So race is back. During the past year, the excitement that surrounded the publication of the Macpherson report had begun to fade, but recent events in Bradford, followed by the Herman Ouseley report on the de facto segregation of the city, have brought the subject back, like a resurrected King Kong, leaving confusion and dismay in its trail. As it happens, travelling to events in Bradford on a number of occasions during the past few years, I was struck by the fact that I could predict the nature of the audience by the identity of the organisers. An event organised by blacks or Asians would be almost exclusively attended by blacks or Asians. An event organised by whites would be a guarantee of a white audience. It took a report to underline the significance of the pattern, but that’s a characteristic habit in Britain’s race relations. People don’t talk about race if they can help it, except for ritual political statements. When there’s a riot or some other crisis, there’s a brief flurry of interest, and then we’re back to the status quo.
It is easy to trace the development of the British arguments about race by surveying the highlights in the debate – the Notting Hill riots in 1958, the long trauma of Powellism through the 1960s, the inner-city rioting of the early 1980s, the Stephen Lawrence case and Macpherson report.
Two important notions have usually been knotted together in the debate. We need to untangle them. First is the issue of migration and nationality. Second is the problem of reconstituting racial equality in the context of British citizenship.
The network of legislation and constitutional change over the past 50 years has actually gone a long way towards resolving the first issue. British discussions about nationality now turn not around the concepts of racial and ethnic purity, but around the relatively sane argument regarding the conditions under which one may or may not become a British citizen. Take the recent reaction of the political and media classes to a Tory MP’s relatively mild remark about becoming a “mongrel” nation. A couple of decades ago, politicians of all stripes made statements of this kind openly, without anyone taking much notice. Powellism, which developed similar ideas more sharply, was quashed as a political force not by popular disapproval, but by the successive tranches of legislation aimed at stopping inward migration from the New Commonwealth.
The substance of the Powellite consensus has been largely successful. The term “economic migrant” is now political shorthand for undesirable alien. On the other hand, the context of the discussion has changed. The changes are due to the way that the same legislation has successfully outlined the constitutional process of citizenship, and this fact has resulted in some instructive ironies.
During the month of August two years ago, a diplomat from a country in central Europe arrived at Heathrow on his way to a conference in England. He was confronted by an immigration officer whose ethnic origins were Indian. In the course of being questioned, the diplomat lost his temper and told the immigration official to go back where he came from. As it happened, the official had been born in England, and his reply to the diplomat was – “I am the man who has to admit you to this country, and you’re the one who is going back where he came from. If you do happen to be admitted to this country, I’m going to have you arrested and charged with racial harassment and abuse.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was immediately called in to resolve the dispute. The FCO duty officer who duly arrived just happened to be of mixed ethnic origins, and he found himself having to explain to the white European diplomat that Britain was a multiracial, multicultural society within which his behaviour had not only been inappropriate, but also illegal.
At the time of this incident, my local papers were full of letters and complaints from Asian shopkeepers about the bad habits and welfare dependency of eastern European refugees and migrants in Haringey, reproducing on the subject the same tone of self-righteous anger as the citizens of such towns as Dover and Folkstone.
Reflecting on these events makes it clear that Britishness, even Britishness of the traditionally xenophobic variety, is no longer the exclusive marker of white British identity. Meanwhile, the liberal consensus that has emerged on migration gives the nod to Powellism (“this is an overcrowded island”) while retaining the capacity for indignation over individual cases, backed up by the uneasy perception that migration is actually a fundamental feature of a global economy.
Debate about race and racial equality has developed differently. The explicit racism at the core of imperialist ideology gave way to a more complex and difficult picture in the post-imperial years. After the country had weathered the crisis of Powellism, the political right never quite managed to recreate a racist narrative that could sustain wide popular support. Nowadays, every politician of the right and left, leaving aside the overt racists of the British National Party and the National Front, takes care to lard his or her speeches with references to “tolerance”, “diversity” and inclusiveness.
In principle, this is the logical response to a liberal consensus that appears to privilege racial equality; listening to its spokespersons, you would imagine that discrimination on the basis of skin colour would be a thing of the past. The statistics tell a different story. While the recent outbreaks of rioting come nowhere near the intensity and bitterness of the disturbances of the 1980s, these occurrences are a clear indication of the extent to which race in Britain functions as a marker of disadvantage.
The Macpherson report, most notable for its use of the phrase “institutional racism”, actually gave us a clear indication of what is happening. In practice, for instance, from administrators to teachers, the education system would deny any tincture of racism, yet black (African Caribbean) boys, along with Bangladeshis, are consistently excluded in disproportionate numbers and consistently fail to clear the hurdles of the school system. The justice system routinely reacts with indignation to any suggestion that it is prejudiced against blacks, yet black men are routinely imprisoned at a rate ludicrously higher than that for whites. The Law Society itself was found culpable of discrimination against its own senior executive, and there has been a long list of successful prosecutions of various police forces for discrimination and harassment, even within their own ranks. In much the same way, a network of corporations in both the public and the private sectors advertise themselves as “equal opportunity employers”, yet have failed to recruit more than the smallest minority of blacks and Asians, while there is a glaring absence of such people at middle and senior management level.
