Racism in the Age of Globalisation

Racism in the Age of Globalisation


Written by: A. Sivanandan

Speaking at the Third Claudia Jones Memorial Lecture on 28 October 2004 organised by the National Union of Journalist’s Black Members Council*, Dr. A. Sivanandan, Director of the Institute of Race Relations, examined how the two trajectories – the war on asylum and the war on terror – had converged to produce the racism/imperialism of the global era.

Nothing signifies the politics of Claudia Jones more than that I, an ex-colonial Asian, should be asked by the Black members’ Council of the National union of Journalists to celebrate Black History Month by giving the lecture in her memory. For, the two guiding principles of Claudia’s politics (you will excuse the familiarity, because I did meet her ; yes I do go back that far) – were first, that the struggles against colonialism and racism were part of the same continuum (we are here because you were there) and second, that Black, like Red, was the colour of our politics and not the colour of our skins – (though she herself may not have put it like that). It is those principles too, that governed the struggles of West Indian and Asian peoples in the first two decades of the post-war period.

Ingrained in Claudia’s politics, however, was also a working-class perspective which, nevertheless, did not subsume the black struggle to the class struggle or maintain that racism would automatically vanish after socialism was won. And since the vast majority of us at that time came to work in the factories and foundries, or were recruited into the transport and health services, and even those of us who had qualifications were invariably forced by racial discrimination into lowly jobs (I myself started off as a tea-boy in Kingsbury library in 1958), it was a perspective that spoke to the experience of most African-Caribbean and Asian immigrants. But because that experience was not reflected in the mainstream media, Claudia, with her friend and colleague Abimanyu Manchanda, set up the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News. Claudia’s understanding of culture, too, was that of a people’s culture, a carnival of joy and celebration, of self-expression and self-organisation, a Hosanna to life. Hence her inauguration of the Notting Hill Carnival in August 1959.

The politics of anti-racism, the social worth of self-help and the culture of self-expression – all the elements of Black Struggle were already there in Claudia Jones’ writings and activities. And the years that followed the riots of 1958 which established that we had no place in British society were the years that were to establish our place in British society.

And it is that history that I want to retrieve – the history that we made in this country, the history that Claudia Jones inspired. The history of us as black settlers, not coloured immigrants, the history that black workers contributed to the working-class struggle, which has been ignored by white historians, the history of the struggles of black women to overcome the particular racisms visited on them, such as the virginity tests of Asian women at the ports of entry and the enforced use of depo provera on African-Caribbean women, the history of black youth rebellion and revolt which lifted, not them out of the ghetto, but you and me, middle-class blacks into positions of power and office. It is that history I want to talk about not the unavailing history of black heroes and heroines, and celebrities and role-models and uncle Tom you know who and all. Besides, one cannot understand racism in the age of global capitalism without understanding the racism of industrial and colonial capitalism. We cannot contest the one without understanding how we contested the other.

The unity that informed West Indian and Asian struggles during the ’50s and ’60s is, I think, the most significant legacy that has come down to us. It was a unity that sprang not so much from the assumed virtues of our politics as from our common experience of colonialism, our common experience of class (most of us were in working-class jobs) and most importantly of all, our common experience of an undifferentiating racism that debased and dehumanised West Indian and Asian and African alike. And although the communities lived in different areas of the city and had their own cultures, they still supported each other in the fight against racism. Cultural identity was not a bar to political unity.

That unity was inspired by the revolutionary struggles in ‘Portuguese Africa’, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and the war in Vietnam. And was mediated through a number of political groups that sprang up in the early sixties. There was the Conference of Afro-Asian-Caribbean organisations (CAACO), in London for instance, and the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racial Discrimination in Birmingham (CCARD),. The former was initiated by Claudia Jones’ West Indian Gazette in association with the Indian Workers Association (IWA) and Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom. The latter was set up by Jagmohan Joshi of the IWA and Maurice Ludmer a sports journalist who was the founding editor of Searchlight, and was instigated by a meeting at Digbeth called by the West Indian Workers’ Association and the Indian Youth League to protest the suspected CIA murder of Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congolese revolution. And together, and separately, they marched and demonstrated against the immigration bill of 1962.

