not just the idea that there will be a gap between who has and who doesn’t have, but that it would be almost wrong to create equality for everybody. That that’s somehow anti-democratic or anti-American.

NELUFAR: If we just take a second to just really absorb what you just said: The idea in developed Western — the global north — of equality is wrong. That’s a powerful thing you’re saying. That’s insane!

MARC: And it’s terrifying! But that’s what keeps — continues to happen. And we’re moving in the wrong direction.

NELUFAR: So why is the left so palpably bad at dealing with this language, of dealing with this question?

MARC: I don’t think it’s a question of dealing with it, I think it’s a question of power dynamics. The people who are best funded, the people — the ruling class — has the ability to create the signs, to create the school, to create the curriculum, to create — to produce the political parties. And so we have wonderful lang— we have, I think we got a pretty damn persuasive and compelling argument on the left. The problem is, we don’t necessarily have the same space. It’s not opposite sides of the same coin. So we’re fighting against the machine. We’re not the machine. And so we’re at the grassroots level trying to push back, trying to grow a movement that can be louder and stronger. But we’re actually challenging what counts as common sense. The average person believes that there has to be — that there is a natural reality of rich people and poor people. Of billionaires and people who, who, who make, you know, barely living wages, if that. That’s common sense to people. It’s common sense that rich people are going to be president. It’s common sense that some people are going to have to flee the country. We’re not just picking between A or B, Democrat or Republican, or Likud versus Labor, or whatever, wherever you are. It’s not that simple. I’ll give you an example. In the United States, I voted Green. I’ve been a supporter of the Green Party for about two decades. I can — it’s much easier for me to convince a black person to vote Republican than it is to convince them to vote Green. They’d say, “Yeah, but I only have two choices.”


MARC: Getting them to imagine a third is almost impossible. Because to them, common sense within the United States context is that there are only two parties. So getting them to dream outside of the norm is a significant challenge. And you could say to me, “Well, the Green Party has the right language, they have the right agenda, everything lines up.”

NELUFAR: I was just about to say that to you.

MARC: Why aren’t people voting for them?


MARC: It’s because people have been told that it’s not possible. That it’s just not possible. And if people are told that something is not possible, then they often can’t think outside of it.

NELUFAR: How important and crucial is the role of the media when it comes to framing incredibly important and seismic debates? Like for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, or the refugee crisis.

MARC: Yeah, I mean, the media is of critical importance in trying to make sense of the social world in general. I mean, it tells us what stories matter and what stories don’t. Just by what gets covered, we have a sense of whose life is worth covering, whose life is worth covering. And then within the coverage, it helps us understand the terms of debate. We could decide what’s worth fighting for and what’s not. What’s changeable and what’s not. And the media framing, in many ways, limits — it can expand possibilities, but it often limits possibilities — for how we can understand something. So for example, with Black Lives Matter, it was incredibly important, I think, in 2014 to see — after the shootings in Ferguson — to see Black Lives Matter highlighted. Now they sometimes misrepresented the leadership of Black Lives Matter, which I think was important to highlight. Oftentimes media didn’t talk about the fact that it was three women of color, two of whom were queer-identified. That’s significant! That’s a seismic shift in how we understand leadership in the United States.


MARC: Important stuff not getting highlighted. So on the one hand, the media gave us a window into Black Lives Matter and normalized the phrase “black lives matter” — which is awesome! On the other hand, we squandered opportunities that have a deeper, more nuanced conversation about leadership, about power, about what was at stake for Black Lives Matter, which wasn’t just stopping police from shooting us. It was much deeper than that.


NELUFAR: Now increasingly, we’ve seen the global refugee crisis being hijacked by politics and political groups and parties. That politicization of the refugee crisis, it has a lot of effects. And I just wanted to get your thoughts on what that does.

MARC: Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah. It has a lot of effects, because it makes them a political football rather than a site of investment, and a site of urgency, at the humanitarian level. It becomes a question of, “Well, Donald Trump’s against it, so I have to be for it.” Or, “Merkel’s for it, so I have to be against it.” And when we frame things in that way, as political issues rather than substantive human issues, I think it gets to a very dangerous territory. Because oftentimes the choices we’re making about whether or not to embrace a policy or not aren’t informed by the economic or social or cultural climate.


