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25 June 2023

Britain’s race delusion

Tomiwa Owolade argues that American culture wars obscure black British identity – but are racial borders less fixed than he admits?

By Tanjil Rashid

One day at primary school, I found myself wondering: “Am I black?” My class – made up mainly of South Asian Londoners like me – was being taught about Gandhi during Black History Month. This was puzzling. Gandhi, we knew well, was one of us. If, as our teacher was suggesting, the Mahatma was black, logically, would we not have to be too?

I did not know then of the widespread perception that Asians are a variation of “black”. When Enoch Powell remarked, “The black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” among those he had in mind were Asians: the Sikhs newly arrived in his Wolverhampton constituency. It was bewildering to many South Asians to be deemed black; many had just been expelled from Uganda for not being black. Others embraced black identity.

In this view, I may be as black as Tomiwa Owolade, the author of This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter. Owolade was born in Nigeria and raised in South London. Still in his twenties, he is a writer of journalism about black culture and intellectual history (including for the New Statesman) that is bookish yet zeitgeisty. His dissent from mainstream-left identity politics has led him to be vilified, he writes, as “a coon, a house Negro, an Uncle Tom”.

It would be absurd to subsume me under the same racial category. That there exists any tradition of making Asians out to be black reflects, I feel, a wish to corral the world’s darker ethnicities into one neat category to which a single attitude may conveniently be adopted. This appeals not just to white people but to black and Asian people themselves. If Owolade’s wide-ranging book has a central theory, it is that this desire for simplicity, this willing ignorance of the distinctions of history and geography, prevails over our understanding of race in Britain today. Owolade stands instead, he says, for “specificity”, not “generalisation”, for black people as they are, not as any ideology would prefer them to be.

The book’s main case study for this is black life in Britain, whose distinction, Owolade argues, is being obscured amid America’s noisy racial reckoning. He first got wind of this when activists at UCL, where he had just finished reading English, took his department to task for racial injustice towards “BIPOC” people. Now, the “I” here refers to the indigenous native Americans usurped by white settlers centuries ago. But such race-related concepts weren’t designed to be shipped across the Atlantic; here in Europe, indigenousness is something invoked, ominously, by the far-right alone.

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This Americanisation of Britain’s race conversation took off after George Floyd’s killing in 2020. “Prominent race activists and political figures in Britain” equated the predicament of black people in the US with the British situation, which is the product of another history entirely, devoid of America’s lynchings and “Jim Crow” laws. The latter are recent enough to still cast a shadow over the present.

African-Americans today do commonly live in deprived black-majority cities such as Detroit and New Orleans. That’s a demographic impossibility in Britain, where less than 4 per cent of the population is black. Black people feature in Britain’s racial disparities, but in Owolade’s telling there is little of the American-style segregation so striking to Brits when they see it across the pond. That includes Owolade, whose sister-in-law is African-American. He was astonished no white friends or relations of hers were in attendance at her wedding in the US. I am not sure that would be so unusual among Brits. More than that, there are virtually all-black schools, churches, streets, estates in the UK. Not cities though, so Owolade’s broader point stands.

[See also: Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye]

In its focus on British distinctiveness, the book soft-pedals a patriotism rooted in black-British cultural achievements. Owolade certainly isn’t of the “Inglan is a bitch” school of black-British thought (to quote Linton Kwesi Johnson). But it must be stressed that Owolade does not deny racism in Britain. His intent, indeed, is to engender a form of antiracism that is UK-specific, thus more truthful and useful. He warns:

“The damage that will be done by seeing black Britons through the perspective of black Americans, or through an abstract black identity, is that it stops us from precisely identifying the racial inequalities in our society – the issues that face them and other ethnic minority people in the country.”

One accusation dubiously inherited from the US is “systemic racism”, a step-up from “institutional racism”, with which Brits are all too familiar. The evidence-base for this arises from what Owolade calls the “disparity fallacy”. This entails citing a racial disparity, such as the educational attainment gap, or the pay gap, then taking this to be proof of discrimination. On this the black economist Thomas Sowell is quoted approvingly:

“The assumption that discriminatory bias can be automatically inferred when there are differences in socioeconomic outcomes seems indefensible. Yet that seemingly invincible fallacy guides much of what is said and done in our educational institutions, in the media, and in government policies.”

Less wonkishly put, the recipe for inequality has many ingredients: gender, geography, culture, class. When controlled for the latter, racial disparities often vanish. This also happens when you dig into the specifics of identity. Most black students in the UK are, like Owolade, from African immigrant communities; they excel in exams and university admissions. Only the African-Caribbean minority within a minority underperforms. Since both sets are black, some socioeconomic factor other than race is responsible.

Assumptions about disparities often demonstrate a failure of empathy, too. “Little thought is put into the perspective of black people themselves,” Owolade writes. Take minority under-representation in the media. I’m always privately amused by the solipsism of journalists and publishers in their chatter about this, as if their aspirations must be universal. To most people from immigrant backgrounds, these jobs are poorly paid, arbitrarily obtained and precariously held, with no compensating social prestige in our communities. While some of us do go into the media, most prefer more obviously rewarding vocations. Black people are accordingly over-represented among doctors. Given disparities in health, such as vaccine uptake (which is lowest among black people), is it wise to redirect black graduates from the NHS to Faber & Faber?

However, there is a lacuna in Owolade’s account. Even if we accepted his view that racial disparities don’t indicate, in the UK, systemic discrimination, and that he has refuted the ideology of those nebulous “race activists”, one pertinent fact remains: black people themselves believe racism is increasing. Polls show that they consider racism to be much more prevalent than national statistics – such as those measuring racial disparity or reported hate crimes – suggest. Is this a kind of discrimination perception spreading, as Owolade implies, due to viral American culture wars, or are we, as I suspect, missing something?

A contradiction runs through the thickets of this book. Polemically, it argues in favour of the particular over the universal – the distinct qualities of Britain and America, of African-Caribbeans and continental-Africans, of slaves and immigrants – and yet the writing is so universal in its style and sentiments. Here is the book’s poignant conclusion, Owolade recalling his time tutoring a student at a school he used to work at:

“As I listened to her read from Shakespeare and worked on some Dickens passages with her, I could hear beneath her south-London voice some unmistakably African intonations… Martha was white and had a bit of black in her voice; but she was still, like me, irreducibly British.”

Owolade is trying to make a point about the particularity of Britishness. But it is undercut by its emotion, its rousing vision of the borders of nation and race being transcended by culture. It’s saying, “This is not America,” but the question it raises, in our hearts, is: “Why shouldn’t we be America?” Such beautiful dissonance may weaken Owolade’s stated thesis, but it is also what elevates the book into one that may well endure beyond the moment it addresses.

[See also: Against race essentialism]

This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter
Tomiwa Owolade
Atlantic Books, 336pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia