Anti-racism at the crossroads. Time to choose

Anti-racism at the crossroads. Time to choose

Fortnightly Bulletin

Written by: IRR News Team

IRR News 13 – 27 April 2023

It’s time to face facts: the mainstream political discourse on race and anti-racism generates more heat than light. In fact, it is thoroughly divisive. Unless we break with its underlying punitive logic, we risk the total erasure of the UK’s proud anti-racist tradition – a collective fight against a common racism in which strong social movements build unity in action, putting pressure on power and authority to enact change.

The problems we face in ensuring that this anti-racist tradition continues are now multi-faceted, combining external and internal factors. First, political parties– and not us, the so-called ‘woke’ generation – have degraded anti-racism and turned it into a kind of ritualistic inquisition process aimed at punishing individuals. But second, too many of us are careless in public debates, mirroring the exclusionary logic of the mainstream. Thirdly, the media – and not just the right-wing media – act as an impediment to the anti-racist cause, forever reducing racism to a ‘litany of gaffes and flubs’, preventing us from understanding ‘racism as a system of oppression, rooted in history, politics, economics and culture’, in the words of Gary Younge.

And in addition to this, we now face the new fad, particularly after the 2021 Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities. Namely the claim that racism is a ‘complicated’ issue, and certainly ‘not a black and white’ one. Complicated? Really? Try telling a person racially abused and assaulted on the streets that the reason for the assault is impenetrable.

There is nothing complicated about racism. Racism is violence, either a slow violence embedded in structures (leading to discrimination in housing, health care, welfare provision, employment etc) or the actual violence of physical attack (epitomised by racial violence and the use of lethal force by police).

And, yes, there are many racist discourses that are not based on colour – antisemitism, anti-Irish and anti-Gypsy and anti-Traveller racism are most often mentioned. Why would anyone deny the broad ways the construct of race is deployed to denigrate and reify people, with one kind of racism building on another? To give another example from the UK: anti-foreigner racism passed from prejudice (xenophobia) into law through successive immigration and asylum acts introduced by Conservatives in the 1990s, New Labour in 1998, and every administration, Conservative or Labour, that followed. Sivanandan and Fekete even coined a term, xeno-racism, to better help movements understand the new structures of discrimination that have been erected since 1998.

Racism is only complicated by those who have an agenda to complicate. The government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (the Sewell report) was a case in point. An investigation into the reason for ethnic disparities turned into a process of stigmatising some ethnic minorities (notably Black Caribbean) on the back of the valorisation of others.

There’s nothing complicated about acknowledging the historical legacies of different forms of racism: colour, culture, ethnicity, religion, immigration or other status, all mark people out for racist treatment. But when it comes to contemporary research, particularly when carried out through the vehicle of the ethnic survey, researchers and campaigners face difficult choices when attempting to publicise the results. Because in our current political climate we know how quickly ethnic disparities are seized on to prove, for instance, that there is no such thing as institutional racism, or there is no common experience across ethnicities of racism.

Given this political climate, as well as the feedback we have received from respondents to our calendar survey who ask for more information on new modes of organisation and praxis, we are delighted to publish guest writers Sarah Lamble and Megan McElhome’s thought-provoking piece Over-policed and under-protected: why does nothing change? Could one reason for the ongoing erasure of the collective fight against racism, they imply, be our failure to see the limitations of Sir William Macpherson’s important but flawed definition of institutional racism, treating it as the last word, rather than a step in the right direction? Twenty-four years separates them, but both the Macpherson report and the Casey review identified ‘poor service provision’ as the problem at the heart of institutional racism in policing. Writing from an abolitionist perspective, these two criminologists argue that getting to grips with contemporary police racism demands a more expansive approach and a better grasp of structural racism that goes beyond critiquing service provision.

Lamble and McElhome’s plea that we do more to stop the violence of policing by adopting a harm reduction approach, chimes too with a path-breaking report launched this week by a coalition of grassroots groups and campaigning organisations working in the best tradition of collectivity to produce Holding Our Own: A guide to non-policing solutions to serious youth violence.

We need to stop the harms embedded in policing. But equally, we need to dissociate ourselves from the harms embedded in a top-down, punitive anti-racism. This might mean being a little wiser. To utilise a jazz term, it might mean, when it comes to entering the public space, ‘playing for the quiet moment’. And when it comes to those spaces that should be private to our movements, it might mean finding a new vocabulary that allows us to respect differences, acknowledge mistakes, and communicate with each other more compassionately and respectfully.

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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