On Racism

There are some who find it difficult to utter the ‘R’ word. Racism is a concept that has completely disappeared from the popular vernacular in relation to understanding differences in society. Greater concern is often placed on notions of values, or concerns in relation to certain community norms that are seen as antithetical to Britishness. Today, much of all of this refers to the seemingly intractable problem that emerges from being British and being Muslim, as regularly presented by the dominant hegemonic media and political elite.

Race has disappeared from the agenda not by accident but by design. The problem has been the liberal minded who went soft on antiracism, and then the internal battles. Antiracism had its heyday in the late 1970s, then meandered. By the late 1980s, people talked about multiculturalism, as if it would solve the problems of racism. In my writing, I have argued that while multiculturalism raises awareness, it does not fight racism, structural discrimination, or ethnic inequalities. After 9/11 and 7/7, now even multiculturalism has been reduced to a security agenda that isolates Muslims and immigrants, etc. And in many circles, it is seen as a dirty word. Meanwhile racism is rife everywhere in society; in many ways, as bad as it has ever been. Just replace Jews in the 1930s, with white Irish in the 1950s, black in the 1970s, to Muslims in the 1990s, and since…

No community is free from tribalism of any kind, from the small villages in Outer Mongolia, to a University society of actors, for example. Thus, we are all susceptible to prejudice, ‘othering’, where individuals seeks the protection of the group at times of competition, etc. But while this is the case, it is not racism, nor discrimination, as such. Racism is the systematic cultural and structural oppression of one group by another. The outcome being discrimination, disadvantage, and in some cases annihilation. So the US is formed from the genocide of native Indians and the enslavement of black people – today, as the most murderous nation on the planet, it is also the most racist, and also the richest – very odd that! Germany was an example of a murderous nation – the Belgians, the French, too – but the Dutch, my favoured ‘continental Europeans’, and the Brits, were not the sheer brutes others were. Rather, tolerance, and acceptance, has always been there, to an extent. And it is something to be proud off. But Britain is not post-racial – rather, there are deep structural and cultural patterns of racism and discrimination that do not shift but remould. Racism has a habit of reinventing itself in liberal societies, especially ones that have run out of ideas.

Having said all of that, one must not fall prey to generalisations. All white folk are at not at fault when it comes to all of the structural and cultural discrimination of ethnic and religious minorities in Britain today. Not all white Brits are rampant rabid racists, far from it. In fact, a fair percentage are some of the fairest, tolerant, and most generous people I have ever met. But, I do say that this. There is a divide between such opposed positions, and it cuts across class and culture. And this is where the problem is. White Brits in powerful role, who make key decisions affect employment, opportunities, equality issues, affect us all. Self-selecting groups who revert to the group instincts can deepen the idea of racism in wider society, at the top and the bottom. For example, among the top ranks of the civil service, judiciary, the BBC, government, etc., white, public school and Oxbridge-educated groups dominate. Britain First or C18 members emerge from the ‘left behind’ white Brits, although far from exclusively.

I totally agree that for something as sensitive as racism, hard facts need to speak louder than rhetoric and sentiment. The top five bands of the civil service is where all the perks are, we are all pay is, and where all the power, and certainly the fun in being able to exercise power, is. There are so few Asian or black minorities in that segment of the civil service population, even to this day. Yes, we have Asian solicitors and lawyers, but how many are barristers and senior judges? Yes, we have Asian doctors who have propped up the NHS in hospitals and as GPs, but how many are senior consultants who have teaching positions in University hospitals. Yes, we have Asians with PhDs, but how many black professors are there in British universities? Yes, we have privileged brown and black faces in front of the TV cameras reading the news, but how many are in the very senior positions at the BEEB? It’s also the same for women, who are qualified and experienced and have all the knowledge, but they still face underrepresentation relative to their skill sets, although things are changing fast.

The point is that there is representation across the spectrum, but it is disproportionately lower than should be the case given education, skills, experience, and knowledge. Hence, the notion of the ‘ethnic penalty’, coined by Professor Anthony Heath of Oxford University. So what do we call this? Bias, disproportionality, unintended consequences, unwitting racism, institutional racism, discrimination, or simply racism? There are many shades of grey. And of course not every white person is a racist – not every black person is racialised. But we have to look at the picture overall to see that there is something still quite wrong, especially in the public sector, and it needs to be fixed if we want a fairer, more just, and more tolerant Britain.

6 thoughts on “On Racism

  1. You begin in your first paragraph by referring to the “intractable problem” of being “being British and being Muslim” and then go on to speak about racism in ethnic terms. I think that your eliding of two quite different issues reveals an agenda which is not really about racism, but more about your concerns, often expressed for Muslims in this country. There are indeed concerns but I would argue that they are not primarily about racism.
    Many of us do still use the language of racism when we see it – whether in the ‘white’ community, or as often, in other ethnic groups and I regret that in your comments on racism you are focused so narrowly on an issue which is endemic in many communities.

    1. Thanks for your observations, Guy. The issue is that, today, Muslims are treated like a racial group, where religion is replaced as the defining characteristic of racism. Racism, moreover, is not the same as racialism, which is the idea that we are are all tribalistic to some extent. If by ‘my agenda’ you are referring to my focus on Muslims, then, indeed, it is true that I am concerned by the issues of racism that affect Muslim groups, reinforcing my view that racism and anti-Muslim must be seen as one. There is very much an undercurrent out there which suggests that it is perfectly fine to be anti-racist, ‘but’ there are still Muslim-specific issues that worry ‘us’, which are about culture, or, judgementally, about ‘values’. This then means that you do not see the deeper structural factors that lead to discrimination and want to focus on culture, or multiculture, as a means to fight racism, which is almost impossible because racism or indeed equality is not about culture.

  2. Very thought provoking article which highlights the realities on the ground. It is not just top five bands within the civil service there is structured organisational racism that is evident though out the public sector and society at large.

    1. Indeed – racism is everywhere – the civil service, for me, is a useful microcosm of the wider realm of employment within public sector, and how it operates, which is very much like a quasi-militaristic machinery, toffs at the top giving orders, the great unwashed taking the bullets…

  3. Dear Tahir
    It is the same mechanism in many other European countries, more or less, including my lovely Denmark. Anti-Islam discourse is replacing racism and other forms of discrimination all over Europe, in media, politics, academic circles and public debate.
    But we keep on trucking and give a qualified resistance as we did in eighties.

    1. Dear Bashy, as decent, open-minded, humanist, purposive human beings, we have no choice but to carry on and fight the good fight, and fight to the end we must.

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