Anti-racism: different approaches

Submitted by martin on 4 August, 2020 - 3:20 Author: Martin Thomas
UVW members

Introducing the 2002 edition of his 1987 book There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack, Paul Gilroy was pessimistic about how curbs on immigration were entrenching racism, and about the potential of the working class. Yet he wrote: "The convivial metropolitan cultures of the country's young people are still a bulwark against the machinations of racial politics".

Black people have been living in Britain for centuries, but in small numbers, maybe 0.2% of the population in 1951. The much bigger "minorities", since the 19th century, were Jewish and Irish immigrants.

But by 1971 black people were 2.5% of Britain's population, and much more in many cities. Many were second-generation, more assertive than their migrant parents. In the 1970s groups of black workers waged big workplace battles challenging racism.

The militant anti-racist left in the labour movement grew in the late 1960s and early 70s, too, parallel to but outstripping a growth of the fascist National Front.

Seeking stability, from the late 60s through to the mid 70s the British ruling class moved to a dual policy:

• racist curbs on immigration from Britain's ex-colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, but with:

• official multiculturalism within Britain, funding for commissions, boards, and community projects, laws against racial discrimination and "colour bars", and now (as recommendation and lip-service, though not yet compulsory rule) ethnic-pay-gap monitoring by employers.

It's a story both of how struggle can win change, and of how continuing capitalist power can deflect and limit that change.

Analysing the shift at the time, A Sivanandan saw the new "ethnic pluralism" as undermining the radicalism of "black struggle and black politics" by diverting activists into publicly-funded community projects.

In hindsight, he overestimated the rise of what he described as "black as a political colour". There were many left-wing black groups, but mostly small and based in a single community; and the models he saw them as taking from anti-colonial struggle, like Nyerere's Tanzania, were not as socialist as he thought. He was right about the social-control effects of the "ethnic pluralism".

One of its effects, though, was to bring (slow and incomplete) changes in education, pushing back racism enough that now that the general tendency for people of migrant background to be more inquiring and hopeful and to have a broader culture can outweigh racism enough for all "ethnic minority" groups to do better than or as well as "white British" at school.

Wrongly, Sivanandan thought that automation was creating an ever-growing labour surplus, and that the ruling class would move to systematically "repatriate" people. Sivanandan saw revolutionary potential in the unemployed black youth who, he thought, would never be "socialised into labour". In fact "ethnic minorities" have grown so that in the 2011 census 15% of the population were "people of colour", six times as many as in 1971, and 5.5% "white non-British". In London 55% of the population is now not "white British".

Unemployment rates are still higher among most ethnic minorities than among "white British", but the gap is (or at least was before the pandemic) decreasing slowly over time. Now 27% of Black workers are unionised, more than the 24% rate for white workers. (It's 18% of Asian).

But Sivanandan was right that the "ethnic pluralism" has always come with new clearly racist immigration laws, first consolidated in 1968 and 1971. As Sivanandan argued they would, the immigration laws have sustained racism as a force in society.

That is one reason why, as Kenan Malik has written, "racism is not something to fix with therapy". More of the "social engineering from above" dating from the mid-70s, and now in the form of "training" so that experts can, "from above", fix our unconscious biases, won't make the changes we need.

Malik points out that "people tested several times" for unconscious bias "often receive very different scores. A meta-analysis of almost 500 studies found that training has only a 'weak' effect on an individual's implicit-bias score…

"By focusing on whiteness and personal psychology, the significance of laws and social structures is downgraded in favour of unconscious thought".

Speeches at Black Lives Matter protests often stress that the cause is essentially one of equal human rights for all. In other words, of social levelling-up.

Others talk of destroying "white privilege" held by all white people, rich or poor. The smaller risk of police abuse or overcrowded housing or unemployment which working-class white people have (on average) is not a "privilege" to be abolished: we want the risk abolished for all!

Socialist Worker has adapted Sivanandan's argument to claim that anything besides militancy against "the state" is a "planned diversion" of anti-racism. It quotes a flourish from Sivanandan: "People's attitudes don't mean a damn to me… Racism is about power, not prejudice".

Yet socialists must be concerned with "people's attitudes" in our workplaces and organisations, even attitudes of people who have no part in state power. Offhand conversational racism may not stop some minorities (e.g. of Indian, Chinese, or Jewish origin) becoming better-off on average than white British people, but it can poison the labour movement, and people's lives too.

In many industries, "people's attitudes" of individual managers and co-workers can blight the chances of black and Asian workers, even if the law prescribes equality. Even limited "liberal" measures which reduce that blight, such as getting rid of free-form interviews in selection procedures for jobs and for university, can be worthwhile.

Education, through discussion and common activity, as distinct from "here's the expert come to fix the ignorant plebs" training, matters a lot. Why are young people, students and young school workers too, so widely anti-racist? Because they have educated each other.

Education; a unifying struggle for an economic and social "levelling-up" which will emancipate all working-class people and black people especially; and a fight for free movement and against chronically racist immigration laws, are the way forward.

Two other extrapolations from "ethnic pluralism" policies, besides the "more training" one, are deficient.

One is "identity politics", reducing politics to a matter of having people speak for each designated "identity", and wishing for those speaking for black "identities" to have a louder say in the hubbub.

It is works against education because it asks us to judge ideas not by evidence or logic but by what "identity" they express; tends to stifle dissident and questioning voices within each "identity" or "community"; and fragments struggles.

The American-Pakistani leftist Asad Haider, in his book Mistaken Identity, gives some examples. "The immediate reaction to the attempt by student radicals to organise around police violence was to question whether a group which was not black-identified should even be permitted to address the issue". When students planned a campus occupation against fee increases, they faced "opposition to the very words occupy or occupation, which… were accused of celebrating the genocide of indigenous people".

It is, as Haider says, really only a version of traditional bourgeois "lobbying" politics, "equating political practice with the demand of restitution for an injury".

Ibram X Kendi, in his book How To Be An Anti-Racist, is clear that anti-racism is more than adhering to an identity and speaking for it. "None of us are race representatives". He dissects many of the "intersectional" issues easily swamped by "identity politics". "Race is a mirage", an artificial construct which ideologues "process distinct individualities, ethnicities, and nationalities into".

But then he advocates an endless process of social engineering from above to equalise between "racial groups". "The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination".

Polemicising against W E B DuBois, he advocates "the antiracist concept of racial relativity, of every racial group looking at itself with its own eyes", which assumes that each "racial group" shares a "group" set of eyes incommensurable with other "group" eyes.

Again, it comes down to the politics of lobbying. Being anti-racist, says Kendi, means: "seizing a policy-making position… Publicly donating my time or privately donating my funds to antiracist policymakers".

Kendi indicts the 900 Black state and federal judges in the USA, the 3,000 Black police chiefs and commanders, the 380,000 Black millionaire families, as helping to sustain racist structures. In fact his lobbying-type politics is more like to expand that Black segment of the middle (or upper) class than to liberate the mass of the oppressed.

As long as capitalism subsists, it's good if Black people get a more equal chance of high rank. But while the Black middle class has grown in the USA, simultaneously the income gap between average Black people and average white people there has also grown. A radical answer should start with the needs and battles of those at the "bottom".

The young Black Lives Matter demonstrators should inspire us all to go the way of education, struggle, and universalist policies. Workers of the world, unite!

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