British racism: a new original sin

How New Labour has racialised everyday life.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

With UK politicians’ sordid competition over ‘who’s the most racist?’, the most boring British election campaign in living memory has suddenly begun to show the first sign of life.

The catalyst for this dispute was an election compact designed to keep the issue of race out of the election debate, produced in April 2001 by the quango, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE). Although all the party leaders signed the CRE declaration, a handful of Conservative Party parliamentary candidates indicated that they would not sign something restraining them from stating their views during the election campaign.

Sections of the Labour Party swiftly declared that Tory candidates’ refusal to sign the CRE declaration revealed them to be incorrigible racists, and Labour Party leaders rounded on Conservative leader William Hague for failing to deal with these candidates. New Labour foreign secretary Robin Cook raised the stakes further, by using a major speech to attack Hague and the Conservatives as being a movement out of sync with tolerant, multicultural New Britain. As far as Cook was concerned, the battle lines were drawn: on the one side, tolerant and enlightened opinion represented by New Labour, and on the other, the dark forces of Conservative reaction.

The enthusiasm with which New Labour leapt on this opportunity to turn race into an election issue should take nobody by surprise – not even the Tories. During the past four years, New Labour has steadily promoted the idea of British racism as a secular original sin that afflicts almost everybody. From this perspective, virtually every heated statement or dispute can be represented as racially motivated.

The 1999 Macpherson report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence set the benchmark for this, by redefining a racial incident as anything ‘perceived to be racist by the victim or by any other person’. This definition represented a fundamental shift from racism as a tangible act to that of subjective perception. Such an arbitrary definition of a racist incident allows everybody from Robin Cook to an aggrieved bystander to portray any encounter as racist – which, in turn, constitutes sufficient grounds for the police to report the incident as a racist one.

The police may eventually conclude that the event in question should not be categorised as racist but it will still enter the crime statistics as a reported racist incident. Not surprisingly, reports of racially motivated crimes are soaring. If you were to believe the statistics, you would have to conclude that British people are becoming more and more racist every month.

By presenting racism as an issue of perception, Sir William Macpherson codified feelings and ambiguity into law. Consequently, individuals involved in the normal disputes of everyday life can often face the accusation of harbouring racist motives. So the attack on a 76-year-old white man by three Asian youths in Oldham, Greater Manchester, last week was immediately reported as evidence of Oldham’s ‘no-go’ area for whites: even though the family quickly denied that the incident had anything to do with racism. ‘It was a violent assault on an elderly man’, said the pensioner’s son. ‘As a family we don’t think it was a race issue at all – it’s an assault.’ (1)

Even childish conflicts can be recast as racial incidents. A 10-year-old schoolboy, who called a taunting classmate a Paki and punched him on the back, was recently charged with racially aggravated assault.

As well as introducing a subjective and arbitrary definition of racism, Macpherson codified the idea of racism as an original sin. The Macpherson report promoted the concept of institutional racism: the defining theme in New Labour’s racial universe. In his definition of institutional racism, Macpherson declared that it ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’.

The key word here is ‘unwitting’. It matters little that you do not think you are racially motivated. Apparently, somewhere deep inside you lurks an unhealthy racial awareness that unwittingly forces you to act in a racist manner.

The concept of unwitting racism represents an invitation to an army of race experts to help us to come to terms with our sinful ways. The term ‘unwitting’ treats racism as a bad cultural habit that afflicts almost everybody.

The New Labour political elite is wholly committed to this world-view, and genuinely believes that the older generations in particular are more or less incurable racists. In April 2000 Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, told a party strategy meeting that old age pensioners were ‘predominantly Conservative’ and ‘often racist’. Other Labour MPs echoed Soley’s sentiments – one Labour MP, cited in The Sunday Times (London), condemned pensioners for being ‘like Alf Garnett’, the racist and reactionary television character.

For New Labour, race represents an opportunity to claim a moral advantage over its opponents. Look at the way Labour politicians continually accuse their Tory opponents of playing the race card. This accusation might have had some substance in the past, but today the Tories appear too defensive to play any card at all.

Sections of the old Tory right once relished making an issue out of immigration, with politicians like Enoch Powell and Norman Tebbit turning everything from crime to cricket into a racially charged issue. But today, many Tory politicians find it difficult to say the word England without fearing that they might be ‘unwitting racists’. Rather, today it is the race relations lobby and particularly New Labour that finds it difficult to avoid the temptation of playing the race card. By treating routine conflict as racially motivated, they are racialising everyday life.

This process is just as destructive as old-fashioned racism. Everyday human interaction becomes recast in racial terms, with the consequence that racism becomes normalised. This confuses and disorients people, breeding a climate of suspicion and mistrust. It also trivialises the real experience of racism and distracts people from confronting real cases of injustice.

The ready-made diagnosis of racist motivation can only incite people to make sense of many of their troubles in racial terms. That is one legacy that Britain can do without.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
  • Visit Frank Furedi’s website

    Read on:

    The trouble with multiculturalism, by Kenan Malik

    A joke too far, by Barbara Hewson

    Cook plays the curry card, by Mick Hume

    Macpherson report: keeping our wits about us, by Mick Hume

    Giving race experts a Lasching, by Brendan O’Neill

    spiked-issue: Race

    (1) Guardian, 26 April

    To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

    Topics Politics


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