By Kevin Ovenden
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Racism: Hope Amid the Hostility

This article is over 20 years, 2 months old
Attacks on refugees and Islamophobia are one side of the changing face of racism, but there is also a groundswell of anti-racist sentiment.
Issue 280

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Assessing the level and threat of racism in Britain today uncannily summons up those famous opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

On the one hand, we have just been through a year of enormous, multiracial demonstrations against the war. They symbolise a level of integration in British society undreamt of 30 years ago. One statistic among many bears out this trend: 40 percent of ‘black’ children born today have one ‘white’ parent – in other words, they are mixed race. The number of mixed relationships and their acceptance are both rising, seemingly inexorably.

Yet no one could fail to be alarmed at the other part of the picture. Five years of torrential propaganda against refugees by the media and politicians has created a climate of hostility towards newcomers to this country worse than at any time since the mid-1970s. It has fuelled the breakthroughs this year by the British National Party (BNP) in local elections. Recent election results in Burnley, Birmingham, the north east of England and Oldham show the BNP can be stopped. But with the coming European elections fought under a proportional system, there is no room for complacency. Furthermore, the poison of anti-refugee scapegoating has certainly sunk deep.

Asylum bashing

In mainstream politics, it is not only asylum-bashing that has been given a degree of respectability. Foreign office minister Denis MacShane became the latest politician last month to conflate Muslims in Britain with bomb attacks in the Middle East, taunting them to come out ‘more clearly in condemnation of terrorism’.

Scapegoating of asylum seekers and Islamophobia may be the two most obvious indicators of racism, but they are far from the whole story. The recent BBC documentary The Secret Policeman revealed a level of racism in the police which was sickening but, for young black people in Britain, hardly surprising. It was a testimony to the persistence of institutionalised racism, partially identified by the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and totally abandoned as an issue by home secretary David Blunkett in January of this year.

So are we facing a generalised increase in racism or progress towards greater integration? The truth is we face a sharply contradictory picture which will turn not on disembodied long term trends, but on how anti-racists react to the threat of a renewed upsurge of racism. The experience of the last 30 years has left a strong anti-racist legacy to draw on. And those years have also seen key turning points where the activity of anti-racists has been crucial to throwing the racists onto the defensive in the decades that followed.

It was maverick Tory politicians in the mid to late 1960s who first turned to racist scapegoating of immigrants as a means to galvanise support, culminating in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in April 1968. Powell was shunned by the political establishment. But the response of the then Labour government was to set a pattern we see repeated right up to today. They denounced Powell’s ‘extreme racism’ and at the same time passed a new swathe of anti-immigration legislation. The rationale was that the way to undermine racism within Britain was to practise it all the more intensely at every point of entry.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a number of significant mobilisations against racism. The first sizeable demonstration of Asians took place in 1972 over yet more anti-immigration laws. There were increasing numbers of protests against the National Front (NF), which was slowly building support by 1974. There was also a host of protests and campaigns against police harassment and racist educational policies.

Such was the pattern when the NF made a spectacular breakthrough in 1976 against the backdrop of huge attacks on living standards under a Labour government and a working class movement on the defensive.

It was the concentration of anti-racist forces in a campaign against the NF, led by the Anti Nazi League (ANL), that shattered the upsurge of racism. In alliance with Rock Against Racism it was able to put on not just two huge carnivals, but countless events that drew black and white young people together.

Focusing on the National Front also meant exposing the racist myths they fed off. The campaign was able to draw in large numbers of people who might accept some of the mainstream propaganda about immigration, but who hated the thought of the NF gaining a foothold. For the first time an anti-racist campaign involved large numbers of black and white people alongside socialists and trade unionists. Much of the success came out of the electrifying feeling at the launch of the ANL that at last people were getting together to concentrate their fire on the Nazis.

It was in the space created by the mass anti-NF activity that many other initiatives flourished – the organisation of young Asians against police racism, a flurry of anti-deportation campaigns, a major fight for anti-racist teaching that came from classroom teachers.

It meant that when the Tories came out with anti-immigration scaremongering (as they had throughout the 1974 to 1979 Labour government) the result was not to boost the NF (as had happened before), but to intensify the determination of tens of thousands of activists to stop the Nazis shifting the whole of politics to the right.


