Both class and race

November 9, 2010 — Comment

Written by Frances Webber

We reproduce a contribution to the debate, about Prospect’s ‘End of multiculturalism’ feature, organised by Soundings a new initiative on the Muslim Council of Britain’s website.

The basic points Munira Mirza (and co) make, parroting much of what was said by Prospect editor David Goodhart six years ago, are that racism is no longer the determinant of black people’s lives that it had been, and that multiculturalism and its adherents, who also peddle concepts like ‘institutional racism’, are to blame for perpetuating the idea of an enduring racial inequality in the UK.

Of course it is ahistorical and downright reactionary to assert that people from ethnic minorities are inevitably and eternally victims of racism. But it is equally questionable to assert (as the authors of these articles do) that because you have made it or because a particular group ‘over-achieves’ this is evidence that racism no longer exists.

No definition of racism

But to respond to their false and partial notions, one has to go further than merely pointing out, as many angry journalists and academics have done, all the areas in which BME people and children are clearly at a disadvantage in the UK – be it in terms of racial violence, the criminal justice system, health, educational achievement, poverty indices etc . The fundamental error is the way that racism is being defined and analysed by them. Or rather, that it is neither defined nor analysed. All these writers appear to view racism in a very narrow way – as connected with the prejudices of die-hard individual bigots – and as something static.

Racism changes

But racism is in fact a process – starting with prejudice (in the mind) to discrimination (in the act) to racism (institutional and of the state). State and institutional racism provide the breeding ground for personal prejudice. And racism has always affected different groups differentially depending on a whole range of factors – when that community came to the UK, bringing what by way of capital and skills, into what part of the economy, settling in which area, affected how by the end of industrialisation etc. In fact racism never stays still but changes its shape, functions, contours and impact in terms of larger political social and economic forces.

New forms of racism

If we are looking at racism today, post-industrialisation and post-9/11, we have to see how globalisation and the war on terror are throwing up its new forms. So today the victims of racism at its most acute and vicious are, on the one hand, the rightless asylum seekers and migrants thrown up by the impact of globalisation, and, on the other, members of Muslim communities, now facing a massive resurgence of Islamophobia as a result of 9/11, the war on terror, and the wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are in effect new racisms with new ‘crusaders’ such as the English Defence League, and new victims. And racism is no longer necessarily colour-coded in a world where all foreigners are suspected of stealing jobs, houses and benefits. (Which does not mean that all previous colour-coded racism has died, different forms coexist and overlap.)

Class versus race

Mirza and co try to argue that class is now a more important determinant than race. Class can in some (but not all) ways mitigate race – if you have a car, you won’t be as likely to be stopped and searched or prey to racist attack walking home at night, if you live in a detached house with gardens around, you will be far less likely to be in dispute with your neighbours than in an impoverished terrace or tower block. But it does not follow that what poor BME people experience is unadulterated class oppression. Race interacts with class, enhances and modifies its impact. The distinction that A. Sivanandan made between the racism that discriminates (against the middle class) and the racism that kills (which affects the poor and workless) not only holds true today but is due to become much more accentuated as the recession and cuts begin to bite.

Multiculturalism never dealt with racism

Why does it with Mirza always have to be either or? Either it is all to do with race or it is nothing to do with race. Surely a more sophisticated approach is needed? The same is true in the derision of multiculturalism. Yes, multiculturalism had its excesses, and the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) was in fact one of the first to point out the limitations and dangers of ‘ethnicism/culturalism’ after the implementation of recommendations of the Scarman Report into the 1981 riots. And yes, ethnic monitoring has bent towards an apolitical and simplistic ‘equality of outcome’ thesis. But trying to ‘quantify’ racism cannot surely make it more prevalent, as Mirza would have it. Ignoring it has never helped it go away.

Multiculturalism was never going to be a riposte to racism but rubbishing such a notion does not mean that racism has ceased to exist. Nor does it mean that the ideal of a multicultural society should now be jettisoned.

Critical and Constructive Rethinking

What Mirza and her stable-mates such as Kenan Malik do, is to continually throw out the racist baby with the cultural bath water. The Institute of Race Relations too has been critical of the limitations of many of the same areas such as post-Scarman multiculturalism, race awareness training, and Macpherson’s recommendations. Indeed, articles and interventions in its journal Race & Class have been pioneering such criticism for over thirty years. But have done so in a much more nuanced and politically constructive, dare I say dialectical, way. If it is a rethinking that is needed, a better starting point will be found in ‘Race, class and the state’ (1976), ‘Challenging racism: strategies for the 1980s’ (1983), ‘RAT and the degradation of black struggle’ (1985), ‘Poverty is the new black’ (2001), ‘Race, terror and civil society’ (2006).

Related links

Read an IRR Briefing Paper: ‘In defence of multiculturalism’

The Muslim Council of Britain

Soundings: Beyond Race and Multiculturalism?

References: [1] House of Commons / 14 Jan 2010 : Column 1092W.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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