Fault lines in the fight against racism and antisemitism

Fault lines in the fight against racism and antisemitism


Written by: Liz Fekete

The government’s bifurcated approach to racial equality is deepening fissures in our movements with anti-racism emerging as a key site of struggle

Those of us who have contributed to the anti-racist movement for decades have been left demoralised by the ‘debate’ about racism and antisemitism both prior to and during the general election. Academic, author and veteran of the black struggle, Gus John resigned  from the Church of England’s advisory board on ethnic minority issues over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s comments on the Labour Party’s antisemitism, which he considered partial and hypocritical, given the impact of the ‘hostile environment’ on the ‘Windrush generation’ and the church’s woeful record of fighting racism in all its forms.

Narrowing the meaning

A. Sivanandan

For veterans of the anti-racist struggle, the narrowing media narrative of what constitutes racism, and the way accusations of it are kicked around by politicians and journalists who have no anti-racist track record, can make us despair. For those of us faced with countering what Sivanandan described as ‘the racism that kills’, it now feels that the nature of anti-racism itself – what it is, and what it is not – has emerged as the key site of struggle. The racism that Sivanandan highlighted, over four decades of struggle in the UK, was structural (not personal), and involved state and institutional power. It would necessitate rallying around the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of society and not the well-to-do, who had some means of protection and of redress.

Hate crime and anti-extremism frameworks

© Netpol

The recent revelation that anti-racist and anti-fascist groups, as well as police monitoring groups and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, are amongst those listed as extremist in a Counter-Terrorism Policing document distributed to, amongst others,  several government departments, Ofsted, prison, police, probation services and twenty local authorities as  part of Prevent anti-extremism briefings, is a warning of a dangerous bifurcated approach to racial equality that is developing.  The fight against individual bigotry, and a generalised condemnation of ‘hate’, especially when manifested online, is acceptable. But a more expansive anti-racism – most powerful when it is internationally-focused and cross-community, and most persuasive when tailored towards specific interventions around, for instance, immigration laws, school exclusions, housing policies, racialised policing and media frameworks – is not. A strategy that solely homes in on ‘hate’ and ‘bigotry’ creates a competitive environment (wherein groups compete for recognition, resources, etc) that then militates against unity in action. And it also erases the varied ways in which Black and Brown communities, Muslims, Jews, new refugee and migrant communities, Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, experience structural racism and institutional failure, not least in the policing of ‘hate crimes’. To put it simply, this new modified view over-simplifies racism. It fixates on questions of individual bias (often unconscious) and apparently overt hate (often online or in interpersonal settings), thereby personalising racism. In the public sphere this becomes a spat, which allows racism to be turned into a media spectacle, completely obscuring the diligent but less eye-catching work carried out by organisations combating the structural racism that emanates from government policy, the law, and the instrumental logic and culture of organisations.

What we are seeing today, through the ways in which racism has been redefined solely as personal hate, prejudice and bigotry is a process of erasure and dispossession. The historical experiences of BAME communities in this country are being jettisoned, leading to a process whereby we are all being dispossessed of the collective lessons we have learnt over several decades about the structures in society that perpetuate racism and hence the nature of the fight needed.

Undermining of international solidarity

As the official definition narrows to the individual, the immediate and the domestic, we are also witnessing another dangerous erasure, that of our internationally focused anti-racist traditions, which, over the years, has taken in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, the US civil rights and Black Power, anti-colonial fights, especially in Vietnam and later Africa, and support for the Palestinians, either living for decades under the deprivations of occupation by Israel or as refugees and exiles in the UK. That this international aspect of our anti-racist fight is now being criminalised is most clearly seen in the listing in the Prevent document of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as an extremist organisation, a listing all the more obtuse given the legitimacy of Palestinian solidarity work given through scores of UN resolutions condemning Israel for the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and the illegal buildings of civilian settlements on land taken by force. For anti-racists, for whom the fight against all forms of racism (whether anti-Black, anti-Jewish, or anti-Arab) is indivisible, it was our commitment to free speech on Palestine that led us to raise concerns about some of the contentious examples attached to the Holocaust Committee (IHRA) definition of antisemitism (which has been criticised as a threat to free speech even by Kenneth Stern, the man who formulated it). We were concerned that the extended definition would once again lead to a process of erasure and dispossession. And it now seems that the fractious debate around the IHRA has provided something of an alibi for the targeting of PSC as an extremist organisation. The Palestinian diaspora in the UK is being dispossessed of the right to interpret their experience of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, even as the diversity of Jewish opinion in the UK is denied, leading to the stereotyping and denigration of dissentient voices of Jewish socialists and Jewish anti-Zionists, who are in danger of being pilloried as ‘fringe Jews’.

