Neither liberal-conservative ideas of equal opportunity, nor identity politics, understand the interrelationships of race, class and capitalism, argues Yonas Makoni
Earlier this year, the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published the Sewell report, a look into the state of Britain’s ethnic divides, which was carefully designed to stoke anger about the issue of structural racism. Responding to the Black Lives Matter protests of last year and the outrage over racial disparities in the impact of Covid, the report argued that ‘the UK has fundamentally shifted … and has become a more open society’, and is ‘a beacon to the rest of Europe and the world’.
‘Put simply we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism. Too often “racism” is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined’ (Sewell Report, p.6)
The report claimed that the UK has entered a new era of ‘participation’, in which the doors are open to people from all races and ethnicities. If some ethnic groups still lag behind, that is because they have not been able to ‘run through that open space and grasp those opportunities’. By continuing to promote ‘overly pessimistic narratives’, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement, the report argued, have let their emotions trump their reasoning.
Carefully worded to prompt outrage from anti-racists as well as celebratory headlines in the tabloid press, this report was clearly another battle in the government’s ongoing culture war. At the same time, however, it was striking how it appropriated the vocabulary of liberal multiculturalism - openness, integration, participation - based on ‘an ideal for a modern UK best encapsulated by what we saw in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics’.
At the height of the neoliberal era, centrists touted free trade and globalisation as the ultimate antidotes to racism. As social-democratic parties rushed to embrace their opponents’ neoliberal economic programmes, class allegiance gave way to cultural values as the most important measure of progressiveness. By promoting multiculturalism, diversity and global economic and political interconnectedness, the new era was believed to spell the end of old divisions. This line of thought peaked with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, seen by the liberals as the final triumph of ‘colour blindness’.
While the Sewell report concedes that Britain has not yet fully reached the stage of post-racialism, it largely accepts this framework. In a subtle twist, it also connects it to the latest conservative notion of the ‘white working-class’: ‘Britain is doing much better on race than on class,’ Sunder Katwala of the British Future think tank is quoted as saying (p.31):
‘There is a sense of stagnation about the fate and life chances of poorer White groups, which is less the case with ethnic-minority groups. Until the recent focus on the “left behind” towns and “levelling up”, there was no national narrative encouraging the advancement for this group in the way there has been for ethnic minorities’ (p.38).
Not only has the focus on race distracted us from class, it has also created a hierarchy wherein the so-called ‘white working class’ is at the bottom. Since racism is essentially no longer a problem, the anti-racist movement is actually damaging to society, as it risks putting minorities on pedestals and ignoring the real problems facing the UK today: regional inequality and the plight of the ‘white working class’, conceived as qualitatively different to the problems facing ethnic-minority workers. It quickly becomes clear that the idea of the ‘white working class’ is not invoked out of an actual concern or sympathy for people’s suffering, but merely as a cover for an attack on anti-racism.
The limits of identity
It is worth speculating on how the once ‘progressive’ liberal multiculturalism could come to serve as the ideological justification for such a reactionary type of politics. With the growth of the anti-racist movement in the 2010s, the issue of racism became more and more polarising. On the one hand, the ‘identity-politics’ paradigm highlighted the insidious ways in which white-supremacist and Eurocentric assumptions apparently infected common sense and seemingly universal discourses.
On the other, the perspective of the once forward-looking liberal multiculturalists appeared increasingly conservative and out of touch with reality. As ethnic inequalities intensified as a result of the financial crisis, as the murders of innocent black teens once again exposed the ceaseless ferocity of police brutality, and as governments still refused to tackle these issues and take them seriously, the optimistic predictions of the centrists quickly began to lose their appeal. The promise of a dawning age of ‘colour blindness’ and ‘post-racialism’ was torn to shreds by the increasingly invasive reality of racial injustice.
The movement was, as such, also a response to the delusional optimism of the liberal anti-racists and their resignation to the persistence of racial inequalities. The mood was that we cannot just wait around for racism and racial inequalities to disappear by themselves as a result of the progress of capitalism, cultural integration or other liberal buzzwords. Rather we need radical action to change things in the here and now.
Contrary to the Tories’ claims, the problem with identity politics is not that it is too left wing, but, on the contrary, that it does not fundamentally question the assumptions of centrist liberal multiculturalism. It takes for granted the liberal premise that racism must be combatted at the level of ideas. This is particularly apparent in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most influential writers in the movement.
Coates argues that white supremacy is a system of domination created by white people, in which all white people have a vested interest, and which is experienced indiscriminately by all black people. Its purpose, he argues, is to control, dominate and exclude ‘black bodies’:
‘“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies … But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.’
One of the key claims of identity politics is that ‘systems of oppression’, such as capitalism, racism or sexism, are fundamentally independent and to be fought using separate methods and strategies, even though they may ‘intersect’ or compound in the experience of a single individual. In this framework, the socialist call for multiracial unity makes no sense. For Coates, any attempt to connect racism to capitalism is reductionist and inevitably relegates the fight against racism to second place:
‘Today, progressives are loath to invoke white supremacy as an explanation for anything … In substituting a broad class struggle for an anti-racist struggle, progressives hope to assemble a coalition by changing the subject.’
