A Labour BAME discount is no “racial surcharge” – it’s the start of a more inclusive party

Those claiming “reverse racism” misunderstand what race is. 

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The “reverse racism” devotees are out in force again and they are not happy with the Labour party. The source of their rage: the party offering discounted tickets to black and minority ethnic members for an event in the East Midlands.

Fury boiled over on social media when it emerged that alongside youth members, who were offered £25 off the full ticket price, members of the party's BAME wing could buy tickets £10 cheaper than the going rate. A Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, took it upon himself to complain to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and now the watchdog is looking into whether Labour broke the law.

The subsidised passes were to be paid for by Labour’s National Executive Committee, out of its democracy and diversity fund. A Labour spokesperson said that the discount was in response to a request from from its East Midlands board, and pointed out this was in an effort to “improve representation”. This is needed, not just as a tick-box exercise in diversity but as a means to open up politics to people historically marginalised by political processes. When people of colour face institutional racism and are more likely to be in poverty, it makes sense to think of ways to make it easier for people to get involved.

But this isn’t where efforts should end. For greater political participation, Labour should offer discounts for people who are unemployed and for the many people who are earning but remain trapped in poverty.

At the same time, barriers aren’t only financial. Given long work hours, not everyone has the time to participate in conventional ways. It should be easier for people who can’t make the evening meetings of their constituency Labour party to enter into the camaraderie of party politics. There is more than one way to campaign. 

To make the party truly open, Labour needs to build on its co-ordinated strategy of grassroots activism up and down the country. That means getting in spaces that are inherently political but aren’t always explicitly so. Take libraries, that thanks to government cuts, are being kept open by volunteers. Or foodbanks, staffed by unpaid members of the community who collect and give out essential goods to people suffering because of government decisions. This is the productive conversation to bring out of Labour’s discount ticket, but not everyone agrees.

Bridgen, the Tory MP who brought the discount to national attention, claims it sets “a dangerous precedent which could easily be exploited at the extremes of our politics”. He describes the discount as a “racial surcharge”.

This is not a “racial surcharge”, and nor is it “reverse racism”. Indeed, those claiming “reverse racism” misunderstand what race is. Race is, as academic Alana Lentin put it, “a technology of power”. It was created and used to order people: to legitimate the rapacious, bloody colonial project. And though they are not static, these hierarchies continue to shape society.

Racism isn’t just a question of individual views, as it’s so often believed. It’s far more productive to understand race as a tool through which populations are ordered. Then it is clear why reverse racism is a complete fallacy. There is not and has never been a global hierarchy based on anti-whiteness - so while white people can experience all forms of prejudice, they can’t experience racism.

It would be more helpful if Bridgen, and “reverse racism” believers, focussed their energies on the structural racism his own government is helping to exacerbate: women of colour are hit hardest by the Tories needless austerity policies, and by 2020 they will have lost nearly double the amount poor white men have. And if they’re concerned about orchestrated discrimination, they need look no further than the Conservative’s voter ID plans. While Theresa May cries crocodile tears over society’s “burning injustices’, she’s beginning to roll out a law that will make it harder for marginalised people – including people of colour – to participate in democracy.

Reverse racism, then, is a nonsense. But designing ways to make politics more accessible? That’s worth spending time on.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.