Monday, August 16, 2010

Racism doesn't cut both ways

This is just an addendum to recent debates. Racism does not cut both ways, and it cannot. By definition. This is a point that we are forced to recall every time there is a bogus witch hunt, such as that would caused Shirley Sherrod to lose her job as the Georgia state director for rural development in the US Department for Agriculture. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor pointed out, the controversy was only possible because the right had successfully re-defined racism:

THESE ATTEMPTS to equate as racist acts "practiced by Blacks, whites or any other groups" distort who the historic and contemporary victims of racism in this country are.

There is no history of whites being the victims of racial discrimination in the U.S. Where such charges have been raised, they have come from right-wingers with an agenda against affirmative action and other social programs created to help African Americans, who were not only slaves in this country, but then faced another 100 years of legal discrimination after slavery that only ended one generation ago.

The civil rights movement and the Black Power era were instrumental in exposing racism at the core of American society and demanding legal remedies to create more opportunities for African Americans. As a result, by the early 1970s, Black poverty was cut in half, and more Blacks gained access to colleges and universities. Such reforms transformed Black life in the U.S.

Yet despite these historic blows to racism in America, the U.S. remains a deeply racist society in which African Americans suffer from discrimination in employment, education, housing, health care and, most prominently, the criminal justice system.

This history is the reason why the NAACP denouncing "all racism" is confusing and misleading.

It is also why media attempts to equate the NAACP and various Tea Party organizations as Black and white mirrors of each other is an affront to the historic struggle against racism in the U.S.

It's also a point that bears remembering when the slogan of the British National Party and the English Defence League is that "racism cuts both ways". They are not saying this in isolation. They are saying this against the backdrop of media reports which are specifically designed to confuse this issue. The effects of this are not felt only on the right. I have myself been engaged in debates with perfectly decent liberals who, for one reason or another, had forgotten that racism is a structural matter, and not to do with mere prejudice. But, once again, the backlash was assisted by a considered change in the way in which knowledge about society was gathered by the government. In the US, of course, the "color-blind" approach of the liberal sector of the ruling class and the state bureaucracy was consecrated after WWII following the sociological work of Gunnar Myrdal, whose net effect was to reduce racism to a set of social attitudes rather than the structure of oppression which produced them. This later provided the neoconservative and segregationist reactionaries with one of their mobilising tools: attempts to mitigate the effects of structural racism, through affirmative action for example, were "reverse racism". If racism was not seen as a system of structural oppression, then attempts to remedy structural discrimination could be depicted as themselves racist. But I think the turn, in the UK, was somewhat more recent, perhaps because the fruits of anti-racist struggle were more recently enjoyed.

This re-definition of racism is particularly potent when it affects the perception of behaviours that are defined by the state, and of course the main form of behaviour that the state gets to define is criminality. The issue of "racially motivated crime" has always been at the centre of anti-racist struggle, because its definition, and the subsequent treatment of such crimes, is at the centre of the state's handling of discriminatory and oppressive behaviour, and particularly its promise in 'race relations' legislation to protect minorites from racism.

While I was researching my article for the ISJ about racism, navigating the enemy territory of official statistics, I happened upon the fact that from 1994, the British Crime Survey changed its practise of reporting racially motivated crimes. As far as I could gather, the BCS had only begun to count racially motivated crimes in 1988. At first, the victim was only asked about racism as a possible motive if the victim was judged by the interviewer to be non-white. Which is not to say that white people were not asked about racist crime - but the question was 'ecological' rather than personal. They were asked to comment, for example, on whether they thought racist crime was a particularly large problem where they lived. As you would expect, white Britons were less inclined to think of racist crime as a problem in their area than non-white Britons. The reason being that white Britons, insofar as the majority were not perpetrating racist crimes, were not on the receiving end of them either.

The decision to count such crimes in the first place was an important concession to the anti-racist movements of the 1980s. I should say that the BCS's counting procedure was initially at odds with police practise, since the latter were compelled to collect data on racially motivated crime in the mid-1980s. The official police definition of a racially motivated incident was: a) any incident in which it appears to the reporting or investigating officer that the complaint involves an element of racial motivation; or, b) any incident which involves an allegation of racial motivation made by any person. This was different in two ways. First of all, it included the possibility of white victims of racism, and secondly it prioritised the perception of the investigating officer above the prima facie account of victims.

Perhaps for that reason police measurements of racially motivated crime varied considerably with that of the BCS. In 1991, 20% of the victims of recorded incidents of racially motivated crimes, by police statistics, were white. And, despite casting the net wider (and including a more comprehensive list of crimes in their reporting), the total number of racially motivated crimes detected by the police was way below the number detected by the BCS. In a single year, the police failed to detect 80,000 such crimes. This could reflect a number of factors, but it is reasonable to suppose that among them was a lack of willingness in an institutionally racist state bureaucracy to take the possibility of racist motivation seriously. This is a point supported by the fact that between 1988 and 1992, the rate of police detection of racist crimes increased by 77%, while the BCS detected only a marginal increase in that period, suggesting that political changes entailed greater bureaucratic pressures on agents of the police to take racism seriously.

Subsequently, however, changes to the BCS counting meant that any victim of a crime was asked if he or she felt there was a 'racial' motivation, wherever the victim was situated in the racial system. In this new procedure, it was just as plausible - by official lights - for John Tyndall to be the victim of racial oppression as it was for a young black man in Eltham to be. This change was taken at the height of the scandal over the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It followed more than a decade of central government hostility to efforts made by local councils to counter the effects of racist discrimination. And, importantly, it was clearly the result of a considered decision. It had to have come from a conscious, calculated change in the underlying conception of racism deployed by officials, which the statistics were there to report on. Somebody, or some bodies, in a government bureau had to take the initiative in driving this agenda through. I have searched in vain for an official explanation or elaboration of the rationale behind this. One Home Office report [pdf], discussing the change, simply takes it for granted that there were "racially motivated incidents where the victim was white" that the old BCS counting system had not acknowledged. I have no doubt that to many of Whitehall's finest minds, this would be uncontroversial, but it plainly isn't so. Part of the confusion might arise from the nebulous terminology, "racially motivated", which itself potentially implies the model of racism that is in dispute. Yet, nonetheless, there was initially an implicit recognition of a different model, in which racism is structural, even given the use of such a problematic terminology. The rationale behind the change, if it has ever been made explicit, would be an interesting topic of study in itself.

And it would be important. The gathering of data on such matters - statistics, etym. 'the science of the state' - is no neutral exercise, but a hugely important tool of governmentality, as well as a weapon of political struggle. Given the state's immense resources in data collection and knowledge production, its ability to shape popular culture and the output of the capitalist media is considerable. The change I refer to would is discussed in official reports as if it were a minor bureaucratic 'correction', made in a rarefied atmosphere by number-crunching policy wonks, but it shaped the agenda, and it filtered into popular awareness. It certainly fed into the racist reaction, and the spurious victimology that drives support for fascist groups like the BNP. (I offer two examples of the effect that this change had on the media's reporting of racist crimes: here and here. Both of these are chosen for being mainstream reports, widely cited to reinforce the bogus victimology I refer to.) The decision to redefine racism in this vitally relevant field, one that is itself overlaid with racist connotations about black criminality, obviously taken at a high level, has played an important role in enabling the subsequent state-driven neo-Powellite reaction, whose effects we are living through.