You see the connections- between Third World struggles and anti-racist struggles, between Africans, West Indians and Asians, between he class and the community? If I am at pains to draw these out it is because they are unique to the history of black people in Britain – and it is a history we must recall if we are to contest the racist imperialism of the global era.

To return to my narrative. After the passing of the Immigration Act of 1962 and the subsequent arrival of our families, our concerns turned to schooling and housing. Racist educational policies, such as the bussing out of Asian children from their communities, and the relegation of so-called ineducable West Indian children to schools for the educationally subnormal, gave rise to a number of community initiatives such as supplementary schools and summer schools, in homes, and church halls and temples. In housing, too, there were communal efforts to pool resources and purchase property. And to contest the overweening aggression of the police and the criminalisation of black youth through the operation of the Sus law (which, like the doctrine of pre-emptive war today, sanctioned the arrest of black youngsters who were suspected of being about to commit a crime) self-defence groups such as the Racial Action Adjustment Society (RAAS) under Michael X and the Universal Coloured Peoples’ Association (UCPA) under the Nigerian writer Obi Egbuna were set up in 1965 and 1967 respectively. The former was influenced by Malcolm X’s visit to Britain and the latter by Black Power and the anti-Vietnam war movement.

These organisations along with the West Indian, Pakistani and Indian Workers’ Associations came to the aid of the strikers at various times in the mid and late ’60s in various factories – in Preston, Southall, Tipton, West Bromwich, and so on. In nearly all these strikes, the support came not from the trade unions but from the community organisations and the community – with the landlords waiving rent, grocers giving credit, temples providing food.

On all these fronts, then, Africans, West Indians and Asians were beginning to fight as a class and a people, and a people for a class. So that when in 1968 Enoch Powell made his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech and London dockers and Smithfield meat porters marched on Parliament to demand an end to immigration, representatives from over fifty black organisations came together in Leamington and formed a national body, the Black People’s Alliance (BPA), to co-ordinate the fight against state racism.

From Powell’s speech and the politics of the BPA sprang a more militant tranche of black organisations, with their own educational and welfare programmes, advice centres and bookshops and newspapers – such as the Black Unity and Freedom Party, the Black Workers’ Movement, the Black Panthers, The Fasimbas, – this time based on the Black Panther Party in the US.

In the meantime, Powell’s fables of Asians putting dog-shit through English letter boxes and West Indians robbing old ladies, along with his nightmare vision of England’s green and pleasant land crawling with piccaninnis (his word) smelling of curry (my contribution) and his call for a Ministry of Repatriation – all this was taken up by the tabloids, and some of the broad-sheets, and gave a fillip to the virulent and violent racism of the NF.

And although Ted Heath, the Tory leader sacked Powell from his cabinet, both the Tories and Labour edged closer to the NF position (Not much different from today then.) In 1970, Jim Callaghan, the Labour Home Secretary proposed that immigration should henceforth be restricted to patrials (ie people who had an English parent or grandparent, ie White Commonwealth Citizens). And the Heath government which came into power the following year brought in an immigration act which put a stop to primary immigration altogether. (As some wag remarked, ‘What Powell says today, Labour says tomorrow and the Tories legislate on the day after.) It was left to Heath’s successor Margaret Thatcher to steal the NF’s clothes altogether and announce that ‘we might be rather swamped by people of a different culture’.

Here again what I am anxious to show is not the chronology or the particularities of the history of Black peoples in Britain, but its recurring themes such as the connection between state racism, institutional racism and popular racism, and the different resistances they elicited at different times to meet different circumstances. So that when in the mid’70s the technological revolution began to alter the whole nature of industrial production and the factories and mills began to close and the workers to be disaggregated and dispersed, the locale of resistance too began to move from the workplace to the community. And here the expectations of a generation born and bred in Britain led to a more confrontational politics against the police under the banner of ‘Here to Stay, Here to Fight’ and a politics of self-defence against the NF under the slogan ‘Self defence is no Offence’. But because police harassment affected the African-Caribbean community in particular – in addition to the sus law that continued to criminalise the young, whole communities were now being subjected to road blocks, stop and search and mass arrests – and NF attacks were concentrated on the Asian community, the struggles became separated. African-Caribbeaan youth rioted against police harassment and brutality on a number of occasions, but most memorably at the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976 when they set police cars aflame to the cries of Soweto, Soweto. And the Asian youth movements put the National Front to flight in Southall in 1979 and Bradford in 1981.

