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Issue 37, April 1999

After the Lawrence report

    New Labour racism
    Struggle and solidarity

Deep-seated racism still persists in British society, fostered and nurtured by capitalism, argues HANNAH SELL.

'INSTITUTIONAL RACISM CONSISTS of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people'.

'Institutional racism', concluded the Macpherson Report into the police investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, exists within 'both the Metropolitan Police Service and in other police services and other institutions countrywide'.

The last official report into police racism, the Scarman Report, was published eighteen years ago in the wake of the Brixton riots. Like this report it was commissioned and published under the pressure of burning anger from blacks, Asians and many whites. In the intervening two decades very little has changed. Although comprising 2% of the population, 9% of murder victims are black. In the week that the Lawrence report was published it was revealed that a senior black race advisor to Jack Straw has been stopped and searched by the police 44 times. Black and Asian people are five times more likely to be searched by the police than whites and, once in court, are six times more likely to be sent to prison. Many suffer extreme harassment and even violence. Last year in Hull an 11-minute police video was discovered which shows police officers standing around laughing while Christopher Alder, a black man, dies in front of them. Unsurprisingly 75% of Afro-Caribbean men will believe that the police can't be trusted to tackle racism. One in four of the entire population now believe that the police are clearly racist. Amongst young people the percentage is even higher.

  Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen has said that, in contrast to the Scarman Report, 'This time I do not just want lip-service paid to the report, I want to see some action taken'. But how likely are New Labour to take any real action? They have agreed to implement most of the 70 proposals suggested by Macpherson. These include extending the Race Relations Act to cover the police, who have previously been exempt! However, the measures are extremely limited. The stop and search laws, which have always been used to harass young people, especially those from ethnic minorities, are to remain intact. Even if the Macpherson recommendations were implemented in full they would not get rid of racism in the police. In reality, they will be never be more than partially implemented.

The police play a dual role in our society. On the one hand they are seen as being responsible for 'fighting crime'. Working class people contact the police to deal with burglaries, robberies etc. However, this is not their primary role. We live under a capitalist system where a tiny minority own and control almost everything. Industry, banking, the media; all are run by a few billionaires. Where a minority hold power they will always need different means of keeping control. The police are one of those means. Their primary role is to protect private property and the rule of the capitalist class. Where necessary, for example in the miners strike, the Wapping strike, the poll tax battle, and in the demonstrations against the Nazis in the early 1990s, the police used vicious violence in order to achieve the ends of the capitalist class.

Given their role it is unsurprising that the police tend to have some of the most backward sections of the population in their ranks. However, it is not a question of a 'few bad apples'. Racism is part of the fabric of British society. But racism is not inherent in people. Capitalism has consciously developed and fostered racist ideas for its own ends. As Malcolm X said: 'You can't have capitalism without racism'.

  Originally early capitalism developed racism in order to justify the slave trade. British capitalists 'led' the world in slave trading. The cities of Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol and, to an extent, London were built on the blood of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Slavery was abandoned when it had outlived its usefulness. Racism was then adapted as a pseudo-scientific concept. It was then used to justify the subjugation and exploitation of Africa, Asia and Latin America under colonial rule. Brutal and dictatorial rule was combined with pious rubbish about the 'white mans burden' - the supposed need to educate and bring God to the peoples of the colonial countries.

Today capitalism has adapted racism to new ends. Most of the world is still exploited by the big corporations of a few imperialist powers, backed up by the IMF and the World Bank. The only difference is that today it is done indirectly through economic exploitation rather than by direct colonial rule. Despite the slightly more hidden character of colonial exploitation racism is still used as a tool to justify it. However, it also used to divide working class people in the economically advanced capitalist countries. Sowing divisions amongst the oppressed is one of the most important means which any minority ruling elite can use to try to divide and conquer the exploited majority. Racism is one method of divide and rule. It has been used in the past and will be used again.

Amongst the majority of people in Britain blatantly racist ideas are far less socially acceptable than they were 20 years ago. Campaigns against racist chants on the football terraces, for example, have been fairly successful. This positive change has taken place for a number of reasons. Primarily, it has because of the determination, and increased confidence, of blacks and Asians to fight discrimination and racism. This has been combined with a strong feeling amongst a large section of the white population, especially youth, that all discrimination, and in particular racism, is wrong and should be combated. However, it is not true, as much of the liberal press have tried to portray, that racism is now the sole, or even primary, preserve of uneducated, violent, poor men.

