Left, Right and Burnage: no such thing as anti-racist ideology

First published in New Statesman, 27 May 1988. Later in Race &Class 30/1, July 1988

On 17 September 1986, 13-year-old Ahmed Ullah was stabbed to death at Burnage High School, Manchester, by a white schoolmate. The local education authority commissioned an inquiry,  under  Ian Macdonald QC but refused to publish its findings on grounds of  defamation.  In April 1988, some of its conclusions were leaked to a local paper. These included, among other things, a strong criticism of the way the school had applied its anti-racist policies. And it was this aspect of the report alone that was seized upon by the right-wing press to mount an attack on anti-racism.

Racism killed Ahmed Ullah on the playing fields of Burnage – not anti­ racism, if by ‘anti’ we simply mean ‘opposed to’, ‘against’. But anti­ racism as practised in Burnage was, on the showing of the Macdonald Report, 1 an accessory before and after the fact – merely by virtue of failing its own purpose. That it did so, however, owes not a little to the confusion and bewilderment of the Left as to the nature of racism and how to combat it, on the one hand, and to the sustained attack on anti­ racism by the New Right, on the other.

The fight against racism is, in the first instance, a fight against in­ justice, inequality, against freedom for some and un-freedom for others. But because racism is inextricably woven into hierarchies of power, of exploitation, and in some instances (as in South Africa) deter­ mines those hierarchies, the fight against racism is, in the final analysis, a fight against such exploitative power.

Both power and racism, however, have personal connotations, are easily reducible (and in everyday living are so reduced) to individuals, the positions they hold, the roles they fulfil. And so the fight against racism sometimes takes on the dimension of a personalised fight against an individual – as though to change the person (or his or her personality) is to change the office, the institution. When such confu­sion is carried over into policy, it tends not so much to alter the course of racial injustice as to damage the larger fabric of natural justice. Ms McGoldrick, for instance, was suspended from her headship by Brent Council on suspicion of being a racist (on the basis of a remark she is said to have made in a telephone conversation) and therefore in contravention of the anti-racist policies that the Council wished to carry out in education. At no point prior to suspension was she afforded a full hearing or accorded the benefit of her past record. And however much the issues might have been muddied by the yellow press or muddled by a reactionary teachers’ union, the fact remains that the Council, in its anxiety to do right by black children, did wrong by Ms McGoldrick. Whereas, the fight for racial justice, if rightly fought, must of its very nature improve and enlarge justice for all.

It is also a fact – and a sad one – that black councillors and officers who know how the ‘sus law’ has been used against their young should themselves administer ‘sus’ by some other name. They had, in Eliot’s grand phrase, had the experience but missed the meaning.

As a result, Ms McGoldrick was handed over as a casus belli to the genuine racists in our midst and to the racist media in particular, who were only too willing to espouse her cause in order to discredit the cause of anti-racism – as they now do over Burnage.

It was left to the ‘thinkers’ of the New Right, however, to mount a ‘considered’ attack on anti-racism by weaving together – with slovenly scholarship and consummate humbug – its foibles and its failings and presenting these as the fabric of its philosophy. A whole book, Anti­ racism: an assault on education and value, was directed to this exercise, and a biased programme in ‘Diverse Reports’ ‘examined’ the subject so ‘critically’ as to still the voices of those, like myself, who tried to say that there was no body of thought called anti-racism, no orthodoxy or dogma, no manual of strategy and tactics, no demonology. What there was in our society was racism, in every walk of life, and it had to be com­ bated – in every conceivable way. And because racism was hydra­ headed, and reared its different heads in different ways in different times (prosperity and depression) and in differing areas (employment, housing, schools) and different places (inner city, suburbia), the ways of combating racism were also different and legion. Nor were there any short-cuts to its demise. Racism had been a long time in the making and would take a long time to die. ‘Anti-racism’, therefore, was a port­ manteau word meant to carry all these differing ideas and ways of combating racism. The important thing, however, was to keep racism from corrupting society to decay.

If anti-racism for the irredentists of the New Right was an assault on their education and values, it was for the New (Social Forces) Left an essay in cultural politics, personal politics — which, in practice, de­scended into culturalism, ethnic politicking, inter-personal relations, identity-seeking. The fight against racism became a fight for culture, and culture itself was evacuated of its economic and political signi­ficance to mean life-style, language, custom, artefact. And black from being a ‘political colour’ was broken down into its cultural parts of West Indian, Asian, African – and these in turn reduced to their ethnic con­stituents. And since local authority funding was largely geared to ‘ethnic need’, there was a sudden flowering of a thousand ethnic groups. Everybody was ethnic now – Irish, Italians, Rastas, Sikhs, Chinese, Jews, Bengalis, Gypsies – and they all vied with each other for ‘ethnic hand-outs’ and ‘ethnic positions’ and set themselves against each other, politicking for ‘ethnic power’.

But, curiously enough, where this credo of ethnic need first arose was not in the ante-chambers of socialist local authorities but in the liberal pages of Scarman’s report on The Brixton Disorders. The evidence before Lord Scarman – the police force were battering down the homes of black people in Brixton with sledgehammers as he sat – pointed implacably to institutional and state racism. But, like so many adjudi­cators before him, so unquestioning was Lord Scarman’s belief in the fairness of British institutions that he set his face resolutely against any criticism of them. Instead, he leant over backwards – and you need  such a mixed metaphor to convey the contortions of his lordship’s posi­tion – to restore the balance of justice against ‘racial disadvantage’, by means of ‘positive action’ in terms of ‘ethnic need’. The idea was to help racial or ethnic minorities to overcome their specific disadvantages so as to bring them up to the same level as the rest of society – and then leave them, like everyone else, to the vagaries of market forces.

