Aristocratic privilege and whiteness are among the basic assumptions of British ruling-class ideology. Conversely, Britain’s inner cities – London in particular – are some of the most successfully multi-ethnic experiments in the ‘Western’ world. Multi-ethnic Britain is a result of what scholar Paul Gilroy calls our ‘convivial’ culture, the normal everyday decency of ordinary people that for the most part keeps the peace in the face of enormous challenges.1
Racism and anti-racism, complete contempt for the poor and Christian charity, home to the world’s top universities and a strong disdain for learning, the pioneer of ‘Anglo-globalisation’ whose citizens constantly bemoan other peoples right to move freely without a hint of irony – Britain has long been a land of startling paradoxes.
(The paradox in the collective identity of Britain blurs across 70 million British citizens but on an individual scale the dichotomy is definitive: Fascist versus Fabian, Pankhurst versus Moseley, Corbyn versus Cameron, Extinction Rebellion versus the Rotary Club, Socialist Worker versus British Legion, etc).
Britain had an abolitionist movement on a far greater scale than any of the other major European slaveholding powers, even while Britain had become the world’s premier slave trader?
Two centuries later, there was widespread revulsion towards and organisation against apartheid by ‘radical’ groups in Britain, even as British government, British corporations and banks actively supported it?
(Though the British struggle against apartheid in Britain was not without its own racial tensions, ironically.2)
THE YIN YANG OF UNION
Britain has two competing traditions – one rooted in ideas of freedom, equality and democracy, and another that sees these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of power preservation.
This is how the UK can have the largest of the demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq and yet still have a government that entirely ignored its population on an issue with such globe-shifting implications.Severe class inequalities persist, and while it’s probably unrealistic to expect a society with which everyone can be satisfied, by European standards the British class system is still particularly pernicious. It’s not that racism has disappeared from the UK since the 1980s, but without a doubt the resistance of black and Asian communities during the decade of my birth produced very significant reforms that have changed the way my generation experiences and understands ‘race’. The gollywogs and banana skins are no longer a daily feature of black life here and neither is the Special Patrol Group, the notoriously abusive policing unit that gave almost all of the older men in my life a bloody good hiding, more than once. Though police brutality of course continues, few would deny things are far better in this respect than thirty years ago, for now at least.
The physical battles fought by our parents’ generation have meant that ‘nigger hunting’ and ‘Paki bashing’ are far less common than they once were too. My father’s and uncles’ bodies are tattooed with scars from fighting the National Front (NF), Teddy Boys and Skinheads; mine is not. We should not underestimate the newly emboldened bigots, though, and racist violence seems to be on the rise again.
This is partly because, despite much seeming and some very real progress, public discourse about racism is still as childish and supine as it ever was. Where we do discuss race in public, we have been trained to see racism – if we see it at all – as an issue of interpersonal morality. Good people are not racist, only bad people are. This neat binary is a great way of avoiding any real discussion at all. But without the structural violence of unequal treatment before the law and in education, and a history of racial exploitation by states, simple acts of personal prejudice would have significantly less meaning. In short, we are trained to recognise the kinds of racism that tend to be engaged in by poorer people. Thus even the most pro-empire of historians would probably admit that some football hooligan calling a Premier League player a ‘black cunt’ is a bad thing, even while they spend their entire academic careers explaining away, downplaying and essentially cheering for the mass-murdering white-supremacist piracy of the British Empire, which starved millions to death in India, enslaved and tortured millions more in countless locations and often used its power to crush, not enhance, popular democracy and economic development in its non-white colonies, especially when doing so suited larger aims. Poor people racism, bad, rich people racism, good.
