Schuermans maesschalck

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Schuermans maesschalck

  1. 1. Fear of crime as a political weapon: Explaining the rise ofextreme-right politics in the Flemish countryside DRAFT – please do not quote without permissionNICK SCHUERMANS, FILIP DE MAESSCHALCKAfdeling Sociale en Economische GeografieDepartement Aard- en OmgevingswetenschappenKatholieke Universiteit LeuvenCelestijnenlaan 200E3001 HeverleeBelgiumNick.Schuermans@ees.kuleuven.beFilip.DeMaesschalck@ees.kuleuven.be 1
  2. 2. AbstractOur qualitative focus group research on feelings of insecurity in rural andsuburban Flanders demonstrates how fear of crime impacts on the everydaylife of middle class ‘white’ Flemings. The study reveals a widespread fear ofcities and what we call ‘islands of otherness’ outside these cities, while therest of the countryside is considered to be much safer. This geography of fearhas its origins in the respondents’ fear of foreigners and the metaphoricalracialization of the Flemish landscape in ‘multicultural’ cities, ‘islands ofotherness’ and ‘white’ villages. In this article, we focus on the dialecticsbetween this spatialized culture of fear, ethnocentrism and the rise of theVlaams Belang in the Flemish countryside. We argue that a rural or suburbanvote for the extreme-right wing party is an ethnocentric protest vote againstthe racialization and the insecurity of the central cities and against theimagined infection of the ‘white’ and ‘safe’ countryside with urban diseaseslike crime and foreigners. As such, the article shows how central the notionsof fear of crime, race and ethnocentrism are in the social, cultural, emotionaland political construction of rural and suburban Flanders. 2
  3. 3. IntroductionReviews of the literature on fear of crime conclude that there is a manifestlack of agreement on its underlying causes (Hale, 1996). Most criminologists,for example, take the objectively quantifiable risk to become a victim of crimeas their starting point, while urban planners generally consider physical orsocial characteristics of neighborhoods (Pain, 2000). Explanations based onthe poor design of public space, crime statistics or community deteriorationhave recently been criticized, however, because they ‘tend towards theindividualistic and deterministic and miss discussions about the socialstructures and power relations which surround offenders, victims and thosewho fear crime’ (Shirlow and Pain, 2003: 20). A growing body of literaturetherefore suggests that the social, cultural and emotional aspects ofgeographical experience should be more central to research on fear of crime(Pain, 2000). This implies attention for the way social power relationsinterweave with identity questions to dominate the use and misuse of space(Little, Panelli and Kraack, 2005). Koskela (1999), for example, did notattribute the fear of her female respondents in Helsinki to crime waves, badstreet lighting or individualism, but to male domination in the city and the wayit affects women’s sense of vulnerability to sexual harassment, violent attacksand criminal offences in general.Now that the complexity of fear of crime has become recognized, standardresearch methods are reconsidered as well. Quantitative surveys withquestions such as ‘How safe do you feel or would you feel being out alone in 3
  4. 4. your neighborhood at night?’ have been criticized because they mix actualwith hypothetical assessments and because they only consider fear in specificcircumstances, namely in the neighbourhood of the respondent, withoutcompany and at night (Hale, 1996). Moreover, and more importantly, theytreat fear of crime as a concrete attribute of individuals rather than aproblematic social construction. Consequently, social and culturalgeographers have turned to qualitative research methods (Pain, 1997; Day,1999).In this article, we seek to further this qualitative research through a threefoldcritique of the framework outlined above. First, we must acknowledge thatgeographers have not paid enough attention to fear of crime in rural andsuburban environments (Pain, 2000; Panelli, Little and Kraack, 2004).Because the simplistic assumption that people feel safe outside the big citieshas not been exposed to much critical examination, we will discuss the resultsof a focus group research on feelings of insecurity in rural and suburbanFlanders. The study will demonstrate that a lot of ‘white’ middle classFlemings are not only afraid in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, but alsoin a limited number of similar places in their own villages.Secondly, we would like to argue that a strong focus on social exclusion hasdiverted attention from the fact that fear of crime is often politically constructedand used in the exercise of political power (Shirlow and Pain, 2003; Robin,2004; Pain and Smith, 2008). Because the manipulation of fear of crime as apolitical weapon remains under-researched, even though it is generally 4
