Vol. 9 No. 15 · 3 September 1987
From Frank Palmer
SIR: In her review of my book Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value (LRB, 9 July) Ann Dummett devotes most of her space to anti-racist rhetoric. This is not surprising in view of the fact that she has been active in promoting the kind of anti-racism the book criticises. (One may as well have a critique of religious fanaticism reviewed by the father of Edmund Gosse!) The little she does say about the text is superficial and misleading. To complain that the essays of John Marks and Antony Flew are ‘entirely theoretical’ misses the whole point. If we are urged to ‘combat racism’, it is surely sensible to examine what a number of local authority policy documents take ‘racism’ to be. And the point is made with ample quotation that in ILEA and other radical ‘anti-racist’ statements, racism is by definition something which can only be committed by white society. Further, if it is demanded of British teachers that they no longer teach children to adapt to the majority culture, it is hardly ‘sidestepping’ the issue (as Roger Scruton is accused of doing) to examine the thesis of cultural relativism (not ‘pluralism’, by the way) which is taken by the multiculturalists to justify their proposals.
It is strange to see Ms Dummett praising the Swann report for its moderation, considering she is one of the extremists who resigned from the committee. I stand by the claim that if its proposals on teacher education are implemented, all teachers and trainee teachers will have to accept the premises of anti-racist education. I did not say – as my reviewer claims – that all teachers will have to undergo racism-awareness training. Ray Honeyford, however, does suggest this (pace Dummett, the report claims that ‘the objective of RAT is very much in keeping with our own views,’ and the only criticism it makes is that RAT should be extended). As for the report examining ‘possible reasons’ other than racism for disparities between children of different ethnic backgrounds, Ms Dummett conveniently fails to acknowledge that the Committee actually suppressed its own research into the possible reasons for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils.
David Dale does not attack ‘the concept of institutional racism’, for there is no such clear concept. He examines the concept as revealed in the writings of people such as Sivanandan. And here, as in other sources, ‘institutional racism’ does rely upon Marxist assumptions and leaves little room for the notion of individual responsibility. Indeed the excesses of certain ‘antiracists’ are not, as Ms Dummett claims, isolated aberrations, but rather the logical consequence of following Marxist/anti-racist programmes.
Ms Dummett endeavours to discredit the book not by a judicious appraisal of its contents but by a slur on the motives of the contributors. I approached this project not as a politician but as a teacher who condemns the impoverishment of regarding subject teaching as a mere tool for the promotion of ‘causes’. Even if (genuine) racialism were more widespread than the authors accept, it would not follow that education should be treated as an antiracist instrument. To imply, as she does, that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with ‘the three R’s’ is plain silly. She fails to address herself to my argument that racism is a moral failing and that while a genuine academic education cannot ‘eradicate’ racism (any more than it can ‘eradicate’ any other moral failing), it can and does contribute to the general moral development of pupils. Indeed I would suggest that a truly educated person is not only prepared to examine his own attitudes but is less likely to share the dogmatic self-righteousness of anti-racism. For there is surely a difference between being morally opposed to (genuine) racism and enlisting in a fanatical campaign to seek it out even in places where it does not exist. Ms Dummett gets as close as she dare to accusing us of racism. This provides yet more evidence of the totalitarian mentality that says: ‘I am on the side of the angels, and if you disagree with my opinions you are a bigot.’
From Tom Hastie
SIR: As one of the two socialists who contributed to Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value, I should like to comment on Ann Dummett’s review. It is a pity she did not quote from the final paragraph of my essay, in which I said: ‘I am well aware that a number of my fellow contributors do not share my political views and loyalties; but I also know that in spite of these differences we share a coincidence of views on matters of intellectual honesty, on the importance of a sound and balanced education for all our children … There are some things which cut across party political boundaries. As far as I am concerned, opposition to the callous provocation of racial strife is one of them.’ My link with the other contributors was the professional one of a concern for the manner in which history is being perverted, for the blatant use of propaganda techniques in our classrooms, and the intellectual dishonesty of far too many people in the race industry. The methods and attitudes of these people are proving to be counter-productive and are actually polarising the races in this country, creating a false image of a society with a metaphorical barbed-wire fence between us. As a political animal, I am deeply worried about the consequences of that policy for the working people of this country, whatever their colour happens to be. Mrs Thatcher doesn’t have to divide the workers of this country to continue to rule them. The race industry does it for her.
Since writing my essay last year, I have resigned from the Labour Party because it is not left enough for me. To me, the basic division of British society is one of class and not of race, and as long as the race issue continues to sap the energies of the Left, Mrs Thatcher will continue to wage and win the class war with impunity. I believe that we are more likely to solve the evils of racial prejudice within a socialist society rather than within a capitalist society. Should not then the main thrust of the Left be to bring about that socialist society and to put it firmly at the top of our political agenda? It is significant that Rosa Luxemburg took no part in the suffragette movement in Germany, for she rightly saw it as a diversion from the main task of the Left in that country. We should be adopting a similar policy here, but there are too many vociferous vested interests involved who will not tolerate such a policy because to them RACE has nothing to do with ethnic attributes but stands for the Racket for the Advancement of Career Enthusiasts.
I condemn utterly the mindless racist attacks on the homes and persons of blacks and Asians in this country and so do all my fellow contributors to the book in question. What I do object to, however, is how the criminal behaviour of a particular few is regarded as being typical of white Britons in general – and that is itself an inflammatory racist attitude, is it not? Ann Dummett says that the racially unprejudiced society of wartime Britain may have been a fact forty years ago but is not so now. I suggest that if there has been a retrogressive change in Britons’ racial attitudes, it has been concurrent with the growing power and influence of the race industry itself and its clumsy tactics in promoting its case. Ann Dummett concedes that ‘anti-racism’ has committed ‘follies’. Why doesn’t she join me in publicising them and resisting their disruptive influence on our spirited adolescents, both black and white? If we do not resist these ‘follies’, then we shall find that a parallel to Gresham’s Law will become operative and ‘follies’ will drive out truth, value and objectivity from our society. Such a development will surely destroy the education of all our children and plunge our common society into turmoil. Is Ann Dummett prepared to stand by silently and watch that happen? I for one am not.
Vol. 9 No. 16 · 17 September 1987
From Ann Dummett
SIR: Mr Frank Palmer (Letters, 3 September), in attacking my review of the book he edited, Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value, says that I have been ‘active in promoting the kind of anti-racism the book criticises’. I fear he has not taken the main point of the review, which was to ask just what kind of anti-racism it was criticising. The book appeared to me to have lumped together many distinct, and often conflicting, views as if they formed a single creed, the whole of which was subscribed to by all opponents of racism. This is not just an oversimplification of a complicated picture: it is dangerously false. My review pointed out the dangers in it, as well as criticising some follies which are committed in the name of anti-racism. Mr Palmer seems to have skipped most of this analysis, or else he read it with such a fixed certainty in his mind that anyone opposed to racial discrimination must conform to his picture of anti-racism’ that he calls me an extremist, suggests I have a totalitarian mentality, and compares me to a religious fanatic.
Mr Palmer raises many points. One of them is his statement: ‘To imply as she does, that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with “the three R’s” is plain silly.’ This presumably refers to a passage in the review which listed the characteristics of ‘two radically different ideologies arguing against each other and using racial politics as a weapon’. One of these ideologies approved ‘free-market values, social discipline and a sound, academic education built up from the three R’s’. After describing these two rival ideologies, the review said: ‘There are undoubtedly many people in this country who find some elements in each of these pictures of Britain true or attractive and others repulsive.’ How Mr Palmer has transformed this passage into his claim that I believe ‘to value eduation as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with the three R’s’ is a mystery. I do not expect him to be aware of the many occasions when I have spoken and written in favour of a soundly-based, academic education, and the desirability of teaching English grammar, correct spelling and punctuation, along with respect and love for the language and its literature, but I do think he might have read the review more carefully.
I owe him an apology for the slip of the pen where I referred to Roger Scruton’s chapter on ‘cultural relativism’ wrongly as on ‘cultural pluralism’. Also, I seem to have implied that Mr Palmer attacks the Swann Report in exactly the same terms that Mr Ray Honeyford uses, saying that it will oblige all teachers to undergo racism-awareness training. However, while the direct statement in the book is Mr Honeyford’s alone, Mr Palmer in his letter appears to endorse it, and the statement is not correct. The only reference in the Swann Report’s recommendations to RAT is on page 775, and it says: ‘We recommend that the DES should fund an independent evaluation of the content and effectiveness of the various Racism Awareness Training programmes which are currently available.’ I can find no evidence in the body of the report for his claim that the Committed wanted RAT ‘extended’, and the passage from which he quotes goes on to suggest, in preference to RAT, a different kind of course.
