Tribalism and Powellism infuse TV series

May 8, 2008 — Comment

Written by Rebecca Wood

Three recent Dispatches programmes on immigration, fronted by Rageh Omaar, were ill-informed, misleading and alarmist.

It seems that the whiteness of the latest wave of migrants to the UK has provided the perfect opportunity to peddle the ‘I’m not racist but immigration has to stop’ card.

Channel 4′s Dispatches’ three-part Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth, replete with stock stereotypes of the victimised, White, working-class (and male) Briton and the either violent and degenerative or obstinately culturally-separate Black (and male) immigrant, rang with the same battle cry which has increasingly sprung from within an apparently liberal media (see BBC 2′s recently broadcast ‘White Season’ for near-identical rhetoric). Okay, so the programme did include Black faces, including its host’s Rageh Omaar’s (and two women, by my reckoning), in its panoply of complainers and fear-mongers, but in doing so they only served to legitimise the ‘I’m not racist but …’ rhetoric and to fleetingly validate themselves in the eyes of their White fellow interviewees and audience.

White – a persecuted minority

What Omaar’s programme served to do was to conflate a number of competing issues into a resounding cry of British tolerance squeezed to within an inch of its life and to revive Enoch Powell’s decades-old ‘sense of being a persecuted minority’ in one’s own country. Refreshingly, said Omaar, people who have been silenced these last four decades are finally breaking out and vocalising their long-held, long-suppressed, honest beliefs about race and immigration.

So it is to be celebrated that Richard North, a middle-class White writer from Wibsey in Bradford, can feel free to say on camera that Wibsey has become a ‘White ghetto’, the ‘last bastion of British civilisation in Bradford’ and that in the surrounding areas, inhabited by ‘Black ghosts’ (otherwise known as veiled Muslim women), ‘whitey is not welcome’. Alan Davies echoes North, depicting his neighbourhood of Braunstone in Leicester as a ‘White Alamo – the defence’. What Davies decries is the visibility of his Black neighbours, that round ‘every corner you seemed to turn, your perception was, there was a Black face’. North concurs: they’re ‘visible, in your face’.

No analysis of post-war Britain

What is not mentioned is an alternative reading of post-war Britain, which sees that the first generation Black migrants, who have made Britain their home, came because they were entitled to as British subjects and that Britain had for centuries occupied and claimed as their own their countries of origin. The programme also wholeheartedly endorses oft-repeated depictions of a Britain populated by homogenous and mutually exclusive ghettos, divided by race, nation and religion. There is no room for an alternative experience, one where the world we live in may be more multi-dimensional in its racial/national/religious make up. And there is no allowance for the possibility that people who do choose to group together according to key identity markers may do so for a variety of socio-political factors, not least the silent but potent force of an undiminished, if temporarily discredited, racism which leaves individuals feeling marginalised, frustrated and alienated (to paraphrase the sole interviewee, Kertis Auguste, who voiced this alternative perspective).

Legitimising popular racism

The obvious racism of these voices is here legitimised by the Channel 4 Dispatches’ flag under which the programme ran, by the voices of mainstream Black talking heads such as Lord Herman Ouseley, Paul Gilroy, and Trevor Phillips, and by the repeated referral to its YouGov poll findings, which surveyed White and Black, settled and new immigrant alike. And of course, by Omaar himself, nodding approvingly and pityingly, repeating the words of Enoch Powell and concluding that ‘whereas once their grievances towards other communities used to be based on either prejudice or a personal sense of grievance, as we’ve discovered here, grievances now are focussed on economics and on the threat to people’s livelihoods that immigration now poses’. My reading would be that the grievances voiced by the majority of the White interviewees were almost entirely those of a prejudicial nature, couched in platitudes of patience exhausted and worst fears realised. What has not been tackled here, and ties into the aforementioned alternative reading of this situation, is the degree to which a form of institutional racism continues to quietly infuse British society.

A salve to fermenting ‘tribal’ warfare?

The final programme in the series of three ends with an odd non sequitur. Omaar concludes that the answer to those who fear unchecked immigration and fermenting ‘tribal’ (his words) warfare in Britain … lies in equipping the British working class with the skills they need to compete alongside Eastern Europeans on the global stage. His odd concluding nod to a New Labourite vision of working-class Britons selling their individual labour in a global free market as a salve to fermenting ‘tribal’ warfare at home is deeply confusing and bears no resemblance to the apocryphal imagery of the first two programmes.

I wondered why Omaar would appear to align himself with the anti-immigrant rhetoric being peddled by the likes of the British National Party (BNP) during this election season, rhetoric touted as non-racist because it focuses on a White immigrant population and because Black people are vocalising it in Omaar’s earlier programmes, and then segue into a conclusion on the skills-shortage of the British White working class (yes, because everyone depicted learning to be plumbers were male, White and worried). It seemed an odd way to pardon his earlier vitriolic endorsement of Powellite propaganda.

If the heart of the programme is really about Britons believing themselves to be being undercut by the forces of a global free-market economy, which manifests itself in the presence of East European migrants working in the UK, then the argument must surely be about the economic structures and political positions that our government currently endorses on our behalf. Instead, the lazy resort to stereotyping of immigrants alongside insinuations of a country on the edge of ‘tribal’ warfare does nothing to further the debate, miring it instead in the ill-informed, overtly racist and bullying Powellite mindset which seems to linger ominously over the current debate.

Related links

Dispatches’ Immigration: The Inconvenient Truth

Read an IRR News story: Rehabilitating Enoch Powell

Read an IRR News story: Shame on the BBC

Rebecca Wood is a researcher on race, immigration and asylum.

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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