“Look. I don’t think it ought to be blasphemy, just saying ‘Yahweh’!” (women gasp). “He said it again!”

Racism and jealous gods

Overweening taboos on certain slurs do nothing to aid our understanding of racism, argues Paul Demarty

It is not surprising that the BBC has finally repented of its decision to quote verbatim the words of a racist attacker, but it is nonetheless exasperating.

The first stretch of Auntie’s road to hell was paved, in the traditional manner, with good intentions. A regional news bulletin, Points West, reported a horrifying hit-and-run assault on a young NHS worker and rapper in Bristol (so far identified as K or Kdogg). The attack was racially motivated, because the driver and passenger of the car shouted “nigger!” out of the windows, according to the victim.

A pre-recorded report by Fiona Lamdin included the word “nigger”, and was broadcast on the local Points West show and then later on a national news broadcast. The decision to do so was immediately controversial, despite the inclusion of an ‘offensive language’ disclaimer and a general air of solemn condemnation that even the most dedicated anti-racist would - but for the N-bomb therein - have to concede was a little overbearing. The BBC initially tried to tough it out, claiming that the victim and his family had endorsed the decision to broadcast the exact language, hoping it would drive home the naked barbarity of the crime (more fool them ... ). It only took the resignation of ‘Sideman’ - a DJ on 1Xtra, the broadcaster’s urban music station - to panic the upper reaches of the corporation into apologising.

The apology, of course, makes a certainty of one thing - the BBC has hung poor old Kdogg, recovering from his injuries on the banks of the Avon, out to dry. Either its earlier insistence that he wanted the N-word included in the report was a lie and an attempt to shift responsibility, or they now implicitly blame him for tempting them into a disastrous mistake. Whichever is the case - and we rather suspect the latter - the corporation displays a contemptuous attitude to him, showing that its own cachet among intersectionalite media types is a more serious affair than mere racist violence.

There is little enough interest in a headline like ‘BBC panics and grovels’ - Auntie is more risk-averse with every passing day, especially with vicious foemen like Dominic Cummings in the corridors of government. However, it is worth taking a closer, critical look at this ultra-censorious attitude to racist language. The problem with it is that it fundamentally misunderstands two things: racism and language.

On the linguistic front, the problem is almost comically obvious: finding Lamdin’s report offensive requires the offendee to completely ignore the context of the utterance altogether (with one exception, which we will get to). Using the word ‘nigger’ in the context of reporting the speech of a racist individual, in a news report that could well be headlined ‘Horrible racist individual runs over NHS worker’, is simply not racist in any morally compelling sense at all - that is, in any way that would reflect badly on Lamdin’s or the BBC’s view of black people’s place in society.

Nor is it rare, really, if we are prepared to include writing the fearful word. I recently re-read James McPherson’s history of the American Civil War, Battle cry of freedom, in which ‘nigger’ appears no less than 25 times (about once every 35 pages). To accuse McPherson of racism would be fatuous when an important strand of his book is to establish that the south definitely fought the war to defend the enslavement of black Americans, and that peace Democrats in the north used the most disgraceful gutter racism to undermine the war effort. Out of their own mouths, they are condemned far more forcefully than if McPherson had hidden behind euphemisms or asterisks.

If generalised, of course, this ultra-literalist approach to language would mean that Anthony Hopkins was guilty of advocating cannibalism as a result of playing Hannibal Lecter on screen. The fact that it is not generalised marks it out as a matter of power, of holding people in subjection to a taboo and, by extension, to the enforcers of that taboo. These ‘enforcers’ are a mutable item: notable here is the Daily Mail, which had a singly unpleasant choice before it: would it defend the BBC or side with the ‘political correctness brigade’ on a point where they truly seem to have gone mad? In the event, the Mail has taken the second choice, and briefly gone woke, so as to pile in on its hated adversary in Portland Place.

The core of that enforcement apparatus is the state, however, and by extension the bourgeois professional class, both of which have been ideologically transformed, especially in the past half century, from an imperial-racist, ‘old boys club’ outlook to a formal position of ‘equal opportunities’ for ethnic minorities, women and so on. Here we meet the defective concept of racism at work in these little scandals.