The shrinking space for anti-racism

But we need to go further than just bemoan the various erasures described above. We need to historically contextualise the threat it poses to anti-racism and the way it is depriving BAME people of agency.

The space for anti-racism is shrinking fast – but this hasn’t just happened through the way that racism and antisemitism became political footballs during the election, it has been happening cumulatively, over decades. If we can understand this it will be easier to embrace strategies that don’t inadvertently nurture the new narrative but resist it.

Anti-racism, embedded in multicultural, internationally-focused communities of resistance, poses a threat to our neoliberal establishment that abandons whole communities to market forces. What could be a greater challenge to state neglect of impoverished communities, than ordinary people forming solidarity movements that cut across divides of race and class?

Professionalising the political

Extract of Table 1: Summary of the ten interrelated trends that constrain civil society today© TNI report ‘On shrinking space’, April 2017

Since at least the time of Tony Blair, successive governments have pursued neoliberal economic policies which have led to a shrinking of the size of the welfare state. A new form of governance has been engendered where the state governs not so much vertically but horizontally – through the co-option of Third Sector organisations into ‘marketised service delivery’ or Samaritan-style victim support. This has had profound implications for the fight against racism, as well as our ability to build unity in action across the race and class divides. Whereas before it was grassroots groups, with perhaps the support of local authority-supported small voluntary organisations, setting the agenda on racial justice, now we have multi-agency hate crime panels and anti-extremism bodies which are a mixture of private, state and Third Sector organisations. Their multi-agency nature, closeness to government and law enforcement, neutralises campaigns, for example their ability to criticise the police and the CPS’s response to racist violence or criminalisation of BAME communities, let alone state policies that foster racism. And, ultimately, this multi-agency ‘professionalised’ industry leads to the delegitimisation of social movements that take a more transformative, radical approach, shrinking also the space for independent civil society actors, who can find themselves starved of resources by risk-averse funders who have internalised the state’s securitisation agenda and/or take the easier option of supporting those larger well-funded NGOs which appear to have greater access to power.

As I pointed out, the idea that racism is simply expressions of hate and bigotry, ie, ‘actions’ carried out, often online, by damaged individuals who have a propensity to imbibe conspiracy theories, is dominant today. But we also need to understand that this is linked to the role that government-funded hate crime and counter-extremism ‘industries’ play in our society in defining what racism and anti-racism are; in the process locking out from the discussion all those who campaign against the structural racism that exists in the social sphere.

This structural racism also influences our popular culture, determining the frameworks that the media adopt when reporting on issues of racism, which is again reduced to prejudice or perception of prejudice. What we are witnessing today, argues Nesrine Malik, is a media pantomime in which every black or brown person ‘summoned to perform their part’, defending Stormzy’s take on racism or Meghan Markle, for instance, are met by interviewers or pundits who ridicule them, imply that they are over-sensitive or ungrateful, they take offence too easily, don’t understand satire (Johnson), or, in the case of Muslims, are using racism to promote their own type of totalitarian agenda. And invariably, a cabinet spokesperson like Priti Patel or Sajid Javid pops up, to reinforce the government line that there is no such thing as institutional racism, just prejudice. It really feels like the place for intelligent debate is shrinking, and that we’ve gone back decades, to the 1950s when Asian and Afro-Caribbean people’s complaints about racism were met with ‘you’ve got a chip on your shoulder’, or ‘you can’t take a joke’, or ‘it’s only natural to fear strangers’, responses. Some now question whether, if we respond to the likes of actor Laurence Fox’s Question Time comments, we aid a process where nonentities who crave media attention are transformed into media celebrities and, if inadvertently, become poster boys and girls of the far Right.