The book as a whole, however, is to be condemned less for such misrepresentations than for its indifference to racism. Such indifference is manifest in Mr Hastie’s letter in the same issue. He admits only two instances of racism in this country: the ‘criminal behaviour of a few’ who carry out racial attacks, and – as a concession – some retrogressive change in British racial attitudes which ‘has been concurrent with the growing power and influence of the race industry itself’. It is extraordinary that anyone living here over the last twenty-five years has observed no other evidence of unequal treatment. Does Mr Hastie suppose that our immigration laws are applied so as to treat everyone alike, regardless of race, or that the massive evidence on racial discrimination in jobs and housing, collected by the independent Policy Studies Institute and its predecessor PEP, is sheer invention, or that all the County Court and tribunal judgments which have found discrimination under the Race Relations Acts have been consistently wrong?
It is nearly as odd that someone whose chapter in the book stresses the importance of intellectual honesty, of checking evidence, detecting bias and looking at the whole picture should confuse concurrence with causation in an attack on the multifarious collection of official and unofficial bodies which Mr Hastie lumps together as the ‘race industry’. Mr Hastie’s chapter is devoted to detailed criticism of one publication by a single unofficial organisation, the Institute of Race Relations, whose own history sufficiently illustrates the divisions of opinion among those who combat racism. It makes no attempt to survey the activities and publications of others in the field or to provide a whole picture. He says the ‘race industry’ consists of ‘community relations personnel, multi-ethnic inspectors and advisers, vote-hungry local politicians, members of local government committees and agencies set up, for example, to monitor police attitudes to blacks, ambitious leaders of immigrant pressure groups and the like’. He then compares the ‘industry’ with the Nazis, ‘the last people to make race a key social and political issue’, and is worried that the industry will be a Trojan horse ‘from which will spring the totalitarians who will tyrannise over us all, black and white alike’. Anyone who compares the Nazis with community relations personnel etc is, I think, on shaky ground when accusing others of perverting history. Indeed, it is an insult to the millions of victims of Nazism to compare their agonies with Mr Hastie’s shallow complaints.
Vol. 9 No. 18 · 15 October 1987
From Ray Honeyford
SIR: Ann Dummett (Letters, 17 September) accuses me of misrepresenting the Swann Committee’s views on Racism Awareness Training (RAT). She correctly states that the Committee recommended evaluation of RAT, but fails to consider why they should have done so if they are opposed to it. Moreover, she challenges the view of Frank Palmer, editor of Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value, that Swann wanted RAT ‘extending’. On pages 587/588, para.3.17, the Swann Report says this:
The objective of RAT is very much in keeping with our own views on the need to acknowledge and challenge manifestations of racism … The development of distinct RAT courses is still at an early stage … We find ourselves therefore uncertain as to the value of such courses. It may well be that such a short course – RA courses last no more than 10-15 hours – which is concerned so explicitly and directly with the controversial and complex issue of racism, may stand less chance of effectively influencing the attitudes and behaviour of a teacher who has not previously considered this aspect of his or her work, than would a longer and more broadly-based in-service course or school-based activities which set racism in a wider perspective.
If this does not mean extending RAT, what in heaven’s name does it mean? The real character of the anti-racist ideology which Ann Dummett has consistently supported (she is, of course, a former director of that well-known, campaigning, antiracist pressure group, the Runnymede Trust) can be judged from the authoritarian disposition of those local councils which have espoused it. When I was a head teacher in Bradford, I, and all other heads, was informed that unless I attended RAT I would be denied the right to assist in appointing staff to my school.
Anti-racism, of course, is not just about RAT. It is about the systematic and continuing attempt to depict this country as a ‘racist society’, and the ethnic minorities as a uniformly depressed and exploited underclass – a view Mrs Dummett repeats in her penultimate paragraph. In fact, Britain has a very favourable record regarding immigration and the treatment of ethnic minorities; and an infinitely better record on human rights than many of the countries from which many of our minorities originate. The socio-economic position of our ethnic minorities is far more complex, and encouraging, than Ann Dummett appears to want to recognise.
I believe the sort of anti-British pessimism Ann Dummett displays, far from improving race relations, may be doing the very reverse. (See her and her husband’s ‘The Role of Government in Britain’s Racial Crisis’.) If you go on attributing a moral and institutional defect to a whole people, which is precisely what anti-racism does, rather than to stress positive qualities, you may well help to create the very thing you are seeking to eliminate.
Vol. 9 No. 19 · 29 October 1987
From Frank Palmer
SIR: Ann Dummett (Letters, 17 September) has again misrepresented the spirit and content of my book Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value. It does not lump all anti-racists together. But it does insist upon examining the assumptions they do have in common – the most contentious being that Britain is a ‘racist society’ and that it is the job of education to transform that society. Ms Dummett is ‘mystified’ that I should accuse her of ‘believing’ that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with the three R’s. I didn’t. My point was not that she believed it, but that she has distorted my view. In a chapter she still evades, I argue that education is an end in itself, not an anti-racist instrument. When therefore I read a review that sets out two ‘ideologies’ which are supposedly set in simplistic opposition by my book, and when I find that the only reference to ‘academic education’ here is one that speaks of it being ‘built up from the three R’s’, I feel justified in objecting that my reviewer has not only ignored my argument but has managed by these means to misrepresent it.
Ms Dummett’s generosity in conceding that it is not ‘pluralism’ but ‘cultural relativism’ that Roger Scruton attacks draws attention away from my main point: that it is bizarre to accuse him of ‘sidestepping’ the issue of ‘racism’ when his task is to examine a thesis that underpins arguments for a ‘multicultural curriculum’. I am supposed to have ‘assumed’ that ‘anyone who is opposed to racial discrimination’ (clearly she does not include me in this moral élite) must be some kind of fanatic. Ms Dummett supports this absurd claim by juxtaposing my remarks on her intolerance – divorcing these remarks from their respective contexts. I have assumed nothing about Ms Dummett’s ‘totalitarian mentality’. Since my book dares to challenge the premises of ‘anti-racist education’ it was hardly likely to get an open-minded reception from one so active in promoting them. And anyone who so irresponsibly indulges a ‘suspicion’ that ‘the protestations of non-racism in the book’ are ‘disingenuous’ shows a frightening hostility to the right of people to question the principles and effects of anti-racist programmes without being accused of racism.
I am ‘opposed to racial discrimination’, which is why I would not use Ms Dummett’s words ‘follies’ to describe the gross injustices committed in the name of ‘anti-racism’. And – unlike Ms Dummett who has now twice failed to analyse the word she uses as a weapon – I am concerned to clarify what ‘racism’ means. For I refuse to support definitions of ‘racism’ which effectively imply that racism can only be committed by white society and which trick us into equating equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Indeed, in wrongly accusing me of supporting various ‘misrepresentations’ of the Swann Report, Ms Dummett is still strangely quiet about the fact that the Committee suppressed its own research into the possible reasons, other than racism, for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils. It is hardly irrelevant to wonder whether it is true, as reported in the Asian Times (30 November 1984), that Ms Dummett herself, before resigning from the Swann Committee, opposed this research, claiming that it ‘took the heat off the education system’.
Vol. 9 No. 20 · 12 November 1987
From Ann Dummett
SIR: Mr Palmer (Letters, 29 October) and Mr Honeyford (Letters, 15 October) have written at some length in response to my reply to complaints about my review of the symposium Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value. Before answering the points made this time, I wish to emphasise that the issue between them and me is not a dispute over details conducted on shared ground: it appears to me to arise from the authors’ determination to attribute to me views I do not hold, and to ‘anti-racism’ a monolithic and sinister character it does not have, in order to maintain their thesis that ‘anti-racism’ is an organised threat to our society. For example, Mr Palmer’s latest letter asserts that he refuses ‘to support definitions of “racism” which effectively imply that racism can only be committed by white society.’ Well, so do I: my review cited certain Japanese attitudes and acts towards Koreans in support of this view, and agreed with one of Mr Palmer’s contributors, John Marks, in rejecting the belief that all white people, and only white people, were racist and could never be anything else. Mr Palmer appears unwilling or unable to engage with criticism which does not follow the lines he expects.
