Friday, November 02, 2007

As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you.

Gordon Brown returned to the politics of the 1970s at the last Labour conference - unfortunately, it was not to the socialist, or even the Labour politics of the period. It was somewhat to the right of that. He raised the slogan: "British jobs for British workers". The Tories have sought to reclaim their territory in recent weeks, and are taking full advantage of Brown giving this language legitimacy. And so have the papers. Yesterday's Evening Standard declared: "Britons 'lose out on jobs and housing': Race chief inquiry into claims of bias against whites". The first noticeable thing is that the article refutes the headline (Phillips says there is no evidence that "Britons lose out"). The second noticeable thing is how easily "Britons" shades into "whites". Apparently, for the Evening Standard, to be British is to be white. To be black in this country is to be un-British. Now, we expect the Standard to be viciously racist (its 'Human Sandbags' headline was an egregious example), but it strikes me that this belies the ideological justification claimed by the Standard and papers like it - that they're not against black people, merely worried by the social effects of immigration from whatever country, etc.

Anyone who thinks that discussions of immigration are about social problems such as housing, employment or overcrowding in big cities hasn't been paying attention. In the same way that the struggle for immigration rights originated in the anti-colonial movement (see Stephen Howe's Anti-colonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire, 1939-1964), the attempt to scapegoat immigrants is coterminous with the collapse of the empire and the narratives of 'decline' that attended it. The whole topic is shot through with the assumptions of white supremacy (the most basic one being that those whose labour helped make the empire rich have no right to partake of its developed economy and labour rights). More fundamentally, the idea that one is indifferent to the 'race' of the immigrants in question (usually one hears things like 'Eastern Europeans are white, aren't they?') is incredibly naive about the nature of racist ideology. Italian migrants and Jews were once as demonised as Roma gypsies, yet the former would certainly be classified as 'white' today. The Irish have been viciously racialised by the British right up until the end of the war in the North. This is what Charles Kingsley wrote on a visit to Sligo in 1860: "I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don't believe they are our fault ... But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours." Carlyle's response to the Irish problem: "Black-lead them and put them over with the n*ggers". Yet, the Irish are as pasty-faced as is possible to be without actually being dead, and are certainly today considered 'white'. David Roediger describes how various groups of migrant workers in America - Italians and Irish, for example, achieved 'whiteness' through a long political struggle and process of assimilation.

So, we're supposed to be surprised that the British papers that rant and rave about Roma gypsies in terms that mirror antisemitic discourse from the 1930s are obsessed with ubermenschen? The fear and loathing of Poles and Eastern Europeans is supposed to be innocent now? The ideology of 'whiteness' which the Evening Standard appeals to - does it really pass the Daz doorstep challenge? Obviously not. Aside from functioning as a mechanism of exclusion, 'whiteness' smuggles in doctrines of supremacy under the assumption of neutrality - 'ethnicity' is something that is almost never attributed to 'white' people, since 'whiteness' is the apparently neutral space that is guaranteed by 'racial' differentiation. The 'white race' as the norm had to be invented by positing others as subhuman. The doctrine of 'whiteness' allows the interests of a minority of privileged people to pose as the general interest. A person who thinks he is 'white' and even wants to be white, sees it as an inherently valuable quality rather than an ideological construction, is not someone who sees humanity as one, as equal. A person who sees the world in this way is trained to view vicious competition, hierarchy and attitudes of domination and submission as natural.

Some liberal commentators, confronted by racism, try to boil it down to 'legitimate concerns' about housing, integration, public services and so on. New Labour politicians such as Margaret Hodge and Gordon Brown repeat this gesture. At its best, this says that racism is simply a misguided reaction to a social problem, a mistake made by people less educated than liberal hacks. At its worst, it says that there is some legitimacy to the racist gripes, that black people have been having the run of the place due to tyrannical 'political correctness', and that it's time to 'redress' the balance. The reality is that social problems have to be discharged through an ideological machine before being expressed as racism. Before one sees lack of access to housing as a result of too many black people and Poles and Slavs and so on being let in, one has to be trained to accept 'racial' competition for resources as normal. Ironically, those who supposedly 'respond' to social problems by voting for the far right actually back candidates who are often openly hostile to the welfare state. They can only get to that stage if they accept domination as a natural condition and egalitarianism as an affront. 'Whiteness' is thus a destructive ideology that prevents people from pursuing their class interests and encourages them to accept subordination, even while supposing that this 'quality' makes them superior. This is why James Baldwin said, "As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you".