The system of denial

This newly minted orthodoxy as to what constitutes racism is hard to counter. But if we start seeing it as less of a narrative and more as a system of denial that appears to be hardwired into the government’s way of thinking on race, we may be able to avoid a situation of being constantly on the defensive. To put it simply, institutional racism today is held in place by policies, institutions and government spokespeople that deny it exists at all – and this is part and parcel of a new common-sense racism held in situ by place people in the media, in the counter-extremism ‘industries’, and, most significantly, in the very institutions meant to protect us by fighting discrimination and upholding equality. Paradoxically, understanding this as structural and part of official thinking on ‘race’, can open up ways to fight it. We can ask why, for instance, some government appointees to top posts deny the existence of institutional racism in their fields, or conversely, like the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), redefine institutional racism in ways that reduce it to a series of incidents, thereby rendering it meaningless. We can demand that parliamentarians and people who head quangos uphold good ‘race relations’ and put them on inquiry should they perpetuate racist stereotypes themselves.

The enforcers

For instance, two of the government’s top appointees to investigate antisemitism have downplayed or contributed to anti-Gypsy racism, for which they have made no apology.

  • John Mann, the former Labour MP for Bassetlaw Notts and recently appointed antisemitism tsar, was interviewed in 2016 by police investigating a possible hate crime over an ‘anti-social behaviour notebook’ that specifically targeted Gypsies and Travellers.[i]
  • The UK’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, former communities secretary, Eric Pickles, was accused of reinforcing the anti-Gypsy perspectives of the Express group from 2008-2010. Appointed envoy in 2015, he had previously been the architect of planning policies for Travellers’ sites which attempted to erase Gypsy, Traveller, Romany (GTR) identity and curb their traditional way of life through a new definition of GTR for planning purposes. Pickles also came under strong criticism for his chairmanship of the Ministerial Working Group for Gypsies and Travellers, which, under the coalition government, was tasked with governmental co-ordination of the EU Roma Framework (whereby all member states were meant to implement a strategy for Roma integration). The committee, which was comprised solely of civil servants, had no GTR representation. Following a freedom of information request by Friends, Families and Travellers, it was established that the MWG had not met in two-and-a-half years, which speaks volumes of Pickles’ commitment to issues of the Roma, who he seems to have forgotten were also victims of the Holocaust, with Ian Hancock suggesting that as many as 1.5 million of Europe’s 2 million Roma population were killed.

Other government appointees have a track record of interventions that can be seen as reinforcing Islamophobia.

  • Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted, has directed inspectors to question Muslim girls who wear the headscarf in primary schools, saying the hijab could be a sign of ‘sexualisation’. She has also supported a primary school head teacher who attempted to ban the hijab (later overturned by governors). In a heavily trailed speech at a Church of England conference, Spielman urged school leaders to use ‘muscular liberalism’ to defend decisions, rather than adopting a ‘passive liberalism’ for ‘fear of causing offence’.
  • Lord Edward Faulks is a former Tory minister and a long-established working Tory peer who resigned the whip on the day of his controversial appointment as head of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), which he took over in the New Year. In a Spectator article written in April 2019 entitled ‘Adopting the new Islamophobia definition would be terrible for the Tories’, Lord Faulks argued that the definition of Islamophobia proposed by an All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims would inhibit those seeking to criticise British Muslims, that people were already too frightened to challenge Muslims, for fear of being called racists, and ended up appearing to endorse the association of London mayor Sadiq Khan with Islamic extremism.

Britain’s Black Caribbean communities face widespread discrimination and racist stereotyping and yet their experience of structural racism, particularly in school exclusions and mental health, is being erased. According to research published in Educational Review, Black Caribbean pupils are nearly four times more likely to receive a permanent exclusion than the school population as a whole, and twice as likely to receive a fixed-period exclusion.

