Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Marxism talk on 'The changing face of racism in Britain'

A number of people asked for hard copies of this talk. This is it, for anyone else who needs it.

The changing face of racism in Britain today
MARXISM 2010

I don’t know how many of you use social media service, ‘Twitter’, but those who do may be aware that some months back there was a trending topic called #thingsracistssay. Among these were: “I’m not a racist, but...”; “You can’t say anything these days...”; and, a growing favourite, “Islam ain’t a race, duh!” This talk is about the things that racists say and do, the alibis they use to cover their racism, and the reasons why racism has had to shift in the course of a generation or so, from focusing on biology and colour, to creed and culture.


I want to start by acknowledging a recent success. The BNP wiped out, 51-0, in Barking, decimated in Stoke and Barnsley, and showing dreadful returns in all their target areas. They spent a fortune on the 2010 campaign, believing they were on the verge of an electoral breakthrough, and an heroic campaign by anti-fascists stopped that from happening. They lost deposits up and down the land, which means that a lot of the money they get from being elected to the European parliament in 2009 has been squandered already.

However, the BNP still got close to 600,000 votes. And coupled with support for the Islamophobic UKIP, explicitly racist parties got about 1.5 million votes in 2010, or about 5% of the total vote. If there was proportional representation, things would look rather different today. The strategy of anti-fascists in mobilising the anti-fascist vote, and containing the BNP by ensuring that everyone was aware of their Nazi politics and their violent, criminal background, was successful in preventing the BNP from taking control of councils, or win their first parliamentary seat. But the results suggest that we still need to keep up the campaign, and to mount a wider attack on the bases of racism in the UK today.

Look at the last decade. The BNP have increased their support in elections by some 2000%. They have raised their membership to as high as 14,000. We have seen the rise of English Defence League street gangs. We’ve also seen a shocking rise in the level of racist incidents – quadrupling between 1995 and 2005, and continuing to rise dramatically since then. We’ve seen a rise in specifically anti-Muslim racism, coupled with growing hostility to immigrants, and the more muted return of racism toward older targets such as young black men. Immigration was the number two issue in voters’ priorities in the 2010 election, below the economy. It may possibly have contributed a little to the Liberals’ collapse, and certainly was a factor in some of the limited gains that the Tories made.

But in all this, there are some novelties. Racism is changing. It no longer focuses so explicitly on biology and skin colour. The major focus is on culture, and religion. The specific targets are not necessarily black. In fact, many Islamophobes would try to persuade you that they aren’t racist by insisting that they aren’t hostile to black people as such. Now, some people say that Islamophobia is just a cover for ‘Paki’ bashing; that the hostility is not toward Islam itself, which is just a convenient excuse, but toward Asians in general. There are certainly many for whom this is true, but that’s not the end of the story. There is a specificity about Islamophobia, a particular emphasis on Muslims, their purported culture, what is supposedly said and implied by the Quran and hadiths - and the fact that this is so, and that the target appears to be a religious group, doesn’t make it any less racist. Or so I will argue.

We can look at examples of this specifically cultural racism in the media, and two recent examples stand out – notably for coming from self-styled liberal intellectuals:

1) Rod Liddle notoriously demonised young black men in London for being responsible for the overwhelming majority of violent crime in the capital. Now, this was simply false. There was an article in the Telegraph attempting to give some credence to the idea, which reported that statistics provided by the Metropolitan police show that the majority of violent crimes where someone is proceeded against by police in the capital were black. What it didn’t really explain is what the Home Affairs select committee reported in 2007, which is that surveys carried out for the Home Office suggest that young white males aged 10 to 25 were far more likely to have committed a crime in the preceding year than males of the same age from any other ethnic or racial group – even adjusting for proportionality. But it also noted that once young black men had committed a crime, they were far more likely to come to the attention of the police. The reality is that most people convicted for such crimes, despite an institutionally racist criminal justice system, are white. That the police disproportionately proceed against young black men says more about the police force than it does about black people and crime. However, when Liddle was challenged about his claims, he retorted that he wasn’t being racist, because his claim concerned culture, not race. There was a culture specific to young black Britons that led to violent criminal behaviour. And he complained that the real problem was a multicultural ideology that didn’t permit criticism of any culture, no matter how anti-social or deviant from the norm. This is a straw man account of multiculturalism. The forms of behaviour he is speaking of are criminal, they’re against the law, therefore they are certainly susceptible to criticism. Moreover, they are marginal forms of behaviour both in society as a whole and among the young black men whom he chose to vilify.

