IRR gifts its library to Warwick University


IRR gifts its library to Warwick University

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Written by: A. Sivanandan


A. Sivanandan, in a speech at the launch of the Institute of Race Relations’ library at Warwick University on 27 April 2006, explains how the collection (1956-2005) reflected the movements of the times – decolonisation, Black Power and globalisation.

I am honoured that Warwick University should name the Institute’s library after me. And I thank those members of the IRR’s Council of Management and staff who, in a moment of weakness, thought I deserved it.

But I cannot take all the credit for it. It was the times: the breakdown of Empire, decolonisation, and the emergence of neo-colonialism – the new order in which the ruling classes of the ex-colonies and the mother country entered into a mutually beneficial partnership under the rubric of the New Commonwealth to expropriate the resources and labour of native peoples. This new arrangement between the rulers and the ruled then predicated a re-alignment in race relations from ‘superior white’ and ‘inferior black’ to ‘equal but different’, from believers and heathens to ‘we are all God’s children’. But what it failed to say was that the whites would continue to play God.

And it is that understanding on the part of big business, that, if they wanted to make any headway in the newly independent countries, they would have to change the relations between the races, that led to the setting up of the IRR (in 1956) as a department firstly of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) – by ex-Kenyan Highlanders, owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean and various ex-administrators of the British Raj. In fact the founding director of the IRR, Philip Mason, visionary, missionary and author, had himself served as a magistrate in India.

Hence the library they set up was a private library to cater to the research needs of big business who were the backers of the Institute – such as BP, Shell, Rio Tinto Zinc, Roan Selection Trust, South African Gold Mines and later Nuffield and Ford.

But the race riots of 1958 in Notting Hill and Nottingham brought the race relations chickens home to roost, and the IRR was cast off from the Royal Institute for International Affairs to become an independent body in its own right, and began to concentrate on race relations in Britain. (Most of its publications hitherto had to do with Africa, Asia and the Caribbean). And it was the riots, perhaps, that got me the librarian’s job at the Institute in 1964 (They had now to put a black face on things).

The Institute, I was told was an independent educational charity set up to carry out objective research that would inform public opinion and government policy and so improve race relations. The librarian’s role was not only to aid such research but to carry out the empirical work of examining day-to-day happenings in race relations all over the country through daily perusal of the nationals and provincial press cuttings.

Unfortunately, I took my bosses’ words seriously – and, in pursuit of the objectivity they professed, fed information from all sides of the race relations spectrum to the Survey of Race Relations in Britain – an ongoing work consisting of forty-one pieces of research and spread over seven years. In the process, I began to see that the way the researches were being conducted was top-down, with society as a given, whereas the breakdown in race relations in Britain, in Rhodesia, in South Africa, in Sri Lanka (I had come to Britain in 1958 from the Sinhala/Tamil riots in Sri Lanka and walked straight into the Notting Hill riots) questioned the very nature of these societies and, more particularly, their power structures, and how such power was distributed among the various peoples of those societies in terms of western economic and political interests, relayed through the IMF and the World Bank on the pretext of aid and development.

The study of race relations, therefore, could not be taken out of its social, economic and political milieux. It was not an isolate, a specialisation, a discipline in its own right. It was a complex of disciplines. There was the sociology of race, the political economy of race, the biology of race, the geo-politics of race and so on. And then there were the historical connections between race and religion, race and slavery, race and empire which also needed to be examined in order to understand the nature of contemporary race relations. Which in turn necessitated the study of social theory: capitalism, socialism, liberalism, fascism, etc.

All of which was given a boost by the setting up of the Institute’s International Research Unit (we were quite big in those days – about forty to fifty staff – spread over three buildings – all in the Fortnum and Mason belt – not the handful we have now, located in the precincts of Pentonville).

As the library collection grew, it came to be known as a rich resource not only for writers, journalists, historians and dramatists – Paul Foot’s great political analyses of racism were researched there, as were Stephen Castle’s first book on migrant workers in Europe, Amrit Wilson’s path-breaking ‘Finding a Voice’ on Asian women, Peter Fryer’s monumental black history, Martin Walker on the NF, David Edgar’s anti-racist plays – but for black activists and grassroots organisations as well. And they in turn, in the questions they asked me and the knowledge they sought, sent me in search of literature that would inform them and me – and the library ended up stocking the movement publications from the USA such as the Black Panther Newspaper and Mohammed Speaks, the works of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Nyerere and Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Samora Machel, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, as well as black ephemera in Britain such as notices of meetings and conferences, hand-outs on strikes and demonstrations, manifestos and slogans and even the day-to-day published mutterings of the fascists.

That is what I mean when I say that it was the times that influenced the library collection, which in turn influenced the thinking of the staff and the researchers of the Institute, which in its turn led to the overthrow of the management council in the palace revolt of 1972 – in which your own Professor John Rex, a member of the IRR, took the side of the staff, as did Lee Bridges, now one of your professors, but then one of the American students who refused to fight in Vietnam and had to flee his country. But ours was a Pyrrhic victory: we had the day, but the bosses left with the money. The main body of the IRR was moved to a warehouse in Pentonville Road and our staff reduced to three, Hazel Waters, Jenny Bourne and me. With assistance from the World Council of Churches, however, and a couple of other charities, we managed to keep going and changed the study of race relations into a study of racism in all its avatars.

The academic side of the Institute had already been taken into Sussex University by Professor Fernando Henriques, a member of IRR’s Council, to be followed later by Professor Michael Banton’s unit at Bristol, also of the Institute’s Council, and Professors John Rex and Robin Cohen at Warwick. You see there is a family connection between Warwick and us. And it is no accident, therefore, that, thanks to the good offices of Lee Bridges, Bob Carter, Anne Bell and others, the Institute’s collection should end up in the excellent hands of Lynne Wright. (I apologise to the librarians for the messy classification scheme they have inherited. But in my defence, it was the one I inherited too.)

But the times are a-changing again. The computer age has altered both the inscape and outscape of libraries and the way they function. The shape and contours of racism, too, have changed under the impact of globalisation. Not race relations but migration and ethnicity are accepted as the legitimate field of study and there’s a growing literature on the subject. A charity like the Institute cannot afford to keep up with these changes. But it can put its grassroots connections and collections to use on behalf of the asylum seekers and refugees that globalisation has thrown up on Europe’s shores.

What better home for the IRR’s library, then, than the Ethnicity and Migration Collection of Warwick University?.

Thank you.


The Sivanandan Collection of the Institute of Race Relations and the collection of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations (CRER) have been brought together into the Ethnicity and Migrations Collections, housed on the fifth floor of the University of Warwick Library. To find out about using the collection email: ethnicityandmigration@warwick.ac.uk or phone 024 7652 3605.


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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