  • Tom Bennett was appointed as the government’s bad behaviour tsar after the Department for Education announced £10 million for a crackdown on bad behaviour in schools. Bennett describes any link between US-style zero-tolerance behaviour policies that he supports, and increased school exclusions, as not evidence-based and mere hearsay. He has supported the Royal Docks Academy’s strict discipline guide which advises that teachers can give detentions to pupils who are missing equipment, challenge decisions by rolling their eyes, or ‘kiss teeth’, much of which has been criticised by education expert David Gilborn as racially biased.[ii] Bennett also seems set on a collision course with the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales and the Centre for Mental Health charity, which have both warned that accommodating ‘disruptive’ children, sometimes for minor uniform breaches or the wrong hairstyle, in isolation booths could put such young people’s mental health at risk.
  • Baroness Warsi, who criticised the appointment of Swaran Singh © Chris McAndrew via wiki commons

    Swaran Singh, a Commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) until at least September 2019, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Warwick University, was appointed in January 2020 to  chair the Conservative party’s review of its handling of discrimination complaints.  Singh believes that racism is a contested term, and has written an academic paper for the British Medical Journal denying the role institutional racism plays in diagnoses for  mental illness and psychosis in second generation  Afro-Caribbean patients. He describes the term ‘institutional racism’ as ‘vague’ ‘meaningless’ and ‘insulting’ and  accuses those who make ‘accusations of racism’ of putting the welfare of  BAME communities at risk by feeding into their ‘alienation and mistrust of services’. For such conclusions he was praised by Charles Moore in the Spectator for establishing that ‘Family breakdown is more common in Afro-Caribbean families than in many Asian ones and is also related to psychotic illness’. One can only wonder why Singh, who has controversial views on India and Kashmir, was appointed a Commissioner at the EHRC in the first place.

It is also worth noting here the mixed credentials of the current EHRC. In 2017, leading academics and race equality campaigners warned that its ‘credibility, authority and legitimacy’ within black and Asian communities had been damaged by the fact that under a programme of cuts, BAME staff were allegedly targeted for compulsory redundancies, with critics also pointing to its failure to appoint BAME personnel to senior positions. And, though the EHRC has been focussed and outspoken in its report on breaches to the right to life and violations of the public sector equality duty in relation to Grenfell, its recent report on racial harassment in universities has been savaged by Kehinde Andrews for reducing structural racism to a series of incidents. Journalist Phil Miller has suggested that more scrutiny is needed of an organisation whose chair and one of its commissioners are linked to a city law firm that advises the government.

Reclaiming anti-racism

If we are to revitalise anti-racism and create unity between all communities under threat, it is vital that we don’t get over-defensive, but start to fight back. We need to lead by example. There are plenty of organisations fighting structural racism, and our job at IRR News and in Race & Class is to amplify their voices. And when it comes to fighting racial violence, we need to recognise that the Brexit debate has deepened divisions in society to such an extent that for an army of far-right activists any ‘difference’ is now perceived as threatening. They are targeting mosques, synagogues, Black, Muslim, Jewish, Gay, Roma, disabled and LGBTQ targets alike. For the fight against racism and the fight against antisemitism to fracture at this particular point in our history is calamitous. But while bridges need to be built between all communities under threat, this can only be done in a principled way that does not cement, but recognises and counters the divide and rule policies of the government’s bifurcated approach to racial justice.

The highly professionalised and well-funded multi-agency counter-extremism and hate-crime ‘industries’ have turned the focus away from collective struggles against racism in all its forms, to concentrate on a narrow struggle against prejudice, hate and bigotry, or a vacuous struggle against extremism which ends up treating the Left and Right as equal carriers of extremism. Social media has opened the door to everyone’s prejudices hanging out, and also allows for everyone’s history to be invoked. It’s vital that the anti-racist movement, if it is to survive, does not go down the road of the increasing personalising of racism and limit its activities to moral outrage about who tweeted what or even retweeted what. Anti-racism as a practice is not about finger-pointing or virtue-signalling; it is about building a momentum in society which remakes racial justice.

  1. [i] The issue of this ‘offensive booklet’ was subsequently raised by the Traveller Movement and the René Cassin foundation prior to a proposed three-way parliamentary group meeting to discuss racism against Gypsies and Travellers which then collapsed when the APPG on antisemitism, chaired by Mann, ‘cancelled with no explanation’.
  2. [ii] Other experts have said the policy – which gives students penalties of 30-minute, one-hour or two-hour detentions depending on what they have done – is racially biased, as it awards the harshest penalty of two hours for pupils ‘kissing teeth’, equating this with bullying, truancy and theft.

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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