  5. 5. accepted that politicians play to everyday fears and that fear takes its shapefrom political elites, the last section of this paper will focus on spatializeddiscourses on fear as possible explanations of the recent electoral success ofthe extreme-right Vlaams Belang (VB)1 in Flanders (De Maesschalck, 2000).Our explorative analysis of VB manifestoes and newspaper articles willdemonstrate that fear is a central component of the VB discourse, even on thecountryside. This will help us to explain why the ethnocentric party could reap24.2 per cent of the Flemish votes in the most recent regional elections ofJune 2004.Thirdly, critics argue that feminist geographers have dominated the field todate. Their interest in spatialized gender politics has definitely led to arenewed investigation of fear as a force structuring women’s everyday life, butit has minimized, at the same time, the attention for race, class or age asinterlocking and overlapping positions in frightening situations (Day, 1999;Kern, 2005). Since we believe that an in-depth investigation of the role ofrace, ethnicity and ethnocentrism is missing in most current studies on fear,the middle sections of this paper will discuss racialized understandings of fearof crime in popular and political discourses from a geographical perspective.More concretely, we will explain the geography of fear and the associatedelectoral success of the VB through the omnipresent fear of foreigners on thecountryside and the metaphorical racialization of the segregated Flemishlandscape in ‘white’ villages, ‘islands of otherness’ and ‘multicultural’ cities.Ethnocentrism in rural and suburban Flanders 5
  6. 6. To address this triple critique, it will be necessary to focus on the spatialvariation of ethnocentrism in Flanders first. After all, fear of foreigners ishighest among most prejudiced or most ethnocentric persons (Day, 1999:310)and everyday racism is the main determinant influencing a vote for the VB(Billiet and de Witte, 2008). In addition, people with a negative attitude tocultural diversity avoid racialized places more often too (Ackaert and VanCraen, 2005). Because fear, voting for the extreme right and negativeattitudes towards ethnic minorities are so intimately connected, the firstsection of this paper will question whether inhabitants of Flemish cities with alot of foreigners are, in general, more or less ethnocentric than those of ruralor suburban municipalities where these are rather rare.To answer such a question, a multi-level analysis is the most suitabletechnique. It is a form of regression analysis whereby, after the computationof a general regression equation, the remaining variance is split into anindividual variance and an inter-group variance. The former is a measure fordifferences on the individual level, the latter for differences betweenmunicipalities. As such, the technique determines whether geographicaldifferences in ethnocentrism are context-related or a compound effect ofcharacteristics at the personal level. It also allows for the construction ofseparate regression equations for different municipalities (Jones, 1991;Jones, Johnston and Pattie, 1992; Duncan, 1997). 6
  7. 7. In a first analysis, we use one independent variable at the level of theindividuals, the net household income2, and one at the level of themunicipalities, the percentage of non-European foreigners. The dependentvariable is a compound scale of ethnocentrism based on eight questions witha value from one to five, resulting in a scale with a minimum of eight (veryethnocentric) and a maximum of forty (not ethnocentric)3. For the 4,239 votersfrom 361 municipalities that were interviewed after the federal elections of1999 (ISPO/PIOP, 2002)4, ethnocentrism turns out to be negatively relatedwith income and with the number of non-European foreigners in amunicipality. This means that in our sample higher incomes and higherpercentages of non-European foreigners go, on average, together with lowerlevels of ethnocentrism (model 1 in table 1).Table 1. Output of the multi-level analyses (SAS – Proc Mixed) 7
