Are we all racists and victims now?
Those who want to turn everything into a race issue today are desperate to impose a phoney new national morality.
The less public racism there is in UK society, the more every issue and argument seems to become ‘racialised’, with allegations of racial abuse, bigotry and bullying flying on all sides. The message seems to be that we are all now potential racists and/or victims of racism. This is a far more dangerous notion than anything the odd stray racist might say today.
A few years ago, when Eminem and Tiger Woods both reached the top of their professions, somebody observed that you knew America had been turned on its head when the top rapper was white and the top golfer was black. There is a similar feeling of the world turned upside down in the UK media recently, as a right-wing tabloid launches a big anti-racism campaign, while a darling of the liberal intelligentsia is accused of racism.
The Sun, traditionally seen as a bigoted tabloid and the bete noire of anti-racists, launched its ‘Let’s Beat the Bigots’ campaign in the wake of the furore over the ‘racist bullying’ of Shilpa Shetty in the Celebrity Big Brother house. Its front page declared: ‘As Shilpa wins Big Brother, 11 kids ask….what do we all have in common?’ Each of the multiethnic kids’ collective was pictured holding up a label, ranging from ‘Nigger’, ‘Yid’, ‘Paki’, ’Chinky’ and ‘Towel-Head’ to ‘Pikey’ and ‘Chav Scum’. So the Sun’s answer was that they were all British victims of racist name-calling by the bullies and bigots ‘who plague our streets and shame the nation’.
Meanwhile, at a more rarefied level of life on Planet Media, one of the pillars of the liberal establishment was becoming embroiled in another race row. Will Hutton of the Observer, Sunday sister paper of the Guardian, who has been one of the key media supporters of New Labour, found himself accused of racism after he used the unexceptional expression ‘Third World intellectual’ in an exchange of views with Lord Meghnad Desai. Now, some of us might think that Hutton can reasonably be attacked for just about everything he says and writes. But this bizarre allegation of racism sends out the same message as the Sun’s campaign and the ruckus over CBB: that bigotry is supposedly all around us in Britain today.
Everything, it seems, is now being reinterpreted through the prism of race and anti-racism. Thus in education, the government has announced plans to shake up history teaching (again) to focus more on issues to do with ethnicity and Britishness. And in sport, every confrontation now risks being declared an issue of racism. The Turkish player Emre has claimed he is being driven out of English football by allegations that he insulted a black opponent, while the white umpire Daryl Hair is suing the international cricket authorities for racial discrimination, over the loss of his job after last summer’s row about alleged Pakistani ball-tampering.
Believe you me, I have no wish to write any more about the CBB debacle. But the extraordinary fallout from the ‘racist bullying’ episode provides a striking illustration of where things are heading. When that silly reality TV programme was on it became the focus of a national circus of breast-beating and witch-hunting over alleged racism. Since it ended, things have gone further still, with the police formally interviewing housemates, reportedly as part of their major investigation into ‘racist behaviour in the Big Brother house’ – a new criminal offence apparently invented for the occasion. As well as interrogating Jade Goody and her mother and mates over their behaviour towards Shetty, the police also inevitably plan to interview Jermaine Jackson over allegations that he mouthed the words ‘white trash’.
Many influential voices have hailed this new focus on racism in Britain as a great step forward. Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and figurehead of the anti-racist industry, even embarrassed himself by writing an article headlined ‘Hooray for Shilpa, Hooray for Britain, Hooray for the Sun’ (in the Sun, funnily enough), praising the paper’s post-CBB campaign.
But none of this is anything to celebrate. The obsession with racialising everything today has nothing to do with promoting freedom and democracy. It is a desperate attempt to impose a phoney new national morality – one that is more likely to breed further divisions. It is about reducing us all to the status of victims and bullies in need of discipline and re-education. As such, it provides a fashionable justification for the authorities to police the behaviour of individuals, enforcing an ostensibly anti-racist etiquette at the expense of free speech and open debate.