MARC: But by a very particular agenda in a nation-state. And that can’t be the driving force anymore.  

NELUFAR: Are politicians irresponsible with the way that they talk about the refugee crisis?

MARC: You could have just stopped with “are politicians irresponsible?”


MARC: Yes, yes and yes.

NELUFAR: So then let me ask you again: Why have subsequent democratic and liberal governments within Europe, America — the global north —  been so woefully unsuccessful at talking about these positive aspects, or the investment needed in refugees? Why are successive governments so bad at this?

MARC: I’m saying that it might be impossible within the current framework of government and politics to have a robust and healthy approach to the refugee crisis.

NELUFAR: So then what do we do?

MARC: We change our approach to government and politics. We change the framework! We reimagine what the world could look like, because we’re always going to be unsuccessful at creating equality within power structures that demand and feed off of inequality.

NELUFAR: So one of the things that I find really interesting in the work that you’ve done on otherness that you speak a lot about, is this idea of linking violence, intolerance, otherness to specific groups. And that language seems to be pervasive. So whether we’re talking about Nigerian, economic migrants coming to Europe. Or Syrians, or — my home country, Afghanistan — people coming to Western Europe. Or Salvadorians, Venezuelans coming into America. They all seem to be intolerant, have a completely different way of life to us and are violent. And almost the same language is used when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, or Momentum, or progressive groups. Where is this coming from and how do we battle that?

MARC: I think there’s, I think there’s two things. I think, one, there is a deeply rooted fear of otherness, of black and brown people in particular. Other kinds of otherness matter, too, like Muslimness, even if you’re a white Muslim, right? There’s still something about that thing.


MARC: But I would argue it’s because they’re linking you to black and brown people.


MARC: And I think there’s a deep-seated fear of that. And so there’s no — and so that fear almost makes it impossible to see our humanity. And so whether it’s a movement that asserts that black lives matter — something which should not be really that controversial. Black lives matter, right? Or whether it’s a social policy that says we need to provide food to people who are hungry. Or shelter to people who are homeless. Because we have it.


MARC: Become something that people just aren’t easy with because they want to know what’s next. But I think there’s a broader and more overarching problem of white supremacy. And I think people want to hold onto whiteness.

There’s a wonderful book, classic book, written 1935 by W.E.B. DuBois. And he’s talking about the reconstruction period after slavery, and he asked the question, “Why would a white worker not want to end slavery?” If you’re a white worker, you should want slavery to end, too. Because if there is a slave, then clearly you’re never going to get the right wage, because there’s someone who’s doing it for nothing. Unfortunately, he said the white worker sides with the planner — the bosses, the managerial class. He said not because it makes economic sense, but because they accumulate what he called the psychic wages of whiteness. Almost whiteness as a kind of property. I want to hold onto whiteness and close ranks around that rather than my own economic interests. If you can get people to do that during slavery, if you can get people to do that when they vote Bush or Trump, if you can get people to constantly imagine that their lot is, it should be cast with their race rather than their actual material realities. You can get people to do anything. And that’s where we are right now.

NELUFAR: Marc Lamont Hill, thank you so much for joining us.

MARC: It’s a pleasure!


MARC: So what do we do? The million-dollar question that all academics hate to answer. We must resist. We must address each of these crises with the belief that organized people can and do defeat organized power. That means we vote, we march, we think, we boycott, we teach, we write, we sing, we debate. All in ways that undermine the current power structure and create the possibility for freedom and safety for refugees around the world. Thank you so very kindly.


NELUFAR: That’s all for the show today. To watch the full live debate, go to YouTube. Search for “Doha Debates.” You can see all of the speakers’ proposed solutions, and tell us what you think. What are your ideas about ways we can improve the situation of refugees everywhere?

We want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. Join us for our next episode of Course Correction from Doha Debates wherever you get your podcasts.


Course Correction is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. Special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta.

This episode was mixed by Ben Chesneau. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show. It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.