‘Negro poverty’, Coates quotes Lyndon B. Johnson, ‘is not white poverty’. As black poverty is caused by white supremacy, the two are qualitatively different, making any attempt to solve economic issues affecting both blacks and whites with universal social programmes, à la Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, flawed from the outset.
Instead, proponents of identity politics have usually favoured initiatives for improving black representation, challenging racist assumptions or demanding reparations for historical injustices. These are initiatives that can be relatively comfortably advocated by establishment media, politicians and businesses. Yet, given the deep-rooted nature of structural racism, it is not clear that they are at all radical enough.
Race and class
Any serious approach to tackling racism today will have to take into account the complex links between race and class. The Sewell report and identity politics both rely on an artificial separation of these two issues.
The government separates race from class in order to deny the role of racism in determining the inferior socioeconomic outcomes of ethnic minorities. Proponents of identity politics like Coates, on the other hand, separate race from class in order to deny the role of class.
The reality is much more complex than both these currents admit, however. First of all, it is undeniable that ethnic minorities experience racism universally, but equally we should bear in mind that a big part of the ‘black experience’ of racism is also a working-class experience.
Black people are overrepresented in the British working class by a proportion of three to one compared to white people, and BAME families are two to three times more likely to be in persistent poverty. Indeed, while the proportion of BAME households in poverty has fallen since the 1990s, for most groups there has been little change in the last decade. Labour-market discrimination still contributes significantly to these outcomes by making it harder for ethnic minorities to both gain and retain higher-paid roles, irrespective of educational background.
This intersection of race and class is also evident in regard to police violence. The racial aspect of police violence is well-documented, with the Black Lives Matter movement being primarily a response to police killings in the US. In the British context, however, this has only served to draw further attention to the inequalities in our criminal-justice system. Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped-and-searched and five times more likely to have force used on them by police than white people. In London, young black men aged 18-24 are nineteen times more likely to be stopped-and-searched than the population as a whole.
At the same time, however, another striking aspect of stop-and-search is its geographical clustering. In London, ‘half of searches between July and September 2020 occurred in 9% of neighbourhoods. Searches are also concentrated in deprived areas: 69% of searches took place in neighbourhoods that were more deprived than average.’ These areas tend to have larger BAME populations, of course, but also higher rates of violent crime. There is therefore some sort of method to the madness: institutional racism in the police is not just a consequence of the individual prejudice of police officers (which can be fixed with education, affirmative action or unconscious-bias training), but is also a necessary consequence of the way the state responds to crime and to poverty.
Changes in race and class formation
On the other hand, the British upper classes have also become less monochrome. Some ethnic-minority groups are actually overrepresented in the top two income quintiles. Indian households are the most likely to be in the top income quintile, followed by Chinese and whites, while black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households still lag behind.
This is more easily explained by class than cultural factors. Migrants from India and China are more likely to be middle-class and educated. First-generation immigrants from these backgrounds usually face significant downward mobility on arrival into their host countries, but their children are much more likely to achieve upward mobility than second-generation immigrants from working-class backgrounds.
First of all, this suggests that racism does play a role in determining differences in outcomes, although less so now than in the past. It also suggests that an important factor affecting ethnic minorities is the positions of their countries and communities in the hierarchy of the global economy: a class-based system as much as a racist one.
This suggests that race and class issues are not easily separable. Clearly, individual discrimination has and still plays a significant role in explaining ethnic disparities. However, in order to explain this phenomenon fully, we need to move beyond the level of individual conduct and situate these behaviours within their broader political and economic context. With regard to police racism, for example, we must move beyond the level of the individual prejudice of police officers and examine what role policing plays as a tool of social control.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that not all ethnic minorities experience the impacts of this structural racism equally. As the prevalence and social acceptability of overt discrimination has dissipated somewhat over time, class background has become the greatest determinant of whether individuals can overcome these disadvantages.
This decline in overt colour prejudice has given way to more nuanced forms of racism, based both on ethnicity and on lifestyle, clothing, speech patterns, and so on. Ethnic minorities who fit in with class and race-coded cultural expectations certainly have more leeway than in the past. Nevertheless, working-class ethnic minorities must confront all these types of discrimination as well as the myriad other factors that keep working people in general oppressed: low income, stress, poor access to and standards of public services, and so on.
This has led to a situation in which some individuals from ethnic minorities are increasingly finding their way into leadership positions, even in the government, yet for the majority, things have hardly changed. While some from ethnic minorities can overcome the impact of racial discrimination with the right combination of money, education and family background, most remain trapped in the lower rungs of the class hierarchy. There is an increasing disconnect between our society’s inclusion and celebration of (some) ethnic minorities and the actual experience of people on the ground.
Seriously dealing with the problem of ethnic disparities will therefore require more than promoting inclusion, education or changes in behaviour. When proponents of identity politics talk about tackling racism as a distinct ‘system of oppression’, they mean removing the social barriers to inclusion faced by ethnic minorities in, for example, the labour market. Ultimately, this is not so different from Tony Blair’s or even Boris Johnson’s vision of society: one in which the role of government is to provide inclusive institutions that can allow everyone to reach their potential.
