Friday, June 29, 2012

Racial formation in Britain

The concept of 'racial formation' was coined by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in what is really - despite its avowed distance from marxism - a Gramscian enterprise.  Although the authors focus on somatic racism, their arguments are relevant here.  Defining race as "a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies" (and, one would add, cultures defined in a univocal, essentialist manner), they described racial formations as: 

"the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed. Our attempt to elaborate a theory of racial formation will proceed in two steps ... [W]e argue that racial formation is a process of historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized. Next we link racial formation to the evolution of hegemony, the way in which society is organized and ruled. ... From a racial formation perspective, race is a matter of both social structure and cultural representation."

The work of cultural and ideological representation is done by 'racial projects'.  A racial project "is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines".  Racial formation, then, is a conjunction of these various racial projects with the social structures (labour market hierarchies, criminal justice, educational selection etc) on which they act.

It was not long after the reality television show Make Bradford British was aired that George Galloway swept the bye-election in Bradford West by an overwhelming margin.  This victory was a long overdue rebuttal to the idea that the problems and aspirations of poor, working class areas like Bradford can be reduced to 'race'.  But the primary interpreters of the result in the media didn't see it that way.  For them, it could only be more proof of just how potent 'race' is as a determinant factor in people's behaviour.  'They voted the dreadful man Galloway in: Islam is more powerful than we thought.'  This is linked to two types of racial project, which I think are the dominant types in relation to British Muslims, and British Asians more generally.

The first is actually that produced in the Make Bradford British programme.  The title of the show connoted a racist precept - that is, an idea of Britishness as something that is disturbed by the presence of 'foreigners', racial Others.  The producers would claim, I imagine, that this is to misunderstand their goal; that their idea of Britishness is one of mutual tolerance, multiculturalism and respect, which extremists 'on both sides' would tend to threaten.  Such, indeed, appears to be the surface premise: the idea of bringing together diverse Bradfordians, from the racist copper, to the devout Muslim, and every shade of racist and racial subject in between, under the same roof.  And tolerance is not the most repugnant of misanthropic virtues, particularly when it is invoked as a shield against oppression.  However, whether the producers claim to have been aware of this or not, the very idea that Bradford needs to be made British is connotatively linked to an idea of British nationality as 'white'.  And the way in which tolerance is linked to this notion discloses the racist logic of tolerance in this case.  

If the explicit assumption is that 'divisions' arise from a lack of intimacy between different groups, the implicit assumption is that before the 'foreigners' there was a relatively stable British identity, which can only be restored through the domestication of these interlopers.  In this project, multiculturalism is explicitly embraced, even if the submerged logic tends toward integrationism; likewise, the projected resolution is consensual, organised around the sharing of experience and views, even if the hidden logic points to the need for coercive programme of 'British values'.  The meaning of race disclosed here is purely discursive; it has no positive reality either as a somatic fact or as a social structure, even if at root there may be 'legitimate grievances' which are crudely taken to be erroneously understood in the language of race.  This is a liberal, managerial racial project.  And I will leave it here, because this one is dying.

The second type appears in David Starkey's comments on the recent case of a gang of British men, of Pakistani origin, who were convicted of grooming children.  Starkey argued that this was a reflection of values inculcated in "the foothills of the Punjab or wherever", that it was a case of men who had never been taught that using girls in this way was inherently wrong, and who needed to be "inculcated in the British way of doing things".  (Yes, Britain, where children are happily unmolested except by foreigners with different ways to our own.)  Don't imagine that Starkey represents an insubstantial minority.  At the Times debate where he made these comments, and where Starkey was expertly trolled by Laurie Penny who called him out as a racist bigot, there was clearly a fairly substantial sentiment in favour of Starkey.  His supporters on this occasion included the dim libertarian ex-RCPer Claire Fox, who dubbed Penny a disgrace to women and the Left for not joining the kulturkampf against those whom tabloids have dubbed "Asian sex monsters".  

In fact, anyone who has followed the coverage knows that Starkey is not in this case pushing at the boundaries of acceptable discourse.  People like former Labour MP Ann Cryer, who began campaigning over 'Asian sex gangs' in 2000, are complaining that the police wouldn't take the problem seriously due to 'political correctness'.  (In fact, the trial seems to have disclosed that the girls were not taken seriously in their complaints because they were poor, from broken homes or care, and would not be considered credible before a court: an old story about misogyny, not political correctness).  Starkey's comments, malicious as they are, are in concert with the dominant tone of the media's coverage.

So, using the idiom of culture and nebulous 'values' (because apparently you have to subscribe to a nationally specific yet extremely vague set of 'values' to know that it is wrong to use children for sex), this project specifically rejects multiculturalism and the rhetoric of tolerance.  The explicit logic is coercive and punitive, not consensual.  Increasingly, since the 'profile' of the 'Pakistani street groomer' is being developed by police and popularised by the mass media, this means racial profiling and extended state surveillance and intervention into the lives of one million Britons.  But again, there is a slightly deeper logic in the call for an enforced pedagogy in the "British way of doing things".  For the suspects in Rochdale were all, bar one, born, raised and socialised in the United Kingdom.  Their life experiences, education and work were not those that one would receive in "the foothills of Punjab".  Therefore the assumption that their 'values' would reflect those of the Punjab, leaving aside the scandalous way in which those 'values' are being depicted, tends to shade into outright biological racism.  Otherwise, it segues into a cultural essentialism so deterministic that it makes no difference.  Social structure appears here only as an appurtenance of race.  And the implication of such a stance is that even assimilation is not possible, that coexistence is only possible at great distance.

