Extracted from Race & Class (Vol. 43, no. 2, October–December 2001).
Poverty is the new black
Racism has always been both an instrument of discrimination and a tool of exploitation. But it manifests itself as a cultural phenomenon, susceptible to cultural solutions, such as multicultural education and the promotion of ethnic identities. Tackling the problem of cultural inequality, however, does not by itself redress the problem of economic inequality. Racism is conditioned by economic imperatives, but negotiated through culture: religion, literature, art, science and the media.
Which of these holds sway in a particular epoch depends on the economic system. In the era of primitive accumulation, when the plunder of the new world by Spanish conquistadors was laying the foundations of capitalism, the Catholic church gave validity to the idea that the native Indians were “sub-homines”, the children of Ham, born to be slaves, and could therefore be enslaved or exterminated at will. In the period of merchant capital, these racialist ideas became secularised in popular literature and education and served to justify the trade in black slaves.
With the development of industrial capitalism and its corollary, colonialism, racialist ideas congealed into a systemic racist ideology to condemn all “coloured” peoples to racial and cultural inferiority. By the end of the nineteenth century, at the height of the imperial adventure, the ideology of racial superiority began to take on a pseudo-scientific form in the Social Darwinism of Gobineau and Chamberlain, which in turn further popularised a view of racial hierarchies.
Today, under global capitalism which – in its ruthless pursuit of markets and its sanctification of wealth, has served to unleash ethnic wars, balkanise countries and displace their peoples – the racist tradition of demonisation and exclusion has become a tool to keep out the refugees and asylum seekers so displaced, even if they are white, on the grounds that they are scroungers and aliens come to prey on the west’s wealth and confound its national identities. The rhetoric of demonisation is racist, but the politics of exclusion is economic: a prelude to creating a peripatetic underclass of international Untermenschen.
Once, they demonised the blacks to justify slavery. Then they demonised the “coloureds” to justify colonialism. Today, they demonise asylum seekers to justify the ways of globalism. And, in the age of the media, of spin, demonisation sets out the parameters of popular culture within which such exclusion finds its own rationale – usually under the guise of xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Such a term would include white refugees and asylum seekers streaming in from eastern Europe, whereas the term racism strictly refers to people of a different race.
But the other side of the coin of fear of strangers is the defence and preservation of “our people”, our way of life, our standard of living, our “race”. If it is xenophobia, it is – in the way it denigrates people before segregating or expelling them – a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism, except that it is not colour-coded. It is xeno-racism: a feature of the Manichaean world of global capitalism, where there are only the rich and the poor – and poverty is the new black.
In Britain, with its tradition of racism over five centuries and three continents, racial prejudice has become an intrinsic part of popular culture and racial discrimination, embedded in the institutions of society. Today, in its avowedly liberal mode, the state is prepared to go along with the Macpherson recommendations about dismantling institutional racism, but in its self-justifying regulatory mode, brings institutional discrimination back into the system through the Immigration and Asylum Act, with its dispersal schemes, voucher system and detention camps.
There are other changes in the law which, though affecting the population in general, impact more harshly on black communities and further institutionalise racism. The proposal to abolish the right of defendants to elect to be tried by a jury for offences such as minor theft, assault and criminal damage, will affect black people more adversely because they are stopped and searched, arrested and charged more often than white people.
So too the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives the home secretary powers to proscribe any organisation threatening, according to him, violence to advance “a political, religious, or ideological cause” – and thereby criminalises the liberation struggles of those who have fled the tyrannies of their own countries. A further problem compounding racial conflict is the systemic poverty of a society which, at the dictates of a free-market economy, is becoming increasingly polarised between the haves and the have-nothings. This has been characterised as the north-south divide in Britain. But there are pockets of poverty both in the north and the south, where mills, docks and shipyards have disappeared or been relocated by technology and the global factory.
More to the point is the fate of the working class in these industries. Some, such as mining and shipbuilding, had an almost wholly white workforce, whereas the steel and textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire had recruited labour from the Indian sub-continent. And it was these mill towns that the government failed to bring into the modern economy. White workers moved to jobs elsewhere, but racism and family ties pointed Bangladeshis and Pakistanis towards restaurant work and mini-cabbing – and the solidarity between white and Asian workers created on the factory floor was lost. Segregation in housing, resulting from local government policies, separated the communities further and led to segregation in schooling. Multiculturalism, which was really a sop to white racism (people don’t need to be given their cultures, only their rights) deepened the fissures. And ethnic funding, instead of improving the local economy as a whole, helped only to improve the personal economy of a few.
All of which served to brand the Bangladeshis and Pakistanis as self-segregating and better served by local authorities than the local whites. That the former were mostly Muslim Asians served to focus white hate on Islam. And it was that potent combination of racial and religious hatred that provided the breeding ground for the electoral politics of the British National party, on the one hand, and the goonda politics of the National Front, on the other – and provoked the recent uprisings of young Asians.
What were the youth to do? They had been born here, schooled here, had been media-maddened by all the good things in life that should be available to them – and yet all around them were “the rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds” of the industrial wastelands of Britain. Whatever leadership there was had either retreated into the safety of religion or defected to the service of local and central government, from where they condemned these youth while feathering their own nests.
No economic infrastructures or hope of socialisation through work. No political parties, no ideology to unite the fragmented communities or emerge as a political force – all that had died with New Labour. Locked into their degradation by a racist police force, vilified by a racist press and violated, finally, by the true fascists. What were the youth to do but break out in violence, self-destructive, reactive violence, the violence of the violated?