Mr Honeyford reiterates his claim, which I denied, that the Swann Report recommended extending RAT (Racism Awareness Training). He quotes a paragraph from the report and asks: ‘If this does not mean extending RAT, what in heaven’s name does it mean?’ I think perhaps Mr Honeyford equates RAT with all possible techniques of educating people about racism: in fact, RAT is the name of a specific method originally devised by American psychologists. RAT has been bitterly attacked by A. Sivanandan of the Institute of Race Relations (one of the chief villains in Mr Palmer’s book) and is strongly disliked by many other opponents of racism, including myself. The paragraph Mr Honeyford quotes from Swann distinguishes between RAT and other techniques: it says that ‘the objective of RAT is very much in keeping with our own views,’ but goes on to state a preference for other ways of attaining that objective – ‘a longer and more broadly-based in-service course or school-based activities which set racism in a wider perspective’. One may disagree with these suggestions, but they do not amount to recommending an extension of RAT – quite the contrary.
Mr Palmer asks whether or not I opposed the Swann Committee’s ‘own research into the possible reasons, other than racism, for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils’. In 1982, I spent over four months in Germany, where my husband was doing research, and was away when the committee’s decision on the research was taken. However, I had indeed expressed concern in the earlier stages of discussion on the project. As I remember, the original general proposal was to study successful ‘achievers’ of Caribbean origin or descent to try to determine what factors had enabled them to succeed. This might seem, on the surface, a good idea, but it ignored the following considerations: for over fifteen years many Caribbean parents had been complaining about the low expectations, negligence and sometimes outright racial discrimination they believed their children met in English schools; there was evidence that children in the West Indies did well at school there, and that in the United States Caribbean migrants were well known to do better educationally, on average, than indigenous American black children; it therefore appeared more important to study what factors in the English school system contributed to achievement or under-achievement for any kind of pupil – that is, to start from the schools’ end rather than from the Caribbean children’s. (Such a study has been being conducted by PSI, which encountered difficult methodical problems. Equally complicated difficulties would certainly have arisen if the Swann project had been attempted.) Perhaps I should add that I offered to withdraw from the committee before being away for four months, but was asked by the Chairman to stay. Father Michael Hollings and I both resigned later, at the end of 1984, over a different matter.
Mr Palmer says it is ‘bizarre’ of me to ‘accuse’ Roger Scruton of sidestepping the issue of racism ‘when his task is to examine a thesis that underpins arguments for a multicultural curriculum’. Race and culture are different things: Professor Scruton’s chapter is entirely concerned with culture and he never mentions race once, nor does he at any point identify the advocates of a multicultural curriculum whose views he criticises. It is of course true that many teachers whose objective is to overcome racism advocate some kind of multicultural curriculum as a possible means to this end. There is no agreement among them about what a multicultural curriculum is, and the term covers a host of different theories and practices. Indeed, some of Professor Scruton’s statements have the same sense as statements by advocates of such a curriculum, though the general message of his chapter is concerned with a ‘British culture’ whose character I cannot warm to.
Finally, Mr Honeyford charges me with ‘anti-British pessimism’ and claims that anti-racism attributes ‘a moral and institutional defect to a whole people’. These are misunderstandings. I personally deplore the kind of anti-racism that regards confrontation as an end in itself and resists solutions, but if the authors of this book had really tried to understand how the experience of injustice and insecurity can give rise to such attitudes, and to recognise that there is more to anti-racism than a sinister left-wing conspiracy, they would have done some service to the British people as well as to the moral values they claim to uphold.
From Paul Hirst
SIR: In seeking to defend his book Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value (Letters, 3 September) against Ann Dummett’s carefully presented criticisms, Mr Frank Palmer makes a completely false accusation which, for the sake of the public record, must surely be exposed. As a member of the Swann Committee on the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups and of its Research Sub-Committee I should like to make it plain that the committee never ‘suppressed its own research into the possible reasons, other than racism, for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils’. The truth is that the research project on under-achievement which it was decided to pursue proved quite impossible to implement for reasons beyond the committee’s own control. On this issue, therefore, we had to base our report on other studies. To accuse Mrs Dummett of being ‘still strangely quiet’ about this imagined ‘suppression’ is to impugn quite unjustifiably the integrity of both the committee as a whole and one of its most valued members.
Professor of Education, Cambridge University
Vol. 9 No. 21 · 26 November 1987
From G.A. Cohen
SIR: A minute’s walk from where I write a Bangladeshi waiter was recently murdered by two white youths. His assailants did not knife him because he was carrying a fat wallet or because of some personal conflict: they killed him because he was Asian. In a nearby school a boy of mixed race has been called a ‘scalliwog’, not by his mates, but by one of his teachers, in class. And white adolescents in the area who have black friends testify that policemen label them ‘nigger-lovers’.
The area is not a particularly rough patch of Britain. This is London NW3, and there is not only racism here, but anti-racism too: a multi-ethnic march through Camden in the aftermath of the waiter’s murder, and daily steadfast opposition to racial prejudice by teachers in schools, hospital administrators, and council and community workers. Across the road, in the state primary attended by my daughter, the headmistress assembles the entire school and warns that racist remarks could be cause for suspension. Children are shocked by the size of the penalty for imitating what many of their elders casually do. The penalty reduces their propensity to imitate those elders: it gives the children something to think about.
Not everyone approves of militant anti-racism. The authors of Anti-Racism regard it as ‘an assault on culture and value’, which is the subtitle of the book edited by Frank Palmer, reviewed here by Ann Dummett on 9 July, and now generating a polemical correspondence in these columns. From the opening question on its flyleaf (‘Is Britain really a “racist society”?’: note the emphasis and the scare-quotes, and guess what answer is implied) to its closing unintelligible sentence (check it out), Anti-Racism fails to acknowledge, as Ann Dummett rightly protested, the extent of ‘racial violence and daily discrimination’ in Britain today.
The 14 essays in the book range from poor to mediocre in quality. Their purpose is to snipe at and score points against the (supposed) errors and misdeeds which anti-racists have committed in their struggle against what they and I perceive to be a terrifying and lethal enemy. One supposed pervasive error of anti-racists is a wayward use of language. For Palmer (pp. 153-4), the very word ‘anti-racism’ is an example of it. He thinks ‘that any moral claim upon our attitudes should have to do with non-racism’ only, since ‘ “we ought not to be racists” is by no means equivalent to “we ought to be anti-racists.” ’ Palmer’s premise is correct: those sentences really do mean different things. But how could it follow that we should merely refrain from racism ourselves (be non-racist) and not also oppose it in others (be anti- too)? Does not concern for social justice commit one (not only not to but) against racism? But Palmer dismisses ‘social justice’ as a ‘solecism’.
He also says that he can find ‘no more clarity in the idea of “the racist mentality” than’ he ‘can in the notion of “the criminal mentality” ’. Perhaps I find clarity too easily, but it strikes me as pretty clear that Hitler had the first mentality, whether or not he also had the second. Other phrases which Palmer tells us to eschew are ‘unconscious racism’ and ‘unintentional racism’: he produces rococo philosophical arguments for the conclusion that neither phrase coherently refers. But here’s a good and familiar meaning for one of them: an utterance is unintentionally racist when it carries a racial slur of which its author is unaware. One example of unintentional racism might be this sentence of Palmer’s: ‘If it is true that I hate Chinamen, it by no means follows that my scorn for cowardice, expressed in the term “yellow-bellied”, is an expression of my dislike of Chinamen.’ I’m not sure about Britain, but, in my native Canada, ‘Chinamen’, when used by a person who doesn’t know better, is a piece of unintentional racism.
Antony Flew and Ray Honeyford also devote effort to the rectification of names. In the course of ‘Clarifying the Concepts’, Flew judiciously warns against the ‘slimy euphemism – “positive discrimination” ’ and advises us that ‘to any genuine and consistent opponent of racism positive discrimination must be as repugnant as negative.’ As repugnant, despite the profound motivational difference between the two (on which see the writings of Ronald Dworkin, who defends positive discrimination, and whose opposition to racism is neither ingenuine nor, I would judge, inconsistent)? According to Honeyford, we should not call Asians ‘black’, because, he has noticed, that is not their hue, but it is reasonable to ‘describe people of Afro-Caribbean origin as “black”, since the vast majority have black skins’. In fact, though, they don’t have black skins, in the literal sense of ‘black’ on which Honeyford insists when he denies that Asians are. The skins of the ‘vast majority’ of Honeyford’s ‘blacks’ are various shades of brown. Afro-Caribbeans are called ‘black’ for cultural and political reasons, and some think that reasons of that order also justify calling Asians ‘black’ in contemporary Britain. Perhaps they are wrong, but that is not established by the fatuous procedure of opening one’s eyes and looking: especially when your observation is as unreliable as Honeyford’s apparently is.
