An Institutional State of Denial By William Bowles

23 October 2003

“I don’t think it’s useful to talk about institutional racism. It’s individuals who are racist.”
Home Secretary Blunkett, BBC Radio 4, 27/10/03.

What an ignorant man! Blunkett’s ‘off-the-cuff’ statement says it all but I have no intention of letting him or the class he represents off-the-hook in the way he does in shrugging off the state’s central role in perpetuating racist ideology as a method of social control, both at home and abroad.

And the reason why it isn’t useful to talk about institutional racism from Blunkett’s point of view, is that it would totally undermine not only the government’s policies on ‘asylum seekers’ but on every aspect of the state’s role in the use of racism in education, crime, health, indeed all the institutions of the state that impact directly on black life in this here, septic isle.

In his book “Communities of Resistance — writings on black struggles for socialism” by A. Sivanandon (written in 1990), and former director of the Institute of Race Relations in London, does an excellent job of demolishing the Blunkett view (although it was primarily directed at the then Tory governments of Maggie Thatcher and the previous Labour governments of the 60s and 70s).

As anyone who reads these columns is hopefully aware, I’m great believer in the study of history. It is as they say, a great teacher, if only we are prepared to learn. Sivanandon’s analysis of the role of racism as a divisive and repressive force under capitalism is instructive for our times. Especially so as it is yet another Labour government leading the onslaught on people of colour under the guise of dealing with entirely separate issues, namely the free (or otherwise) movement of labour and the plight of people on the frontline of repression in their countries of origin.

So for example, under Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, in 1966 we see a plea for ‘equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.’ A hollow plea followed as it was by yet another racist Immigration Bill two years later, let alone the total lack of opportunity afforded to Black and Asian peoples. And just as now with Blunkett’s inherently racist policies of ‘teaching’ immigrants how to be ‘English’, the Labour government of 1965 tried to “teach British culture to ‘coloured immigrants’ through the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants.

All the policies of the time, for example directing resources to inner cities, tackling racial discrimination, failed to either deal with the economic consequences of racism, discrimination and most importantly, Black resistance to racism.

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, attacks, especially on Black youth and Asians with the indifference and outright connivance of the police rose to unprecedented levels, with Black resistance stiffening throughout the 1970s, culminating in the ‘riots’ of the 1980-81. And just as now, Afro-Caribbean children suffered the institutional effects of an education policy that imprisoned them in ESN (Educationally Sub-Normal) schools.

It was clear that the state’s version of ‘multi-culturalism’ had failed because it was directed not at those sections of society that needed support, the Black and Asian community, but at the white power structure. As Sivanandon points out, all it had done was create a “race relations industry”.

Indeed, the entire point of ‘multi-culturalism’ is, as Sivanandon points out:

“[T]he combined strategy of promoting individual cultures, funding self-help groups and setting down anti-discriminatory and equal opportunity guidelines…began finally to break down the earlier cohesion of culture, community and class.

“Multi-culturalism deflected the political concerns of the black community into the cultural concerns of different communities, the struggle against racism into the struggle for culture.

“Underlying the whole of the state’s project was a divisive culturalism that turned the living, dynamic, progressive aspects of black people’s culture into artifact and habit and custom — and began to break up community.”

The policies of the Labour government following the “trouncing the police had received at the hands of the Afro-Caribbean youth at the Notting Hill Carnival (1976)” have a direct mirror today in the way the state is using the media to criminalise black youth and the increasing authoritarianism of the police to “smother black discontent” and indeed, to smother all social discontent.

As an example of the institutional nature of racism, I think the following is instructive. In 1976 a young Asian, Gurdip Singh Chaggar was murdered by:

“young fascist thugs in the heart of Southall [one of the centres of the Asian community in London] [that] had led to clashes with the police (who held that the murder was not necessarily racial)…. In 1978, Judge McKinnon ruled that the National [Front] leader Kingsley Read’s pronouncement on Chaggar’s murder — ‘one down, one million to go’ — did not constitute incitement to racial hatred…. ‘In this England of ours’, the good judge observed, ‘we are allowed to have our own view still, thank goodness, and long may it last.’”

