By Kuba Shand-Baptiste
In his widely contested rebuttal to Joe Biden’s speech to Congress, Republican South Carolina senator Tim Scott made a familiar claim: “Hear me clearly. America is not a racist country,” he said in a self-assured tone.
It was a bold assertion to have come from a black man in the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial, which had threatened to upset America’s politically contrived racial harmony (consider what might have happened Chauvin had not been found guilty of the murder of George Floyd). It was similarly daring when US vice president Kamala Harris gave credence to the sentiment in response to Senator Scott, agreeing that she didn’t “think America is a racist country”, before adding the contradictory assertion that “we also… have to speak the truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today”.
But this wasn’t surprising either. Both claims spoke to a long tradition of attempting to propagate racism denial in politics. In the UK, this denial has taken a similar approach for some time.
Boris Johnson made the same suggestion last year, after Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the UK following Floyd’s murder. And it’s been only a few weeks since the UK Commission On Race And Ethnic Disparities made similar declarations that it “no longer see[s] a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”.
But despite reluctant admissions that “racial disparities exist”, the report claims that “the big challenge of our age is not overt racial prejudice” but “building on and advancing the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years”. Put another way, the commission suggests that while racism may exist in some capacity, society has advanced to the point in the last 30 years that it can no longer be considered a significant source of hardship for people of colour – a sentiment many in the UK will have heard from politicians of all leanings with increasing intensity, especially since the coalition government of 2010.
There’s a reason so many claims of racial harmony come from politicians in countries with histories of the exact opposite – it’s an effective way to win over those who don’t want racism to be a factor on the political landscape while shifting blame onto those who face discrimination.
In fact, the illusion of “post-racialism” has been a theme of British politics over the past two decades. Although New Labour was comparably more progressive (especially in terms of extending the Race Relations Act to all public authorities), it became increasingly conservative, particularly where immigration policy was concerned. By the time the coalition government was elected in 2010, the UK swerved even further from its previous traditions of multiculturalism and, increasingly, antiracism in politics. The 2010s saw a pivot away from attempting to recognise and address the problems of racism in society and towards the notion that we had made such great strides that we were in fact closer to a colourblind future than a racist one.
All this meant that issues typically flagged under actively antiracist and community-focused politics would be considered less important, instead framing social and political disparities on merit, individual choice and colourblind class-based issues. It also took the pressure off authorities of all kinds to address institutional racism. In a paper on New Labour and “the rise of colourblind racism”, James Rhodes, a sociologist at the University Of Manchester writes, “The result is that cultural differences are identified as the primary source of social division and marginalisation, with inequalities being explained as a result of individual and group failure.”
Though the reasons for this change are complex, a 2016 research project from the University Of Birmingham and Sheffield Hallam University about race, racism and education in the UK observes that “the relationship between citizenship, community cohesion and issues of race equality was severed” under the coalition government and, in education, “Ofsted’s focus on race equality was removed”. It states: “There is a strong collective agreement, across stakeholders and policy insiders, that race has been systematically downgraded as a policy concern since the election of the coalition government in 2010.”
From ignoring the recommendations of the Windrush Review and the Home Office’s hostile environment to David Lammy’s review into issues of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, the extent of the government’s disinterest in actively tacking discrimination is apparent. Not even the promise of a £24 billion annual boost to the economy as a result of prioritising racial equality in the workplace has been enough to convince the government to change its approach.
While the government appears to want to avoid these issues, it’s not proving as simple as it has been in previous years. Since its release, UN human rights experts have condemned the commission on race and ethnic disparities’ findings as “attempt[ing] to normalise white supremacy despite considerable research and evidence of institutional racism”. At least 20 stakeholders (including bodies and individuals) listed in the report have spoken out against it, seeking to distance themselves from the report’s claims and, days after the report’s release, a number of academics credited as having undertaken research for the commission said they were not consulted.
The commission has had no choice but to change tack. Moving away from its initial approach of condemning all critiques of the report as evidence of ad hominem attacks against black and brown Conservatives, it has now begun to walk back some of its own assertions in the report itself. It amended a line on slavery that suggested it had merits alongside the ills of profiteering and human suffering, to show that “in the face of the inhumanity of slavery, African people preserved their humanity and culture. This includes the story of slave resistance.” It has also removed the names of two organisations and three people from its stakeholders list and has replaced Seamus Heaney as an example of “writers in the Commonwealth” whose work is “steeped in British cultural traditions”, with Guyanese writer Wilson Harris. And this is after allegations that Number Ten rewrote portions of the much-criticised “independent” report.
While the various methods of opposition to the government’s denial aren’t always effective, it’s apparent that it is clueless (wilfully or not) about how racism actually operates.
Although it may not lead to the government’s downfall in the short term, millions of those hardest hit by the pandemic (especially due to the effects of institutional racism, such as unemployment, high-risk work conditions, poverty) won’t forget about that persistent ignorance and how they were left behind.
Community organising and activism have achieved incredible results. And the government’s attempts to rewrite the narrative on race will not age well, especially if the white working-class voters it has so successfully attracted find that there has been little improvement to their circumstances.
Even so, I think the reason so many like me are grasping for a happy ending is that we have to live through this, no matter what happens between now and then. That’s an incredibly heavy burden to shoulder. In the face of that, optimism, however misplaced, feels like something worth holding onto.