The kinds of racism still engaged in by the wealthy and the powerful – such as the theft of entire regions’ resources under a thinly veiled update of ‘the white man’s burden’ (basically ‘the savages can’t govern themselves’), or profiteering from a racially unjust legal and prison system – are far more egregious and damaging. Yet these forms of racism are given far less attention than racism as simple name-calling. John Terry calling Anton Ferdinand a ‘black cunt’ in front of millions of viewers may well be deplorable, but the Football Association’s equivocation over whether to take him to the 2012 European Championships, over Anton’s brother Rio, and for England as a nation to be happy and proud to be captained by a man who racially abuses his peers in the workplace, is the more interesting case study for any discussion about how race operates. Had the England team chosen to drop John Terry immediately and pick Rio instead, I’m sure there would have been uproar from much of the country, despite Rio’s obvious abilities.In the run-up to the 2017 general election, online racists told black MP Diane Abbott that they would ‘hang her if they could find a tree strong enough for the fat black bitch’ – just one message among the slew of racist and sexist abuse she regularly receives. It seems Britain’s most honest racists emphasise the spiritual connection they feel for their American cousins quite well. Yet in reality, the hanging of black people was never a particular phenomenon in domestic Britain; ironically, the vast majority of people hung in British history were white, and they were often poor people hung by the state for not respecting rich people’s property. Oh the irony, oh the lack of respect for one’s own ancestors!
All said and done, the idea of racial hierarchy and the attendant philosophy of innate white superiority were not invented by poor people, and while we are not excusing the central role that everyday racism has played in upholding racial hierarchies in the UK and elsewhere, our critique should not rest there.
While ethnic bigotry has been around for millennia and probably affects every known human community to some degree, the invention, or at least codification, of ‘race’ was an eighteenth and nineteenth century pan-Euro-American project, in which British intellectuals played a central role. Britain also had a pioneering role in making white supremacy a temporary political reality via its racialised global empire, yet to publicly discuss racism, much less have the gall to accurately name white supremacy as a strong current in Britain’s history, is to be greeted with odium by some who claim to study that history, but it seems would rather be left to uncritically celebrate it in peace.
There are other signs that the political ‘logic’ of the 1980s is returning. Despite the fact that Britain imprisons its population at double the rate the Germans do and 30–40 per cent higher than the French, we have a Metropolitan Police chief calling for tougher sentences for ‘teenage thugs’ and for a return of mass stop and search. Britain’s prison population has already grown 82 per cent in three decades with 50 per cent more women in prison than in the 1990s, and there is no corresponding rise in serious crime to explain any of this. If tougher sentences alone worked to reduce crime, the USA would surely be crime free by now? With 10 per cent of Britain’s prisons now privatised and many more using prison labour, such seemingly illogical right-wing virtue signalling from the head of London’s police starts to look like ‘vested interests’ and to signal tumultuous times ahead. We all know that black Brits – already seven times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts, and already more harshly treated at every level of the justice system – are going to make up a disproportionate amount of any further increase in Britain’s incarceration state. Poor people of all ethnicities will make up most of the rest.Other recent globe-shifting events in the Anglo-American empire – the recorded execution of Black Americans by the police, including women, children and the elderly; the election as US President of a man openly endorsed by Nazis, the KKK and white supremacist groups and his failure to condemn them even after they murder people; the same man’s condemnation of the peaceful protest of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes; the ethnocentric and racist strains to the Brexit campaign rhetoric; the unjust deportations of Commonwealth migrants; the handling of and reporting on ‘the migrant crisis’ (without reference to Nato’s destruction of Libya, of course) – make it pretty clear to any honest observer that the idea and practice of racism is not going anywhere anytime soon.
I was born into these currents, I did not create or invent them and I make no claims to objectivity. I find the whole idea that we can transcend our experiences; and take a totally unbiased look at the world to be totally ridiculous, yet that’s what many historians and academics claim to do. We are all influenced by what we are exposed to and experience; the best we can hope for is to try and be as fair as possible from within the bias inherent in existence. The personal is the political, and this book is an attempt to give a personal face to the forces that you will often hear me speak of, if you hear me speak at all. This book is about how the British class system interacts with and feeds off a long and complex relationship with empire and white supremacy, and how those social forces can manifest in and shape the life experience of a random child, born to a father racialised as black and a mother racialised as white, in early 1980s England.
1 Gilroy, Paul, After Empire: Melancholia or convivial culture? (London: Routledge, 2004)
2 Williams, Elizabeth, The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa: Black British Solidarity and the Anti-apartheid (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017)