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A Sivanandan on the neoliberal attack on cultural diversity

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
A Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations and veteran anti-racist activist, spoke to Socialist Worker about globalisation and the latest assault on multiculturalism
Issue 2023
Black and white, unite and fight - school students at Beaumont Leys school in Leicester walked out in November 2004 to support their teacher, Sebastian Gnahore, who had been subjected to racist abuse in class (Pic: Jay Williams)</sp
Black and white, unite and fight – school students at Beaumont Leys school in Leicester walked out in November 2004 to support their teacher, Sebastian Gnahore, who had been subjected to racist abuse in class (Pic: Jay Williams)

‘The best way to understand the growth of anti-Muslim racism is to see it as an attempt to punish those who are resisting the imperialist policies of our government.

While the racists may be playing out their battle on the plane of religion, their real aim is to take on and beat the opponents of imperialism.

In Britain this battle has also manifested itself as an attack on multiculturalism – an orthodoxy in British social policy for more than 30 years.

As Roy Jenkins, the home secretary between 1965 and 1967, put it, “Integration is not a flattening process of assimilation, but equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

Multiculturalism was the recognition that there would be cultural differences between British citizens – and it is that notion which the present government is looking to overturn.

Multiculturalism emerged from an anti-racist movement centred on migrant workers from Asia and the Caribbean in the post-war period.

Even though many of us who came to Britain were very well qualified, we came to work in the factories, foundries, hospitals and transport services in the worst paid jobs.

As immigrant workers, we found ourselves in the poorest housing and in workplaces where racism was rife. We had to come together to fight racism, both in the community and on the factory floor.

We fought for the right to decent housing, for better paid jobs, for the right not to have to work the night shift and for the right to be considered a part of the British working class.

It was through these battles that the term “black” was born. It was a political description for all those who face racism, rather than a term that describes the colour of our skin. It was a category that we developed to unite all of us who were fighting back against racism.

Our battles in the 1960s and 1970s forced the government into passing legislation against racial discrimination and establishing bodies like the Commission For Racial Equality.

In many ways these were attempts to buy off grassroots campaigns. The authorities were worried that if they didn’t act, the battle would get out of hand and would feed a wider radicalism that existed at the time.


By 1981 there were uprisings against racism by black youth in many of Britain’s major cities. The government set up the Scarman inquiry to investigate the causes of these riots.

Lord Scarman’s conclusion was that there was a “cultural deficit” among African-Caribbean and Asian people. One way in which this could be filled was by creating and financially supporting “ethnic” projects and organisations.

The multicultural struggle was on the road to becoming something that could be represented by the three “S”s – saris, samosas and steelbands.

Ethnic “culture” was given prevalence over everything else – it was the cream that had risen to the top. This was a period not of equal opportunity, but equal opportunism.


The process quickly led away from multiculturalism towards ethnicism, where the emphasis was not what different communities had in common as part of the struggle against racism, but what divided them culturally.

The policy benefited the black middle classes because it offered them jobs and representation in the town halls. But it did nothing for black kids on the street, many thousands of whom were unemployed or in dead end jobs.

Yet despite these weaknesses in what multiculturalism became, I still believe that it should be defended from those on the right who are eager to pronounce its death.

Today the forces of globalisation are attempting to culturally flatten us and force us all to adopt a single culture – that of the free market. Multiculturalism is a barrier to this process because it legitimises the idea of diversity.

For that reason it is hated by the pro-globalisation lobby, who tell us instead that we must all adhere to “Britishness”, as though that were a single monolithic culture.

This notion of Britishness is one that leaves out the contribution that immigrants have made to this country. I am not talking about the economic contribution that almost all politicians acknowledge, but of the political contribution we made through our resistance.

When we came to this country and faced discrimination, we said, “Where is your British justice and fair play?” In the process, we helped change the prevailing culture. This is a widely accepted fact – but when those who are against the foreign policy of this country attack the government, they are told that somehow they are being “un-British”.

So the attack on multiculturalism comes in the name of Britishness, and those conducting it say that they do so because they are against division and self segregation. But they would do better to look at the economic reasons for why some black communities find themselves ghettoised.

They would find that they are the same reasons why African- Caribbeans and Asians lived in substandard housing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Because we face racism, we are more likely to be poor and therefore to live in the poorest areas. The idea that we chose to live in poverty is a nonsense.

Far from wanting to be separate, what is clear is that where Muslims are given the opportunity to engage with others, they do so extremely eagerly.

The job of the left under these circumstances must be to involve ourselves in every battle against discrimination and racism in our local areas.

We must be part of the process of constructing a new working class movement, one that involves all those who have only recently arrived on these shores.

As we do so, we must make the political links between what is happening locally and what is happening globally.

It is imperialism and the “war on terror” that has forced the recasting of racism today. Therefore the fight against racism must also be a fight against imperialism.’

Interview conducted by Yuri Prasad. For more information on the Institute of Race Relations, including details of the latest issue of its journal Race & Class, go to

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