Then came Mrs Thatcher, with her policies of privatisation and liberalisation and cuts in public services, with her dog-eat-dog morality of greed and selfishness and individualism, with her anti-working class, anti-youth, anti-women politics maintained by the militarisation of a police force only too willing to beat the shit out of striking workers and keep a lid on the boiling ghettos. But in 1981 the chickens came home to roost, and the black youth of the slums, along with their white mates, exploded into rebellion across twenty-nine cities of the land.

It was only then that Mrs Thatcher set up a task force to look into urban regeneration, and appointed Lord Scarman to investigate the ‘disorders’, and police-black relations in particular. His diagnosis was that African-Caribbeans and Asians suffered from something he called ‘ethnic disadvantage’, and the cure for that was ‘positive action’ on the part of the government promoting equal opportunity for ethnic minorities and providing ethnic funds for differing ethnic needs. There was no such thing as institutional racism, he said, only racial prejudice, and irrational beliefs and attitudes, on both sides of the divide, black and white, police and public. Hence the way to improve police-black relations was to give the police lessons in racial awareness.

In effect, Scarman had personalised racism and so shifted the object of anti-racist struggle from the state to the individual, from changing society to changing people, from improving the lot of whole black communities, mired in racism and poverty, to improving the lot of ethnic individuals and groups. And equal opportunity in practice turned out to be an exercise in window-dressing: head counts and quotas, black faces in public places, Asians and African-Caribbeans and Africans vying with one another for office in an exercise in equal opportunism.

Already the multicultural policies that Labour had introduced in the mid’70s, to de-fuse black dissent, had shifted the struggle against racism to a struggle for culture and had begun to break up the black political community into its cultural constituents. Now, with money being poured into ethnic projects, and the creation of ethnic jobs, in pursuance of Scarman’s recommendations, ethnic politicking began to replace anti-racist politics – and the term black, which had defined the politics of anti-racism, went out with it. And ethnic politics held sway at local level for the next two decades.

But in 2001, Bradford and Oldham and Burnley exploded in Asian-White riots and the government decided that ethnicity had gone too far – that the riots arose from too much Asian ethnicity: it had spread to education and housing and seized up the town halls; it had created Asian enclaves which kept out the native whites in an exercise in reverse apartheid. It was the excuse that Blunkett needed to ground his call for ‘community cohesion’.

If Bradford was the excuse and the occasion, the reason was globalisation. For if globalisation is to function smoothly, it needs the social cohesion which only the state can provide. But before I develop that theme I would like to set it in context by looking at the politics of globalisation which, in turn, shapes racism.

Globalisation in political essence is international government by multinational corporations aided by nation states. In treating globalisation as a wholly economic project, we tend to overlook its political underpinnings. And the nation state is the political agency through which corporations are able to effect regime-change and/or sustain friendly regimes, militarily or politically to get at a country’s resources and markets.

Historically, the nation state sprang from industrial capitalism to safeguard national capital against other capitals, and to mediate between capital and labour – to control, that is, such excesses of capital as would lead to social dislocation, and to provide labour with just enough social and economic security as would keep it from revolt. And it was on the anvil of that struggle that was beaten out the factory acts and the education acts and the welfare state – and the freedoms of assembly and speech.

But as I indicated earlier, the massive changes brought about by the microelectronics revolution has enabled capital to take up its plant and walk to any part of the globe where labour is cheap and captive and plentiful – and so freed capital from the exigencies of organised labour. Capital has become global, transnational and the function of the state has changed accordingly, from serving its own nationals to serving the multinationals, and picking up the ensuing social tab with a handout here and a law there – thus replacing the welfare state with the market state, the social welfare state with the market welfare state: the welfare of the market comes before the welfare of society.

The life-blood of a free market is competition, deregulation, privatisation – all of which fractures society – whereas globalisation requires stability and order and social cohesion. Hence Blunkett’s whole raft of strictures on wayward youth, irresponsible parents, rioting ethnics etc. And community cohesion which came out of the Cantle Report on the Bradford riots and was adopted by Blunkett, refers more specifically and more importantly to the cohesion between the different communities, white and non-white in particular.

