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.

Joe Williams, a black councillor in Reading who has been a forthright campaigner for racial equality for many years, recently opposed a council proposal to spend money on racism-awareness training. There was some bewilderment among white councillors. How could a black man be against the idea? In fact, many black people are bitterly opposed to it. The strongest critique there has been so far was written by A. Sivanandan, of the Institute of Race Relations. His reasons derive from his brand of Marxism, and are rather different from Joe Williams’s reasons. On the other hand, there are many black spokesmen who are urgently demanding racism-awareness training. One side is not more left-wing than the other: both include a wide variety of political views. Distinctions must also be drawn between the people (of all colours and racial origins) who buy the whole package of anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism etc: while all of them belong to the Left, they include people with many different party affiliations.

The authors of the first book under review represent a similar collection of people united both by style and by the assumptions they make about traditional values and virtues, but to the right of centre. Some are a very long way to the right of it. Two of the contributors, however, are members of the Labour Party. According to the editor, Frank Palmer, the idea for the book came from Roger Scruton, who, like several other contributors, also writes for the Salisbury Review and the Times. In short, this book is a product of the New Right.

It would have been unthinkable ten years ago for a book to appear in this country with the title Anti-Racism: An Assault on Education and Value. The public would have assumed that the older, broader meaning of ‘anti-racism’ was intended, and been shocked. For racism, everyone agreed, was a Bad Thing. Today, however, the new style of ‘anti-racism’ has bred a new right-wing reaction: anti-anti-racism. This reaction, because it has begun to influence middle-of-the-road opinion, is having a very damaging effect on the work that is currently being done to overcome racial discrimination. Anti-racism and anti-anti-racism between them have set up a false debate, vividly illustrated in this book. At the centre of the debate we do not find race; we find two radically different ideologies about British society arguing against each other and using racial politics as a weapon. One ideology sees a free, democratic Britain, united by a common Christian culture and important traditions and values – a pretty good place on the whole. Criticism of it is fair enough, since criticism is part of free speech, but it should not degenerate into demands for revolution or even social engineering. This Britain thrives on free-market values, social discipline and a sound academic education built up from the three Rs. It guards and values the English language, utterly rejects Communism, and will accept non-British people if they are willing to be assimilated into its culture. The other ideology sees Britain as an oppressive state bearing down on the poor and underprivileged: a system to be overthrown, a society which must be transformed so that men and women are freed from gender roles, homosexuality is respected, capitalism is abolished, all cultures and languages are treated equally, and public expenditure is switched from weapons of war to employment-creation schemes, the Health Service, education and improved public housing. Community groups, grass-roots, workers, women and ethnic minorities figure frequently in the language of this second group while the former prefers to speak of spiritual values, the liberal order and ‘balanced’ views, of the kind that hold black African governments to be just as bad as the white South African Government.

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. The danger is that they will be misled by new-style anti-racists and anti-anti-racists alike into supposing that it is only in the context of these two views of society that it is possible to talk about race in Britain. For the latter group is very skilfully using whatever absurdities and injustices it can find on the anti-racist side, together with attacks on anything ‘trendy’ or ‘progressive’, to discredit the more important question of how to overcome racism in Britain.

This book is a case in point. It attacks ‘anti-racism’ in our schools, not only for the examples of its folly but for a host of other ills, including the degradation and misuse of the English language, of which many others besides anti-racists (and not all anti-racists) are guilty. Anti-racists are also held responsible for the practice of judging school curricula by ‘the criteria of “relevance” ’, despite the fact that for reasons in educational theory unrelated to anti-racism, these have been with us for decades. In order to mount their attack some of the authors, not content with accusing ‘anti-racism’ of being ‘at the forefront of a campaign to take possession of our schools in the name of a political movement’, deny that racism is a serious problem in Britain at all. The enemy isn’t racism but anti-racism. This is the book’s message. Severally, the contributors accuse anti-racism of being subversive, totalitarian, Marxist, progressive, intolerant, politically-loaded, a form of inquisition, a witch-hunt, trendy, anti-capitalist, anti-British, anti-Western and a great deal more.

The evidence of racial inequality, racial violence and daily discrimination and abuse is not described or acknowledged. Racism is discussed entirely in theoretical terms by two of the contributors, Antony Flew and John Marks, and ignored or quickly dismissed by most others. Roger Scruton side-steps it and attacks the myth of cultural pluralism. No minority complaint is accorded any legitimacy. We are told that during the Second World War white American GIs were warned that they must be careful about their racial attitudes when they came over here because the British people would not put up with racial prejudice. It is true that there were such warnings: but that was over forty years ago, when racial segregation and inequality were imposed by law in many American states. Nowadays it is far more common to find young white Americans amazed at the frequency with which crudely racist remarks are made by white British people. This is one example among many in the book where information, true in itself but incomplete, is adduced to develop a false argument. Another inadmissible tactic is the running together of complaints against a variety of people and policies as though they adhered to one doctrine or constituted a single movement. For example, the report of the government-appointed Swann Committee of Inquiry into the education of ethnic minority groups is attacked by Simon Pearce for reflecting ‘the anti-racist doctrine that disparate levels of educational achievement between ethnic groups are proof positive of discrimination,’ and for being ‘basically illiberal’; its ‘moral base’, he says, ‘throbs with all the ugly passions and inhuman ideals of the 20th century’.

