Putting John Denham’s speech in context


Putting John Denham’s speech in context

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Written by: Jenny Bourne


How progressive is John Denham’s apparent shift from ‘race’ to class strategies?

At last. Thirty years after the IRR had pointed out the weaknesses in government-sponsored ethnic programmes and ethnic funding.[1] New Labour, in the person of John Denham, seems to have woken up to it. Class must, John Denham said in a speech assessing ten years of race legislation, be taken into account.[2] The catalyst for this serendipitous discovery has of course been the rise of the British National Party (BNP) in an election year.

According to Denham, the last ten years has seen a great improvement in terms of race relations – with much of racial discrimination being swept away by stronger anti-discrimination legislation. Small pockets of stubborn racial ‘disadvantage’ may still remain, but BME communities as a whole no longer need special protection.

The reality, however, is that such legislation has helped the BME middle class to advance socially and economically but has done little to change the lot of the BME working class who remain more disadvantaged than the White working class precisely because of racism. They are in fact a virtual underclass caught up in the double bind of race and class. It is not remarkable then, that research shows that almost half of Black young people are unemployed and that the unemployment rate of Black people aged 16-24 is well over twice the 20 per cent rate of their White counterparts.[3]

The picture is also misleading because it presupposes that the nature of racism (and its victims) has remained relatively unchanged over the last ten years. But racism changes all the time with changes in the economic and social systems – and globalisation and the market have thrown up new racisms. Where that racism is raw and unremitting today is in the treatment of asylum seekers and their children who have been unashamedly viewed as a class apart with no rights, no sustenance, no refuge. An equally virulent racism that has risen in the last ten years, compounded by the ‘war on terror’ and the politics of fear, is that meted out to the Muslim community. And both these are underlined by government policies which constitute the type of state racism that fuels popular racism and provides a breeding ground for the BNP.

These developments require that Denham’s speech be seen in the context of New Labour’s fumbling attempts over the last ten years to square the UK’s brand of multiculturalism with the contradictory forces of the market, the fall-out from the ‘war on terror’ and the influence of the ‘assimilation’ debate in mainland Europe. For, despite the misguided ethnicist policies brought in by successive governments since the Scarman report of 1981 (which effectively shifted the fight against racism to a fight for culture) Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, has developed a genuine multiculturalism thrown up by the anti-racist struggles from the 1960s-1980s.

Hence, New Labour has been looking for compromises, half-way houses in terms of its race policies. It must hold on to the ethnic leaders and the ethnic class, whilst meeting the forces – especially 9/11 and the rise of militant Islam – which push against the grain of Britain’s unique history of inter-culturalism. It cannot, because of the long history of Black struggle for rights (including cultural ones), simply opt to go down Europe’s road towards monoculturalism and Christian dominance, but, nonetheless, it has to speak to new fears – especially given the successes of the BNP in harnessing them to its cause. Hence New Labour’s policies of community cohesion, the oath of allegiance, the promotion of British values, not funding single ethnic group projects etc. These have all been forms of fudges, ways of signalling to the White working class that it is being listened to. And Denham’s latest pronouncement has to be seen as another step in that trajectory.


[1] See 'Challenging Racism' by A. Sivanandan in Race & Class, Volume 25, no 2, 1983. [2] Communities and Local Government Department, Tackling race inequality: A statement on race, (London, January 2010). http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/communities/pdf/1432344.pdf (pdf file, 1.8mb) [3] Figures provided by report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, January 2010.


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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Pav Alam
Pav Alam
11 years ago

How come politicians can only grasp one idea at a time? Black people are affected by race and class and gender issues – as are the wider “white” communities. New Labour may be talking about class for the first time in thirty years, but they’re responsible for and have presided over increasing inequality between rich and poor during their tenure in government.

Jamal
Jamal
11 years ago

Great analysis! Especially important I think is the distinction between the Black working class and elite – whose token figures in high places are often held up to show how everything’s getting better – something that is simply contradicted by the facts

amanda Sebestyen
amanda Sebestyen
11 years ago

Yes , and last night on Question Time Liam Byrne [formerly a more than usually horrible Immigration Minister] , inserted ‘the British way’ into every single answer to every single question!

Pav Alam
Pav Alam
11 years ago

How come politicians can only grasp one idea at a time? Black people are affected by race and class and gender issues – as are the wider “white” communities. New Labour may be talking about class for the first time in thirty years, but they’re responsible for and have presided over increasing inequality between rich and poor during their tenure in government.

Jamal
Jamal
11 years ago

Great analysis! Especially important I think is the distinction between the Black working class and elite – whose token figures in high places are often held up to show how everything’s getting better – something that is simply contradicted by the facts

amanda Sebestyen
amanda Sebestyen
11 years ago

Yes , and last night on Question Time Liam Byrne [formerly a more than usually horrible Immigration Minister] , inserted ‘the British way’ into every single answer to every single question!

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