The changing face of racism in Britain today
I don’t know how many of you use social media service, ‘Twitter’, but those who do may be aware that some months back there was a trending topic called #thingsracistssay. Among these were: “I’m not a racist, but...”; “You can’t say anything these days...”; and, a growing favourite, “Islam ain’t a race, duh!” This talk is about the things that racists say and do, the alibis they use to cover their racism, and the reasons why racism has had to shift in the course of a generation or so, from focusing on biology and colour, to creed and culture.
I want to start by acknowledging a recent success. The BNP wiped out, 51-0, in Barking, decimated in Stoke and Barnsley, and showing dreadful returns in all their target areas. They spent a fortune on the 2010 campaign, believing they were on the verge of an electoral breakthrough, and an heroic campaign by anti-fascists stopped that from happening. They lost deposits up and down the land, which means that a lot of the money they get from being elected to the European parliament in 2009 has been squandered already.
However, the BNP still got close to 600,000 votes. And coupled with support for the Islamophobic UKIP, explicitly racist parties got about 1.5 million votes in 2010, or about 5% of the total vote. If there was proportional representation, things would look rather different today. The strategy of anti-fascists in mobilising the anti-fascist vote, and containing the BNP by ensuring that everyone was aware of their Nazi politics and their violent, criminal background, was successful in preventing the BNP from taking control of councils, or win their first parliamentary seat. But the results suggest that we still need to keep up the campaign, and to mount a wider attack on the bases of racism in the UK today.
Look at the last decade. The BNP have increased their support in elections by some 2000%. They have raised their membership to as high as 14,000. We have seen the rise of English Defence League street gangs. We’ve also seen a shocking rise in the level of racist incidents – quadrupling between 1995 and 2005, and continuing to rise dramatically since then. We’ve seen a rise in specifically anti-Muslim racism, coupled with growing hostility to immigrants, and the more muted return of racism toward older targets such as young black men. Immigration was the number two issue in voters’ priorities in the 2010 election, below the economy. It may possibly have contributed a little to the Liberals’ collapse, and certainly was a factor in some of the limited gains that the Tories made.
But in all this, there are some novelties. Racism is changing. It no longer focuses so explicitly on biology and skin colour. The major focus is on culture, and religion. The specific targets are not necessarily black. In fact, many Islamophobes would try to persuade you that they aren’t racist by insisting that they aren’t hostile to black people as such. Now, some people say that Islamophobia is just a cover for ‘Paki’ bashing; that the hostility is not toward Islam itself, which is just a convenient excuse, but toward Asians in general. There are certainly many for whom this is true, but that’s not the end of the story. There is a specificity about Islamophobia, a particular emphasis on Muslims, their purported culture, what is supposedly said and implied by the Quran and hadiths - and the fact that this is so, and that the target appears to be a religious group, doesn’t make it any less racist. Or so I will argue.
We can look at examples of this specifically cultural racism in the media, and two recent examples stand out – notably for coming from self-styled liberal intellectuals:
1) Rod Liddle notoriously demonised young black men in London for being responsible for the overwhelming majority of violent crime in the capital. Now, this was simply false. There was an article in the Telegraph attempting to give some credence to the idea, which reported that statistics provided by the Metropolitan police show that the majority of violent crimes where someone is proceeded against by police in the capital were black. What it didn’t really explain is what the Home Affairs select committee reported in 2007, which is that surveys carried out for the Home Office suggest that young white males aged 10 to 25 were far more likely to have committed a crime in the preceding year than males of the same age from any other ethnic or racial group – even adjusting for proportionality. But it also noted that once young black men had committed a crime, they were far more likely to come to the attention of the police. The reality is that most people convicted for such crimes, despite an institutionally racist criminal justice system, are white. That the police disproportionately proceed against young black men says more about the police force than it does about black people and crime. However, when Liddle was challenged about his claims, he retorted that he wasn’t being racist, because his claim concerned culture, not race. There was a culture specific to young black Britons that led to violent criminal behaviour. And he complained that the real problem was a multicultural ideology that didn’t permit criticism of any culture, no matter how anti-social or deviant from the norm. This is a straw man account of multiculturalism. The forms of behaviour he is speaking of are criminal, they’re against the law, therefore they are certainly susceptible to criticism. Moreover, they are marginal forms of behaviour both in society as a whole and among the young black men whom he chose to vilify.
2) A second example is when Martin Amis complained about ‘honour killing’, saying that multiculturalism had meant allowing outrageous forms of behaviour purely on the grounds that it could be traced to someone’s tradition, a form of religious piety or ethnic ritual. He assumed, incorrectly, that honour killing is a particularly Islamic form of behaviour. It is not. It is a form of patriarchal violence that is practised in numerous countries, from Latin America to Europe to south Asia. It is sometimes called dowry killing; sometimes called a ‘crime of passion’; and sometimes it’s just known as murdering your spouse, two cases of which take place every week in the UK. But, again, he repeated this nonsensical claim that multiculturalism means tolerating murder – repeat and underline, it’s not tolerated, it’s against the law.
What’s interesting about these examples, and what they say about the critique of multiculturalism that is coming alongside anti-Muslim racism, is that this partakes of the very static and essentialist account of culture that official multiculturalism of the kind pursued in the 1980s and 1990s, helped produce.
The confusion which enables people like Liddle and Amis to spout this kind of hysterical racist nonsense, while professing to be anti-racist, partly results from the exaggeration of the role of biology in racist ideology. Historically, cultural tropes have always been built in to racist ideology. Many variants of Enlightenment racism were explicitly culturalist rather than biological, but even those forms of racism that have historically privileged some idea of the biological race have always supplemented it with cultural stereotyping and essentialism – from wily Orientals, to avaricious Jews, to violent African Americans. More to the point, the way in which ‘race’ was constructed as a political category had surprisingly little to do with biological notions of race.