Catching History on the Wing (a speech)

Speech to conference of IRR 1 November 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of its (original) formation.


History tells us where we came from and where we are at. But it also should tell us where we should be going. I’d like, therefore, to look at past struggles to see what resonances they have for us in today’s society. The Institute battle was won on the basis of a simple principle – that an Institute of Race Relations should not serve the cause of racism by collaborating with the racist policies  of  government  whether  abroad (in Smith’s Rhodesia) or at home (in the  immigration  acts).  And  it was principle, not ideology or dogma, that guided the work of the new Institute – and political criteria, not political line, that saved it from pragmatism. The criteria themselves arose from the problem we were addressing; and the problem, quite simply, was not race  relations  or  racial attitudes but racism and, especially, the racism of  the  state. We  were not grand enough, though, to be Establishment (which we had just left anyway) nor pretentious enough to be grassroots. But there was a plethora of grassroots, community movements at the time (unlike now, alas) that we could serve. If we could not be at the barricades in the fight for racial justice, we could, at least, be servitors in that cause. We  could  do research that spoke to the issues and problems confronting Black communities. We could be a servicing station. We could put gas in the tanks of Black and Third World peoples on their way to liberation. That,  in any case, was our pious hope. Whether we succeeded or not, I do not know. But what I do know, and I say it without any false modesty, is that we are today the only radical thinktank in this country on questions of racism and imperialism.

Our task was twofold. First, to debunk the myths and stereotypes that masked the problem of racism and its causes, and tell it like it is. As we must do again today in relation to the myths regarding refugees, asylum seekers, Islam, the war in Iraq, Palestine and so forth.

Second, to do in-depth  analysis  of  the  problems  of  Black  people  (as opposed to Black people as a problem) and therein find suggestions  for a course of action. Action research as opposed to policy research, thinking in order to do, not thinking in order to think – thinking and doing being part of the same continuum.

Myths and stereotypes reinforce each other. The myth sets out  the story, the stereotype fits in the characters. It was said, for instance, that  the post-war ‘influx’ of West Indian and Asian immigrants to this country was due to ‘push-and-pull’ factors. Poverty pushed us out of out countries, and prosperity pulled us into Britain. Hence the stereotype that we were lazy, feckless people who were on the make. But what wasn’t said was  that it was colonialism that both impoverished us and enriched Britain.   So that when, after the war, Britain needed all the labour it could lay its hands on for the reconstruction of a war-damaged economy, it turned to the reserves of labour that it had piled up in the colonies. That’s why it passed the Nationality Act of 1948 making us colonials British nationals. (Equally, when, after 1962, it did not need that labour, it brought in a series of restrictive and racist immigration acts.) Quite simply we came to Britain (and not to Germany for instance) because we were occupied by Britain. Colonialism and immigration are part of the same continuum – we are here because you were there.

The same syndrome obtains today. Europe  wants  immigrant  labour but not the immigrant, the profit from the one, not the cost of the otherexcept that the immigrants now are mostly from eastern Europe and  what used to be the numbers theory – the fewer the immigrants, the more easily can they be ‘digested’ – the phrase belongs to the original director of the Institute of Race Relations – is today the managed migration thesis of the government. Except, too, that the refugees and asylum seekers, thrown up on Europe’s shores, stem from the uprooting and displacement of whole populations caused by globalisation, and the imperial wars and regime change that follow in its wake. Globalisation and immigration are part of the same continuum. We are here because you are there.

And in this Black History month – history is not just our ancient past but the history we made here – it is worth recalling that it was the common understanding of our colonial heritage (and indeed a common colonial language, however accented) that brought us, West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis and Africans, together to fight the crude, undifferentiated racism of the time – undifferentiated not  just  between  the  so-called  races but as between the cultural and the economic. Thus the issue of Sikh bus workers’ right to wear the turban was also a trade union issue. The issue of bussing Asian children to schools outside their community had resonances with the segregation of West Indian children in ESN (educationally subnormal) schools. We came together to fight common and/or similar problems – with the police, trades unions, bosses – in housing, schooling, social welfare – in the workplace and in the community. Our cultures fed our battles, and a dynamic multiculturalism eventuated in the course of that struggle. We had political unity in cultural diversity. And Black was the colour of our politics, not the colour of our skins.

