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In the wake of the wave of demonstrations to support refugees, the long history of anti-racist organisation is recalled in the current issue of Race and Class, finds Dominic Alexander

Race and Class

Race and Class: A Journal on Racism, Empire and Globalisation vol. 57 July-September 2015, 110pp

The declaration ‘we are here because you were there’, coined in the 1980s by A. Sivanandan, has never been more relevant, as the consequences of imperialist wars and interventions, and neoliberal economics result in the wave of human suffering that is the refugee crisis. In the midst of this catastrophe, the usual suspects obscenely attempt to distinguish between economic migrants and political refugees, clinging to the Thatcherite notion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their choices. Everyone knows this does not reflect reality, but still the neoliberal nostrums are repeated. The only thing that could silence the dogmatism is the kind of outpouring of solidarity for refugees and migrants that we saw with the huge march in London on Saturday, 12th September, and the many other impressive demonstrations in other cities across Britain and Europe.

The arguments around immigration and racism have been around for a long time, however, and the current issue of the journal Race and Class carries a timely selection of articles reflecting on various aspects of these problems, and provides an important reminder of the history of right-wing attacks on anti-racism. Jenny Bourne’s article ‘Anti-racist witchcraft’ recounts the ferocious attacks on the Institute of Race Relations (the IRR publishes Race and Class) for its three books for schools The Roots of Racism, The Patterns of Racism and How Racism Came to Britain. These books were excellent resources for anti-racist education (and are still available), and so figures on the right launched incredible attacks on them as dangerous distortions of history, even claiming that the books were trying to ‘stir up racial conflict’ in the context of the Broadwater Farm riot in October 1985 (p.73).

The books themselves simply covered in a clear and accessible way the development of European colonialism from the Spanish and Portuguese onwards through the industrial revolution and the accompanying development of racism and colonialism. The third book, for young children, using a cartoon format, drew particular anger from the right as it linked the ‘origins of British racism in slavery and colonialism’ to the pervasiveness of racism in the structures of British society ‘from employment and housing to immigration law and the political system’ (p.69). That these books were very successful was clearly the source of the New Right’s anger which became ‘something tantamount to a moral panic about anti-racism and the politicisation of education’ (p.70). It was unacceptable, and somehow a distortion of history, to portray the British Empire as racist, destructive and exploitative rather than exemplifying ‘traditions of freedom and emancipation’, or economic improvement (pp.70-2).

Among other things, the point of the attack on the IRR and its books would be to deny the truth of Sivanandan’s phrase ‘we are here because you were there’. If this is true, then Britain has a responsibility to people across the globe, and it is not migrants who should be grateful to this country for being allowed entry, but rather Britain which owes a serious debt to all its former colonies. The attack on the IRR was part of an assault on anti-racism and progressive policies across the board, and while it did not succeed in shutting down the IRR, other major targets like the Inner London Education Authority and the Greater London Council did succumb. Clearly, this New Right campaign, which went onto attack multiculturalism, counts among the foundations which make phenomena like UKIP possible today.

The attacks on anti-racism remain current as the article by Jon Burnett ‘Anti-racism: totem and taboo’ delineates. Of particular importance is the continuing attempt to separate issues of racism from immigration. In some guises, of course, neoliberalism can pose as favouring equal rights and opposing racial discrimination as long as these are understood in a strictly individualist sense. However since racism is structural, and social, and since the causes of migration lie rooted in an imperialist international economic system, such conceptions break down into empty platitudes. Thus among those attacking anti-racism,

‘Some want to cultivate cultural conservativism and an exclusionary nativism, others want to construct a libertarianism rooted in freedom and non-interference. But all seem to argue that anti-racism (or the accusation of racism) now acts as an impediment to the rational management of ‘race’ in the UK. Most draw parallels – implicitly or explicitly – with the hellish dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984, suggesting that anti-racism has become a twenty-first century method of policing behaviour and, more crucially, thought’ (p.80).

Burnett shows also how attacks on Islam are strongly connected to the denigration of both anti-racism and ‘multiculturalism’, which are held to be undermining British society. Yet official multi-cultural policy was always problematic, as it ‘is little more than a plea with “the corporate power structure for inclusion”’ (p.85).

Another article also reflects on the limitations of official multiculturalism, when detailing the relationship between the Migrant Media documentary film making group and Channel 4. The Migrant Media group’s ‘intention was to make media that spoke for our communities’ (p.40), and in so doing took on hard subjects, one of which was the case of the death of Joy Gardener at the hands of police and immigration officers in an attempt to deport her. However the film Justice Denied had a difficult time with Channel 4, which did not attempt to defend it against the inevitable storm of controversy, instead ‘the Channel effectively said “you can’t make a film for us again unless it is something about Arab design or Caribbean cooking.’ They wanted soft, ethnic “lifestyle” programmes. We refused’ (p.46). The group went on to make an important film, Injustice, about black deaths in custody.

There are many other issues in the various articles in this issue which are worth discussing, here but, the key issue is to recognise the history behind today’s controversies, and to develop an understanding of how to respond. Jon Burnett, in his article, concludes that:

‘… what is needed is a movement for social change which challenges the economic and political structures that ae disempowering the excluded and marginalised. What is necessary is a politics which threatens power and the power elite’ (p.85).

Thus Saturday’s demonstration was a great start to challenging the toxic views of the anti-immigration right, but it is only the beginning of what needs to be done. To win the argument requires a strong and developed analysis that makes connections between structures of exploitation and oppression in the past and the present, which emphasises the consequences of imperialist interventions, and gives the lie to the dogma that all is individual choice in a globalised market, that there is no such thing as society. We need campaigning organisations to exist in the long term to make these arguments, just as the IRR has been and had continued to be, as demonstrated in this particularly excellent issue.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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