2) A second example is when Martin Amis complained about ‘honour killing’, saying that multiculturalism had meant allowing outrageous forms of behaviour purely on the grounds that it could be traced to someone’s tradition, a form of religious piety or ethnic ritual. He assumed, incorrectly, that honour killing is a particularly Islamic form of behaviour. It is not. It is a form of patriarchal violence that is practised in numerous countries, from Latin America to Europe to south Asia. It is sometimes called dowry killing; sometimes called a ‘crime of passion’; and sometimes it’s just known as murdering your spouse, two cases of which take place every week in the UK. But, again, he repeated this nonsensical claim that multiculturalism means tolerating murder – repeat and underline, it’s not tolerated, it’s against the law.

What’s interesting about these examples, and what they say about the critique of multiculturalism that is coming alongside anti-Muslim racism, is that this partakes of the very static and essentialist account of culture that official multiculturalism of the kind pursued in the 1980s and 1990s, helped produce.

The confusion which enables people like Liddle and Amis to spout this kind of hysterical racist nonsense, while professing to be anti-racist, partly results from the exaggeration of the role of biology in racist ideology. Historically, cultural tropes have always been built in to racist ideology. Many variants of Enlightenment racism were explicitly culturalist rather than biological, but even those forms of racism that have historically privileged some idea of the biological race have always supplemented it with cultural stereotyping and essentialism – from wily Orientals, to avaricious Jews, to violent African Americans. More to the point, the way in which ‘race’ was constructed as a political category had surprisingly little to do with biological notions of race.

Historically, the act of oppression that produced the category of race preceded the systematic pseudo-scientific classification of human variation along racial lines. This was true, according to Theodore Allen, in Ireland under the Protestant Ascendancy, and it was true in colonial America. What happened first was that a group would be singled out on the basis of some characteristic or other, and excluded from the normal citizenship rights enjoyed by the rest of society no matter how poor. Then, that group would be racialised – a process known as ‘race-making’. As David Roediger points out, this was a very efficient way of stratifying labour markets – colour-coding them, dividing them, making them politically more manageable, and increasing the rate at which it is possible to exploit them. In the history of US industrial relations, ‘race management’ is thus a prominent strategy.

And once this process begins, it doesn’t simply stop and ossify. It transforms in response to new political developments. So, new immigrant groups to America such as European Jews, Italians, the Irish, Poles, Hungarians, etc., would always be initially racialised. But as they consolidated their position in civil society, improved their bargaining power as labourers, and achieved political representation, they became ‘white’. It’s important, when assessing whether a particular speech-act is racist, to consider race as a process rather than a static entity. Racism, like fascism, is a ‘scavenger ideology’ which draws on national, regional, gender, class and cultural stereotypes. As such, it won’t do to say “Islam isn’t a race”, and consider that the end of any discussion about Islamophobia. The question is whether processes are at work separating Muslims out for particular oppression and surveillance, and whether the discursive practises of people like Liddle and Amis, among others, are part of a race-making process.


To properly understand how the shift in emphasis from biology to culture took place, we have to look at certain developments in post-war Britain. This means I’m not going to be focusing too much in the remainder of my talk on colonial and imperial racism, though that is a constant and very important context for what I am about to say, that you should bear in mind. For those who are interested, I cover some of this subject in my book The Liberal Defence of Murder. The colonial context that I will touch upon concerns changing patterns of labour migration in the post-war world. The British economy was short some 1.25 million workers according to the government, in 1945 – because of the war. Now, at that time, it was perfectly legal for any subject of the New Commonwealth (that is those countries of the empire that were not run by white people) to migrate to the United Kingdom, without restriction. In 1948, this status was confirmed with the creation of a new citizenship category in which residents of a formerly colonial country could consider themselves a “Citizen of the UK and the Colonies”.