Activated by his sensitivity to words, Palmer complained (Letters, 3 September) that Dummett said that Roger Scruton attacked ‘pluralism’ in Anti-Racism, whereas he had in fact attacked ‘relativism’. Dummett accepted Palmer’s correction, and she graciously refrained from pointing out how pedantic it was (Letters, 17 September). For Scruton meant by ‘moral relativism’ in Anti-Racism exactly what he meant by ‘moral pluralism’ in his Meaning of Conservatism (p. 79), where he objects to it on similar grounds.
It was Scruton, Palmer tells us, who inspired him to edit the book under discussion here. Nevertheless, and as Dummett, indicated in her review, Scruton did not himself address anti-racism in his contribution to the book: he left that task to others. Still, the others might have been guided by what Scruton says about anti-racism in The Meaning of Conservatism. There he regrets that ‘the strength of liberalism … has made it impossible for any but the circumlocutory to utter an illiberal sentiment on this subject [immigration] and on the subject of race which forms a substantial part of it.’ Against such liberalism, Scruton invokes ‘natural prejudice, and a desire for the company of one’s kind’ (Meaning, p.68. Compare Honeyford, who suggests, at p.52 of Anti-Racism, that ‘prejudice’ is fine, when it means ‘no more than a preference for one’s kind’: Honeyford’s topic is ‘Anti-Racist Rhetoric’, and his preference is for rhetoric of the Scruton kind. But Dennis O’Keeffee, who also contributes to Anti-Racism, contrasts prejudice – which he thinks bad – with preference, which he prefers. Somebody seems to be misusing the word ‘prejudice’: there’s a job of clarification for Flew and/or Palmer to undertake here.)
I do not know whether Scruton would regard Anti-Racism as an exercise in illiberal circumlocution or as a courageous attempt to propound illiberalism in a more up-front way. However that may be, what should we say about his claim that prejudice is natural ? Well, ‘natural’ is, as Scruton must know (why otherwise would he have used it here?), a treacherously ambiguous word, and this is not the place to discuss its various meanings. It will suffice to say that we can agree with Scruton that prejudice is natural in that it is not, in its origin, an artifact of, for example, ruling-class manipulation. It has deep psychological roots, which is why when it is encouraged to flourish, it has enormous power, including the power to insult, maim and kill. It shows perverse judgment about priorities to marshal intellectual energy in defence of such a dangerous thing and against the excesses of (largely) well intentioned opposition to it. A humane intellectual will desire to improve the anti-racist case, not focus on its weakest forms, and we should be grateful for the enormous work which Ann Dummett has done under the motivation of that desire.
According to Frank Palmer, ‘to make a song and a dance about racial bullying and name-calling and not to lay equal stress upon other kinds of intimidation is a defect in moral integrity.’ But it was no defect in moral integrity which caused my daughter’s headmistress to concentrate on racial bullying. Racial bullying needs special stress in schools because grown-ups condone it to a degree that they would not condone bullying of other kinds. The nature of the adult environment means that children have to learn to be non-racist, from those who teach and practise uncompromising anti-racism.
Chichele Professor of Political
Vol. 9 No. 22 · 10 December 1987
From Frank Palmer
SIR: As the editor of the much-maligned Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value, I must take issue with the accusation levelled at me by Professor Paul Hirst (Letters, 12 November). Professor Hirst refers to what he calls Ann Dummett’s ‘carefully presented criticisms’ and suggests that I have attempted to defend my book against them by making a false claim about the Swann Committee. Not only does he therefore ignore the many ‘carefully presented’ answers I have given to Ann Dummett (as indeed in her misleading answers does Ms Dummett herself) but he is quite incorrect to say that the committee did not suppress its own research into the possible reasons, other than racism, for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils. The committee originally commissioned Dr Mortimer to pursue research into the fortunes of successful black pupils. But when it was discovered that his research proposals included an attempt to evaluate the influence of family values and backgrounds there was uproar. As Lord Swann himself clearly states on pages 8-9 of his brief summary to Education for All: ‘Unfortunately, however, the project aroused hostility in various circles and had to be abandoned, leaving the committee with little chance of deciding with certainty the relative importance of the many factors in the educational system and outside it that might be, or are held to be, crucial.’ And, writing in the TES, 25 July 1982, one of the instigators of the Swann enquiry, Professor Alan Little, warned: ‘If, however, the study is prevented by threat of veto, then this can only undermine the credibility of the whole report.’ It is understandable that an ex-member of the Swann Committee should feel embarrassed by this serious shortcoming, but Professor Hirst’s accusation that I have falsified the matter must be exposed for the untruth that it is.
I do not seek to attribute to Ms Dummett views she does not hold, but have been more concerned to elicit what she does believe – not an easy task, since she shifts her ground (LRB, 9 July). She claims to disassociate herself from definitions of ‘racism’ she admits to be misleading and dishonest, yet fails to enlighten us about what she considers ‘racism’ to be. If she eschews definitions which are predicated upon the assumption that Britain is a racist society – a view that attributes a moral and institutional defect to a whole people – then she is left with a more modest thesis upon her hands, and one that does not justify overturning the whole of the British educational system. Anything that Ms Dummett is likely to mean by ‘educating people about racism’ still violates the principle that education is an end in itself, not an anti-racist instrument. She seems to be unable or unwilling to consider the difference between education and social engineering. I have presented detailed arguments for distinguishing the two in a chapter which is apparently so far removed from Ms Dummett’s own predilections that she refuses even to consider them. And she is so determined to accuse me of lumping all anti-racists together that she ignores passages in the introduction which acknowledge that a number of antiracists are well-meaning (though, in my view, mistaken). Ms Dummett’s comments on Roger Scruton’s chapter remain bizarre. She still defends the view that he ‘side-steps’ the issue of race. But given that his chapter is about cultural relativism, and given that she acknowledges that ‘race and culture are different things,’ it is a matter of exquisite curiosity that he can be accused of evading the issue of race, as he seeks to defend a curriculum which is so often sloganised as being ‘racist’. Indeed, in complaining that there seems to be no common agreement as to what a ‘multicultural curriculum’ might be, she makes our point for us.
Ms Dummett admits that she opposed Dr Mortimer’s research and argues that it was more appropriate to start the research from the schools’ end than from the Caribbean children’s. There is no possible justification for any ‘research’ that excludes ab initio the possibility of reaching conclusions not consonant with what anti-racists believe already.
Vol. 10 No. 1 · 7 January 1988
From Roger Scruton
SIR: In his ex-cathedra pronouncement on the subject of ‘anti-racism’ (Letters, 26 November 1987), the Chichele Professor of Political Theory quotes the following words about immigration from my book The Meaning of Conservatism: ‘the strength of liberalism … has made it impossible for any but the circumlocutory to utter an illiberal sentiment on this subject and on the subject of race which forms a substantial part of it.’ As Professor Cohen displays, it is easy to read sinister meanings in words quoted out of context, so let me draw attention to the far more pertinent sentence which follows: ‘But while it is a long-standing principle of British law that the fomentation of hatred (and hence of racial hatred) is a serious criminal offence, it is not clear that illiberal sentiments have to be forms of hatred, nor that they should be treated in the high-handed way that is calculated to make them so.’
To continue the thought: there are everyday sentiments which, when unwisely handled or zealously stirred up, may point themselves in a dangerous direction. But does this justify the establishment of an inquisition, designed to ‘stamp out’ those sentiments by accusing people of ‘unconscious racism’ every time they utter them? Cohen’s tone is more pompous than inquisitorial. But it is worth reminding him of historical circumstances which he is sure to have pondered more deeply than I have. Only one evil in the modern world has released the intensity of hatred that has been released by racism, and this is communism – which has fed upon and licensed hatred between classes, and authorised the ruthless ‘liquidation’ of whole sections of mankind. It is impossible, I believe, for a civilised person who knows the facts not to be against communism, and on guard against the bigotry which engenders it and the ideas from which it derives its legitimacy. Yet does this mean that we should interrogate the words and thoughts of all our colleagues for signs that their sentiments are turned, however slightly, and whether they know it or not, in this dangerous direction? Should I denounce Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence – a book which I very much admire – simply because Professor Cohen’s language has been used by others to justify murder, or simply because his sentiments tend, ever so slightly, in a direction which I believe to be dangerous? The experience of McCarthyism reminds us of why it is that people who abhor communism and all its works are nevertheless reluctant to condone any movement which might be described as ‘anti-communist’, and which proceeds by methods of denunciation and inquisition, without due process of law. I suspect, therefore, that Cohen would be ‘anti-anti-communist’ for the same reason that many of the contributors to Frank Palmer’s book are ‘anti-anti-racist’: namely, for justice’s sake.
