A. Sivanandan

The role of A Sivanandan

Sivanandan has been instrumental in reorienting the Institute of Race Relations, from the 1970s, so as to reflect changing politics and meet the needs of those experiencing racism. The struggle he led – between staff and members on the one hand and the management board of politicians, business leaders on the other – was to change the way that race relations was conceived in the UK. It drew attention to the fact that that the presence of non-white immigrants was related to the country’s colonial history and economic needs, that the victims of racism were constantly seen ‘as the problem’ when it was actually white society and, specifically, government and state policies which gave a lead on creating and entrenching racism.

The perspectives brought to IRR out of the struggle over its control in the 1970s have enabled the organisation to carve out a unique role for itself. It remains a cutting edge think tank but positions itself between academia and the grassroots. It does not misplace itself in community affairs but provides the ammunition for groups on the ground to conduct their own campaigns against racism. Whereas other NGOs might seek to speak to and influence power-brokers directly, the IRR chooses to ‘speak from’. It takes its cue from the most discriminated against in society and attempts to tackle those issues and subjects where racism is at its most harsh and intractable, and is at pains to present its research findings in an accessible way – ‘the people we are writing for are the people we are fighting for’.

Because it became a more streamlined organisation, it is able to be very flexible and respond quickly to new needs. Thus it has been at the forefront of retrieving and recounting Black British History, of creating anti-racist materials for young people, of examining new forms of pan-European racism such as xeno-racism and Islamophobia, of exposing the impact of the ‘war on terror’.

And in all this, the writing and teaching of A. Sivanandan have been key. Most of his work was first published in the journal Race & Class. ‘The liberation of the black intellectual’ (1974) examined identity, struggle and engagement during decolonisation and Black Power. ‘Race, class and the state’ (1977) provided the first coherent class analysis of the black experience in Britain, examined the political economy of migration and coined the idea of state, structured racism. ‘From resistance to rebellion’ (1981) tells the story of black protest in the UK from 1940 to 1981. ‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle’ (1985) made the crucial distinction between personal racialism and institutional or state racism. ‘Race, terror and civil society’ (2006) showed new racisms, such as the attack on multiculturalism and growth of anti-Muslim racism, thrown up by globalisation post-9/11. Changes in productive forces, especially the technological revolution, were themes taken up in ‘Imperialism and disorganic development in the Silicon Age’ (1979) and ‘New Circuits of imperialism’ (1989).

For more on A. Sivanandan, see ‘A world to winRace & Class (Volume 41, Nos 1/2, 1999) and ‘50 years of the IRRRace & Class (Volume 50, No2, 2008). Also, see Wikipedia.

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