But by 1981, under the impact of Thatcherism, the lid blew off and as Sivanandon so succinctly puts it:

“[T]he youth of the benighted inner cities, black and white, Afro-Caribbean and Asian, came together again, not so much in joint struggle as in a blinding moment of spontaneous insurrection against the impossibility of their common condition.”

The state’s reaction was dramatic. Commissions of Inquiry were set up including that of Lord Scarmon’s into the Brixton ‘disorders’ and their causes. Labour’s Urban Aid programme was exhumed and funding for black ‘self-help’ groups increased dramatically. These so-called ethnic projects were in reality, a continuation of those initiated under the Labour government and as Sivanandon puts it, “[T]he Tories were not averse to taking lessons from their masters in social control.”

The core of the approach to the ‘problem’ of British-born blacks had its roots at Bristol University’s Social Science Council on Ethnic Relations that identified the ‘problem’ as one of ‘ethnic identity’. The youth, according to the report of the Home Affairs Committee on Racial Disadvantage were:

“caught between the cultural expectations of their parents (the first generation immigrants) and the social demands of the wider society…. West Indian boys have conflicted identifications with the general representatives of their own ethnicity and the native white population.”

In other words, “Identity is all.” And furthermore as part of the importation of the US approach to the ‘problem’ of ethnic minorities, we read that it’s not institutional racism that’s the problem, but it’s:

“because of the impact of British social conditions on the matriarchal extended family structure of the West Indian immigrants.”

Like I didn’t grow up within an extended family structure along with millions of other working class kids of my generation? The report goes on to list all the ‘problems’ that the black community has including:

“‘Young West Indians…are ‘a people of the street… They live their lives on the street, having nothing better to do: they make their protest there: and some of them live off street crime.’ And this hostility of black youth…has…’infected older members of the community [where they have] time to engage in endless discussion of their grievances.’”

The objective being to excuse the state of its institutional racism and instead blame the West Indian community of an “inherent disability”.

As Sivanandon puts it:

“Racism, for Scarmon, was in the mind — in the attitudes, prejudices, irrational beliefs — and these are to be found on both sides of the divide, black and white. Institutional racism was a matter of black perception, white racism was a matter of prejudice…and so [it shifted] the object of anti-racist struggle from the state to the individual, from changing society to changing people.”

Enter RAT (‘Racism Awareness Training’), an entirely apposite acronym. RAT began its smelly life as HAT (Human Awareness Training) on a military base in Florida as a response to the black rebellions of the 1960s. RAT grew out of the Kerner Commission (1968) that declared that racism was a white problem, and that it was “white institutions that created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”

An entire, new industry devoted to ‘racism awareness’ was created with a plethora of literature, organisations and businesses to bring about “changing the behaviour of whites” through to “increasing the capabilities of non-white groups. But the principle responsibility was ‘with the white community rather than within the non-white communities.’”

An entire, new range of ‘pathologies’ emerged as a result including racism defined as “prejudice plus institutional power” and finally “cultural racism”. The ‘bible’ of the RAT syndrome was an education thesis by Judy Katz who defined the problem as “Systematic handbook of exercises for the re-education of white people with respect to attitudes and behaviorisms.” In other words, racism was a “psychological problem”.

Widely used in the US in the education system, RAT finally made its way to the UK in a modified form. Under the impact of the RAT syndrome, the entire focus of the state’s ‘fight’ against racism shifted to the psychological domain. So for example, Home Affairs now described racial disadvantage (the UK term for affirmative action) as “it cannot be unfair to give help to those with a special handicap.”

To sum up RAT, Sivanandon describes their psychobabble as follows:

“[Racism] is a combination of mental illness, original sin and biological determinism…. Racism, according to RAT, has its roots in white culture, and white culture, unaffected by material conditions or history, goes back to the beginning of time.”

By on the one hand divorcing racism from class and on the other by personalising the effects of racism, the state absolved itself of responsibility. It also sidestepped the connection between racism and fascism for failing to recognise the link. But Martin Webster of the National Front knew when he said “the social base of the NF is made up of the desperate and dispossessed among the white working class.”

Set in this context, Blunkett’s remark sums up the state’s attitude to racism as a mechanism that it uses to maintain its power and control.

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