From Ray Honeyford
SIR: Professor G.A. Cohen denounces me for challenging the use of the word ‘black’ in describing British/Asian citizens. He asserts that Afro-Caribbeans are not black, but various shades of brown, and implies, therefore, that there are no ‘blacks’, only ‘browns’. Logically, then, we should call all blacks and Asians ‘browns’. I am not sure what purpose this would serve, apart from upsetting those people who regard themselves as being black. In any case, Cohen’s confused descent into the psychology of perception misses the point. Human beings do not go in for Cohen’s nit-picking in describing their perceptual world: they engage in a consensus based on learning and observation over a period of time. And on that basis people of Afro-Caribbean origin are generally described as ‘black’. Since the people concerned have no objection to this – any more than I do to being called ‘white’, though, strictly speaking, I am more of a cream colour, and, on bad days, positively grey – it appears not unreasonable to use the term in this way.
But attaching the word to Asians is quite a different matter. It is an obvious perceptual distortion, though this is not my primary objection, when used in this way. I chiefly object because it seeks to obliterate profound cultural and historical differences between peoples, diminishes identity, and risks giving offence. In my extensive experience in an Asian neighbourhood it is not acceptable to the vast majority of British/Asian citizens. Think of two contemporary Britons. One is living in Birmingham. He came to this country from Jamaica. He is a bus driver. He speaks patois at home, and worships at the local Evangelical Christian church. The other is living in Bradford. He is elderly. He dresses exactly as he would in his original home, the Mirpur area of northern Pakistan, and his beard is dyed with henna. He speaks no English, and has no particular desire to learn. He is a Moslem, whose whole life is ruled by the laws of the Koran. Does Professor Cohen seriously believe that it is legitimate to suggest they belong to the same group of people? Does he think they feel they do? The answer is obvious. And that answer would apply, not only to the older generation, but to Asian and black children born and bred here – as I know from lengthy experience of teaching such children.
Cohen implies that the word ‘black’ may be understandably misapplied for ‘cultural’ and ‘political’ reasons. I should like him to describe the cultural reasons he refers to. The political reasons are obvious to anyone who has read the gurus of anti-racism, and observed the behaviour of anti-racist agitators – exercises in which I suspect Professor Cohen has never engaged. ‘Black’ is applied by anti-racists to all our non-white citizens for two political reasons: to suggest that there is in this country a uniformly depressed and exploited ethnic under-class, and to generate and maintain a sense of anti-white solidarity. This is a valuable tactic if your ultimate aim is to re-structure society. (Anyone who thinks this observation is New Right paranoia should read the sources for the anti-racist movement in this country – they can usefully begin with Fanon, Mullard, Sivanandan, Sarup.) Unfortunately for the anti-racists, the first is sociological nonsense, whilst the second is a despicable and reckless attempt to enlist race in the class struggle – a policy for which the Left will pay a very heavy price, if they are not already doing so.
It is not pedantic to insist upon the integrity of words. It is highly irresponsible to refuse to do so when the explosive subject of race is involved.
From S.J.D. Green
SIR: Those who would call Asians ‘black’ are not simply wrong. They are ignorant and disrespectful. As G.A. Cohen rightly observes in his recent letter, the designation ‘black’ for Afro-Caribbeans, both in this country and North America, is not merely, or even primarily, a reflection of the colour of their skins. It is a descriptive term of political and cultural significance. Moreover, as a universally acceptable definition of a particular ethnic group, it is of relatively recent origin, and is both self-defining and self-respectful. Non-Afro-Caribbeans use the term as a mark of proper respect for the wishes of ‘blacks’ to be so defined. It is therefore very curious that Cohen should argue (or at least appear to argue) that the extension of the term ‘black’ to Asians derives from the same political and cultural reasoning. It does not. To the best of my knowledge, there is no representative body of the (primarily) Indian sub-continent Asian peoples in this country which recognises any of their various ethnicities or cultures under the general characterisation of ‘black’. In my experience, mainly in West Riding and South London Asian communities, the best reason to refrain from calling these citizens ‘black’ is that the substantial majority to which I have been exposed does not wish to be called ‘black’. Moreover, these communities tend neither to see nor to find significant cultural affinity with the Afro-Caribbean populations; or at least they do so to an extent no greater (and often markedly less) than the indigenous population. To call these people ‘black’ is, at best, a form of that ‘unconscious racism’ which Cohen helpfully defines and, at worst, a form of political tendentiousness which pays no respect either to ethnic self-definition or to legitimate cultural difference.
There is a point to these distinctions beyond both pedantry and proper (if formal) respect. That substantial sections of immigrant or non-indigenous populations (both non-white and white) have suffered and continue to suffer various forms of racial discrimination at the hands of the indigenous population is undoubted. But that they suffer, or have suffered, the same kinds of discrimination or even with the same intensity, or even that their responses to both have been similar, is anything but clear. Anti-racism is a perfectly legitimate form of political analysis insofar as it directs attention at those forms of illegitimate discrimination which are variously directed at non-indigenous groups in a population and which represent further and unjust obstacles to their full or desired integration within a community of which they are legally a part. But it serves no useful purpose if it illegitimately and unrespectfully ‘lumps’ non-indigenous populations into categories of homogeneous victims against whom a peculiarly indigenous racism is directed. However ineptly, some of the anti-anti-racists whom Cohen so gleefully berated may have been attempting to make this point. ‘Is Britain really a racist society?’ is a legitimate question to ask, no matter how much Cohen may sneer at its form or the presumed answer. It is certainly not a question which can usefully or intelligibly be answered by citing one example of a racial killing or one example of a racial slur passed by a schoolteacher, both occurring recently in NW3. A ‘racist’ society is a descriptive scholarly generalisation of the same order as the phrase a ‘lawless’ society. It is only established as sociologically meaningful by statistical techniques and a comparative perspective: i.e. by comparing Britain’s record with similarly advanced industrial societies and liberal democracies. By comparison with the USA, Japan, France, or even Germany, it is not obvious that the answer should necessarily be condemnatory.
I do not mean to engage in a fatuous exculpation of the local natives. Far from it. But the question must be placed in a reasonable domestic context. The peoples of this country have traditionally found numerous pretexts or excuses for expressing their violent distrust of one another; racism is but one of these pretexts. It may not even be the most important. Far more people are brutally murdered, intimidated and bullied every year in Great Britain on the grounds of religious differences held by indigenous peoples against each other than by ethnic ‘racism’ waged by an indigenous population against recent arrivals. I refer to Northern Ireland. Those who would dismiss this instance as ‘not part of Britain’ or ‘a special case’ reveal rather more about their own ethnic and religious prejudices than about the existence or otherwise of racism in this country. Overtly racist parties gain relatively little popular support in this country (compare France or Italy). Organised violent racial intimidation does occur, but with less frequency and probably less ‘effectiveness’ (if that is the right word) than football hooliganism – a particular British speciality which, with rare examples to the contrary, is directed more against internally-identified tribes than external ‘races’. It is also rare for non-indigenous peoples to be deprived of access to housing, educational or health resources by jerrymandering. Of course, for a few people in a few situations at occasional moments, British racism has been (and probably will be again) both ‘terrifying’ and ‘lethal’: but in general, a responsible attitude to its incidence drawn from a comparative perspective and placed in a reasonable domestic context eschews such hysterics. Anyone can quote a few emotive examples about anything. This method of expression does not constitute a worthwhile argument. Still less does it constitute evidence for a worthwhile argument. Ironically, in some cases (Tamils in Sri Lanka or Sikhs in certain parts of India), the words ‘lethal’ and ‘terrifying’ better represent the situations from which non-indigenous populations have come rather than that to which they have arrived.