  8. 8. Figure 1. Levels of ethnocentrism by income in Flemish and Brusselsmunicipalities 8
  9. 9. Starting from the variance at the municipal level, the intercepts and incomeslopes of the different municipalities can be computed and plotted (figure 1)5.On the resulting graph, it is striking that, on the one hand, a lot of rural andsuburban municipalities show levels of ethnocentrism which are at least ashigh as those of urban areas like Antwerp or Ghent. The municipalities of theBrussels Capital Region, on the other hand, exhibit low levels ofethnocentrism. Interestingly enough, the municipalities in the Brussels CapitalRegion with the highest levels of ethnocentrism are the most suburban ones(De Maesschalck and Luyten, 2006). The hypothesis that there is noethnocentrism outside the cities, because there are no foreigners, is thusclearly disproved. As noted in the general model, inhabitants of municipalitieswith a lot of non-European foreigners are in general even less ethnocentricthan those of municipalities where these are rather rare. In the followingsections we will link these high levels of rural and suburban ethnocentrismwith local discourses on fear and associated political rhetoric.Racialization and fear of crime in the cityTo find out how people in rural and suburban Flanders talk about feelings ofinsecurity, we set up meetings with four different groups: male secondaryschool students in Haacht, a group of neighbors in Liedekerke, traincommuters in Rotselaar and women in Overpelt (figure 2). Each focus groupcontained ten to twenty people and was gathered three times for about twohours. In order to increase the credibility and transferability of our data (in the 9
  10. 10. meaning of Baxter and Eyles, 1997), every group was confronted with quotesfrom the three other groups in the last session.Figure 2. Percentage of non-EU foreigners in Flanders and Brussels (2003)Since we did not propose any discussion topics, people came up with a broadrange of issues, including food poisoning, soil pollution, road safety, terrorism,drugs, theft and violence. Fear of crime, however, was the most importantone. Invariably, this topic came up spontaneously and was discussed ratherextensively, especially in urban areas. When we asked the students inHaacht, for example, to propose a subject related to fear or insecurity, thetown of Mechelen was the first thing that came to their mind. Some studentstold us they did not dare to walk around in Mechelen after dark. Others did,but kept a constant eye on their belongings. In the other focus groups, similarstories were told: 10
  11. 11. ‘They were the only Belgians left in the street. On our visits, I checked my car at least seven times, just to make sure they were not doing anything bad’ (Danny, male, Rotselaar about visiting his family in Brussels and his fear of the other residents)6Our respondents avoided certain urban neighborhoods or even completecities because of their fears. When a student from Haacht remarked he wouldnever walk around in Mechelen after ten o’clock, almost half of his classmatesagreed. In fact, even the commuters from Rotselaar admitted they would notgo to Brussels if they would not work there: ‘In Brussels it is terrible. There are a lot of Moroccans and Turks and so on. I would not like to be left behind alone there, especially in the evenings’ (Bart, male, Haacht) ‘Last Sunday, I have been there, in the city. And in that place, it was close to the zoo. I don’t know the name. And I said it has completely changed. Only strangers. I didn’t feel comfortable there and I said, come on, let’s get out of here’ (Monique, female, Overpelt about Antwerp)To explain this fear in the city, two points have to be made. First, therespondents rarely explained their fears in a discourse that focused on thedegradation of the built environment or the higher risk to become a victim ofcrime. Their fears were largely inspired by an ethnocentric fear of ‘others’, 11
