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Racism: A Problem for Action and Thought


a Problem for Action
and Thought

St Pauls, Brixton, Southall, Toxteth: these explosions
can tell us a lot if we know how to listen. Politicians’ attempts to present them as ‘mindless hooliganism’ don’t seem to work very well. For these events
are at least signs that black communities are no
longer prepared to put up with the day-to-day
oppression of which they are the butts – police
harrassment, racist attacks, discrimination in employment, the risk of deportation. But it isn’t enou~h
to see the day-to-day problems and responses. We
need to keep in mind the shape that racism has taken
in Britain over the last twenty years.

Without that history we can be taken in by recent
events. Since Margaret Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ speech
in 1978, there has been a decline of overt racist
electioneering by the Tory party. Instead overt
racism has appeared increasingly as a form of expression of the mad, Fascist Right. You might think that
racism today consists mainly of thuggish attacks by
skinheads and the like. But the National Front and
the British Movement seeking to reassert white superiority is not the main form of racism today – however
nasty it may be. If you think of racism like that,
you will not see how it is present in the background
of St Pauls, Brixton and the rest.

For racism in another form now permeates beliefs
and practices, so that we rub shoulders with it in our
work, or may even find it in the grounds of our
studies. Let us take an example which should give
radical philosophers pause for thought from the
excellent report of the Brent Community Health
Council, Black People and the Health Service (available from Brent Community Health Council, 16 High
Street, London NWlO): the reaction of the Health
Service to the problem of rickets among Asian children
The addition of vitamins to chapatti flour, which
would obviate the problem, was not authorised, even
though the same vitamins are added to white flour.

Instead, Asian rickets was seen as a problem arising
from Asian culture, requiring changes of taste or
diet, or education. Or let us take another case.

In June of this year a report was issued which considered why black children fair at school (The Schools
Council, Education for a Multi-racial Society). One
strong current in the report was to blame the black
family structure, suggesting that it was in some way
malformed, ill-adapted to support the ,efforts of the
schools. In both these cases a real problem for the
lives of Asian and black people was re-defined as a
problem of immigrant cultures – or, more exactly, of

immigrant ‘problem’ cultures.

Blacks and Asians have a long experience of finding
the~selves on the receiving end of institutionalised
practices which in dealing with a ‘problem’ turn
people themselves into a problem. There is the wellknown problem of illegal immigration, necessitating
measures ever more restrictive of the rights of black
people – virginity tests for Asian brides entering
the country; ‘fishing’ expeditions by police and
immigration officials to immigrants’ homes in the
small hours to unearth illegal immigrants in the
minority communities; checks on resident status by
employers; the assumption of guilt in immigration
appeals; and, of course, the hypocritical struggle to
write into law, via a concept of patrial and nonpatrial, a definition of nationality that will make
it so much more obvious that the overseas British
really aren’t British at all. (For briefings on the
Nationality Bill and the campaign against it write to:

Action Group on Immigration and Nationality, 44
Theobalds Road, London WCl.) Then there is the problem of visitors free-loading off an overstretched
National Health Service (already weakened by government cuts and the drain of resources into the private
sector). Such a pity that the hospitals cannot tell
‘foreign-looking’ British citizens from the genuine
foreign article. Perhaps more attention should be
given to the philosophical problem of problems, or,
in more ordinary terms, what a society thinks it worth
worrying about.

These increasingly commonplace racist practices
need to be clearly thought about and understood. ;’or
they make nonsense of any simplistic alternative to
racism based on the idea of multiculturalism, something that is all too common in educational circles.

Multiculturalism is only a viable response if racism
is seen as a set of prejudices based on ignorance
of other cultures, which people can be educated out
of. That is all well and good. But what if racism
is the effect of a power relation built into the
operation of our state institutions? And suppose,
just suppose that it takes the dominant form of
expressing this racism in terms of cultural difference. In that case, multiculturalism, in focussing
on differences between cultures, is at best irrelevant to the real problem, and at worst mischievous in
reinforcing the idea that the problem has to do with

And the truth is that since the mid-1960s this is
the form that racism has taken. And especially since