British racism is still a problem which can best be dealt with unheroically and unhysterically by very ordinary people, working out very ordinary agreements in small, insignificant places about relatively fair and reasonably tolerant distributions of local housing, health and educational resources. The work these people do is best followed in local newspapers. Sadly, these people do not, as a rule, write reviews in the LRB. But at least they do appear to be aware that learning to be anti-racist is much more a product of learning about very general forms of tolerance and practising old forms of political accommodation, aware of but unintimidated by legitimate ethnic difference, than it is a peculiar art, learned only by equally peculiar subservience to the received wisdom of the illuminati of NW3.
All Souls College, Oxford
From Ann Dummett
SIR: Mr Palmer’s latest letter (Letters, 10 December 1987) challenges me to reply on several points. He says that the view that ‘Britain is a racist society’ attributes ‘a moral and institutional defect to a whole people’. I do not agree with this definition. A capitalist society is not one where everyone is a capitalist, nor where everyone supports capitalism. It is one where capitalism forms the values and shapes the institutions by which the society, as a whole, functions. It is clearly different from a socialist society, in which – while not everyone is necessarily a socialist – the values and institutions take quite a different shape. Similarly, a racist society is not one where every person or ‘a whole people’ is racist, but one where assumptions about racial differences shape the values and institutions by which the society functions. In this case, I believe Britain has come to be a racist society.
Unlike Frantz Fanon, who thought a society could not be a little bit racist, but must be one thing or the other, I believe there are degrees and differences in the racism to be observed in different societies. Our framework and values are not so crudely racist as those of South Africa; the detailed characteristics of British racism differ from those of French racism, and so on. But the point is that Britain is not a society where race and colour are irrelevant to people’s prospects in life, their attitudes and activities. On the contrary, race and colour make an enormous difference: not to be white greatly increases your chances of meeting violent physical attacks and racial insults, decreases your chance of getting employment, and if you are a candidate for public housing makes you more likely to be offered low-quality accommodation. (Government statistics and independent research support these assertions.) There are many people in this country who are opposed to racism, and there are institutions which are struggling to get rid of racism in their operations: nonetheless, in the sense I have described above, I do not think it inaccurate to call ours a racist society.
I also believe racism should be attacked wherever it occurs: therefore I deplore the citizenship law of Malawi, which makes ‘African race’ a condition of citizenship for children born within the territory, and likewise the law of Brunei, which excludes non-Malays and has left thousands of residents of Chinese descent stateless. People do not acquire a special value or importance by belonging to any particular race: hence, if we had oppression here of whites by blacks, this would be deplorable. But it does not happen to be the present problem.
Mr Palmer thinks that if I have a ‘more modest thesis’ than his definition, it cannot ‘justify overturning the whole of the British education system’. Who is overturning it? Not the anti-racists. But by ‘overturning’ Mr Palmer presumably does not mean the destruction of the universities’ independence and efficiency, the imposition on unwilling teachers of a new, centrally-determined curriculum, and the removal of power from local education authorities. He means educating people about racism, in violation of his principle that ‘education is an end in itself, not an anti-racist instrument.’ It is not clear what he means by calling education an end in itself. Education is a process directed towards certain ends. Whatever ends it serves require it to impart particular knowledge, skills and values: otherwise it would not matter whether schools taught mathematics or astrology, computing or alchemy, honesty or dishonesty.
My view is that schools should promote respect for other human beings, regardless of race; knowledge of the major world religions; a broad view and critical understanding of different countries’ and continents’ histories; skill in the use of English and at least one other language (without a pecking order in which European languages are seen as superior to all others, regardless of the others’ usefulness and intellectual interest); as well as mathematics, the natural sciences, music (not only ‘Western’ classical music), the techniques and appreciation of the visual arts. The ends of such an education are to equip children to understand the world they now live in, behave well towards others and develop their own talents. I do not think the kind of education Mr Palmer’s book defends would serve these ends: it is too narrow, too concerned with an illusion of British self-sufficiency and superiority.
Of course schools need to teach especially about the history, literature and traditions of the country where they are, but the picture they promote must be one which includes all the country’s inhabitants and does not leave any members of the society concerned feeling excluded and relegated to ‘non-belonging’. Thus, for example, the importance of Christianity in our national history has to be described and explained, but not in a way that suggests you cannot be British today if you are not part of a Christian culture. The present mixture of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism etc, and of agnosticism and militant unbelief, has to be described and explained if contemporary life is to be understood at all. An education like this is not only a sound basis for understanding what is wrong with racism: it is desirable as a good education, racial considerations apart. I should not call it social engineering, any more than I should call the inculcation of capitalist values and little-Englandism social engineering: this term has to do with the vain attempts made some time ago to overcome the British class structure through changes in the organisation (rather than the curriculum) of schools.
Finally, I am not making Mr Palmer’s point for him when I say there is no common agreement about what a multicultural curriculum may be: I am making my own, which, it must be evident by now, is different from his. As to the Swann Committee’s research, I am certainly guilty of believing that you cannot explain ‘West Indian under-achievement’ by supposing that there is something wrong with West Indian children. This belief is not mere prejudice: it is supported by ample evidence that Caribbean children do perfectly well at school in the Caribbean and better than black Americans as immigrants in the United States, whereas in England, on average, they under-achieve. To seek for reasons for this under-achievement starting at the schools’ end rather than the children’s seems to me therefore reasonable. Perhaps I should add that the Swann Committee commissioned an independent research paper on the IQ question by Professor Mackintosh, and that this is incorporated in the report.
Vol. 10 No. 3 · 4 February 1988
From Danny Karlin
SIR: There is a parasite multiplying in the bowels of your organ. How it took hold I cannot remember – perhaps I was not yet born. This parasite converts intellectual debate into a glutinous compound of prejudice and abuse. It excretes intolerable boredom. The host/victim eventually suffers death by column inches. The name of this parasite is ‘Anti-Anti-Racism’. A correspondectomy is the only known cure.
Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988
From David Cooper
SIR: I wonder if Ann Dummett, in her next letter, would provide a sample timetable for the curriculum she proposes (Letters, 7 January) – one in which are to be squeezed, inter alia, a ‘broad view and critical understanding’ of all the world’s major religions, of the histories of various (all?) continents, of the main traditions (not only Western) of music, the visual arts and, presumably, literature, and of natural science (Western only?). She might also indicate where, in this veritable Renaissance man’s curriculum, one is to accommodate the ‘need to teach especially’ about the culture of our own country, particularly since such teaching must ‘describe and explain’ the contributions of Islam, Hinduism, ‘militant unbelief (including, presumably, Marxism’) etc, etc. She should also tell us how we are to train teachers capable of elevating this Cook’s Tour through the encyclopaedia of human achievement into something recognisable as education: capable, that is, of reconciling a lightning, Protean survey of everything that has been said, done and thought with fostering a critical undestanding of even a tiny part of it. I suspect Ms Dummett’s time-table will look a little like those wonderful charts which eccentric pedagogical and religious groups used to paste up in underground stations – to our amusement. I fear, rather than our edification.
Department of Philosophy, University of Durham
Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988
From G.A. Cohen
SIR: I apologise for replying late to the letters of Professor Scruton and Messrs Honeyford and Green in your issue of 7 January: I am recovering from an indisposition (which their letters did not cause).
I did not, as Ray Honeyford says, ‘denounce’ him for refusing to call Asians ‘black’. I did criticise the peculiar argument which he offered in defence of his refusal, and which runs as follows: 1. A group of people should not be described by a word which denotes a colour their skin does not literally display. 2. Unlike the skin of Afro-Caribbeans, the skin of Asians is not literally black. Therefore, 3, unlike Afro-Caribbeans, Asians should not be called ‘black’. Honeyford’s conclusion follows from his premisses, both of which are, however, bizarre, since Afro-Caribbeans are mostly (literally) brown, not black (which puts paid to 2.), and, unless they should therefore not be called ‘black’, the same epidermal fact falsifies 1. Without defending his preposterous argument, Honeyford reiterates that it is ‘an obvious perceptual distortion’ (my emphasis) to call Asians ‘black’, without explaining why no similar distortion attends calling other brown-skinned people ‘black’. The truth is that racial nomenclature is, as I originally contended, more political and cultural in character than Honeyford’s chromatological strictures would allow.
According to Honeyford, ‘Cohen implies that the word “black” may be understandably misapplied for “cultural” and “political” reasons.’ Well, whatever Honeyford likes to think I implied, what I said was the stronger and more straightforward thing that ‘Afro-Caribbeans are called “black” for cultural and political reasons,’ and I did not suggest that this terminology embodies a misapplication. Honeyford forgets, if he ever knew, that, until about twenty years ago, people of African descent in the Western world disfavoured, in self-description, the term ‘black’. The big change came – and it is a political, not an optical one – when Stokely Carmichael brilliantly proclaimed that ‘black is beautiful.’ He thereby shattered and re-shaped the language of racial categorisation.
