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A Sivanandan: John Denham is wrong to downplay race

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
A Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, explains why communities minister John Denham was wrong last week to downgrade the importance of racism
Issue 2185

In a way John Denham’s statements are an advance on previous New Labour positions, in that he emphasises the need to look at racial disadvantage in class terms.

At the launch of a review of government policy on race, he said Labour would act to end inequality in white, working class areas as well as in ethnic minority communities:

“In many parts of our nation the colour of disadvantage is white as much as it is black or brown.”

But within that proposition he hasn’t looked at the place of race within class. Within the working class is another group that is even further disadvantaged.

His argument leaves out the black and Asian working class, a section that is separated from the rest of the class by the double bind of race and class.

There is more than one way to be disadvantaged and racism has more than one face.

There is the everyday racism that people experience within the class system and there is the state racism that mistreats asylum seekers.

But there is also the racism thrown up by the “war on terror” and the politics of fear directed particularly at the Muslim community. This has grown in the last ten years.

The recent success of the British National Party (BNP) particularly relates to this.

And while the situation has improved for the black and Asian middle class, it has not improved at all for black and Asian workers. They are still virtually an underclass within the working class as a whole.


They have been neglected in terms of racial violence and institutional racism.

They have been relegated, especially in areas where industry has been decimated.

John Denham doesn’t look at the question of refugees and asylum seekers, who have been treated like a people apart.

The way the government has treated asylum seeker children in Yarl’s Wood detention centre is utterly shameful.

In a way there are two racisms: the racism that discriminates and the one that kills. The first applies to the middle class.

Anti-discrimination legislation has in the main allowed them to advance economically and socially.

But the law has not stopped the racism that kills—which is meted out to an impoverished underclass, and also to migrants and asylum seekers, by government policies.

This provides the breeding ground for the BNP. And if the black and Asian working class is over-represented in the wider working class in terms of disadvantage it is precisely because of such state racism.

The BNP gains from competition between different sections of the working class.


The problem comes back to the question of poverty and the free market. The working class, white and black, is disadvantaged by “modernisation” and the free market.

Under globalisation we have moved from the welfare state to the market state.

In the first, the state tried to look after its own people.

Now it just cares about the market, and that means prioritising the corporations.

New Labour has accepted the Thatcherite creed that there is no such thing as society, only individuals. It substitutes individual advancement for group welfare.

We are told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Well, some of us don’t have boots.

We have to look at both the wood and the trees to offer an alternative to what New Labour is offering.

We can’t just look at racism, class or the individual in isolation.

We need to look at the epochal shift in society caused by globalisation and the free market. This is something that I think Marxists have not examined enough.

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