Official anti-racism: the new nationalism?
Once the establishment preached the doctrine of race and nation - now the elites have redefined racism as ‘a secular sin’.
Once the British state and establishment used the politics of race to boost its authority. Today, in pursuit of the same self-serving ends, they are instead engaged in a phoney moral crusade behind official anti-racism. Is that anything to celebrate?
The conviction of two men for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 has sparked a national celebration of this apparent victory over the evils of racism. Every section of the media and political elite has jostled to line up behind Lawrence’s parents and sign up to the official anti-racist consensus. As one leading press figure put it, the guilty verdict is ‘a triumph’ not only for the Lawrences but for British justice, policing, politics and the media.
For those of us who campaigned against racism in the bad old days of the 1980s, this looks like so remarkable a turnaround in attitudes that one might almost wonder if we are living not just in another century but on a different planet. Thirty years ago when I joined a group called Workers Against Racism, there was no sympathetic media coverage or mainstream political support for the Asian families being burnt out of housing estates or the black youth being routinely brutalised by the police. The national debate was all about the scourge of ‘immigrant scroungers’ and black ‘muggers’. Those who fought against racists were branded extremists, the flipside of the fascists.
Let’s be clear. This was not the ‘unwitting’ prejudice described by the Macpherson inquiry into Lawrence’s murder as the basis of ‘institutional racism’ in the UK. It was deliberate, politicised and vitriolic racism, popularised from the top down and enforced by the state as a weapon to divide the working class and consolidate white support for the authorities.
Living in Moss Side, Manchester during the 1981 riots, I remember police vans cruising the streets while riot cops beat their batons on the side and chanted ‘Niggers, niggers, niggers – out, out, out!’. A veteran comrade of mine recalls being arrested in east London around the same time while carrying some Workers Against Racism pamphlets, and being repeatedly asked by the police ‘Do you like monkeys?’ and ‘Why do you live in a monkey cage?’ (that is, his largely black council estate in Hackney). After the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham exploded in a riot sparked by police brutality in 1985, in which an officer was killed, the Metropolitan Police arrested hundreds of youths and told the white kids to cooperate because ‘we only want the blacks’. And so it went on. The incompetent police investigation into the Lawrence murder should have come as little surprise.
And the problem went far beyond police ranks. Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher is remembered for her declaration about British culture being ‘swamped’ by immigrants. But there was little more sympathy for the victims of racism among leaders of the Labour Party and trade unions. In 1982, we marched from London to Brighton to call on the TUC to take a stand against racial discrimination and violence. Our message was not well received.
Now look at the contrast with the carnival of official anti-racism around the Lawrence murder verdicts this week. What has brought these remarkable changes about? New Labour home secretary Jack Straw summed up the widespread view that, ‘if Britain has changed for the better in the intervening 19 years… that’s above all down to two extraordinary people, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Stephen’s parents’. Are we really to believe that the Lawrences have magic powers to transform a nation?
What has happened over the past two decades is that Britain has undergone a major cultural shift as the old politics of nationalism and race have lost their grip on public consciousness. This would have happened whether or not Stephen Lawrence had been murdered by racists. Indeed, the fact that his killing remains the benchmark for racist violence 19 years on shows how rare such incidents have become.
But here is the thing. The truth is that the less overtly racist British society has become in recent times, the more the authorities have started preaching about the evils of racism and launching new crusades against it. What has altered most is the perception of racism. Where once it was society’s guilty secret, now there is a concerted effort to trawl for and publicise any hint of racially incorrect language or behaviour from the school playground to the football pitch. The less racism is in evidence, the more everything appears to have been racialised. Why?
Official anti-racism has become the beleaguered elites’ political weapon of choice. The old British Establishment used the traditional politics of nationalism, race and empire to assert its authority. Those days are long gone. Instead, today’s political and cultural elites have seized upon the new orthodoxy of official anti-racism to try to give them a sense of moral purpose. Official anti-racism has also become a tool both to demonise and to discipline the white working-class people whom the elites fear and loathe.
The Lawrence case has indeed played a big part in this process, though not in the way widely assumed this week. The key was not so much the murder itself, but the publication of the 1999 Macpherson report into the case, which formally rewrote the state’s doctrine on the politics of race.