It is important to understand how the meaning of racism has changed. Historically speaking, one could draw a basic distinction between prejudice and racism. Prejudice meant the arbitrary and irrational bias of individuals against others, for no more reason than that they came from another village or had red hair. The rise of racism as a political and social force, driven from the top of society downwards, was a far more modern phenomenon.
The emergence of a powerful nationalist outlook from the eighteenth century, and of imperialism from the nineteenth, gave rise to politics of racial superiority in British and Western society (more often expressed through asserting the inferiority of others). The elite’s nationalist-racial politics were first directed against the lower orders at home, and then turned outwards against colonial peoples. That laid the basis for popular racism to ignite in British society in the decades after the Second World War, with the onset of mass immigration from Asia and Africa. The politicians, police and immigration authorities were at the cutting edge of racism.
Over more recent decades, however, racism has lost its purchase over British politics and society. The disoriented elite has become incapable of organising a traditional nationalist response – see the tortured debate about the meaning of ‘Britishness’ today. It would be unimaginable for a prime minister now to mobilise a fiercely anti-foreign ‘Falklands Factor’ as Margaret Thatcher did to such effect 25 years ago. Contrary to the impression often given, everyday racial tensions and violence are far less in evidence now than in the recent past.
So why do we hear so much about racism today? Because the elite has sought to adopt the politics of anti-racism as a new moral code through which it can dominate society and show its superiority over the bigoted herd. The powerless, like Jade Goody, are blamed for racism, while the powerful like Phillips or the police or the media are cast in the role of saviours. In this sense, far from marking an advance towards liberation and equality, state anti-racism today seeks to play the same role as state racism did in the past.
A key moment in the racialisation of everything came with the 1999 Macpherson Report into the investigation of the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. This established a new definition of a racist crime; basically, that an incident should officially be deemed racial if anybody – not just the victim, but anybody – claimed that it was. This catch-all standard was quickly adopted by the New Labour government, police and courts, and has since permeated every aspect of our culture, right down to the CBB house.
Our understanding of racism has become separated from the exercise of power. Instead personal attitudes, even if expressed in private, and petty insults can now be interpreted as the height of racism. When radical groups such as the Black Panthers first talked about ‘institutionalised racism’ in the 1960s, they meant the oppressive power of state institutions. By contrast, when the Macpherson Report talked about the problem of ‘institutionalised racism’, it referred to the backward attitudes or even ‘unwitting’ racism of individuals working for the state.
In a rewriting of history, we see the sort of petty personal prejudice exhibited in the CBB house now being recast in the powerful role of racism, as a ‘scourge’ of society. Examples must be made, national scandals invented, a strict etiquette imposed, primarily on the white working class but on everybody else, too. The message from above appears to be that we Brits may not know who we are any longer, but we know we don’t want to be like Jade Goody.
In all the flailing about to establish some semblance of a national moral consensus, it seems the two things we all agree celebrities (our ‘role models’, after all) cannot be today are paedophiles and racists. Some seem to think that is something worth ‘hooray-ing’ about. But others among us might reflect that a society which can only unite against stupid, silly ‘racist Jade’ is exhibiting the lowest-of-the-lowest common moral denominators.
It is ironic that voices like the Sun and its supporters, who pride themselves on being fierce critics of multiculturalism, should now feel able to boast about an anti-racist campaign that rests upon the same essential premise as that creed: that we all have separate identities, but are ‘united’ by the experience of being victims of other offensively bigoted individuals. Such victim identity politics is always more likely to divide than to unite.
Worse still, the new anti-racist etiquette can only breed further confusion about what we are allowed to say or think, and paralyse any attempt to have an honest debate about the true state of affairs.
Look one last time at Jade Goody telling heat magazine in tears that she doesn’t know what to say anymore, or even what food to eat, in case people ‘think it’s wrong’; or Jo O’Meara crying to the press that ‘none of it makes sense. I don’t know how this has all happened.’ They are strange little celebrity snapshots of what could happen to public debate about far more serious issues, from immigration to integration and terrorism, if the conformist thought police are allowed to use the all-purpose stick of anti-racism to beat everybody into line.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.