There exist in Britain today left-wing Asians who call Asians ‘black’, to emphasise the oppression they share with Afro-Caribbeans. It is up to future history, and Asians themselves, and not Honeyford or me, whether or not that designation will be accepted: but it will be accepted or rejected as a matter of culture and politics, not physical vision. This is a political struggle about words, and the fact that Honeyford is on a particular side in the struggle blinds him to the truth that it is one.
Simon Green says that I ‘argue (or at least appear to argue) that the extension of the term “black” to Asians derives from the same political and cultural reasoning’ (his emphasis) which grounds its application to Afro-Caribbeans. I argued no such thing, and I can appear to have done so only to somebody who, like Green, misreads the syntax of the pertinent sentence in my letter of 26 November. Green’s extended reflection on the argument I did not advance is, consequently, polemically irrelevant, whatever intrinsic interest it may or may not have. Green also reacts against my endorsement of Ann Dummett’s complaint that the authors of Anti-Racism failed to acknowledge how racist Britain is. Green is, of course, right that ‘Is Britain really a racist society?’ is a legitimate question but, in the book he is defending, formulations like the one just quoted are supposed to answer the question they formulate, which, Green should agree, is not a legitimate procedure. The quoted question should not be dealt with rhetorically, and, in her own letter of 7 January, Ann Dummett specifies a clear sense in which Britain is a racist society: a person’s race makes a massive difference to his or her life chances. That is surely true, notwithstanding Green’s unassailable and irrelevant point that certain other societies are more racist than Britain is. Green says reasonable-sounding things about how British racism should be handled. He fails to say whether he thinks that any form of anti-racism should be taught in schools. Perhaps, like the authors of Anti-Racism, he regards such teaching as ‘an assault on education and value’. As matters stand, we do not know what Green believes about the issue which provoked the controversy in which he decided to intervene.
Roger Scruton claims that I quoted his defence of illiberalism about race and immigration out of context, and he reproduces a sentence less odious than the ones I quoted, which appeared in their vicinity. Now, it is not hard to quote Scruton out of context, since, in his political writing, he practises a brinkmanship rhetoric of withdrawable insinuation, but I do not think the present instance is a case in point: the unpleasant sentences which I quoted do not seem to mean something different from anything I suggested they meant when the sentence Scruton prefers is set beside them. The matter is evidently too minute to pursue here, and the interested reader will have to look at pages 66-69 of The Meaning of Conservatism to judge whether or not I have treated Scruton unfairly.
Scruton’s nicer sentence says, among other things, that ‘it is not clear that illiberal sentiments have to be forms of hatred.’ Maybe so, but it is quite clear that, whether or not they ‘have to be’, they very extensively are forms of contempt, in Britain today. Anti-racism directs itself against the contempt, and its further and sometimes lethal consequences, and the opposition to anti-racism led by Scruton cannot but help to sustain (even if it does not itself express) the contempt anti-racism opposes.
Scruton thinks that it ill becomes an (at least erstwhile) defender of Marxism to accuse him of condoning racial hostility, since, by the same token, I can be accused of condoning class hostility. But I do not find the analogy between race and class telling. The division of society into classes is, arguably, and so I would affirm, a profound injustice, and, hence, a good reason for resentment and anger (if not, indeed, for the liquidation of the Kulaks, which, like Scruton, I deplore). Nothing remotely parallel could be claimed about the division of humanity into races. The past murderous effects of Marxism should no more be associated with me than should the past murderous effects of Christianity with Robert Runcie, or, for that matter, the murderous effects of Nazism with Scruton. I make no such hysterial accusation against him. What I do accuse him and his associates of is an irresponsible unconcern about British racism, here and now.
From Frank Palmer
SIR: May I point out the following misrepresentations. No doubt Professor Cohen (Letters, 26 November 1987) would regard it as ‘pedantic’ to point out that the subtitle of my book on anti-racism is ‘An Assault on Education’ – not ‘Culture’ – ‘and Value’, but he appears to have misperceived the contents as well. I did not argue that a non-racist is not opposed to racism, but rather that, unlike the anti racist, he does not enlist in the active opposition of anti-racist campaigns. (Can I not be morally opposed to cowardice without joining in an Anti-Cowardice movement?) Furthermore, in suggesting that ‘the racist mentality’ is as unclear a concept as ‘the criminal mentality’ I was not denying that there are racists or criminals. But if, as Cohen suggests, Hitler had ‘the racist mentality’, and if he is also right that I am guilty of some kind of racism for using the word ‘Chinaman’, it follows that I have the same mentality as Hitler. Would Professor Cohen care to confirm this accusation? It is also utterly false to say that I have claimed that the expression ‘unconscious racism’ should be ‘eschewed’. My actual point is that while one might make some sense of the concept (though not by severing it from ‘intention’ altogether) that in itself does not guarantee the correctness of its application to particular cases. I did advocate more circumspection about ‘unintentional racism’ than Cohen displays in saying that ‘an utterance is unintentionally racist when it carries a social slur of which the author is anaware.’
Finally, may I object vehemently to a serious distortion of the contents of my last letter (Letters, 10 December 1987) by Ann Dummett (Letters, 7 January). I had argued that the Swann Committee’s attempt to prove that racism is responsible for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils was undermined by the suppression of Dr Mortimer’s proposed research into familial circumstances, and I therefore criticised Ms Dummett’s opposition to this research on the grounds that one should not first assume what one is seeking to prove. In other words, one should consider all possible factors. There is nothing controversial in that principle – surely any research should be committed to the disinterested pursuit of truth? Ms Dummett has twisted that point by saying that she is not prepared to ‘suppose’ that ‘there is something wrong with West Indian children.’ With respect, I have not advocated that she ‘suppose’ any such thing. And I do not much care for the implication that I have ‘supposed’ it. It may be of interest that both the Rampton Report and the Swann Report suggest that familial circumstances may be a possible factor in under-achievement (though, as I say, this has not been followed up). Presumably then they are guilty of the racist ‘supposition’ that Ann Dummett proudly announces she is not prepared to make?
From Ann Dummett
SIR: Mr Cooper (Letters, 18 February) pours scorn on the idea of trying to impart, in schools, some knowledge of the breadth and variety of human achievement. He does not think this ‘Renaissance man’s curriculum’ would be recognisable as education. Perhaps I could turn his questions round, and ask him just how small the scope of education should be, in his opinion? And to what extent one must narrow down teachers’ training before they are capable of encouraging critical understanding?
Mr Palmer has written yet again, in the present issue, saying I have distorted the contents of his last letter. We seem to be agreed, however, that there is nothing ‘wrong with West Indian children’, and I certainly agree with him that research should pursue the truth. But why should a research programme be incapable of pursuing truth if it starts by looking within schools for the causes of under-achievement? It is undeniable that children in general get on better in some schools than in others: for each child, the parents and family circumstances remain the same but a change of school, or a change of teachers and curriculum within the same school, often produces dramatically different results, for better or worse. While seeking all possible explanations for this observable fact, and without suppressing any facts or shirking any arguments, one would surely be well advised, in constructing a research design on any group’s under-achievement, to look first inside schools.
Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988
From Ray Honeyford
SIR: By means of a piffling and invalid syllogism Professor Cohen (Letters, 3 March) appears to think that he has disposed of my arguments for not calling British/Asian citizens ‘black’. He justifies the practice by saying that there are political reasons to sustain it. No doubt the National Front would also argue that there are political reasons for calling black people ‘niggers’, but all decent civilised human beings would reject that as a defence, because it gives offence to those so described. It is my experience that the vast majority of Asians here do not wish to be called ‘black’. We either respect this wish or we do not. Cohen’s argument that ‘black’ is justified because there exist ‘left-wing Asians’ who wish to use it in this way is no argument at all. The fact is that the word is being used in this way by a large number of public institutions, including many local education authorities and the Commission for Racial Equality – though the latter organisation changes its nomenclature according to its mood. This is happening now and will not be decided by ‘future history’, as Cohen asserts.
