he events of the last few weeks, around the conviction of the accused in the Stephen Lawrence murder trial and the furore gripping English football, shows that the subject of racism is continuing to trouble the British imagination. What is going on here?
The official narrative is that the United Kingdom is a 'post-racial' society. The things which troubled us back in the 1970s and '80s were long ago settled by the British genius for pragmatic compromise. Black and Asian people entered the economic and social mainstream, not through the revolutionary overthrow of a racist old order, but by a slow process of osmosis which allowed the whites to habituate themselves to the fact that they shared their world with a fair number of black and brown people.
Post-racist theorists – flick through back copies of Prospect magazine to see where they hang out – drew a set of big conclusions from their own suppositions. One of these is that, if racism continues to have any salience at all, it comes from the fact that a segment of the white working class has been left behind by the metropolitan elites. In anger and frustration they have retained a capacity to hit out against their marginalisation by the assertion of pre-post-racial identities.
The other point they draw out of their analysis is the view that the angry whites have been given the space to do this by the inept pursuit of multi-culturalist policies and the opening of the doors to large scale immigration over the course of the last decade and a half. Post-racist guru-in-chief, the journalist and now director of the post-modern think-tank Demos, David Goodhart, has the remedy to this predicament. He thinks that the political elites ought to 'apologise' to the white working class, assure them that they really are loved, and prove this by introducing tough immigration controls.
The post-racists hold a central place in their viewpoint for the castigation of the south eastern portion of the country because of its supposed arrogant indifference to the suffering of poorer regions. Despite these harsh words they let the ruling elites off the hook. The worst that they can say about the centrist-liberal consensus which thought it had neutered British racism by smothering it with relentless niceness, is that it made a misjudgement. The governing class had underestimated the atavistic malignancy of the working class on matters of race, and consequently failed to work hard enough on doing the sort of deals which would allow it to be kept in a box. What they should have done instead, the argument runs, is stop the troublesome objects of prejudice from arriving here in anything like significant numbers, and demanding unconditional assimilation into the imagined culture and values of the British mainstream from those few who were permitted to enter.
This is a mis-diagnosis at every level. It takes at face value the assertion of the liberal elites that they truly had made a transition to a colour-blind non-racism. It also buries the record of principled anti-racism which exists in working class communities and which has worked to challenge and subvert the overt and covert forms of racism which threads itself through all forms of politics and state power, across all classes and viewpoints on the right-left spectrum.
A recently published book by Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley gives us a better lens for understanding the alleged non-racism of the governing elites. The changed structures of global capital, which searches for the realisation of value in the circulation of capital and labour and in commodity markets across the globe, has made outdated the expressions of race prejudice that had been nurtured, in the case of Britain, in the cradle of its colonial empire. When markets fostered the idea that business is done by equals, those old-fashioned ideas simply had to give way.
But they did not give way to anything that could truly be described as a consistent, principled anti-racism/post-racism. The task of sustaining the implicit racial ordering of nations and peoples under the new world order became enmeshed in the activities of state structures, with their legitimizing ideologies of dispassionate, scientific objectivity, at exactly the same rate as it vanished from the blimpish, colonial language of the cultural elite.
The significance of the Lawrence case is that it has shown us where racism has been all these years. The revelation of ignorant thuggery of white youths living their lives on the fringes of crime in a south east London borough is not the main thing we have learnt about the role racism plays in ordering our society today, and much less the torturous path it follows when embedded in the tensions of a popular cultural activity like football. It is how racism lays down rules which guide the ways states and markets are administered, with the tough immigration controls which the post-racists appeal to, being a good example of the minefields which are scattered all around us.
It is time we shunted the fallacies of post-racism to one-side and looked again at the ways we ought to be building up resources to challenge racism. Back-handed complements to the supposed liberalism of the political classes contrasted with the irredeemable, but potentially appeaseable, prejudices of the working class provide a poor guide to what we have to do to fight racism. At this moment in time strategies based on the strengthening of working class solidarity seem more apposite than ever.