The murder of American 46-year-old George Floyd put a spotlight on racism and how to fight it. There are two key tensions in the debate: Is racism as bad as it ever was, albeit taking new forms? And is the new anti-racism a continuation of previous struggles, or does it undermine them?
Those who believe that racism is as bad as it ever was point to how it has changed – arguing that it lies beneath the surface, comprising of microaggressions and unconscious bias rather than erupting in shouts of the n-word on the street or ‘no blacks’ signs in shop windows. Activists argue that hyper-awareness of race is necessary to right the wrongs of the past. Universities rejigging their commemorative portraits and statues, or the removal of historic reminders of slavery and oppression, are welcome tactics in this corrective struggle.
Some point out that there is a danger in today’s discussion about racism, which tends to get reduced to a woke vs anti-woke spat. The backlash to a desire to see racism everywhere is in danger of ignoring the reality of racist prejudice and its history. Steve McQueen’s BBC One documentary Uprising, released 40 years after the New Cross fire, served as a reminder of how visceral and integral racist abuse was to many black people’s lives in living memory. Scandals like the recent demonisation and deportation of the Windrush generation at the behest of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy suggests that black people are still treated differently than their white neighbours. If pretending that nothing has changed since the riots in Brixton, Chapeltown, Broadwater Farm and Toxteth is wrong, what happens when we fail to recognise the testimony of those still pointing out injustice in the here and now?
More serious critiques of Critical Race theory and an identity-politics approach, with its focus on ‘white privilege’ and symbols of oppression, warn these can amount to a rejection of the old ‘black and white, unite and fight’ view of solidarity, creating unnecessary and even harmful barriers between citizens. Some anti-racists point out that while we’re all busy rowing over whether the packaging of Uncle Ben’s rice is racist or not, material issues like access to jobs, education and other resources can become side-lined. Additionally, it is argued that contemporary debates about ‘institutional racism’ risk feeding young black people the idea that the world is set against them – denting their confidence and ability to succeed. Terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘BAME’ risk reducing all ethnic difference to a homogenous blob, denying the space for agency, individuality and an understanding of why different ethnic minorities have different experiences.
Perhaps it’s more complex than headlines and activists imply. For example, when the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – dubbed the ‘Sewell Report’ after its chair Dr Tony Sewell – published its findings, many Black Lives Matter sympathisers were outraged at its claims that ‘we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities’. However, Observer columnist Kenan Malik, who criticised the report’s use of data, also pointed out that many contemporary anti-racists live in an ‘either/or culture’, denying the fact that ‘Britain is less racist than it was 40 years ago. Many minority groups in Britain still face racism. Both those claims can be (and are) true’.
What does racism in the UK look like today, and how can we fight it? Is the contemporary anti-racist route of exposing white privilege the right way to challenge discrimination? Or does accentuating racial difference risk defeating any prospect of solidarity? Is it right to claim that society remains structurally racist, or should we be more specific about the differences between individual racist prejudices and institutional racism? Is contemporary anti-racism helping or hindering freedom and equality for people of colour, and who should have a say in how to fight for their rights.