But, in absolving the state and its institutions of racism, the burden of ‘racial disadvantage’ was passed on to the minorities themselves – as though it were they who were wanting in something. An infliction had become an affliction, a disadvantage a disability – and  passed  under the rubric of ‘ethnic need’. The remedy, therefore, was to be sought in ethnic programmes and ethnic policy, not in dismantling racist struc­tures and outlawing racism.

It was, at best, a laissez-faire view of racism which brooked no state intervention, least of all in its own affairs and institutions, except in the lesser matters of administration such as recruitment and training, say, of police officers.

But for left-wing councils, casting around for anti-racist policies in the wake of the inner-city ‘riots’ of 1981, Scarman was a godsend.

‘Positive action’ and ‘ethnic need’, besides, seemed to have a socialist ring to them – holding out the prospect of socialist planning without detracting from the morality of socialist caring. Having themselves failed to incorporate or relate to the struggles of the black working class in the post-war years and see how they advanced the struggle of the class as a whole, the white Left had no socialist frame of reference to fight racism and, by default, turned to Scarman. Fighting racism the way that blacks had fought it, besides, looked like bucking the system, whereas upholding ‘ethnicism’ was a safe bet.

In the process, the fight was taken out of the streets and the com­munities and into the town halls – to be played out in committees and cabals. And racism itself became personalised to individuals, white in­dividuals in power, in the institutions of the local state. Scarman, in denying the existence of institutional racism, had shifted its centre of gravity to the individual. The town hall socialists however, applying a corrective to Scarman, kept institutional racism but changed its defini­tion to mean ‘prejudice plus power’ – i.e. personal prejudice plus the power she or he has as a white official to translate that prejudice into (racist) practice. So all you had to do was to make him or her aware of his or her racism – through RAT (Racism Awareness Training) classes – and prejudice, discrimination, would go out of power and make things fairer for blacks. Power, that is, was a matter of inter-personal relation­ ships, and by changing individuals you changed the relationships that determined the power structures. Conversely, and this was not so much in the original RAT writ as in its codicil, if black people were to chal­lenge such power effectively, they should become aware of who they were and what they could do – find out what their real identity was in terms of race, class, gender and raise their particular blend of con­sciousness.

The workings of RAT – born in a military base in Florida, reared at the University of Oklahoma by Judy Katz (see her White awareness handbook for anti-racism training) and officially held up in this coun­try a year before the 1981 disturbances by the Race Relations Advisor to the Home Office – and its subsequent spread all over Britain have been examined in these pages before.2 What is important to note here, how­ ever, is the imputation of guilt that underlined its philosophy and in­ formed its every practice. White people, RAT held, were by virtue of their history and up-bringing guilty of racism. And, even when they fought their racism, they were still no more than anti-racist racists – because racism was immanent in the white psyche, part of its collective unconscious … in the blood perhaps? … or it was original sin. The argument bordered on the genetic and blended the religious with the socio-biological.

But even after RAT was killed off by black activists and buried – with a memorial service held appropriately enough at the GLC in its dying days – it got reincarnated as ART, Anti-Racist Training, and con­tinued to purvey guilt under other guises. And it is that sense of guilt, of personal guilt, which marked the events at Brent and at Burnage – the one inflicted by the authorities, the other self-inflicted.

But then guilt itself has begun to replace shame as a moral value in society at large. Guilt, as Helen Merrell Lynd has pointed out, closes one down on oneself, internalises one’s inadequacies, breeds a sense of helplessness. Above all, it tries to live up to the standards set out by others for one. Shame, on the other hand, sets one’s own standards for oneself, opens one out to one’s own possibilities and those of others. To be guilty of racism is to have transgressed someone else’s standards, to be ashamed of it is to fail one’s own.

Shame, however, has gone out of Thatcherite Britain – the shame of being a racist, of being a capitalist, of getting power, making money, regardless of all else, everyone else. We have been taken over by the morality of grocer capitalism, merchant capitalism, buy and sell capi­talism where profit is only tempered by Calvinist moralism – and it is the same set of values that has trickled down into the race relations industry.

Of course, there is a morality involved in the fight against racism, but it refers not to the morality of individuals but to the morality of social justice. It is the prosperous, sanctimonious Right that prescribes morals to people and, from the height of its smug conceit, ordains how people should think and behave. It is a moralism that reflects a mean, narrow, closed-down, ungenerous view of life – one that does not take risks with people, with human relationships, enlarge human creativity, ‘ex­haust’ in Pindar’s phrase ‘the realm of the possible’. It seeks, instead, to gather up all the infinite variety of human experience and force it into the ungiving mould of its own righteousness.And it does it in the name of the individual, as though the individual grows in solitary confinement, removed from the collective good, in competition with everyone, trying to do the other in, instead of raising the other up and oneself with it.

The Left’s mistake was to accept this spurious equation of individual growth with individualism and confuse personal moralism with socialist morality – both (individualism and moralism) potent ingre­dients in the witches’ brew of right-wing fundamentalism.

It is such a fundamentalism that informs certain aspects of the pro­ posed Education Bill – in particular, its national curriculum which not only narrows the focus of the subjects that it prescribes as core, such as History, to a one-dimensional nationalist perspective but actively dis­courages at the same time the study of international subjects such as Peace Studies or Black Studies. Children are not to be put at risk to the world outside, opened out to the experience of other races and peoples, or encouraged to look at themselves and their histories from the van­tage point of such experience. On the contrary, they are not even to be taught to relate healthily to the different experiences and cultures of the fellow students around them through an education in other cultures and in the racism of their own · which renders those other cultures inferior. Instead, they are, if the New Right continues to have its say, to be afford­ed a ‘colour-blind’, conflict-free education in a world replete with col­our and conflict.