If there is a consensus about race, it is one that, over a period, quietly agreed to substitute warm words for action. One standby of right-wing arguments about race is the claim that the ethnic minorities are uniquely privileged, because the public discussion of race and racial problems has been suppressed by the “politically correct” lobby. The truth is, however, that “political correctness” reinforces the pattern of huge mismatch between public politeness and the concrete reality of the racial minorities’ experience.
On the right, the conclusion of racist narrative was a solution – send ’em back where they came from – that was always impractical, given the numbers of black and Asian people who were born in Britain. Equally, the left touted one variety or the other of assimilation, apparently failing to notice that, in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Cardiff, there were communities of black people who were as assimilated as it was possible to get, while remaining among the most underprivileged sectors of the population. But understanding the implications of race and race relations in Britain was never the strong point of a left-wing movement whose attitudes to race had been formed in opposition to apartheid in South Africa, or the segregationist policies of the American South.
Blacks were, by tradition, suffering victims or angry rebels, and the left failed to recognise the racial minorities of anti-racist mythology in the migrant communities with which they were confronted. They failed to recognise, also, the home-grown racism that was emerging in workplaces and institutions all over the country. The end product was a political culture that reconstructed the paper tiger of British fascism as the “real” enemy, while conspiring in the marginalisation of ethnic minorities, and enshrining an established pattern of racial discrimination at practically every level of national life.
After the riots of the 1980s, “multiculturalism” was partly an invention of the municipal anti-racists, and a response to the demand by ethnic minorities for a share in decision-making. The term was a useful shorthand for the changing demographics and identity of British society, but when it came to the issue of race and racism, multiculturalism offered little or no challenge to the hegemony of the dominant British cultures. Its effects have been largely cosmetic – a matter of how many black faces you could count on your TV screen.
Successive governments have consistently refused to recognise the agenda forced on the ethnic minorities by their environment. Education, unemployment, crime, the problems of the system of justice and housing, are all at the top of the list.
It is clear that, as yet, there is no political will in the country at large to look for solutions to black disadvantage in these sectors. Part of the problem is the lack of even a semblance of a unified political will within the black community. In the past 20 years, the black political culture had been altered by major events. One was the drift of black activists into mainstream politics, a factor that took a certain kind of experience and confidence out of autonomous black organisations. The roots of this process can be found in the late 1970s, when the politics of minority rights were glued together with the politics of the immigrants to serve the needs of a centre-left coalition. Since that time, radical political debate has more or less ignored the notion of a political programme driven by the needs of racial minorities.
In the wake of Celtic nationalism, a new debate around the issue of national identity and citizenship has emerged in England. For black activists, the argument presents a new opportunity for rediscovering outlets for the discussion of race, and for re-examining the nature of the migrant project. The relationship between these issues and the re-creation of Britishness is crucial in drawing the outlines of a new way of understanding race and racism in Britain.
The major issue is to do with the habit, deeply grooved across the culture, of reading identity exclusively in terms of colour. This imprisons the politics of nationality and identity within a deterministic view of race and ethnicity. In British cities, we can see a new confluence and a new way of living with ideas such as nation, ethnicity, identity. The process of swapping ideas and beliefs creates a market place of cultures, ideas and people, where physical and psychological divisions continually shift and change. The potential is one that could release us from debating difference and disadvantage in the political arena from within the framework of colour. Far from being a breakdown of national integrity, the situation signals new possibilities.
The new debate spreads itself across a wide range of conditions and activities. At one end of the scale is the struggle to insert ethnic-minority voters into the political process spearheaded by such organisations as Operation Black Vote. At the other end is the pressure from a new group of arguments about the hybrid culture and identity of the British. Paul Gilroy’s latest book, Between Camps, for instance, argues that “race thinking” has a damaging effect on black identity.
In my shopping mall, where every second face seems to feature a complex racial mixture, it is difficult to distinguish the natives from recent newcomers. In these circumstances, race, along with nationality and ethnicity, has begun to seem a slippery, uncertain concept. It may take our institutions and politicians a while to catch up, but these changes are irresistible. If Bradford was a statement about the damage caused by our confinement within the framework of race and racism, a walk around the centre of any British city bears evidence to the possibility of a new dispensation in which the processes that govern our relationship with each other can begin to move beyond the limitations of race.
The author’s London Crossings: a biography of black Britain is published by Continuum this month