  12. 12. visibly racialized ‘others’ in particular: ‘strangers’ in Antwerp and ‘Moroccans’and ‘Turks’ in Brussels. According to Smith (1984, in Pain, 2000: 377), thisimplicit connection between foreigners and crime should be seen as a way ofmanaging and negotiating danger. As everyone can be a potential criminal,labelling criminals with certain social markers increases personal feelings ofpower and security. Because of the illusion that white people do not commitcrime, but only certain social groups that can be clearly identified by theirphysical appearance, people feel safer in encounters with unfamiliar people: ‘Actually, you will always feel a bit unsafe. If it is dark outside, and there is a group of Moroccans or I don’t know what, and you pass them. Then you will always feel a bit unsafe, don’t you?’ (Wim, male, Haacht, about Mechelen)Secondly, it is crucial that the participants in the focus groups did not think ofthe city as a simple concentration of foreigners, but as an intensely racializedplace (Bonnett and Nayak, 2003; Sundstrom, 2003). The interviewees inLiedekerke, Overpelt, Rotselaar and Haacht developed their spatialimaginaries through a thoroughly racialized interpretation of city life and city-dwellers and, as such, they assigned racial meanings to urban environments.Drawing on Kobayashi and Peake’s (2000, p. 395) observation that‘racialization always has a specific geography, and all geographies areracialized’, we thus agree with Van der Horst (2003) ‘s contention that thespatial expression of European life is racialized, just as American space ismarked by the division in ‘black’ inner cities and ‘white’ suburbs. Such a 12
  13. 13. metaphorical link between race and space was evident, for example, whenrespondents in Rotselaar and Overpelt talked about Antwerp or Ostend as ifthey were places where only foreigners hang out: ‘Wherever you go, you don’t meet a single Belgian anymore. […] It has become a strange city, because of these foreigners’ (Ivo, male, Rotselaar, about Ostend) ‘There were only strangers. You didn’t see any Belgians. Only strangers. […] You were the only Belgian around’ (Hilde, female, Overpelt, about Antwerp)Similar statements can be found above in the discourse of Danny on Brussels(‘the only Belgians left in the street’) and Monique on the neighborhoodaround the Antwerp zoo (‘only strangers’). For these respondents, urbanism isundeniably associated with the presence of what they call ‘strangers’. Theirimagined city is so ‘black’, so racialized, that it has become ‘a strange city’where they are ‘strangers’ themselves: ‘On a school trip, we were sitting in the Brussels underground and there were so many blacks and Moroccans. My [friend] comes from Mechelen, so he was a racist already. All of a sudden he tells me, but really loudly “I really feel like a stranger here”’ (Bram, male, Haacht) 13
  14. 14. These two points allow us to understand why most interviewed rural andsuburban dwellers change their behaviour in urban environments and whythey avoid certain neighborhoods, or even complete cities, after dark. Theirconduct is the result of the triple connection between urbanism, foreignersand crime. Since the respondents make a direct link between urbanism andforeigners and between foreigners and crime, they associate urbanenvironments immediately with unsafety and insecurity. As such, we canconclude that it is through the racialization of the urban landscape that fear ofthe criminal, which comes down to fear of the foreigner, gets encoded inspace, so that cities are feared, not criminals (Day, 1999: 314)7.Racialization and fear of crime outside the cityEnglish geographers stress that the darkening of urban areas goes hand inhand with the whitening of rural and suburban environments (Agyeman andSpooner, 1997; Bonnett, 2002). While popular discourse represents cities likeManchester and London as a disruption to the authenticity of England, theEnglish countryside may be described as a ‘repository of white values,ideologies and lifestyles’ (Hubbard, 2005: 12). As racialized others aredeemed out-of-place in traditional ‘white’ villages, Tyler (2003: 408) concludesthat the idea of the village is a ‘potent symbol in the construction and controlof a racialized set of specifically middle class values’.This racialization of the village as a ‘white’ space was evident in our focusgroups too. When we asked the participants in Overpelt how they would 14
  15. 15. describe their village, they did not think about the great number of Dutchimmigrants, Turks, Moroccans and asylum seekers. In stead, they referred tosociability and solidarity, followed by a carefully pronounced ‘And still fewstrangers as yet’. In the same way as they exaggerated the presence of NorthAfricans, ‘blacks’ and other ‘strangers’ in Antwerp, Brussels and Mechelen,they downplayed their presence in their own living environments.Initially, this caricatural division of the real ethnic and racial landscape in‘black’ cities and ‘white’ villages led to a similar dichotomy regarding fear ofcrime. All respondents considered the countryside to be much safer than thecity. The students in Haacht, for instance, immediately referred to the city ofMechelen as a dangerous place. Only after some specific questions, theyadmitted that they sometimes felt unsafe in their own villages too. In the sameway, a lot of people in Liedekerke told us they were too afraid to go toBrussels, while they did not avoid any places in their own village, even afterdark.In our understanding, these spatial imaginaries rest on the double racializationof criminality and space. Because criminality is automatically projected onforeigners, the contrast between the ‘white’ countryside and the ‘black’ cityinitially results in an interrelated dichotomy between the ‘safe’ countryside andthe ‘unsafe’ city. In the imagination of ethnocentric rural and suburbanresidents, dangerous foreigners are confined to towns and cities, while therural and suburban landscape is aligned with ‘whiteness’ and the absence ofdanger (Agyeman and Spooner, 1997: 199). The idea that the village is much 15
  16. 16. safer than the city is thus the spatial effect of the ethnocentric assumption thatonly so-called ‘strangers’ are criminals. It is precisely because of theconnection between foreigners, criminality and cities, that rural and suburbandwellers initially feel relatively safe in their own villages.The utopian vision of ‘stranger’ and crime free villages has, however, beenshattered by reality. According to the latest victimization surveys, there is, onaverage, more attempted burglaries in rural municipalities than in regionaltowns like Ostend or Mechelen (Federale Politie, 2006). In addition, there isnot a single Flemish municipality without foreigners. Even municipalities withless than 100 foreigners are rare (Kesteloot, 2006; figure 2). It is true thatTurks and Moroccans are mainly living in cities, but also in villages likeLiedekerke or Overpelt they are moving into inexpensive working classhouses. (Kesteloot, 2006). Unsurprisingly, the respondents often projectedtheir fears on these local foreigners (cfr. Meert et al., 2004): ‘I know people living between Kortrijk and Menen. They have built a wall around their house and really, they are all sitting in their rooms with guns and after six o’clock in the evening they don’t go out anymore. That’s because of these North Africans from France’ (Jef, male, Wezemaal) ‘If I pass the Valkenhof [asylum centre] in the evening, and those real blacks are there, I have nothing against them, but for me they are more scary than someone who is not black’ (Gerda, female, Overpelt) 16
  17. 17. In Liedekerke, the respondents initially could not come up with any goodreasons to be afraid in their own village. Only after insisting, they started totalk about a local crime wave. The suspects were not Belgians, but EasternEuropeans: ‘Lately it has started here with these Serbs, Romanians, …’ ‘Poles, Kosovars, Albanians’ (Ward and Dieter, male, Liedekerke) ‘It is beginning here. If you see that Eastern European countries, Romania, Poland, … Last week they have run in another one breaking into a house’ (Patrick, male, Liedekerke) ‘It is not Belgians that they run in. It is always strangers. I am not a racist, but it’s true’ (Ingrid, female, Liedekerke)For the respondents, criminal offences on the countryside were inextricablybound up with the presence of foreigners. In their perception, rural andsuburban crime was only committed by what they call ‘strangers’. Theethnocentric association between crime or fear of crime and ‘real blacks’,‘North Africans’ or ‘Eastern European’ gangsters was patently obvious. Withphrases such as ‘lately it has started here’ and ‘now it is beginning here’, thepeople in Liedekerke even insinuated that their village was crime free until thearrival of these foreigners. 17
  18. 18. This does not imply, however, that the respondents feared their immediateliving environments in the same way as they feared the city. The intervieweesdid not consider Rotselaar, Overpelt, Haacht or Liedekerke as frightening asBrussels, Antwerp or Mechelen. Despite the increased visibility of foreignersoutside cities, the sense of safety that is associated with the racialization ofthe rural and the suburban as a ‘white’ space remained largely intact. Whenthis representation was under threat, for example because of the constructionof an asylum centre in Lindel (Overpelt), the resulting ‘otherness’ was spatiallyconfined and contained: ‘In here it happens as well, in the Holheide district, a separate district of Lindel. A lot of