The success of the campaign came not only in 1979 when the NF’s vote collapsed. It was felt too in 1981 when unemployment reached the highest level since the 1930s and Britain’s inner cities exploded in frustration. These were not race riots. They were multiracial uprisings against poverty, unemployment and police racism.

They forced even Margaret Thatcher to adopt a policy of ‘regeneration’ of the inner cities and to steer clear of using the race card throughout the 1980s. The legacy was also felt in popular attitudes. The 1980s saw a steady decline recorded in social attitudes surveys of hostility to black people and immigrants.

It was not a result simply of prejudices breaking down as people lived alongside one another. Capitalism does create the potential for that. It rests at every point of expansion on uprooting people from one part of the globe and sucking them in to work in another. It has created today’s multiracial cities, where people mix at work and elsewhere. That can undermine prejudices. Equally, however, it creates the conditions for racist political forces to turn differences between newcomers and more established groups into systematic racial prejudice. That’s why today we hear almost identical racist myths about asylum seekers as we did about Pakistani and Indian immigrants in the 1970s. Capitalism operates to generate new forms of racism and, in so doing, breathes life into existing ones.

The turning points have been the result not of an accumulation of gradual changes in education or ‘enlightened’ official policy. They have come through sharp struggles and confrontations. The key to success has been whether the minority who are most clearly and actively anti-racist have been able to draw in the majority of people who accept some of the racists’ myths into a common struggle against the hardened racists.

The situation today is very favourable to constructing just such a force. It is true that rhetoric against asylum seekers is as shocking as it is open. But basic opposition to racism holds majority support. Indeed part of the success of the propaganda against asylum seekers has depended on detaching it from the issue of racism. The Sun, for example, typically quotes the views of black and Asian people opposing asylum seekers coming here when it runs a scare campaign. Even then, no one should lose sight of the fact that a substantial minority of people have been repelled by the anti-asylum bandwagon. In every single trade union conference this year delegates passed policies and made swingeing attacks on politicians who scapegoat asylum seekers.

And it is not true that the gains of previous struggles against racism have been rolled back. The public reaction to The Secret Policeman was one sign of that. Another is surveys of people’s attitudes. The explanation given by the government for the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford two years ago was that Asian and white people were choosing to segregate themselves from one another. The official report into Oldham claimed the segregation is ‘in the main’ a consequence of the preferences of Asian people to ‘live with their own’. But this process has been driven from above. As it later admits:

‘A formal investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) in 1991 found that the council were discriminating against Asian applicants by segregating them from white households into the centre of town and by placing them into lower quality housing in the Clarkwell and Waterloo estates.

‘And in 1990, the CRE also found that some estate agents promoted segregationist policies by steering minority ethnic and white residents into different areas; the minority ethnic areas being poorer and ones with already high minority ethnic populations.’

All the evidence points not to different groups wanting to separate off, but to a continued strong desire to mix with others. The last major study of attitudes to race and racism in Britain, published in 1997, found a desire to mix in all areas. It found that the biggest single group of respondents among all ethnic groups said they ‘had no preference’ what the ethnic mix of their children’s school was. The next biggest wanted a mix which included a substantial number of their own ethnic group. Just one in 18 Pakistani and Bangladeshi respondents said they wanted a 100 percent Pakistani or Bangladeshi school. Other, less comprehensive surveys since then have borne out those general findings.

The figures are remarkable, for the distribution of black and Asian people across Britain is not uniform. Some 45 percent of all ethnic minorities live in London. That, combined with market-driven education policies, has led to large numbers of black and Asian children being taught in schools where they are very much the majority. In areas where there has been officially sponsored segregation for decades, such as the northern mill towns, it is a similar picture. So if a majority of black and Asian parents say they don’t care about the mix in their children’s school or want a 50-50 balance, it shows a very high desire to integrate.


Among all ethnic groups there is overwhelming agreement with the statement ‘Britain is a multicultural society’. Attacking ‘multiculturalism’ is at the core of the BNP’s propaganda. It has also become the respectable face of racism in the right wing media. They say immigrants have to assimilate into the ‘dominant British culture’ and that their failure to do so leads to racism.

There is an immense divide in Britain in the way people live. It is not between different ‘national cultures’, but between rich and poor. The editors and owners of the press will sit down for Christmas dinner this month and exchange presents, as will millions of normal families. The rich will not think twice about spending tens of thousands of pounds. The rest of us will be wondering how many months it will take to pay for the whole thing. Is this really a shared aspect of ‘our culture’?