BUT, both Labour and the Tories believed that social harmony would only be maintained if they met the labour shortfall by importing migrants that were, in the official language, of “good stock”. Therefore, they sought to recruit from Europe, particularly Ireland and Poland. However, there did begin a small amount of migration from the Commonwealth, particularly from the Caribbean, in response to advertisements from would-be employers in the UK. And the story of Windrush, and of how black immigrants then began to take up important public service roles, is now quite familiar.

What is less well understood is why, in 1962, the first legislation introducing restrictions on Commonwealth migration to the UK was applied. Marxists interpret immigration policy in terms of employers’ demand for labour. That is, if employers need more labour than the society can produce, they prefer a liberal migration policy; if the demand for labour falls, immigration policy would tighten up. But there had been no fall in demand for labour. And in fact, the legislation didn’t at first reduce the flow of migration from the Commonwealth. 80% of Commonwealth migrants who lived in the UK in 1982 had arrived after the passing of the Commonwealth Immigration Act in 1962. But what the legislation did was make the right of citizenship for Commonwealth subjects dependent on the needs of capital – they set quotas which the government could alter as it saw fit. This was a policy that was a long time in coming, and the only reason it came in 1962 was that they found a way that they could do it without being explicitly racist – explicit racism was considered 'vulgar'.

As has become wearily familiar, Labour opposed the legislation in opposition, saying that it was racist, but not only supported it when elected, but actually tightened its restrictions with a 1965 White Paper and further legislation in 1968. It was in this context that the New Right began to develop. Its chief spokesperson was Enoch Powell who had, until that point, been an old Tory imperialist. He had stood for the Tory leadership in 1965, the first time that a descendant of the lower middle classes from the Black Country could have stood to be Tory leader, and lost to Ted Heath. Until that point he had never had a problem with immigration, and in fact had opposed restrictions and overseen Commonwealth migration to support the NHS while he was health minister. But he took a couple of years to think about it, reflected on the success of Peter Griffiths, the Tory MP who had been elected in Smethwick – not far from Powell’s Wolverhampton constituency – on the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”.

And so he emerged in 1967 with a new tune. He began in a number of newspaper articles and speeches, to berate immigrants for reducing property prices, for crowding out white people, and for engaging in anti-social behaviour. He had an anecdotal style of oratory, citing the opinions and observations of constituents. In talking about race in this way, he could do two things simultaneously: he could avoid responsibility for his remarks by claiming that he was merely reporting what his voters told him; and he could evoke a kind of racist “common sense” – I’m just saying what people are thinking. The second thing that he did that was very important was that he spoke of cultural difference rather than biological difference. In fact, he didn’t believe that there were many important biological differences between black and white people. But he believed that people of different cultures could not happily co-exist. And this sort of claim was given a patina of respectability by sociobiologists who asserted that it was natural for people to be hostile to members of an out-group, and to cluster around tribes with their own established way of doing things. So, a ‘new racism’ began to emerge with two elements: first, that it mainly concerned culture, rather than skin colour; secondly, that it was not explicitly supremacist, but rather argued that white Britons could simply not peaceably co-exist with non-white migrants due to that cultural difference.

In the immediate interim, the primary beneficiaries of this Powellite racism were the National Front, who grew in leaps and bounds throughout the 1970s – never to the scale of success that the BNP has achieved, by the way – before being out-numbered and defeated by a confident anti-fascist movement whose organising hub was the legendary Anti-Nazi League. But the politics of Powellism persisted. Thatcher’s famous interview in 1978, in which she spoke of being “swamped” by immigrants was interpreted as simply inflammatory. But, while it was that, it was also a chapter and verse recital of Powellism. The full statement she made was that people are rather afraid that they may be swamped by people of a different culture. And she went on to cite various achievements and virtues supposedly belonging to British culture that it would be a shame to see 'swamped'. The two key points were, 1) the evocation of a racist common sense ('people are rather afraid'); and 2) the focus on culture ('people of a different culture'). When Thatcher was elected, she passed the 1981 Nationality Act which consecrated existing racist practice by revising the citizenship status of Commonwealth subjects – and primary migration came to a near standstill. Subsequently, changes in demography, in political culture resulting from insurgency and the official multicultural policies that I mentioned earlier, meant that it became less political acceptable to engage in explicit racism, even of the Powellite variety.