strangers are living there. And in the evening, towards half-past nine – ten o’clock, they all flock together and make the district unsafe’ (Monique, female, Overpelt)Monique could not tell us whether these ‘strangers’ from Holheide were adultsor children. She avoided the district, especially after sunset, just like a lot ofothers in the focus group (cfr. Ackaert and Van Craen, 2005). In a similar way,people in other focus groups told us they kept away from certain streetcorners, squares or districts in their villages. These places were generallystigmatised because of the presence of foreigners and therefore excludedfrom mainstream village life, as evident when Monique calls the area aroundthe asylum centre a ‘separate district’ of Lindel. 18
  19. 19. By marking off such ‘islands of otherness’, rural and suburban dwellers do notneed to cast doubt on the racialization of the rest of their living environmentsas ‘white’ and the sense of security that comes with it. The racialization of theFlemish landscape in ‘black’ cities, ‘white’ villages and ‘islands of otherness’has thus the same effect as the racialization of criminality. Just as everyoneyou meet could be a criminal, crime can be committed everywhere. The ideathat crime is almost exclusively committed by foreigners, and consequentlypractically only occurs in big cities and a number of ‘islands of otherness’ isthus liberating. Through the association of crime with certain people andcertain places, it is distanced from the self, both socially and geographically(Pain, 1997: 236). This leads to an excessive sense of security in other placesor with other people.Fear of crime and the rise of the Vlaams BelangIn the last section of this article, we will demonstrate that fear of crime is notonly a core element in the spatial images of rural and suburban dwellers, butalso in the political discourses of the VB. Traditionally, the growth of one themost successful extreme-right wing parties in Europe has been explained byits populist rhetoric on racism and security (Billiet and de Witte, 2008).Because the countryside has always been thought to be problem-free in termsof immigration, integration and crime, the recent rise of the VB in rural andsuburban Flanders has surprised a lot of analysts (figure 38; De Decker,Kesteloot, De Maesschalck and Vranken, 2005). Our explorative analysis ofparty manifestoes and newspaper articles summarized below clearly 19
  20. 20. demonstrates, however, that the popular ethnocentric imaginations aroundfear, ‘strangers’, villages and cities have their origins in, and are beingconfirmed by, the ethnocentric discourse that the VB propagates. This has,however, not always been the case. Only in 1987, insecurity made its firstexplicit appearance in the party manifesto (De Maesschalck and Loopmans,2003):Figure 3. The growth of the extreme-right Vlaams Belang in municipalelections (1982-2006) ‘We are worried about increasing insecurity on the street, in the shop and often even at home. Crime is on the increase. In ever more neighborhoods of our big and medium-sized cities it is not advisable to go out after dark’ (Vlaams Blok, 1987) 20
  21. 21. Initially, the party connected urbanism and insecurity without any explicitreference to foreigners, but four years later, the VB already blamed them forthe ‘increasing insecurity’ in cities (De Maesschalck and Loopmans, 2003): ‘A recent state police report proves that crime rates among non- European foreigners are four times higher than among the own population. 33 percent of the imprisoned criminals are foreigners’ (Vlaams Blok, 1991) ‘Masses of Turks, Moroccans, etc. are sticking together in our big cities. Second and third generation youngsters are uprooted and form an enduring focus of dissatisfaction and crime’ (Vlaams Blok, 1991)These explicit links between cities, foreigners and crime eventually becamethe backbone of the party (Swyngedouw, 2001). The three V’s (Veiligheid,Vreemdelingen, Vlaanderen – Security, Strangers, Flanders) were the VB’sbig hit story. The ethnocentric party could reap 24.2 per cent of the Flemishvotes in the most recent regional elections of June 2004 because it used fearof crime to attract political power. The party stands for a repressive policy thatfights crime by all means, and in this way it can promise its electorate to beable to live, work and shop again safely in the city centers they fear so much.With zero-tolerance policing and the forced repatriation of criminal immigrants,the VB proposes middle class urban, suburban and rural dwellers to securethe city against crime and frightening foreigners (De Decker, Kesteloot, DeMaesschalck and Vranken, 2005). 21