So, here a set of antagonisms prevalent throughout the social formation - those engendered by patriarchy, poverty, the social care system, the depletion of public resources, policing, and the precarious existence of working class girls arising in that context - has been represented and signified through the bodies of 'Asian men' or 'Pakistani men' to create a racial meaning and struggle for a particular kind of racial solution.  This brings us to the role of racial formation in hegemonic practices.  Hegemony is not typically a state sustained over a long period of time, but rather a state which is constantly worked toward and worked on.  It signifies not a normal condition of rule, but an exceptional state of dominance in which a class or class fraction has assembled a broad social alliance along multiple axes of class, oppression and identity, behind a certain historical mission.  It involves not just the transformation of the 'common sense', as it were, but also the profound reorganisation of political violence and terror.

There is a tell-tale dimension of this Rochdale case referred to by Judith Orr here, which is the introduction of a racialised neologism in the context of moral panic.  In Policing the Crisis, Stuart Hall et al described the origins of the term 'mugging', which was introduced in the British popular press from the United States in 1971-2 to refer to an apparently new criminal menace which was strongly associated with young black men.  In the period 1972-3, there appeared in the press to be a 'mugging epidemic', connotatively linked to the 'ghetto', the black criminal 'underworld', etc etc.  There was, then as now, a totemic case, that of the violent robbery of a man in Handsworth, Birmingham.  'Mugging' was not a specific crime, but rather linked a number of types of criminal action to a set of racial connotations.  The media led with this, arguing that the police and courts were overwhelmed with this new type of crime, which was not new, and not significantly increasing in frequency.  And this provided the imaginary material for the New Right's articulation of an authoritarian-populist agenda.  

So today we have the invention of this term "street grooming" or "on-street grooming", which does not signify a specific criminal offence, but which is laden with racial connotation as it is used almost exclusively in association with sex crimes committed by 'Asian men'.  That's why statistics on this are so difficult to obtain and unreliable: the police actually arrest, charge and prosecute people accused of 'street-grooming' under a wide variety of offenses.  The main way in which newspaper reports get round this is to look at police figures to do with the detection and prosecution of extended gangs involved in sex with children.  This, they say, shows a greatly disproportionate cohort of men of Pakistani origin.  This is very much like the case of 'honour crimes', which reclassify existing crimes according to a racialised code.  Thus, according to this logic, you'll probably find that the overwhelming majority of honour crimes are committed by Muslim men, because you've re-defined the crime (say, the murder of family members) in such a way as to focus on one aspect of it, and thereby ignore most of it.  The same is true of the 'grooming' panic, which seems to be a stronger candidate for a racialised moral panic, where the resonant racist imagery of brown-skinned men preying on white girls offers a very potent way of turning the real experiences of exploitation and abuse into a language of authoritarian racist crackdown.

It is also connotatively linked to the ongoing mythos of British decline, something which reactionaries date to Indian independence and the arrival of Windrush.  In the context of real declines (in relative income, living standards, social services, employment, job security, infrastructure, pensions, etc.) and amid a turbulent and seemingly endless crisis, there is more than enough material, already saturated with racial meanings, to make this articulation work.  This would be linked to a project of British revivalism, already in the works: the 1945 reenactment society has been doing its best drape everything both literally and figuratively in the Union Jack, even as the union threatens to come apart.  It would obviously be linked to a belligerent europhobia, particularly as the EU looks like its leadership is barely capable of survival.  It would ally, as its pivotal class alliance, the most 'eurosceptic' and hyper-Atlanticist sectors of the bourgeoisie, over-represented in the ownership of the media, with the most nationalistic sectors of the petty bourgeoisie.  

Yet, for all its resemblances to early Thatcherism, it would have to be different in several particulars.  Neither the individualist rebellion against the nanny state or union bosses, nor the aspirational politics sharp-eyed and ruthless social climbing, has escaped the crisis without some stigma.  If such a project were to reach into the working class, its material substratum could not be a promise of rewards unleashed by financialisation and good pay for loyal, skilled, non-militant workers.  Rather, it would seem to call for a certain paternalistic turn - which is by no means incompatible with privatization and an increase in the rate of exploitation.  It would demand carefully targeted material concessions through the state, perhaps coupled with a punitive strike against those on the wrong side of respectability, such as single mothers and immigrants.  If and when David Cameron is deposed from the Right, I would strongly expect the putsch to be organised around these sorts of policy thematics, and it would be tailed relentlessly by 'Blue Labour'.

However, although within a racial formation a single racial project tends to be dominant, it is not exclusively or necessarily so.  The task of the Left is to link a politics of militant racial egalitarianism to the language of everyday experience.  This becomes much easier in the context of rising class and social struggles in which the appeal for unity has a clear experiential basis.  We can see from the example of antifascist organisation how the activation of concrete forms of multiracial unity can pose a different meaning of race.  We also saw how anti-racism formed the dominant culture of the antiwar movement, despite a reasonably large antiwar sentiment on the Right, and provided a counterpoint to the demonisation of Muslims.  So, if the dominance of a given racial project is decided by the types of situation that are popularly understood as 'racial', and if the Right tends to have the whip hand here, there are clearly resources on this front for counter-hegemonic mobilisation.