Coming to terms with multiculturalism

February 17, 2011 — News

Written by Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations reprises the succinct analysis of multiculturalism made by A. Sivanandan after 7/7.

In his Munich speech, Cameron blamed the ‘state doctrine of multiculturalism’ for creating ‘segregated communities’. But as this Institute has pointed out time and time again, it is important to distinguish between multiculturalism as policy and multiculturalism as a fact of the pluralist society that Britain has obviously become. As far back as 1984, IRR director A. Sivanandan pointed to the dangers inherent in a state-funded ‘ethnicism’, which was first introduced by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher after the urban uprisings of 1981 as a way of breaking down black political struggles against racism.

To cut through much of the partial debate since Cameron’s speech, the IRR reprises Sivanandan’s seven theses on multiculturalism, written in the wake of 7/7, which draws a distinction between the reactionary aspects of ‘culturalism’ and ‘ethnicism’ and the progressive potential of multiculturalism within the context of anti-racism.[1]

  • In itself multiculturalism simply means cultural diversity. But, in practice, that diversity can either be progressive leading to integration or regressive leading to separatism.
  • The force that drives multiculturalism in either direction is the reaction to racism and, in particular, the racism of the state which sets the seal on institutional and popular racism.
  • The reaction to racism is either resistance (struggle) or accommodation. (Submission is not an option, nor is terrorism.)
  • Resistance to, or struggle against, racism engenders a more just society, enlarges the democratic remit and provides the dynamics of integration that leads to a pluralist society.
  • Accommodating to racism engenders a retreat from mainstream society into the safety of one’s own ethnicity and leads to separatism.
  • Anti-racism is the element that infuses politics into multiculturalism and makes it dynamic and progressive. (Note that the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 were the result of anti-racist struggles of the ’60 and ’70s.)
  • Remove the anti-racist element and multiculturalism descends into culturalism/ethnicism. (Witness the post-Scarman settlement that reduced the fight against racism to a fight for culture and led to ethnic enclaves.)

For a longer discussion of these themes see IRR Briefing Paper 2: In defence of multiculturalism (pdf file, 72kb)

Related links

Read an IRR News story: ‘Cameron’s Munich speech marks securitisation of race policy’

[1] In 'Race, terror and civil society', Race & Class (Vol. 47, no. 3, 2006) reproduced in Catching history on the wing, Pluto Press 2008.

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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