  22. 22. Initially, the VB discourse was mainly directed at urban areas. From the 2006elections onwards, Filip Dewinter, the VB leader in the Flemish parliament,however, explicitly aimed to exploit rural and suburban fears with thecatchphrase ‘liveable Flanders’: ‘In the cities, a vote for the VB is often an offensive vote against crime and foreigners. In the green belt, it is in the first place a defensive vote against the problems of the cities. Flanders threatens to become one large urban area. Against that, we oppose the rural image of liveable Flanders’ (Filip Dewinter, in Cochez, 2006)In Schoten, a suburban village in the agglomeration of Antwerp, the VBobtained its highest vote percentage in 2006. The local party leader andmember of the Flemish parliament, Marie-Rose Morel, stated: ‘We want to stop the spread of Antwerp with its traffic and crime. You say Schoten only counts fifty-five Moroccans? This number can always increase. It isn’t wrong to think about the future, is it?’ (Brinckman, 2006)These two quotes make clear that a vote for the VB in places like Liedekerke,Schoten or Overpelt should not only be understood as an ethnocentric protestvote against the insecurity and racialization of Antwerp, Mechelen andBrussels. In rural and suburban municipalities, the electoral success of the VB 22
  23. 23. also reflects the ethnocentric longing for a mythic ‘whiteness’ and the sense ofsecurity that comes with it. In this way, a rural or suburban vote for the VB iswhat Filip Dewinter (cfr. supra) calls a ‘defensive vote’, or what De Deckerand Kesteloot (2000: 257) call an ‘anticipatory vote’, a vote that has to stopthe imagined ‘infection’ of the countryside with urban ‘diseases’ like crime,Moroccans and other foreigners. As such, the VB does not only politicize thepopular discourse on the insecurity of the central cities, but also the feelingsof safety attached to the desired ‘whiteness’ of the rest of the country.Discussion and conclusionOur focus group research in Haacht, Rotselaar, Overpelt and Liedekerkerevealed that a lot of respondents felt not only unsafe in cities like Brussels,Antwerp or Mechelen, but also in so-called ‘islands of otherness’ in their ownvillages. Most interviewees changed their behaviour in these environmentsand avoided certain neighborhoods or complete cities, especially after dark.We argued that their conduct was mainly inspired by an ethnocentric fear of‘strangers’. Through the racialization of space, the categorisation andsimplification of humanity in ‘Belgian’ and ‘stranger’, ‘white’ and ‘black’, ‘good’and ‘bad’, ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’, ‘reassuring’ and ‘frightening’, does not only workbetween different groups of people, but also between different places.Because of the ethnocentric assumption that criminals are ‘strangers’ and that‘strangers’ are criminals, places which are metaphorically filled with‘strangers’, like ‘multicultural’ cities and ‘islands of otherness’, areautomatically frightening for a lot of rural and suburban dwellers. 23
  24. 24. Our study made also clear that the growing electorate of the VB in rural andsuburban Flanders is symptomatic for these high levels of fear since the VBdiscourse appeals to rural and suburban dwellers in two ways. On the onehand, the VB takes advantage of protest votes against the unsafety and theinsecurity of the city centres. On the other hand, the party politicizes theimagined infection of the ‘white’ and ‘safe’ countryside with criminalforeigners. Because of this double attraction, we believe that the electoralpotential of the VB is even higher in rural and suburban areas than in thetraditional extreme-right bastions like Antwerp and Mechelen.Despite the ethnocentric fears and voting patterns, the participants of thefocus groups did not consider themselves ethnocentric. Statements givingevidence of an ethnocentric attitude were often accompanied by phrases like‘I am not a racist, but…’ or ‘I have nothing against them, but…’ (cfr. supra). Inthis way, the respondents denied their own ethnocentric attitudes andprojected them on cities and city dwellers. This was most obvious when Bramfrom Haacht said his friend from Mechelen felt like a ‘stranger’ on a school tripto Brussels: ‘My [friend] comes from Mechelen, so he was a racist already’.Despite the high levels of ethnocentrism observed on the countryside, Bramthus reinforced the notion that ethnocentrism can only spatially occur where‘strangers’ live: in a town like Mechelen, but not on the countryside of Haacht(cfr. Watt, 1998: 688). 24