Both these positions assume that there is a just economic system underneath these barriers that can deliver racially egalitarian outcomes, and just needs to be purified from external contaminants. This is similar to how economists discuss pollution and climate change: not as symptoms of an unsustainable system, but as harmful externalities disrupting the smooth functioning of an otherwise efficient model.
This picture stands in stark contrast to the historical reality of capitalist societies, which have been plagued by racism, slavery and imperialism from their inception. The transatlantic slave trade, for example, was clearly a case of a single system in which racial domination was completely and inseparably bound up with economic exploitation. As with colonialism, economic exploitation was also clearly primary; the racist ideologies were invented after the fact to justify the exploitation, not the other way around.
A ruling-class strategy
Racism still functions in much the same way today. It is best understood not as a jumble of individual prejudices or even as a system of domination of one group over another, but as an ideological tool used more or less deliberately by political elites for specific goals.
The primary goal of the capitalist state is to provide a safe and stable environment for capitalist accumulation and competition. In pursuing this goal, however, it continuously runs up against the intrinsic tendency of the system to expand beyond previous limits, intensify its exploitation of the workforce, and foster social instability. Society becomes increasingly split between the exploiters and the exploited, threatening to undermine the whole system.
Racism has a dual function in this system. Firstly, it plays an essential role in stratifying the workforce in a way that weakens the working class as a whole and allows for greater exploitation. Institutional racism forces ethnic minorities into precarity, forcing them to accept low wages and poor conditions. If a section of the working population is willing to work for below the average wage, however, this creates a downward pressure on the pay and bargaining power of all workers. This is the case, for example, with the labour of undocumented migrants, whose legal and social marginalisation forces them into jobs with few rights and near slave-like conditions.
Secondly, it serves to contain the antagonism between the exploiters and the exploited. The segmentation of the workforce according to ethnicity creates a situation in which different ethnic groups relate to each other as competitors, with majority workers anxious to protect their relative privileges. This system would not work if racism were not continuously promoted by political elites, state institutions and the media. The role of the state is to maintain order and stability and this necessarily entails protecting and promoting the profitability of the capitalist economy. This is a fragile system, vulnerable to pressures from below, and the divide-and-rule function of racism plays a crucial role in protecting it.
Scapegoating immigrants for the effects of austerity, for example, allows the Tories to have it both ways; they can ruthlessly attack workers for the benefit of big business, while assuring that many of those same workers will vote for them at the next election. On an international scale, racism has proven an effective ideological tool for justifying projects of imperial expansion and military adventurism. By dividing the global working class internally, elites lure some workers into seeing their interests as more aligned with the interests of the ruling class than with the interests of other workers.
Racist and anti-racist education
The groundwork for this instrumentalisation of racism is laid down early on, with the education system indoctrinating us with a certain version of the national cultural canon and inducting us into the national community. The construction of the nation state itself relies on a process of the undermining and eventual destruction of traditional communities, their customs and their history.
Later on, the state continues to differentiate between the dominant national community and (working-class) minority communities, whose cultures and lifestyles are treated as inferior. The dominant national culture is seen to belong to a greater civilisation which, of course, is superior to the various ‘barbarian’ civilisations. It is no surprise that these hierarchies follow closely the distribution of wealth and capital in the world economy.
What’s more, the overwhelming extent to which capitalist interests shape the formation of public policy even in the short term, through lobby groups, the media, economic pressures and so on, almost guarantees that their word on immigration and other policies will be heeded. In the absence of a corresponding counter-pressure from below, political elites will find that promoting racism is a price worth paying in order to stay in power, secure the viability of their political projects, and promote social stability.
Racism is thus not just a parallel ‘system of oppression’ to capitalism and still less is it a holdover from past societies with which capitalism will do away. Rather racism is produced by capitalism, the system depends on it for its stability, and this rules out any project for overcoming racism without a radical transformation of capitalist society. This does not mean that we have to ‘wait for the revolution’ until we address racism, as some have caricatured the left position as being. On the contrary, the knowledge of the crucial role that racism plays in supporting and legitimising the system makes combating it in the here and now even more urgent.
Neither should it lead us to a pessimistic perspective towards bringing workers together across races. If racism is produced by capitalism, it is to counteract its own natural tendency to unite those who share a common experience of exploitation and oppression. This is why fighting racism cannot just mean fighting for inclusion and representation, but must also mean attacking the barriers that prevent workers from uniting politically around their shared class interest.
As both the conservatives and the liberal anti-racists like to emphasise, education is key here. Yet this education should be a political one, aimed not just at facilitating the inclusion of ethnic minorities in positions of power, but also at assembling a movement that can overturn the power structure itself. In the context of a decaying capitalism, fighting racism alone can be nothing more than a symptomatic treatment. In order to defeat racism for good, we need to put an end to the system that produces it.
 ‘The conservative radio host Lou Dobbs, for example, said in 2009 that “We are now in a 21st-century post-partisan, post-racial society that is being led by those who are racial and those who are partisan.”’
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