Socialist Worker

Some things we can learn from America

COLIN BARKER celebrates societies built by immigration

Issue No. 1863

STEPHEN BYERS MP, for a brief moment in his dismal life, was a member of the International Socialists. Since then, he has travelled far to the right. For a while, he was a New Labour minister. Now he promotes racism. On 30 July Byers suggested that any asylum seeker who fails to register with the government should be denied access to schools and hospitals.

Like the whole of New Labour, Byers wants to keep immigrant numbers down-'to reassure working class voters that Labour understood their concerns about immigration.' Byers denied his policy is racist. It is. Targeting immigrants and asylum seekers feeds racism.

Racism says immigrants are a threat to our society. Socialists don't just deny this, they insist immigration is a marvellous benefit. Let me be unfashionable. I love America. Not, I hasten to add, the American ruling class, its foreign policy, its missiles, its corporations. There's another America. It is the American people. It is vibrant with life, it teems with contradiction.

To be sure, the foundation on which the US stands is genocide, theft, and slavery. Native Americans were driven from their lands and murdered in vast numbers. Millions of black slaves were carried across the Atlantic from Africa. To this day, Native American peoples often live in conditions of poverty associated with the 'Third World'. Racism is endemic. Forty years later, not one element in Martin Luther King's famous 'I have a dream' speech has yet been realised.

All this is true. Yet there is more to 'America'. American society is, with all its contradictions, also a 'melting pot'. It is vivid because of its kaleidoscopic variety of peoples. Its great cities-New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and many, many more-hum with life, energy, colour.

For all its commercialism, American society has generated an extraordinarily rich cultural life, absorbing and transforming a host of influences from across the globe through the people it has also absorbed and transformed. There is more to American culture than McDonald's!

Where did the vast insurgency of the 1960s originate? In the American civil rights movement. Where did the most powerful modern musical impulses come from? American capitalism, to be sure, has been politically and economically hegemonic through its state and its capitalist enterprises. But the vitality and pervasive influence of its society also arises from the extraordinary history of its popular struggles.

Why go on about this? The brilliant richness of American society and culture does not reside simply in its material wealth-in any case, it is immensely unequal, and contains desperate poverty as well as obscene fortunes. Its genius derives from immigration.

Some Americans arrived fleeing oppression. Some came as indentured servants, many more as slaves. Some came seeking new opportunities, as 'economic migrants'.

Some came legally, many others entered (and still enter) illegally. Together, they have made the amazing amalgam that is modern America-even though they often had to fight like hell to be part of the mixture they built. Luckily for us in Britain, we've been part of the same tendency, on a smaller scale.

For the worst of reasons-imperialism and colonialism-Britain has attracted people from across the globe. Yes, as a great black intellectual put it, 'We are here because you were there.' For most of us, the only real benefit of empire has been the new people it brought to our shores.

Every new wave of arrivals has met with a welcome from part of the people already here, and a narrow, conservative rejection from another part. Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Jamaicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Turks, Greeks, Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Roma, Afghans, Somalis and many more-all have met with racist rejection, all have had to struggle for a place in our society, all have enlivened our life, opened us up, widened our horizons.

When socialists reject immigration controls, when we declare 'Asylum seekers are welcome here', we're not just rejecting racism. We're celebrating human diversity and the enrichment of our own culture. Love Music Hate Racism?-the very music draws on the joys and sorrows of the world.

Margaret Thatcher, the mad queen of the 1980s, played to the gutter when she said the British people were afraid of their culture being swamped. David Blunkett deliberately played the same tune and to the same audience. Who cheered?-the fascists. A swamp, as any naturalist will tell you, teems with life. Hooray for swamps.

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What Socialists Say
Sat 9 Aug 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1863
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