But if the politics of globalisation required community cohesion, September 11 provided its justification, and then proceeded, in its own right, to develop community cohesion into assimilation, justifying it this time with the politics of fear.

Assimilation (or integration, as it is sometimes euphemistically termed) spelt the end of multiculturalism and ethnicity. There was no such thing as Black British or Asian British anymore, only British British. And to be British was to adhere to core British values (whatever they might be), honour British customs and mores, speak the English language, take the oath of allegiance to the Queen if you wanted to become a citizen. After all, the rest of Europe was doing the same; each country – as Liz Fekete points out in her brilliant essay on Anti-Muslim racism – in terms of its own racialised history and nationalist mythology: France, on the basis of laïcité (state secularism), Germany on the primacy of Leitkultur (leading culture), Spain in the interests of public safety and crime prevention, the Netherlands on behalf of ‘standards and values’, Denmark – and this is classic doublethink – because the ‘intolerant culture’ of the immigrants prevents integration. All that Britain was doing was to fall in line.

And falling in line – convergence to use the EU phrase – is also the raison d’etre for a common immigration policy vis a vis refugees and asylum seekers – for a common market racism. That among the asylum seekers now seeking refuge are a number from white Eastern Europe is no matter. They are aliens, still, poverty-stricken aliens at that, come to scrounge off the welfare state – thieves and beggars and whores and Roma. Hence the treatment meted out to them is no different from the racist treatment meted out to non-white asylum seekers, only it’s not colour-coded. They are subject to the same draconian legislation that moves them about from one unwelcoming city to another, holds them in condemned housing and detention centres and prisons – (you have all heard of Yarls Wood and Campsfield and Belmarsh) denies them the right to work and the self-respect that goes with it while beggaring them with handouts that barely keep them alive, and generally dehumanising them to the point where suicide seems the better option – if that is, they have not been murdered by racists first. And now, Britain and the EU propose, in the interests of national security, to set up camps in the regions of origin.

National security is also the ploy that the government has used to engender a politics of fear that would cower the nation into conformity and subservience – not just through state-sponsored lies and rumours such as the 45 minute threat, the ricin plot, or the siege of Heathrow airport, but through statutory enactments like the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act of 2001. Already the Terrorism Act 2000 had proscribed organisations which had been resisting tyrannies in their home countries or been involved in liberation movements. Now under the 2001 Act, hurried through parliament after September 11, foreign nationals (meaning refugees and asylum seekers) would be subject to arbitrary and indefinite detention on suspicion of being terrorists. Thus every refugee and asylum seeker (meaning Muslim) was not only suspect but subject to stop and search powers granted by the previous Act.

The two trajectories then – the war on asylum and the war on terror – have converged to produce a racism which cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from an asylum seeker, an asylum seeker from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist.

Conversely, to be a true British patriot is to be anti-Muslim – for, they are terrorists under the skin, fundamentalists under the hijab, envious of western civilisation, fearful of western democracy. To be anti-Muslim is the apotheosis of patriotism. And patriotism, along with its cohabitee, demonisation, breeds the culture of conquest, of imperialism. They even have a Patriot Act in the US of A!

Racism, then, is not a given. It never stays still. It changes its shape, size, contours, purpose, function with changes in the economy, in the social structure, the political culture, the system – and above all the challenges, the resistance to that system. Today’s racism, as we have seen, is embedded and shaped by globalisation. Globalisation needs it – first, to rationalise and justify the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers that it has caused to be thrown up on western shores in its rampage through the world; and second to rationalise and justify the imperial project needed to remove unfriendly regimes that stand in the way of its expansion and penetration. That is why it still needs the nation state.

And it is that symbiosis between racism and globalisation and globalisation and imperialism that now defines the remit of resistance. You cannot combat the one without combating the others. Imperialism is the project, globalisation the process, culture the vehicle and the nation-state the political and military agent. To look at racism as an isolate without considering its relationship to globalisation and therefore imperialism, is not only to descend into culturalism and ethnicism but to overlook the state racism that embeds institutional racism and gives a fillip to popular racism.