But then by 1991, a new target of race-baiting emerged. This was when the issue of asylum seekers came to the fore. Partly it was because of a change in the nature of migration after the collapse of the USSR when many of the people moving about from the newly created countries sought refugee status – particularly if they were from Yugoslavia. And the government started to worry, because refugees were not considered migrants, and therefore weren’t covered by existing racist immigration legislation. The government was determined that it would be able to take control of this issue. It started to slander asylum seekers as “bogus”. They weren’t refugees, they were “economic migrants”, and moreover they tended to be both anti-social and parasitic on existing social services. This was taken up in the press, and it produced two rounds of legislation in 1992 and 1996, intended to reclassify refugees as economic migrants, restrict their right of entry, and reduce any entitlement they had to public services and employment once in the country.

Here it becomes interesting because one of the justifications, you will recall, for having a racist immigration policy is that it promotes domestic racial harmony, by controlling the fears of the white majority and enabling anti-racist initiatives to be promoted. And in fact, if you look at how it works legally, until 2000, immigration policy was entirely exempt from the provisions of race relations. New Labour amended this, but still said that in matters of migration the authorities could discriminate on the grounds of nationality or ethnicity if mandated to do so either by legislation or ministerial authority. But what the 1996 anti-asylum legislation actually did was to add to the problems of non-white British citizens. For example, if they sought a job, or sought access to public services – both fundamental rights – researched showed that because of the new legislation, black people were more likely to be turned down for a job by employers fearing a fine for employing illegal immigrant workers, and more likely to be subjected to inappropriate checks if they entered a hospital or something.

Again, as is traditional, Labour opposed the legislation in opposition, on the grounds that it was racist, then embraced it once elected, tightened it up with new legislation, introduced a vouchers scheme run by a private consortium, and launched a system of ‘detention centres’ where those who appealed against their eviction, for example, could be imprisoned despite having committed no crime. These have subsequently been the centre of serious human rights abuses, including against children.


We return, at long last, to the last decade. And what you see in the 2000s is a New Labour government introducing an authoritarian “Britishness” agenda, which was already on the go before 9/11, and which David Blunkett had already hinted at when the Lawrence Inquiry delivered its verdict of institutional racism in the police – a verdict he disputed because, he said, we are insufficiently “proud of what we’ve got”. It was an agenda that was given a real kick-start after the riots in north-west towns and cities, essentially pitting young Asian men against racists, fascists and police. These were areas where councils had long pursued policies of de facto segregation in housing and schooling, and where the police had a long history of conflict with young Asian men. But the official response, in the form of the Cantle report, blamed Asians for being “self-segregating” – a verdict dismantled by Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson, the latter of whom is speaking at Marxism this year on that very topic. David Blunkett said that Asians needed to speak English in their own houses, and started to talk about the need for some sort of Britishness test that immigrants would have to pass to be able to stay here. From then on, the government no longer practised the formal separation of immigration policy from race relations.

What happened later was that a vein of Islamophobia that had been developing in the 1990s, which has some immediate roots in the Rushdie affair, but more distant roots in the colonial period, started to come to the fore – not immediately in response to 9/11, but more as the government started to see the need to discipline Muslim populations in response to the antiwar movement in 2003. The evidence certainly shows that this was when the press hostility was really jacked up, and even before 7/7 the government was talking about the need for “integration”, specifically for non-white communities to internalise some “core of Britishness”.

It was at this time that New Labour friendly intellectuals such as David Goodheart and Trevor Phillips began to reinvent Powellism. They argued that social solidarity was only possible in a sustained way among people of a similar culture. They argued that welfare depended on people pooling their resources to help those who lose out in the market economy, but that they would be less willing to do so for people who were culturally very different from them. Thus, any significant degree of migration poses a threat to welfare, and for migration to work at any level, the migrants have to be coerced into culturally assimilating. Now that involved setting up a poorly defined cultural norm which immigrants, and Muslims in particularly, would be accused of militating against. For example, no one knows what Britishness is. If I were to judge by the kinds of people who talk about it, and the kinds of behaviours that make one successful in this country, then I would say that Britishness amounts to petty, back-stabbing, cut-throat, property-obsessed egoism masquerading as social solidarity. But minorities are being told more and more that they have to aspire toward this specious vision of Britishness if they are to enjoy full citizenship rights.