  25. 25. Just as Bram projected foreigners and ethnocentrism on cities, studies onrace, racialization or ethnocentrism have focused primarily on urban areas(Agyeman and Spooner, 1997). Our findings make us conclude that socialand cultural geography has been blind to the problems of rural and suburbanethnocentrism, ethnocentric fear and ethnocentric voting for too long. Therefusal to study the relationships between race, racism and rurality has oftenbeen premised on the idea that it is the presence of foreigners which createsa race problem and that therefore, without this presence, the issue becomessuperfluous and irrelevant (Neal, 2002: 448). Our racialized and politicizedanalysis of rural and suburban fear forces us, however, to think beyond thedeeply disturbing cliché that ‘white’ areas do not have a race problem(Bonnett, 1999). Our findings have demonstrated, indeed, that the notions offear of crime, race and ethnocentrism are very central to the social, cultural,emotional and political construction of the Flemish rural and suburbanlandscape. The interrelations we have found between the omnipresent fear offoreigners, the rise of the VB and the high levels of ethnocentrism in rural andsuburban Flanders, make us plead for a renewed interest in rurality, politicsand racialization in geographical studies on fear of crime.AcknowledgementsThis article could not have been realized without the energetic support ofHenk Meert. Together with Lieve Coorevits and Herlinda Maes, he set up thefocus group interviews on feelings of insecurity for the King BaudouinFoundation (Albers and Teller, 2006) and together with Pascal De Decker, 25
  26. 26. Marcia England, Chris Kesteloot, Bruno Meeus and Stephanie Simon, heprovided us with comprehensive comments on draft versions of this text.Henk’s death means a tremendous loss of intellectual power to the strugglefor social justice and of a fantastic friend and colleague at our institute.Nick Schuermans’ PhD research is funded by a grant of the Institute for thePromotion of Innovation through Science and Technology in Flanders (IWT-Vlaanderen).Notes1 Vlaams Belang was called Vlaams Blok until the party was sentenced forracism in 2004.2 While the income variable contains twenty-eight categories (broken downinto categories of 20,000 Belgian Francs or 496 EURO), education containsonly five categories (lower, lower secondary, higher secondary, higher,university) and occupation eight, based on the British social economicclassification. The age variable is continuous.3 The questions are: Belgium should not have guest workers, Immigrantscannot be trusted, Guest workers threaten work of Belgians, Guest workersexploit social security, Muslims a threat to our culture, Repatriate guestworkers when less jobs, No political activities for immigrants, More conditionsto become a Belgian (ISPO/PIOP, 2002). The value of Cronbachs alpha,measuring the reliability of the compound scale, is 0.92. 26
  27. 27. 4 As we only retained the municipalities of Flanders and the Brussels CapitalRegion with a minimum of ten interviewees, our analysis started with ninety-six municipalities and 2,113 interviewees.5 While the residuals on the individual level are by far the most important, thevariance on the municipal level is, in this first model, also significant at the0.01 level for the intercept, nearly significant at the 0.1 level for income, andsignificant at the 0.05 level for the interaction term between income andintercept. ethnocentrism can therefore not only be explained by individualcharacteristics, but is context-related too. This is still the case when, in asecond model, other socio-economic variables such as age, gender,occupation and education, are added to the analysis (model 2 in table 1).6 We have changed the names of the respondents to guarantee theiranonymity.7 Not all respondents were afraid in the city. One woman from Rotselaar, forexample, liked to go shopping in the Brabantstraat in Brussels, while anotherone was not afraid in the area around the Brussels South Station. Theconcentration of foreigners is in both neighborhoods among the highest inBelgium (Kesteloot, 2006).8 The percentages on the graph are the weighted means of the results of theVB in those municipal elections where the party had a list of candidates. The 27
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