To look at globalisation without relating it to imperialism and therefore racism is not only to regard its penetration into Third World countries as an inevitable extension of trade, and not as a precursor to the regime change that follows in its wake, but to overlook the racist discourse that accompanies it and stirred up by the media, feeds into popular racism.

To look at imperialism without relating it to globalisation and racism is not just to accept the notion that regime change and pre-emptive strikes have no underlying economic motive but are a defensive strategy against the axis of evil and the terrorists they breed – (‘post-modern imperialism’, Robert Cooper, one-time adviser to our PM and now adviser to the EU, calls it). It is also to accept the hoary old myth of the white man’s burden of bringing civilisation and enlightenment to the lesser breeds, of freeing them from tyranny, forcing them to be free if necessary, bombing them into freedom and democracy. Except that the underlying theme this time is not that of a superior race but of a superior civilisation. Hence the real war, not the phoney war, is not between civilisations, as Huntington would have it, but against the enforced hegemony of western civilisation.

I am reminded of a story from Aesop, or one of those guys, in which a wolf and a sheep are drinking from the same stream (some distance apart) and the wolf, eyeing his next meal, accuses the sheep of polluting his water. ‘How can that be’, protests the sheep, ‘I am down stream and you are up.’ ‘That doesn’t matter’, says the wolf, ‘I am going to eat you all the same.’

Sorry about the digression. To get back to the argument or, rather, to put it differently. Under global capitalism the relationship between the economic, political, cultural etc are so organic, that we can no longer think of society in terms of superstructure and base, with the economic base determining the political and cultural superstructure. That would have done for industrial capitalism. But information capitalism, electronic capitalism requires us to think in terms of circuits, not hierarchies. And the dynamo that drives those circuits is the free market system.

Which raises another point about globalisation – the way it affects us socially and personally. For what the market does is to create is a 2/3, 1/3 society of the have-everythings and the have-nothings, keep poverty from the public gaze, and reduce even personal relationships to a cash nexus (conducted in the language of the bazaar) even as it elevates consumerism to the heights of Cartesian philosophy: I consume, therefore I am.

In the process, it creates a political culture of self-aggrandisement and greed, of lies, smears and sleaze, spin and sycophancy, hypocrisy and humbug – arrayed before us in the conduct of government and of those who govern us – and sealed with the kiss of self-righteousness. The irony is that when our rulers ask us sub-homines to live up to British values, it is not the values they exhibit that they refer to, but those of the Enlightenment which they have betrayed. Whereas we (sub-homines, that is) in our very struggle for basic human rights, not only hold up human values, but challenge Britain to return to them.

But just as the attacks on the values of liberty and justice and human rights have grown more far-reaching and insidious, so too have new movements and new constituencies sprung up to challenge them – and what’s more, have come together in global alliances against globalisation, as attested by the mass demonstrations in Geneva, Seattle, Prague, Genoa and Cancun and the deliberations of the World Social Forum from Porto Allegre in 2001 to Mumbai in January this year.

And no doubt strengthened by these protests, and instigated by the Brazilian President Lula da Silva, China, India, South Africa and Brazil (and soon perhaps Venezuela now that the attempts to get rid of Chavez have failed) have recently entered into trade agreements with each other, and a Bandung-style political alliance, to withstand American economic domination.

But in the final analysis, we need the media on our side – because it is you, and I mean the members of the Fourth Estate who, one still believes, are the guardians of our freedoms – especially today when the war on terrorism is eroding our civil liberties and violating the human rights of asylum seekers. And may I say in parenthesis, that we cannot defend the one without promoting the other – because civil rights derive from human rights. Besides, in an Information Society, it is you who are in the engine rooms of power. It is you who shape public opinion and inform popular culture. While those who own the media own the votes that own the government. Not Britannia but Murdoch rules the waves. I only ask that the Murdochs of this world do not also own the journalists whose ancient remit, whose Hippocratic oath, is to speak truth to power.

© A. Sivanandan

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Read a Spanish translation

* Supported by The Guardian, The Gleaner and The Voice.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

4 thoughts on “Racism in the Age of Globalisation

  1. An extremely intense insight into the levels of racism that our society has endured through the ages. Your article was extremely beneficial in my research. Thank you

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