Anindya Bhattacharyya discusses anti-racist responses to Trevor Phillips.
“Trevor Phillips needs to shut up right about now,” read the Facebook update of a friend of mine on Thursday night. The former head of the Commission for Racial Equality was presenting a heavily trailed programme on Channel 4 that purported to state certain “truths” about race that, alas, “we won’t say”.
Of course the “truths” in question turned out to come straight from the Bumper Book of Ethnic Stereotypes: Romanian pickpockets in central London, Indian women with a flair for chemistry and so on.
The rhetorical pose was equally familiar – the courageous rebel bravely confronting taboos. We hear this sort of thing every day from UKIP supporters and the Daily Mail: “I suppose we’re not allowed to say that these days…”, “This might not be ‘politically correct’ but…”
What, then, do we make of Phillips’s “facts”? The columnist Joseph Harker has written an excellent response to Phillips in the Guardian pointing out that facts are never interpreted in a vacuum, and that how we react to them is conditioned by the racist assumptions of the society we live in. He writes:
If the only time Romanians are spoken of is when they pick pockets, or when they’re seen as unwanted migrants, then the public will end up with a totally skewed view of them. We’ll learn nothing about their history or why they came to Britain, or even get a decent idea of what they do here.
When we hear about white criminality, such as football hooliganism, lager louts or paedophile rings, we already have enough other information about white people to be able to contextualise this, so we don’t leap to conclusions, and we don’t have high-level discussions about a “crisis within whiteness”. But in the absence of counterbalancing stories, it’s all too easy to begin to build stereotypes about minority communities.
Another good response came from black activist Adam Elliott-Cooper writing in The Voice. He highlighted another kind of context that was missing – or rather erased – from this litany of facts.
Phillips, he wrote, “appears uninterested in the history and power that lies behind racism”, preferring an approach that “seems both wilfully and blissfully unaware of the histories of black political struggle, black critical thought and contemporary economic analysis”.
Elliott-Cooper also pointed to the wider political implication behind Phillips’s intervention:
White middle class dominance is the norm, never an issue to be questioned or contested, particularly by New Labour’s former equalities tsar. It makes far more sense for working class pupils of various ethnic groups, achieving at relatively similar rates, to squabble among themselves for scarce resources, rather than identify where, as in many other spheres of life, the real disproportionate power and privilege lie.
This highlights another context that we need to place Phillips’s remarks in: an ideological one, the battle over how we talk and what we say about racism. A broadly anti-racist and multicultural cultural settlement has been dominant in British society since the 1980s, won by a previous generation of struggle. It is this settlement that first New Labour and now the hard right are trying to undo.
Phillips has form here. In 2005 he ominously declared that Britain was “sleepwalking into segregation”, painting a picture of a multicultural society irredeemably split into warring ethnic enclaves. Again he cited various “facts” to back up his case — ones which were promptly refuted by the statisticians who studied these matters.
So why has he popped up to bang the same drum ten years on? The reason is that the battle between racists and anti-racists has flared up again, with an impending general election, UKIP pushing a vicious anti-immigrant agenda, and renewed baiting of Muslims in the form of the government’s latest Counter Terrorism and Security Act.
It’s no wonder the hard right cheered Phillips on: he was batting for their side, and positioning himself in an election campaign that will almost certainly be marked by a race to the bottom as both Tories and the right of the Labour Party pander to and chase after UKIP voters.
But the crucial point to remember is that this battle is far from lost. Today sees the #M21 demonstration in central London against racism and the far right. It comes as the backlash against UKIP gathers pace – some 44% of voters now think UKIP is a racist party, a significant rise on just a couple of months ago.
This has come through campaigning and protest by anti-racists who are fed up with the dominance of racist narratives peddled by mainstream politicians and commentators. Big broad demonstrations like today’s are more than mere spectacles – they give people the confidence to argue the anti-racist case in their workplaces and communities, and they can arm people with arguments against the likes of Nigel Farage.
But the more militant and younger protests like last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations outside the US embassy and the Westfield shopping centre play a crucial role too. They catapult anti-racist arguments into the mainstream media that would otherwise rarely get a hearing. They point out the systematic nature of racism – one that encompasses the police, education, housing, and a host of other institutions. And most of all, they serve notice on the racist right that they won’t get away with their agenda without one hell of a fight.