Ann Dummett (Letters, 12 November 1987) continues to defend the suppression of vital research by the Swann Committee. She has previously told us that she was not present when the decision to suppress was taken, but there can now be little doubt how she would have voted if she had been present. It is not possible to understand the significance of this unless the context from within which Dr Mortimer proposed his research is understood. The Swann terms of reference included the following injunction: ‘Review in relation to schools the educational needs and attainments of children from ethnic minority groups, taking account, as necessary, of factors outside the formal education system relevant to school performance, including influences in early childhood, and prospects for employment.’ This is in keeping with what is known about factors affecting school performances. There is now a consensus that educability is crucially influenced by the kind of home the child comes from, the attitudes of parents to education, family cohesion and stability, and so on. Secondly, the Rampton Report (essentially the first stage of the Swann Report) made a specific plea for research into the home background and parental attitudes of West Indian children; ‘Schools can, however, only go so far in this respect; parents must also appreciate and understand the role that they must play in supporting teachers. The NFER review of research drew attention to the concern, which has been frequently expressed to us by teachers and others whom we have met on our visits, that West Indian parents need particular help in recognising their responsibility in this respect … We intend to look at the whole question of home background in respect of all ethnic minority pupils in our main report.’ More specifically, Rampton took the view that there was a need for information relating to those youngsters who had done well in school; and to obtain this there was a clear need for research which looked at ‘the particular factors which have led some West Indians to succeed and the obstacles which they have had to overcome’.
In short, it was Swann’s own terms of reference and the first stage of the Swann Report which formed the basis of Dr Mortimer’s intention to evaluate the effect of family background on West Indian educational performance. It should be borne in mind, too, that Dr Mortimer was selected by the Swann Committee to carry out the research it said was essential. By suppressing Mortimer’s essential work, the Committee not only contradicted itself: it succeeded in depriving the public of vital information regarding the key issue. We know no more about the reasons why West Indian youngsters on the average do less well than other groups than we did before the Swann Committee had its first sitting. Ironically, the Swann Report itself recognises the importance of the information Dr Mortimer was prevented from gathering.
No amount of feeble special pleading by antiracists like Ann Dummett can disguise this simple truth: a government committee which spent over £600,000 of public money, and look nearly six years to deliberate, engaged in the suppression of research which it had itself claimed was essential.
From S.J.D. Green
SIR: Professor Cohen’s latest self-righteous outburst addressed none of the serious issues concerning the identification or amelioration of racism in Britain. However, both its content and tone perfectly exemplified his methods of argument and standards of evidence in consideration of this question; their banality and vacuousness provoke a reply.
Several of your correspondents doubted the legitimacy of calling brown people ‘black’ (Letters, 3 March) He responded, ‘there exist in Britain today left-wing Asians who call Asians “black” to emphasise the oppression they share with Afro-Caribbeans,’ but he cited no corroborative evidence. It does exist – in very small quantities. However, as a sociological generalisation it is as worthless as the observation that ‘there exist in Britain today left-wing academics who call academics “workers” to emphasise the oppression they share with the working-class.’ They do exist. They are similarly unrepresentative. Until Cohen can prove that a majority or substantial minority of Asians call themselves ‘black’, then my sociological generalisation holds: that the best reason for non-Asians to refrain from so describing these variegated peoples is that the vast majority does not wish to be so described.
Secondly, Cohen asserted that Britain is a racist society. Perhaps. But that assertion is not corroborated by the juxtaposition of a tautological definition – a society in which ‘a person’s race makes a massive difference to his or her life chances’ – with the vacuous words ‘surely that is true.’ That is not evidence. The assertion remains sociologically worthless.
The PSI survey of 1984 established that socio-economic disadvantage is not randomly distributed amongst ethnic groups in Britain. But the same report also established that when data are analysed by area, for inner London, Birmingham and Manchester, ethnic minority groups are no more under-privileged, according to key socio-economic criteria, than the local indigenous population. This might suggest that the most disadvantaged non-indigenous persons are more the victims of a comprehensive form of urban deprivation than of racism. We cannot, as yet, be sure. Similarly, we cannot be sure that certain of the socio-economic disadvantages endured by some groups are not more the products of endogenous cultural, rather than exogenous ‘racist’, causation. The c. 10-15 point disparity of median income between non-indigenous and indigenous persons in this country is principally due to the relatively greater concentration of un and semi-skilled persons amongst those populations. However, whilst this skill and employment profile has remained and will (for the foreseeable future) remain static amongst Afro-Caribbeans, it is changing amongst Indian Asians. Amongst the latter group, the present cohort aged 16-24 has, on average, out-performed the indigenous population in schooling and access to tertiary education. The progress of this generation of Indian Asians in shifting the balance of skilled advantages towards themselves has not been even remotely matched by Afro-Caribbeans. Even when all exogenous socio-economic factors have been equalised, they have continued to fail to acquire socially valuable skills in the same proportion as either the indigenous population or Indian Asians. This form of cultural ‘lag’ is very worrying, but it cannot be blamed upon racism. They are treated no differently in British schools than Indian Asians. It might be due to the relative failure of Afro-Caribbeans to sustain stable nuclear domestic enviroments in the same proportions as either the indigenous population or Indo-Asians. If so, this failure also cannot be blamed upon ‘racism’. It is a serious problem which must be tackled honestly: i.e. without degeneration into hysterical ‘anti-racist’ rhetoric which matches uncorroborated assertion to simple prejudice.
All Souls College, Oxford
Vol. 10 No. 10 · 19 May 1988
From Deepak Lal
SIR: May an Asian be allowed to enter the acrimonious debate in your columns on whether he likes to be called a ‘black’? The answer for me, and I suspect for most Asians, is simple. My mother would be very upset if she learnt that I was ‘black’! As my children will tell you, when God was at his oven, he first got it slightly wrong and produced the ‘whites’. He then tried to compensate, overdid himself and produced the ‘blacks’. Finally, he got it just right and created the ‘browns’. My wife, who is under-baked, disagrees. My children and I are too polite to say she is just being a racist!
University College London
Vol. 10 No. 11 · 2 June 1988
From Emil Rado
I have been struck by two thoughts. First, that this correspondence was mainly about words (‘racism’, ‘anti-racism’, ‘anti-anti-racism’, are ‘browns’ ‘black’?) rather than about the substance of racial discrimination against ‘black’ people. If your readers can find a better word than ‘black’ to describe groups of people of diverse ethnic origins who are instantly recognised by ‘white’ people as being ‘non-white’, and having been so recognised, face discrimination, I shall be glad to hear it. Second, that this avid pursuit of certain words is a form of displacement activity. It seems to serve the function of concealing not only from your readers but also from your correspondents themselves the fact that they are not really interested in the extent and causes of ‘black’ disadvantage in Britain, while suggesting that it is due to some basic deficiency in ‘black’ people.
If your correspondents are interested in some of the stark facts of ‘black’ disadvantage they need go no further than an article in the January 1987 issue of the official Employment Gazette. It shows that in 1985 unemployment among ‘black’ people in Britain was about twice the ‘white’ unemployment rate: 20 per cent as against 11 per cent. (There were some differences among the various ethnic groups, but the main contrast was that between ‘white’ people and any ethnic minority group.) This difference cannot be explained by where ‘black’ people live: almost half of them live in the London area, where the unemployment rate is the lowest in Britain. Nor can it be explained by the age-structure of ethnic minority groups: in every age group ‘black’ unemployment is double the ‘white’ rate. Nor is it explained by the lower qualifications of the ‘black’ labour force. A substantially higher proportion of ‘black’ people than of whites stay on at school after 16, and relatively more ‘black’ people obtain a higher-educational qualification. It clearly pays ‘black’ people to obtain such qualifications. Yet unemployment among ‘black’ men with a higher-education qualification is three times as high as among white men, and the probability of a ‘black’ person with a higher-education qualification having to settle for a clerical or manual job is between two and four times higher.
The reasons for these disparities will be all too clear to those of your readers who watched the recent BBC 1 series Black and White, and saw a personable young black journalist being told time and again that the room or the flat or the job he was applying for had gone days ago, only for his white colleague to be offered it 15 minutes later. Brown and Gay’s meticulously researched study (Racial Discrimination 17 Years after the Act, PSI, 1985) comes to similar conclusions: depending on the type of job, between a third and half of British employers systematically discriminate against black people. Most of my family ended up in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau, and I myself escaped by the skin of my teeth, so I hope Messrs Palmer et al will understand why I regard racial discrimination as an unsuitable subject for word-games. But I would very much like to know where they stand on the substance of racial discrimination in Britain today.
University of Glasgow