There is no national culture dating back centuries. Take Christmas. ‘Traditional festivities’ date from the 19th century. They are drawn from German, Dutch and other influences. Spiced fruits came from the Arabs, the turkey was the food of the North American Indians. This mixing is true of the whole of ‘British culture’. All sorts of people in Britain have blended together over the centuries – Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, east Europeans, French, Germans, Italians, Jews, Africans and many others. The English language itself has changed as a result.

Immigration since the Second World War is a continuation of a long process. That is partly accepted, of course, by right wing commentators and David Blunkett. They point to the positive impact of ‘hardworking Indian shopkeepers’ or Afro-Caribbean sportsmen. But those patronising stereotypes are coupled with a demand that immigrants should adopt the ‘national culture’. The whole idea that there is a superior British culture generates racism and, since explicitly racist arguments are not respectable, has been the mainstay of racist propaganda for three decades.

It was the fight against racism, particularly in education, that led to what is usually meant by multiculturalism in the 1970s. It meant pupils learning about different religions and customs practised by people from other parts of the world.

The result is overwhelmingly positive. The majority of people recognise that their lives have been enriched by the different kinds of food, music, festivals and entertainment now in British cities. Even institutions that are riddled with racism feel forced to claim that they ‘respect all cultures’. The Metropolitan Police has recruitment cards citing Martin Luther King in an effort to get black people to suspend all good judgement and join up.

But this official lip service to ‘multiculturalism’ has little to do with challenging racism and points away from what socialists mean by uniting people. It accepts and can reinforce divisions between people under the cover of ‘respect for national cultures’. The most reactionary forces in society understand this. That is why the anti-Catholic Orange Order claims that its intimidating marches in Northern Ireland are nothing but a legitimate expression of ‘Protestant culture’ and, as such, should be defended. The BNP pretends that its racism is simply about ‘defending white culture’.

It is the pressure of very real discrimination that can lead oppressed groups to emphasise aspects of their ‘culture’, particularly those that are seen to be under attack. Many young Muslims in Britain feel that way about Islam today. Socialists understand that and have a different attitude to groups responding to oppression from those who are perpetrating it. But we do not accept that people are divided into separate national cultures. Aspects of ‘culture’ are more and more shared. Young men in Britain wear largely the same type of clothing. People listen to music that is blended from sources from across the world.

Racism, of course, throws up divisions, but there is a process of integration. Under capitalism, this is market-driven and limited. People in many parts of the world are living similar lives. But that means the same junk food, exploitation by the same multinationals, the same pressure of mass advertising to buy goods most of us cannot afford.

Modern capitalism is soulless and dehumanising. It can lead people to turn to their ‘national culture’ as a source of comfort. There are always forces, usually from the middle class, that seek to encourage this because it allows them to present themselves as the representatives of whole groups. Religious leaders, even of oppressed groups, have an interest in playing up cultural separateness.

This often means concentrating on the most backward elements, which are present in any national culture. Socialists have a different vision. It is not about telling everyone they are culturally separate, even if equal. It is not about crushing everyone’s individuality as capitalism does. It is about taking the best aspects of the way people live all over the world and bringing them together in a truly human culture. In schools, for example, it means more than simply talking about ‘black history’ at a certain point of the curriculum.

It means showing how figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are part of a tradition of revolt by ordinary people which working class children – black and white – can learn from. That is a challenge not only to the ‘British culture’ championed by the right, but also to the whole system that divides people.

As in the 1970s, the united campaign against the BNP and racism launched this month can open up a wider space where people once again feel confident to fight for this kind of anti-racism. There are two important differences with the late 1970s, both of which favour anti-racists.

The first is the greater integration and confidence of black people in Britain. The second is that unlike the 1970s, today we are seeing rising struggles as a result of bitterness with a Labour government, rather than simply bitter despair. The movement against the war and the recovering industrial struggle are leading large numbers of people to look to the left of Labour. There is no reason the Nazis and the racists should be able to tap the bitterness at the base of society if a serious left alternative to Labour is built. And there is every reason to expect the radicalisation to the left to deepen if the new coalition of forces against the BNP draws in the core of the labour movement alongside all those who don’t want to see a rise in racism.

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