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Special edition of Race Today has many lessons for anti-racist activists

Christian Høgsbjerg, author of CLR James in Imperial Britain, looks at a special edition of Race Today produced to commemorate Darcus Howe’s 80th birthday
Issue 2853
Special edition of Race Today

Special edition of Race Today

Race Today began as a liberal journal of the Institute of Race Relations in 1969. In 1974, the black Trinidadian radical Darcus Howe and the Race Today Collective transformed it into a journal of black liberation that lasted 15 years. 

The politics of the collective were inspired by the revolutionary Marxism of Howe’s great uncle, CLR. James, who contributed to it. As Howe stressed in a James-like manner in 1978, the “principles by which we live” were that “the black working class will be in charge, and that the black struggle has an independence, validity, and vitality of its own”. 

Race Today established a reputation among anti-racist activists for its critical reportage from some of the key battles during the 1970s and 1980s. It had a sharp, critical and polemical edge, and a focus on struggles of black and Asian workers in Britain, cultural resistance and women’s liberation, 

It represented essential reading for many. But, unfortunately, it could not sustain itself.  It didn’t become a mass organisation that could effectively relate to workers’ struggles in multiracial workplaces, as well as struggles in the streets and law courts for racial justice and against police brutality. And this flowed from the Race Today Collective’s pessimism about the prospects of black and white unity. Today, Black Lives Matter has underlined that possibility.

As part of a publishing programme of the Darcus Howe Legacy Collective, a special one off edition of Race Today has now been produced. It both commemorates the past work of the journal, and brings together some leading anti-racist activists and “thought-leaders” to reflect on the state of “race today”.  

The product is a beautifully produced coffee table book full of wonderful images of struggles against racism in Britain in the past and present. There is a fine range of poetry and art throughout. And, politically, it is as thought-provoking and informative as its original incarnation.

In Britain one contributor, Charlotte Williams, rightly notes we are living through a “political maelstrom”. There is “a rigorously re-asserted popularist and exclusive notion of Britishness” on the one hand. But there is also a renewed level of anti-racist resistance coming out of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.  “We are witness to both the spectre of the Windrush scandal and the toppling of the Colston statue,” she writes. 

The work opens with discussions around the state of the BLM movement in Britain, and the nature of black resistance to racist policing over the past decade. It reminds us that 1,292 people were sent to prison in the aftermath of the London riots of 2011 for 1,800 years. 

There are pieces on wider state racism, including the Tories’ Rwanda deportations’ policy. But there are also some inspiring recent anti-racist mobilisations in Scotland. They include the mobilisation against deportations in Pollokshields in Glasgow and by the Roma people in the city. Teachers write on their efforts to decolonise the school curriculum from below. Museum curators discuss black cultural heritage. And campaigners for reparative justice for slavery and colonialism outline how they see the way forward.

There are timely debates around the meaning of political blackness. “Black” as a political category came out of the struggles in post war Britain, and united those who faced racism because of the colour of their skin and a shared history of colonialism. The volume includes an excellent piece by John Narayan that defends the vision of A Sivandandan, one of the most important anti-racist activists and intellectuals in Britain. He said that, for non-white migrants in Britain, it was “the colour of our politics, not the colour of our skin” that was critical. 

Narayan champions the politics of building solidarities for liberation among the oppressed. He reminds us that political blackness at its best “was concerned about revolution, one which would include all humanity”. 

The publication highlights the international dimensions of the struggle outside of Britain. It ranges from the far right in the US and the Islamophobia under India’s hard right prime minister Narenda Modi’s to the situation of the wider African diaspora. 

Symeon Brown is author of Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy. He writes well about the pitfalls of “digital activism” in the age of BLM where “activism” on social media becomes “primarily a form of content creation before anything else”. “It is no wonder the entire political project lacks clarity and focus,” he writes. 

The importance of understanding past struggles to better make sense of the present is underlined by the reproduction of some of Race Today’s original material. The volume might be usefully read alongside Here to Stay, Here to Fight: A Race Today Anthology. It’s a recent anthology of some of the most critical pieces carried by Race Today edited by Paul Field, Robin Bunce, Leila Hassan and Margaret Peacock. 

It included, for example, an interview with Toni Morrison, Linton Kwesi Johnson writing on Bob Marley and Walter Rodney’s writings on class and nationalism in Africa. NUM miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill and the forbidden fighter Jayaben Desai discuss the Grunwick strike of 1976. We have also seen the welcome republication of Darcus Howe’s 1988 classic, From Bobby to Babylon: Blacks and the British Police.

The volume is dedicated in memory of Howe. His piece, Black Sections in the Labour Party, from 1985 reminds us of his brilliance as a socialist thinker and writer. Many activists had come to see black representation over mobilisation, and work inside Labour, as vehicles for anti-racism in the 1980s. 

Howe pulls no punches in his critique of both the racism of the Labour Party and his defence of black people’s right to have self-organisation within it. But he also outlines how “the struggles of the upwardly mobile, black middle-class” is “distinct from the struggles of the black working class”. 

Today we face black and Asian politicians who push state racism because their own class interests align with the interests of the rulers of British capitalism. Howe’s insistence on focusing on “the real battle lines” between “the classes” underway in order to “assist in the shaping of the alertness of the black rank-and-file” is prophetic and timely.  

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