How to be gaslit
Anger is an insufficient response to the Sewell report, argues Paul Demarty. The left needs its own critique of liberal anti-racism
Among the many evils of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, there is the trivial matter that it released its report as the Weekly Worker was going to press last week, leaving me with my name against an article on anti-racism which barely mentioned it.
But that may be a blessing in disguise, since ours is a society obsessed with hot takes - ie, shallow gut reactions - and the takes on this report burn with the fire of a thousand suns. They are also, on the liberal side at least, overwhelmingly dreadful, and testify to the brittleness of liberal anti-racism far more than the ‘racism’ of Tony Sewell and his colleagues on the commission (if the report seriously breaches a rule of liberal political decorum, it is surely by being explicitly patriarchal rather than racist).
So what is the view of the commission? In his introduction, Sewell and co readily admit that racism continues to exist in the form of white prejudice against ethnic minorities. There are also those ‘disparities’ in achievement between various ethnic minorities and the white majority that give the commission its name. The latter, however, are not primarily to be explained by the former:
Put simply, we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. The impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.1
(Interestingly for an essentially Tory document, they credit this result to “the progress won by the struggles of the past 50 years”2 rather than the usual bunkum about ‘British values of tolerance and respect’.) Later, this claim is expanded to address the widening scope of the word ‘racism’ in liberal discourse:
It is certainly true that the concept of racism has become much more fluid, extending from overt hostility and exclusion to unconscious bias and microaggressions. This is partly because ethnic minorities have higher expectations of equal treatment and, rightly, will not tolerate behaviour that, only a couple of generations ago, would have likely been quietly endured or shrugged off. The fact that this generation expects more is a positive aspect of integration. However, there is also an increasingly strident form of anti-racism thinking [sic] that seeks to explain all minority disadvantage through the prism of white discrimination. This diverts attention from the other reasons for minority success and failure, including those embedded in the cultures and attitudes of those minority communities themselves.3
The commission, therefore, decided to follow these disparities “upstream” to their true causes and, most controversially, their findings centre on the state of family life and to some extent on ingrained cultural behaviours in certain ethnic groups (to explain the disparities between different minorities). Class is mentioned, mostly to emphasise the well-understood fact that the worst levels of educational attainment are associated with white working class boys.
The report’s recommendations are standard fare: relations between police and ethnic minority communities must be improved. There should be more ‘accountability’ for stop-and-search actions, and stronger enforcement is needed against racial discrimination through a beefed-up Equalities and Human Rights Commission and various other bodies that should be set up to look at disparities in different areas (health, education and so on). They also suggest that the term ‘Bame’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) should be abandoned, since it creates an unhelpful amalgam that obscures the detail of the question.
We shall get into the problems with this account of racism in due course, but it is perhaps more fruitful to introduce its antagonists at this point. The liberal critique of the Sewell report focuses on its blunt denial that Britain is structurally or institutionally racist: this flies in the face of successive reports into different aspects of society, going back to the Macpherson inquiry into policing after the Stephen Lawrence case. (Doreen Lawrence herself popped up to denounce Sewell and co.) We can quote the ‘hot take’ of Halima Begum of the Runnymede Trust, in a round-up that appeared in The Guardian:
Neither the existence nor the extent of institutionalised racism can be denied. Take the government’s anti-extremism Prevent strategy, which embeds Islamophobia into our school system by ordering teachers to report “suspicious” Muslim children … We see young black men far more likely to be stopped and searched by the Metropolitan Police, and twice as likely to die in custody. British Pakistanis are paid 15% less than their white British peers. And how can we forget the entire Windrush generation who were degraded, denied hospital treatment and benefits, and many deported by a home office that saw British people as foreign because of their race?4
The peculiar thing here is that several of these objections relate to issues discussed in the report. For example, it is not the case that Sewell and co are unaware of disparities in the application of stop and search. Instead, they explicitly deny that these disparities are due to institutional racism in the police: “it is the commission’s view that the story in this area has not been focusing enough on the disparities in crime, and often violent crime, that lie behind stop and search.”5 They go on to quote that notorious racist, David Lammy, on this point. This means that Begum’s job - as the spokesperson, no less, of an anti-racist think-tank - is to refute this claim, rather than simply motor on as if it had never been made.