  To see the way the capitalist class are prepared to use racism you only have to look at the articles that appeared in the right wing press days after the Macpherson Report, at a time when public sympathy clearly lay overwhelming with the Lawrence family. The majority of the capitalist class clearly felt that they had no choice but make concessions; to take steps towards the reforming of the police. Another section however, consciously tried to undermine the attacks on the police with racist garbage. One Sun columnist wrote, 'Given that (Blair's) latest comments were for the consumption by the black community, I'm surprised that he didn't mention that his favourite food is goat curry and yams... it has become clear that Blair's mission is to eradicate, denigrate or undermine every quintessentially English institution, from the Metropolitan police downwards'.

The Daily Telegraph led with an attack on the Macpherson report as 'appallingly patronising towards the police... their canteen culture is constantly disparaged... it is already reported by front-line officers on patrol that black youths were taunting them saying they would not be able to arrest them now. There will be more of that and worse. Middle England has been slow to wake up to what is happening... (The report) represents an attempt, inspired by the worst excesses of American academe to make life intolerable for the defenders of bourgeois democracy'.

  top     New Labour racism

AT PRESENT THESE blatantly racist and reactionary ideas are only being put forward by a minority of the press. The New Labour government, which is a government of big business, are trying hard to appear to combat racism. Yet, even now, the government is fostering racist ideas with many of their actions. The Immigration and Asylum Bill is being used to encourage the idea that immigration is responsible for unemployment, an inadequate health service, and the lack of social housing. In reality more people leave Britain every year than enter. There are more Britons living illegally in the USA than there are people living illegally in Britain. The number of people each year who are given leave to stay in Britain has remained fairly constant throughout the last 20 years. The biggest number of refugees arriving in Britain in the 1990s have been from Bosnia. Yet Britain allowed 12,000 Bosnian refugees while Germany allowed 300,000.

New Labour are also whipping up racism by refusing to abolish the Tory law (only introduced in 1996) which makes local authorities responsible for housing asylum seekers. They should abolish this law and make central government responsible again. Instead they are expanding the law - the Home Secretary will now have the power to commandeer council houses and force local authorities to set up reception zones to house new Asylum seekers. In a situation where there is a huge shortage of housing and related social facilities, it is inevitable that this will lead to local people blaming the refugees. The racism that has developed in Dover could be repeated in towns up and down the country.

By their actions New Labour have already shown that they will be prepared to play the race card in a more serious way when they need to. In an economic recession, where unemployment and poverty increase, and the government need someone to blame, it is all too likely that they will resort to whipping up racism on a larger scale.

  Some commentators argue that, despite racism, blacks and Asians have succeeded in overcoming economic discrimination. Unfortunately this is not true. There are differences between the ethnic minorities. The Chinese and African-Asians are, on average, less poor than other ethnic minorities (but are still worse off than whites). The Bangladeshi community are particularly poor. Most importantly - there is a general picture - if you are black or Asian you will almost certainly be lower paid and have worse housing. On average the earnings of men from ethnic minorities are 40 a week lower than those of white men. 35% of Caribbean men do shift work, compared with only 20% of white men. 28% of white families live below the poverty line compared with 41% of Afro-Caribbean families and 84% of Bangladeshi families. This situation is bound to get worse in the coming economic recession. The gap between black and white unemployment always grows at the start of a recession, as racism leads to blacks getting thrown out of work more quickly than whites.

It is not lack of education which creates this economic inequality. Despite the current hysteria in the press about male Afro-Caribbean school students failing in education, the reality is that more young blacks and Asians stay on at school than white students. 56% of 16-24 year old men from ethnic minorities are in full-time further or higher education - compared to 21% for whites. The figure for Afro-Caribbeans is 34% - still higher than that of whites.

Racism and discrimination unquestionably exist in the education system. This is a major reason for the large number of young Afro-Caribbean men that are excluded from school. It is also true that, although far larger numbers of black and Asian youth now attend university, they mostly attend the big, working-class, ex-polytechnics. It is still far harder for them to gain entry at the 'old' universities.

The primary problem is not the racism in education but the 'institutional racism' in society as a whole. Despite spending more time in education, young blacks are more likely to be unemployed, low paid or homeless. The most common response to this is to try to overcome every obstacle; to be better educated and harder working. However, there is a section of youth whose response is to rebel against, and turn away from, the whole of society. It is only by ending discrimination in the whole of society, not just education, that this will be changed.

  top     Struggle and solidarity

IN THE USA business consciously set out to create a black middle class. The hope was that black 'role models' would create the illusion that the American dream was realisable for blacks. Today, while nothing has changed for the majority, a minority have made it. Oprah Winfrey is one of the richest women in the US. There are black police chiefs, judges and generals.

