Sunday, July 05, 2009

Paul Gilroy on the state of 'black Britain'

Paul Gilroy always likes to be a little bit "disagreeable", as he puts it, not to say contrarian. And perhaps the bleak prospect before us requires a little discord, after all. It was in this spirit that he addressed the topic of 'black Britain' by arguing that he wasn't sure whether such a place really existed anymore. There is, he argues, no longer any sense of a distinctive black political community. In part this is because the idea of black people 'belonging' to the national community has been won. Some people responded to this by 'moving in' and accepting a multicultural 'British' nationality; some responded by 'moving on', trying to find new networks of solidarity internationally; some gave up, and 'moved out', with Carribean communities disappearing due to migration.

One also has to register the way in which expressions of racism have changed tack in response to gains made by black Britons in the 1980s. The BNP, though not in good faith, argue that they have 'no problem' with the children of hard-working immigrants who helped build the country in the 1950s and 1960s. They say their problem is with those recent immigrants who they claim, falsely, haven't contributed anything. Another response to the gains made has been the sense that somehow racism is no longer a issue, something that has been helped by the shift to religion as the main basis for social divisions, and also by the development of a 'cultural crust' in which black people are integrated into television and popular musical culture. Despite this - or perhaps because of it - casual racialisation especially on issues of crime continues to take place without arousing much controversy. Thus, The Sun labelled the murderers of Ben Kinsella "ignorant animals" - not human, in other words. Meanwhile the story of the murder of two French students, Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez, was treated differently, with the headline "freed to kill". It was a story of failure in the government and prison system, not of barbarian criminals, despite the hours of torture that the killers put the students through.

Partly, what has happened to 'black Britain', says Gilroy, is that it has fallen to the same destructive political culture in which New Labour thrived. The proliferation of NGOs and think-tanks, standing as subsitutes for party and class organisations, meant that talented black intellectuals and activists were creamed off with the promise that the issue of racism could be 'managed' away. In this view, neoliberalism and privatization are not a problem, but rather are part of the new post-racial landscape in which those who led 'black Britain' in the 1980s could become careerists, entrepreneurs, using their oppression to participate in exploitative and racist practises. Baroness Amos, once an anti-racist, feminist scholar, could become a New Labour peer before taking a directorship in Titanium Resources, enriching herself on the bloody trade in tantalum that has contributed to destroying the African continent. Trevor Phillips can also ascend in New Labour's ranks and make money by advising Channel 4 during fall-out over Jade Goodie's racist remarks about Shilpa Shetty. A host of organisations devoted to supporting what might be called 'bourgeois rights' have been drafted into supporting the government, talking about the 'white working class' out of one side of their mouths and 'social cohesion' out the other side.

A new wave of occult managerialism has taken hold, with a preoccupation with the US as the 'future' of race relations. There are few attempts to work outside the official language. Anyone talking of racism is speaking in an arcane, jurassic-era language and can be dismissed. If they want to be taken seriously, they must master the new idiom of management-speak, specifically the terms of 'social inclusion', 'social exclusion' and 'social cohesion'. A particularly laughable example of this is the former editor of a black nationalist magazine called 'Alarm' (I don't think I recorded the name accurately), who has written a book called Me PLC, which tells readers that "your life is your business". Rather like one of those Victorian etiquette manuals, it functions as a neoliberal primer on how to live life as a corporation. It perpetrates a cruel trick on the unwary, as all such books do, persuading people that success is in their reach if only they adulterate their attitude toward the world.

Other dangers in the loss of 'black Britain' are the fragmentation of different 'ethnic' groups, such as during the almost pogrom-like Birmingham riots, twenty years after the Handsworth riots. New media, mobile messages, internet forums and so on helped to disseminate the idea that Carribeans were being ethnically cleansed by Asians, and carried some of the worst incitements. And the underlying situation, the demise of 'black Britain' and the yielding to a more polyglot, divisive racial situation, a polarised multiculture, is what has contributed to the sad reversion to the idea that the US is the future - why can't we have our own Obama? A point, Gilroy avers, that demonstrates a need to inquire further into how official US racism operates. It is precisely by integrating black people such as Rice into the national political leadership that the US state is able to justify its race crimes - during and after Katrina, for example. Rice herself said that she would listen to criticisms from Europeans when they had as much black political representation as America did. But Obama absolves people of the need to think for themselves, and alongside his wife, a valuable cultural asset in global counterinsurgency, fulfil a sort of messianic function (here, he recounts a story of a visit by Michelle Obama to a state school in the East End, with wowed reaction from students who were amazed at being hugged by her, gasping "it was mental!").

Gilroy, though perhaps a little melancholic, is not nostalgic for the 'black Britain' whose rites of passage he has just read. He is interested in escaping from the present impasse, and particularly from the drift toward a US-centric approach to solving the problems of racism and oppression. He suggests as a first solution the need to restore imperial and colonial history in Britain, but also particularly the history of the very struggles that made a 'post-racial' Britain a plausible fantasy. He argues that we need to root the present struggles over civil liberties and the CCTV state in past struggles over policing. And he maintains that we need to universalise the issues of oppression and exploitation - some may insist that class is the axis that universalises such questions, but Gilroy argues that despite his sympathy for this claim, there is no off-the-shelf class answer to the issues that we face today.

I think it's worth adding one thing, as a sort of postscript to a straightforward report. Gilroy, attempting to stay ahead of the game on racism and not get locked down in nostalgia or fetishism, has made sustained efforts to grasp the current structures of racist oppression as well as the resources for resistance - in After Empire and Between Camps, for example. He has attempted to deal with the issues raised by 9/11, and the 'war on terror'. But I notice that he doesn't really get to grips with Islamophobia in any convincing way. I think he takes the idea that what is at stake in such racism is 'religion' as such, far too seriously. On the other hand, there are reductionist temptations lurking in some antiwar analysis - ie, the idea that racism is driven by empire, rather than in the daily processes of capitalism as such. This is a mistake that Gilroy would never make. His attention to the details of 'ordinary' capitalist life - the experience of job markets, schools, prisons, culture, family life, etc - as well as with the ways these intersect with global issues, is one of the things that makes his current writing so vital.