Muslims have been then main targets of this coercion in a number of ways. First of all, they are subject to suspicion and hostility in the press. A study for the London mayor’s office some years ago found that 91% of all press coverage of Muslims was negative. Secondly, they are subject to political oppression, in the form illegal incarceration, kidnapping and torture flights. That is accompanied by elevated discrimination in other areas, for example in increased police surveillance and repression, manifested most obviously in shootings such as those in Forest Hill, and also in more discrimination in employment. One recent example of the surveillance I’m referring to involved the use of CCTV in Birmingham to track the movements of Muslims around the city.

Thirdly, at just the same time, politicians have begun to single out Muslims, and Muslim groups, for ideological coercion and moral panics alleging that they aren’t fitting in. Famously, Blair refused to accept any role of the Iraq war in producing 7/7, but did ascribe to Muslims a collective responsibility for rooting out what he called the ‘evil within’ their communities. That was followed by various political interventions, such as Jack Straw’s complaint about Muslim women wearing burqas, in a climate in which such garments are being banned in some European states. Tory MP Philip Hollobone is currently engaged in a cheap and pathetic attempt to garner attention for himself by trying to push similar legislation in the UK. The interesting thing about such attempts is that they usually offer two conflicting justifications – a humanitarian one, and a securitarian one. On the one hand, Muslim women who wear such garments are held to be oppressed, in need of liberation by non-Muslims; on the other hand, the same women are held to represent a security threat, because the garments they wear signal a rejection of the values of the societies in which they live. In some of the more hysterical screeds – in my ISJ article, I cite the case of Joan Smith – the garment goes from being a symbol of oppression to being a part of a terrorist conspiracy to overthrow Western civilization.

Lastly, Muslims are subject to physical violence and intimidation on the streets - including, notably, Muslim women who wear the hijab. A study by the University of Essex finds that this is directly and strongly correlated to the Islamophobic rhetoric of politicians and newspapers – the offenders, whether small-time belligerents or that expanding number of far right would-be terrorists accumulating arsenals in their own homes, are almost invariably motivated by what they have heard from politicians and read in the newspapers. This is what is driving the growth of groups like the English Defence League, and the success of the BNP.


I’ll finish on this. My talk has focused on the way in which racism is driven from above by political elites, and by the ruling class more generally. That isn’t to say that racism is exclusively perpetrated from above. Obviously, there are segments of the population that are more likely to accept racist ideas than others. And there are those for whom racist ideas appear to explain their experience of the world – particularly, I think, the lower middle classes and those workers whose situation is not completely impoverished, but is insecure. And that insecurity leads them to see their situation as being in competition with other groups, be they national, religious, ethnic, or racial. I think those are the social layers in the UK who are most likely to vote for racist parties and express racist beliefs. Moreover, there is a real overlap – not complete, but nonetheless there – between different forms of racism. Someone who is racist toward Muslims is more likely to be anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, racist toward black people, etc.

But if I was right earlier in arguing that racism has historically worked as an efficient way of stratifying and controlling labour systems, and facilitating the efficient extraction of profit, it follows that racism has an enduring utility for those who own and run the system. If I was right in arguing that race is a social construct, a process of political oppression, then it also follows that racism can always adapt, and doesn’t have to respect previously existing boundaries of racial discourse. That means that for as long as there are systems of domination and exploitation, for as long as societies are run on the basis of producing surplus value, profit, for the few, there will always be new ways of dividing people. And when capitalism enters a crisis, those singled out for racialisation will be the first to suffer – which is exactly what’s happening to migrant workers all over the world now. Because when capitalism is in a crisis, the first response is to try and coerce more and harder work out of people, more surplus value – in Marxist terms, to increase the rate of exploitation. In the short run, the best response to this is provided by the campaigns that we are seeing in America, the attempts to repeal racist legislation, and to get workers organised in unions. If we want to put an end to racism in the long-term, we have to challenge the system itself.