Anti-Anti-Racism

Ann Dummett

  • Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value edited by Frank Palmer
    Sherwood, 210 pp, £9.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 907671 26 8
  • The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain by Ron Ramdin
    Gower, 626 pp, £35.00, January 1987, ISBN 0 566 00943 9

A few years ago, most people would have taken the term ‘anti-racism’ to mean any activity opposed to racial discrimination, or a set of attitudes opposed to the expression of racial prejudice and hatred. It might have been invoked to describe, for example, a motive behind the war against Nazi Germany, the current activities of the Commission for Racial Equality in this country, or concern in Japan for the contemptuous treatment meted out there to Korean immigrants. Recently, however, ‘anti-racism’ has come to be associated with a much more specialised set of activities and individual people, whom the right-wing press has lumped together as ‘the loony Left’. It has also come to be understood as part of a single package of opinions belonging to campaigners for anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-élitism and so on. The campaigners and their attackers have, in effect, colluded to force this new sense of ‘anti-racism’ on the public, so that when the term is used in its first and more general sense, to describe a concern with racism and no other issue, it can be seriously misunderstood. The result is a debate conducted between certain ‘anti-racists’ who have adopted the terms and concepts of opposition to racism for a different battle and certain columnists and reporters on the Times, Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mail and Spectator, who are disposed to attack all opponents of racism.

This development can be traced back to the mid-Seventies, when the Anti-Nazi League was formed in reaction to a brief wave of support for the National Front and other extreme right-wing parties at local elections. Before that time, active opposition to racism was not a necessary part of anyone’s left-wing credentials. Indeed, well-known Labour left-wingers had voted in Parliament for the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968, which removed the right of East Africans of Asian descent to enter this country despite the fact that they held British passports, while a number of Conservative MPs had opposed the measure. And although most of the comparatively small number of people then actively concerned with racial issues held liberal or socialist views of some kind, there was no necessary correlation between their views on race and their views on a range of other issues. When, after the mid-Seventies, smashing racism became a central part of the programme of a number of groups on the far left, it was the programme as a whole which dominated their perception of racial issues; and opposition to racism came to be seen, first by them, then by their opponents, as necessarily and exclusively a left-wing political position, tied to left-wing policies on other issues.

In fact, of course, it is not necessary or sufficient to adopt a particular set of left-wing views in order to be opposed to racism. Black activists for racial equality in the United States include people of right-wing, moderate-centre and left-wing views. They can unite on racial issues, while differing sharply on others. In France, socialists and Communists have recently demonstrated that they can be as racist as anyone on the far right. And people in Britain who belong to racial minorities do not share a single set of left-wing views: they may all be opposed to racism, but they have different ideas about how to overcome it.

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