Macpherson introduced two landmark changes. First, it introduced a new official definition of a race crime. A racial incident is now ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. Such a sweeping subjective definition of a race crime has inevitably confused debate and fostered the view that racism is everywhere and that ever more laws and initiatives are required to police it.
Second, Macpherson defined the problem of ‘institutional racism’ at the heart of British society, leading to the reorganisation of the police and other public institutions around this assumption. But whereas the Sixties radicals who coined the phrase were talking about the deliberate wielding of power by a racist state apparatus, Macpherson explicitly rejected any such link between institutional racism and the exercise of power. The report stated that the Metropolitan Police was not racist; the problem was more the ‘unwitting words and actions’ of individual officers acting together.
Once racism is reduced to a problem of the individual rather than the state or society, the solution becomes re-education to alter individual attitudes. This is an open invitation to the state to intervene to police people’s words, actions and even thoughts – particularly those of the white working class now seen as the source of the problem. Macpherson even proposed that the use of racist language in your own home should be made an explicit criminal offence. The report led to an explosion of race-based codes of conduct, awareness training and surveillance measures throughout British institutions.
New laws have made it possible to charge people with ‘racially aggravated’ offences, rather than just old-fashioned assault or criminal damage, and sentence them more stiffly on conviction. The law has thus extended into punishing an individual, not just for what he had done, but for what he was assumed to be thinking when he committed an offence – his supposed ‘racial motivation’. This was reflected in the sentencing of those two men for the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Redefined on this individualised basis, racism has been taken up as the cause of the moral crusade. Declaring that you are not a racist has become the bottom line that helps mark you out as one of the ‘right-thinking people’, in the words of one police chief. In an age when many of the old moral certainties have been badly eroded, distancing yourself from racist remarks and following the new etiquette is seen as one of the few ways to draw a clear line between Good and Evil.
That is why every British leader and institution is now so keen to swear their abhorrence of racism, as a pass to the moral high ground that might once have been provided by declaring their belief in God. As the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission boasted after the Lawrence verdicts, racial prejudice is now seen ‘as a secular sin that is not to be tolerated’. And the worst sinners are now deemed to be the white working classes, who must have the new catechism/etiquette of official anti-racism drummed into them at every opportunity. That is why, for example, any hint of racism around football, patronisingly seen as a modern opiate of the masses, is made such a public example of today.
It was against this background that the killing of Stephen Lawrence was belatedly singled out by the authorities as so important. It became more than a murder inquiry; not just a criminal case, but a political cause, as the Met’s deputy commissioner Cressida Dick effectively admitted this week: ‘All murder cases are absolutely dreadful, but this case for reasons you will all understand is extremely important, not just for the Metropolitan Police, but for society at large.’ It had become a way for the state to regain some moral authority around official anti-racism.
I have little sympathy for the two men jailed for the killing of Stephen Lawrence. But for some of us who campaigned against racism on the basis of a belief in freedom, equality and democracy, the wider changes the case has become a vehicle for have not been for the better.
Indeed, some of the most worrying political and legal trends evident in recent years have been promoted in the name of official anti-racism post-Lawrence. These include the rewriting of the law along subjective, arbitrary lines through the redefinition of a race crime; the spread of conformist codes of conduct that police language and thought and suppress open debate; the institutionalisation of mistrust and mutual surveillance; and the notion that people are to be judged on their private attitudes at least as much as their public actions.
In the name of ‘zero tolerance’, the codes of official anti-racism have turned intolerance of offensive views into a ‘value’, even a virtue. Indeed, such is the intolerance of those suspected of harbouring sinful thoughts today that anything can apparently be justified to get them – up to and including, as Brendan O’Neill argues on spiked today, the abolition of such an historic principle of the justice system as the law against double jeopardy. This is the modern elite’s version of the old corrupt copper’s mantra – if they’re wrong’uns, anything goes to get them.
On spiked, and even before that in LM magazine, we have argued from the start that there is no benefit for those who believe in freedom in the phoney moral crusade of official anti-racism launched around the Lawrence case. As I wrote here 10 years ago, ‘It is the new thought police, rather than the old racist ones, who are running riot through Britain today’. The exploitation of the Lawrence verdict this week confirms that official anti-racism is now every bit as authoritarian and intolerant as the state racism of old.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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