Socialist Worker

Race, culture and class today

Issue No. 1759

Socialist Worker looks at

Race, culture and class today

What is the reality of racism in Britain?

RACISM IS not simply one group of people disliking another. It is systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities. It is built into British society. Capitalism constantly regenerates this discrimination and the racist ideas that go with it.

It is over 50 years since significant numbers of black and Asian people began coming to Britain. They were invited to move here to fill gaps in the labour market. It is 20 years since riots in Britain's inner cities focused official attention on racism, and there have been many inquiries into racism since. Yet today we still see racial discrimination against black people in all areas of life.

The latest official Labour Force Survey found that black people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white people. For white people the unemployment figure stands at 5 percent. For black people as a whole it is 12 percent. Each of the different groups of black people in the survey-"black Caribbean", "Indian" and "Pakistani/Bangladeshi"-had higher levels of unemployment than white people.

For Pakistanis and Bangladeshis the figure was 18 percent without work. Black employees are less likely to be in managerial positions than whites-14.9 percent compared with 19 percent. The gap widened between 1999 and 2000. It is not because black people lack the qualifications to do these jobs. Over that same period the number of black employees with a university degree or above rose from 21 percent to 26 percent. The proportion of white employees with the same qualifications is 17 percent.

Black children are more likely to be excluded from school than white children. The police in every area of Britain are many times more likely to stop and search black people than they are whites. Black people are more likely than whites to be sent to prison for the same offence. The same discrimination emerges when you look at the numbers in prison, levels of pay and quality of housing.

There are, of course, big class differences within each ethnic group. A small number of black people are part of the middle class. A tiny few sit on the boards of big companies. But in each case the proportion is less than the share of black people in the total population. Black working class people are even worse off than their white counterparts. The economic "boom" over the last few years has, unlike most previous spurts of economic growth since World War Two, increased inequality between rich and poor. For the first time it has widened the gap between black and white workers.

Why does racism persist?

INSTITUTIONAL discrimination by employers, state bodies and the immigration system is the bedrock of racism. But it does not end there. Capitalism creates the conditions for racist ideas to have a hold in society, including among working class people.

In part such ideas are a hangover from the time of the slave trade of the British Empire in the 19th century. But that is not all, otherwise racism would have died out. Capitalism has always relied on mass migration. In the 19th century it was from the British countryside and Ireland into Britain's industrial cities.

After World War Two people from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent came to Britain to work in the NHS, textile mills, foundries, on the buses, in the car plants and in other areas. Each group of immigrants enriched the areas where they settled. Mixing between new arrivals and those already here laid the ground for undermining prejudice. But immigrants could also be targeted as scapegoats for society's problems.

Black workers were pushed into the lowest paid jobs and into the worst housing. The result was black people concentrated as significant minorities in poor areas.

That provided a basis for the myth that the black people moving into an area would lower the quality of housing. The fact that black workers were in the worst jobs could also encourage white workers to see themselves as superior. These tensions existed in the 1950s and 1960s. But they became much deeper in the 1970s when economic recession hit. Visible groups of black people became ready scapegoats for rising unemployment and misery in working class areas.

Government attacks on immigrants fuelled the scapegoating-just as the clampdown on asylum seekers does today. Racist ideas can take hold because capitalism constantly pits worker against worker in a competition for jobs, housing and scarce resources. Politicians and right wing forces seek deliberately to stoke racism. Racist ideas can also more easily gain a hearing when there is a widespread sentiment that society is falling apart and people's lives are getting worse.

That sentiment exists in Britain today-even before a deep recession sets in.

Can people unite against racism?

CAPITALISM NOT only fuels divisions among workers. It also pushes them to unite. The only way to stop a factory closure is by united action by the workers and solidarity from others.

Beating Post Office privatisation today depends on militant strikes by all post workers-a big minority of whom are black. The same pressure for unity is there in every battle, from defending council housing to keeping a local school open.

Bosses, such as the management at Ford's Dagenham plant in east London, consciously use racism to undermine unity among workers. Black people obviously suffer. But white workers too are worse off if their bosses can sow divisions that prevent working people defending their interests. These twin pressures-to compete with one another and to unite-mean that the level of racism in society is not static or even.

A minority of white workers accept racist ideas in their entirety. They also tend to accept other ideas from the bosses-scabbing on a strike, kowtowing to the rich.

A bigger minority rejects all racism, and many other ideas designed to keep us in our place. Most workers are torn between the contradictory pressures to unite with other groups and to blame them. The balance depends on whether people are drawn into successful working class struggles or not, and, critically, on whether anti-racist workers can win over the middle ground and isolate the hardened racists from the majority.

Does culture divide us?

ANTI-RACIST struggles and united fightbacks by workers have undermined many racist ideas that were common in the 1950s. There are more interracial marriages than ever before, and fewer people are opposed to them. There is less open talk of black inferiority in workplaces and working class areas. Organised racists have shifted their propaganda to take account of this change in social attitudes.

BNP leader Nick Griffin talks of "cultural differences" between whites and Asians in Oldham, Burnley and other towns. No one should be fooled.

The BNP is targeting Muslims from a Pakistani background in these areas because Pakistanis are the identifiable black minority there. Talk of white culture is a con. The lives of the royal family, fat cat directors and Griffin himself (he lives off an inheritance) are a million miles away from those of white working class people.

The world's rich share a similar lifestyle, whatever country they are from. They jetset from one luxury hotel to another. Richard Branson has far more in common with the billionaire Hinduja brothers than he does with any white worker in Britain. Black, white and Asian working people in Britain have similar lifestyles. Real discrimination against black people can lead people to look to a sense of shared community, or often shared religion, as a defence against racism. At the same time, most black and Asian people say they want to be an accepted part of British society.

Most Asian parents say they do not want separate schools. And the biggest single reason given by the minority who do is racism in the education system, not a desire to keep apart. Fighting against racism means more than saying no "culture" should denigrated. It means building on the shared interests of black, white and Asian workers. And that means rejecting the idea that culture will permanently separate us from each other.

Many of the aspects of life most people enjoy come from precisely a fusion of different cultures, such as with popular music, the authors we read or the food we eat.


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Sat 28 Jul 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1759
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