But the very success of Black politics led to what in effect was a divide and rule strategy on the part of the Thatcher government when, on the basis of Lord Scarman’s findings that racial disadvantage and not institutional racism was the cause of the 1981 riots, both central and local government began to pour money into ethnic or cultural groups and projects. Ethnicity was now good business, and good for business and promotions – and Black broke down into its ethnic parts and retreated either into ethnic enclaves or nationalist politics – and equal opportunities became equal opportunism.

That story has been told elsewhere, but here it is important to note that  it is the cultural separatism created by government and local authorities,   in lieu of dismantling institutional racism, that is today characterised as self-segregation – in order to decry multiculturalism and promote assimilation or ‘community cohesion’ as the government terms it. In other  words, multiculturalism which envisages unity in diversity has been traduced to mean culturalism, and integration, which envisages multiculturalism, has been traduced to mean assimilation and further reinforced by  the mistaken belief that home-grown terrorists are bred in the hot-house of their own cultures, untouched by British culture or  values. And all this in pursuit of the belief that a homogenous society would make for a safer society. Hence the call to the flag, adherence to British values, and a knowledge of language and ‘life in the UK’ test for would-be settlers. What next? A Patriot Act – like in the US of A?

That discourse has now been given legitimacy by the liberal intelligentsia or the ‘liberati’ (as I like to call them) from the advanced school of Islamophobia, who in their vaunted crusade to defend Enlightenment values (against the pagan hordes) have betrayed such intellectual dishonesty as to tar the whole of Islam with its fundamentalist brush. One may as well, with selective zeal, choose passages from the Bible,  or take a leaf out of Pat Robertson’s book, to characterise the whole of Christianity as fundamentalist. Islam, besides, is not a monolith. There   are as many Islams as there are cultures. And what we are witnessing today is the emergence of an European Islam.

In an Information Society where the communicators are in the engine rooms of power, it is the discourse they create that informs popular racism and influences government policy. And if the public intellectuals are so indiscriminate (and thick) as to what they write and say, how can we expect the man and woman in the street, or indeed the police, to distinguish between Muslims, terrorists, asylum seekers, refugees. Any Muslim could be a terrorist, any Black migrant could be a Muslim, if not an economic refugee, or an ‘unjustified’ asylum seeker. Who is to say    one from the other? We Blacks and Browns are all at first sight terrorists  or illegals – or in de Menezes’ case even a darker shade of white would do. Once we wore our passports on our faces – now we also wear them in our beards and headscarves.

Racism, state racism – which sets its imprimatur on institutional and  popular racism – changes with changes in the economic and political system. The national racisms of industrial  capitalism  have  yielded  to  the common, market racism of global capital. And the displacement of populations that I have already described now includes white immigrants from Eastern Europe. But the treatment meted out to them is no different from that meted out to Black immigrants before them. They too are subjected to the economics of discrimination and the culture of racism except that it is not colour-coded. And once we discard the myth that this is xenophobia, a ‘natural’ fear of strangers, and see it as xeno-racism the racism of global capital, we will be able to see the commonality of our struggles.

Similarly with the other, more poisonous, racism of our time, anti-Muslim racism, more poisonous because it is tied up with anti-terrorist legislation which affects the civil liberties of us all, and points the way to an authoritarian state. But that subject will be discussed by more knowledgeable people than me in the final session this afternoon. And Herman has already spoken about the cult of riches (rich good, poor, bad) which has incarcerated poor young Blacks in the wastelands of the inner city and thrown away the key.

Thirty years of market morality have undermined the culture of the Left, sapped it of political will and led it into the alleyways of identity politics, single issue politics and cultural politics. But who we are is what we do. And there is no single issue of injustice which is not imbricated in other issues of injustice. Cultural politics is separatist. Political culture, on the other hand, is inclusive. Now is the time to build such a culture, based on the commonality of our struggles. Capitalism is falling all around our ears, the market is collapsing. Hardship brings out the best in us human beings. Let’s seize the time. Let’s catch history on the wing.