British capitalism is poorer and was less able to create a black middle class. They attempted to use the race relations industry to achieve their aims on the cheap. Their failure is stark. Ethnic minorities are barely represented as the managers and employers of big companies. None of the 98 high court judges come from ethnic minorities, and only four of the 563 circuit judges. Less than 1% of the army come from ethnic minorities. There are pathetically few black and Asian MPs. British capitalism has proved itself incapable of improving the living conditions of even a tiny minority of blacks and Asians.

Given this, it is inevitable that major struggles against racism and discrimination will develop again in Britain. It was partly the huge anti-racist demonstrations that took place in 1993 and 1994, which the Socialist Party (then Militant Labour) played a crucial role in organising, that led to the Macpherson report. If the Lawrence family had called a demonstration over police racism and incompetence earlier this year it would have dwarfed the demonstrations of the early 1990s. This shows the enormous anger that exists amongst the black and Asian population.

  How will this anger be channelled? In the 1990s the working class as a whole have lacked confidence. The collapse of Stalinism and the capitalist triumphalism that accompanied this led to a disillusionment internationally that an alternative to capitalism is possible. At the same time the social democratic parties (the Labour Party in Britain) abandoned any idea of socialism and embraced free market capitalism. In Britain this has been combined with a particularly low level of confidence to struggle as a result of the defeats that took place in the 1980s. The low ebb of working class struggle has inevitably led to a searching for other solutions by all sections of society. Amongst some sections of the black and Asian communities there has been an increase in religious ideas and also in nationalism. Some Asian youth have become more fervent supporters of their traditional religion. In universities there has been a growth in Islamic societies. There has also been a certain growth in black nationalism. The Nation of Islam (a reactionary black nationalist organisation) has begun to recruit. However, its membership is still very small.

Nationalist and separatist ideas among an oppressed, minority community are entirely different to the reactionary nationalism of the oppressors. Nonetheless separatism does not represent a solution for blacks and Asians in Britain. The Socialist Party support the right of all minorities to organise independently, and this can play a positive role.. Nonetheless, capitalism will only be overthrown by a united struggle of the working class.

As generalised class struggles develop in the future separatist and black nationalist ideas will not simply disappear. On the contrary over the next few years we will see an ideological ferment taking place as workers search for the best solution to their problems. At different stages large sections of the black and Asian communities could turn to nationalist ideas for a solution to racism.

Britain, however, compared to the US or the rest of Europe, is still very integrated and this has tended to limit the growth of nationalism. Trade union membership is still higher among blacks than among whites. This is particularly so with the longest-standing ethnic minority communities: 46% of Afro-Caribbeans are trade union members compared to 35% of whites. The percentage of trade union office holders from the ethnic minorities has also increased, particularly in the public sector.

  Under the impact of the world economic crisis and the betrayal of New Labour there will be an increase in industrial action in Britain at a certain stage. When this happens black and Asian trade unionists will play a leading role. Amongst young people, black and white, trade union membership is lower today than in the past, but this process will reverse. Most young people work in private sector, unorganised, low-paid workplaces. At a some point, a kind of new unionism will erupt in these workplaces. There will be huge struggles for the right to be organised which in some ways will resemble the battles to build the general unions a century ago. As the lowest paid, most oppressed section of workers, young blacks and Asians will be to the fore of these battles.

Just as it is in the interests of big business to divide workers by playing the race card, it is in the interests of the working class to stand united. But it still does not follow automatically that an increase in class struggle will cut across racism. While there will be a trend in this direction all anti-racists and socialists in the trade union movement will still have to campaign against racist ideas. The propaganda of big business and the far right will be stepped up in an economic recession. However, there is a strong anti-racist mood amongst most young people in Britain. This, combined with the role that black and Asian workers already play in the trade union movement, and their confidence and determination to fight racism wherever they find it, bode well for the future. In other battles, such as the campaign against tuition fees and the abolition of the student grant, black and Asian people are already playing a leading role.

It is only by abolishing capitalism and introducing a democratic socialist society, both in Britain and world-wide, that racism could really begin to be overcome on a permanent basis. While we live in a society where a tiny minority own and control industry it will always be in their interests to propagate racist ideas. Only under a socialist society, where the economy was democratically planned to meet the needs of all, would it be possible to begin to build a society that could really overcome racism and prejudice.


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