Beyond limits

The one bit of context that does apparently matter in the use of the word ‘nigger’, apparently, is the race of the person who uses it. Sideman explicitly cited the fact that Lamdin was white as a contributing factor to his decision to resign. Indeed, it would be difficult to seriously hold that black people could not use the word, given its great abundance in rap music, albeit often with the alternative spelling, ‘nigga’ (as in the influential rap outfit Niggaz With Attitude, among innumerable other examples), its usage by black comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock (though Pryor later abandoned it), and so on.

The enormous importance given to the subject-position of the speaker in this matter is ultimately an inheritance of the postmodernists, via the ‘critical race theory’ school of legal theorists that gave us, among other things, the term ‘intersectionality’; and, as such, it operates in a peculiar way. The subjective aspect of racism ceases to be a matter of individual intentions; it is not because white people are small-minded bigots that they are racist, but because they are white: that is, they are assimilated into a structure whereby whiteness occludes solidarity. This is called ‘structural racism’; but, since white (and, for that matter, black) people are imprisoned within a subjectivity structured by racism, the structures themselves essentially become invisible, we are led to believe. Racism ceases to be anything determinate, available as an object of journalistic reportage or scientific understanding.

It follows from there that even apparently philanthropic, anti-racist initiatives on the part of white people are prone to racism; using the word ‘nigger’ in a condemnatory report on a racist attack secretly holds black people in a subordinate position, whereby the white speaker gets to decide whether or not ‘nigger’ is an appropriate form of address, which is in the end the same privilege as deciding whether black people should enjoy equality, or even be protected from violence. The absolute prohibition on usage of the word refuses white people this ‘right’.

The loss of racism as a meaningful object of investigation is a serious cost, and one no Marxist ought to be happy to pay. For now, though, let us ask: who benefits from this? What is the payoff? The practical result is that anti-racism is reduced to a language game, and one of a particular kind: the appropriation of a complex jargon, whereby white ‘allies’ learn how to make a big song and dance of deferring to their black colleagues’ experience, and the latter learn strategies for obtaining such deference. These jargons are in fact a material interest of the bourgeois professional class, and serve as a rubric for controlling entry to that class, just as effectively as the Etonian slang of the old boys’ networks does in other places. The critique of ‘structural racism’ thus serves a petty bourgeois and bourgeois class-sectional interest and, insofar as black workers identify with this critique, they identify their interests with (black) petty bourgeois and bourgeois professionals.

The paradox of this kind of critique is that it constitutes its opponent as effectively invulnerable. The historic injury of racism is so deep that it can never be redeemed - only managed; the contest is merely over who gets to do the managing. Thus the elevation of the word ‘nigger’ into such an intense taboo almost resembles the old orthodox Jewish proscription on speaking the name of Yahweh - so memorably sent up in The life of Brian (“Nobody stone anybody until I blow this whistle!”). For all we hate it, we turn racism into a kind of god; we must obey its rituals, or very bad things will happen, “for I the lord thy god am a jealous god, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” ...

Contrary to such epistemological defeatism, Marxists bring good news: racism is not a god at all, but thoroughly mundane and drearily explicable. Where it takes root, it certainly is a hard thing to exorcise, not because of incommensurable subjective divergence between white and black minds, but because the permanent iniquities of class society provide it fertile soil in which to grow. Quite how this happens is contingent to the specific situation - the racism of the English colonial administrator is not the same thing as the racism of the antebellum slave-owner, which in turn is not the same thing as the popular racism of the poor Irish labourer in New York in the same period. (One of the other unhelpful features of middle class anti-racism is that it tends to flatten these various historical phenomena into a single struggle between undifferentiated white people and superficially diverse, but functionally identical ‘communities of colour’.) Each are built on determinate systems of class relations, allowing those systems to continue with popular support, and providing self-justifications for the elites that benefit from the more intense exploitation enabled by racist ideology and racial discrimination.

The problem, then, with this vacuous farrago over who may drop the N-bomb is that it directly excludes serious analysis of racism and race in Britain; how it is similar to, and different from, racism in North America and elsewhere; and what may be done about it. If we are permitted to examine these matters squarely, we will be driven beyond the limits of middle class identity politics.

No wonder the BBC capitulated - the voice of the British establishment needs racism explained and expiated like it needs a hole in the head.