Such grotesque views and wild expressions are not infrequent, but this instance should give us pause. It is absurd to class the Swann Report, a moderate document published by the Stationery Office and cautiously welcomed by Sir Keith Joseph and the teachers’ unions, with varieties of ‘anti-racism’ which jettison the classics, or insist on some post-1968 version of Marxism. Nor does the Swann Report make the crude claim that disparate levels of achievement are in themselves proof of discrimination: it examines possible reasons for disparities between children of West Indian descent, on the one hand, and ‘white’ and ‘Asian’ children, on the other, and makes numerous suggestions. A chapter rewritten by Lord Swann himself stresses (mistakenly, in my view) the hypothesis that the socio-economic status of West Indian children, which is partly the effect of racism in society at large, can go a long way to explain these disparities. Most noteworthy of all is the phrase about ‘all the ugly passions and inhumane ideals of the 20th century’. What, all of them?

Ray Honeyford and Frank Palmer also attack the Swann Report, complaining that it will oblige all teachers to undergo racism-awareness training, which is not what it proposes. David Dale attacks the concept of institutional racism in a chapter called ‘Racial Mischief: The Case of Dr Sivanandan’, implying that it is a Marxist and anti-individualistic concept, which it is not. John Marks unjustifiably holds that belief in ‘institutional racism’ leads to the view that all white people, or only white people, are racists and cannot be anything else. He rightly objects to this silly belief which, if true, would make it absurd for anyone to attempt to get rid of racism here, since the country is 96 per cent white, and which would render inexplicable examples of racism elsewhere.

It is true that there are people giving educational courses who do subscribe to this belief, and who seek aggressively to impose their own rigid sets of views on pupils. Some bad and stupid things are being done in the name of anti-racism. Unhappily, many people who are opposed to racism and are also opposed to the excesses of their colleagues hesitate to condemn them, just because such condemnation can already be heard from a large section of the press, always ready to discredit good initiatives along with the bad. Most daily newspapers seize on every example they can find of ‘loony Left’ excesses to convey the same message that this book – sometimes under an apparently judicious and academic guise – is conveying. But it must also be said that some of the people who get castigated as loony Lefties have been responsible for practical advances towards racial equality. The GLC, for all its failings, gave a lot of black people in London a new sense of hope by taking the lead in a systematic policy of contract compliance and by spending money and time on minority initiatives. Even so, it did less than comparatively right-wing administrations have done in America, and if this country had not become so appallingly insular, the GLC’s achievement could be seen as a mildly liberal success.

The book is the work of 14 contributors, who sometimes contradict each other. Where I have generalised about its message, I have done so on the basis of the impression that the book as a whole conveys to the reader, and because certain opinions are frequently repeated or taken for granted. I do not wish to suggest that every contributor is responsible for every statement criticised here. On the other hand, they all presumably accepted the title and the line taken in the editor’s introduction. If I wanted to be thought a sincere non-racist, I should hesitate to contribute to a volume alongside, for example, the Deputy Chairman of the Monday Club’s Immigration and Race Relations Committee. But then I believe the protestations of non-racism in the book to be disingenuous, just as I believe that the idea that the ‘race relations lobby’ poses a totalitarian threat to British society is ludicrous. The picture of British culture, tradition and ‘values’ which this book offers is false and small-minded.

Another new book, Ron Ramdin’s The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, is exactly the kind of production Frank Palmer and his authors would attack, but it is a more honest piece of work than theirs, a frankly Marxist history of ‘the Black presence in Britain as it relates to the development of British capitalism and its control and exploitation of black labour’. The book has little new to say: the idea that racism was an ideology developed to keep a particular economic class in subjection is already familiar, and much of the historical and contemporary material collected here is available from other publications. It is a useful compilation, however, informative to the general reader, clearly written, well annotated and indexed, and happily free of gratuitous abuse. To my mind, the view it presents of race and society is far too narrow: like many writers on ‘race’, Ramdin fails to take into consideration the full range of ethnic origins, and social and cultural variety, to be found in Britain today, and strains to reduce all the events he deals with to the terms of class struggle. We need a larger vision than either of these books can offer.