Powell’s 1968 speeches, this has been the approach
that has organised Tory responses. The fact that it
is not shouted out loud at the moment should not fool
us. For it js there within common-sense thinking all
the time, and it is to be found at work in the
critical places. Also in June of this year, the
Scarman inquiry into the Brixton ‘festival of the
oppressed’ opened. Interviewed beforehand about what
he had learned from a visit to Brixton, Scarman
commented that he had learned something he had known
all along: ‘Black people and white people as individuals can get along perfectly well, it’s when they get
into groups, when the herd instinct takes over, that
trouble starts.’ Can you see the connection between
this casual statement, and the discussion above of
multiculturalism? If it isn’t obvious, then we have

not done our job properly. For Scarman was unthinkingly expressing a pure Powellite position in which
blacks and whites formed opposed herds – and hardly
anybody noticed.

For many years now, black people have increasingly
faced official racism in every situation where they
are defined a problem to be coped with. As teachers,
students and intellectuals on the left, we should not
shun the obvious contribution we can make in thinking

racism properly.

Martin Barker and Noel Parker
(Martin Barker’s book, The New Racism – Conservatism
and the Ideology of the Tribe, is due to be published
in September 1981 by Junction Books, London.)

Nuclear Disarmament
Democracy and Internationalism
Martin H. Ryle

Many Radical Philosophy readers will no doubt have
seen the TV debate (Panorama, September 1980) between
the multilateral ‘disarmers’, led by ‘Lord’ Chalfont,
and, representing CND, Edward Thompson, Mary Kaldor
and Bruce Kent. Many, too, may have shared my regret
that Thompson and Kaldor found themselves drawn, in
the early part of the programme, into a debate on
force levels and NATO/Warsaw Pact strategic intentions
which offered a fine parade-ground for Chalfont’s
brand of ‘rationality’ to go through its manoeuvres.

It was clear that the pro-H-bomb lobby, once they had
been able to fix those terms for the debate, were in
their element.

The other day, the representative of a local
nuclear disarmament organisation, asked by Radio
Brighton whether her position was not ‘airy-fairy’

given the levels of Soviet weaponry, replied: ‘To
disarm will, I admit, be an act of faith.’ This
answer kept her clear of the strategists’ labyrinth,
and invoked the essential dimension of moral choice
(if ever an issue showed the absurdity of trying to
disinfect politics of moral ‘contamination’, nuclear
disarmament is that issue). But to many listeners it
must have seemed a bald response; seemed, too, an
opting out of political debate. I felt, as I had
done when watching Panorama, that the nuclear disarmament movement, refusing the corrupt terms of its
adversaries, must develop forms of argument which,
while retaining the force of moral conviction, also
shift the discussion onto new political terrain. It
is time we set up, and made explicit, our own premises
for future argument.

In doing so, we are certain to invoke democratic
ideals. We are goinB to appeal over the heads of ~he

elites to the mass of the people – certain victims of
any nuclear war. Recent disclosures have highlighted
the extent to which the nuclear decision-making
process has evaded such measures of democraticparliamentary control as do exist (I am thinking of
Callaghan’s Gang of Four approving the Chevaline programme, and of the cruise missile decision made ‘on
our behalf’, but behind our backs, in Brussels). It
is also clear (see New Statesman, 2 and 9 October
1980) that ‘Home Defence’ plans are being developed
which will allow our political-military leaders to
help themselves, if war seems likely, to the most
frankly totalitarian measures: appointment of unelected Controllers, use of troops to crush demonstra- •
tions, strict state management of all news and
information, and retreat of Top People to heavily
guarded secret bunkers where they will be able to
implement the holocaust without being inconvenienced

by the mob whom it will destroy. The distinction
between the rulers and the ruled, problematic though
it may be in principle, will here be given the most
absolute and concrete expression.

But to publicise this possibility is also, as we
are seeing, to evoke a resurgence of democratic
forces against its realisation. The arguments of the
disarmament movement must appeal to, and foster, this
democratic consciousness.

Another theme of the coming struggle will be the
creation of a European solidarity in resistance to the
threat of nuclear war. The politics of disarmament
are implicitly jnternationalist – nowhere more so
than in relation to the unilateral nuclear disarmament which the movement in Britain will be striving
to impose on its own government.

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