To do so, of course, would demand alternative hypotheses concrete enough to test against the evidence. But the framework of liberal responses to the Sewell report is not theoretical so much as rhetorical: they speak from a place where the facts and figures just do demonstrate the persistence of structural racism, and therefore from a kind of epistemic closure, whereby the counter-explanations of Sewell and co are a priori ridiculous.
There is an important element of truth in this, of course, which is that the report really is, as Begum claims, an “insult”. The commission was set up in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, which claimed the lives of at least one statue. Perhaps too much attention has been shone on the specific political biases of Sewell and a Johnson crony like Munira Mirza, formerly of Spiked, both of whom are on record as denouncing the idea of institutional or structural racism (Mirza was not on the committee but was involved in setting it up); nonetheless, the whole endeavour was plainly a Tory initiative. On the face of it, this process looked like the carrot to go with the stick of clampdowns on the right to protest. Yet the document before us is not so much a carrot, but another stick, painted orange.
To the angry protestors of last year, it really does say, ‘You’re wrong, there are no serious problems, so stay in school and try not to get suckered into “strident anti-racism thinking”’. This is the sort of thing that modern liberals like to call ‘gaslighting’, after the Patrick Hamilton play Gaslight, in which an abusive husband slowly drives his wife insane by subtly manipulating her environment.
There is, therefore, much justice in the accusations of cherrypicking. One example was usefully pointed out by Kenan Malik - also in the Spiked orbit, but apparently the only one whose brain has not been microwaved by the experience. In his own Guardian article he notes that the report cites, as an explanation for certain disparities,
the lack of fluency in English within Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities: “Among 45- to 64-year-olds, 17.4% of Bangladeshi women and 9.0% of Pakistani women were unable to speak English” … It’s a stretch to suggest that the inability of a small number of older women to speak English is a significant contributor to the economic disadvantages their communities face. Around 3% of Britons of Bangladeshi origin and 2.1% of those of Pakistani origin cannot speak English. To put that in context, the figure for the Chinese community is 2.3%, yet it is taken by the report as a model community that has raced ahead … The commission distorts the data to pursue polemical points. It criticises others for seeing everything in racial terms - but does exactly that when it suits its agenda.6
There is a clear bias towards culturalist and patriarchal explanations of the phenomena under discussion, in other words. The central error of the liberals is to conflate such a bias with racism as such: in reality, it is a Tory bias, no more, no less. That ought to be enough - so why isn’t it?
That, in the end, is a function of the concept of structural racism itself. The concept is supposed to do the work of explaining the extant inequalities between ethnic groups. It must do so, obviously, without reference to supposed physiological and genetic differences between racial groups, which would not demand a ‘structural’ conception of racism at all; it must also do so without, as Sewell and friends do, interpreting racial disadvantage as a function of some more fundamental social cause or causes.
This is actually a trickier job than it first appears. If structural racism is fundamentally about race, but race is a social construct, what is it? What are the structures? The difficulty is irresolvable unless we step into the sort of pessimism associated with people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, and declare white supremacy an inescapable, pervasive and self-perpetuating structure of mass psychology; but then it is difficult to see how there could be reasons for Coates to ‘believe his own beliefs’ (since they, too, would be distorted by the structure), never mind for people to risk life, limb and liberty in mass struggle against racism.
That, in the end, is why the discourse of structural and/or institutional racism is rhetorical; why initiatives like the 1619 Project, when they are honest, must declare themselves primarily polemical rather than historical, and so on. Structural racism must either find its structural substrate in something else, thus ceasing to be what it is, or it must treat its structure as an esoteric mystery: as god tells Moses, “no-one may see my face and live”.
The mysteriousness of the divine, of course, proved a fine foundation for the power of a distinct clerical caste in the three major faiths claiming lineage with Moses; and the mystification of racism by the liberals, also, serves a vulgar and worldly purpose. By reducing racism to a matter of representing the strictly unrepresentable, liberal anti-racism discloses its class-sectional character: it is the property of those who control the means of representation, which is to say, the bourgeois professional ‘class’. (More usually called the ‘professional managerial class’, I prefer to use the B-word to highlight that this social layer, which is not strictly a class in Marxist terms, has its being as a function of bourgeois rule, and in fact always has. As Mike Macnair likes to put it, if you want to talk to a capitalist, you talk to his lawyer.)
All on the left will share the liberals’ revulsion at this report, on some level. However sincere the individual members of this committee, its composition - of MBEs and CBEs, authoritarian educationalists, charity bosses and business luminaries - was clearly no accident, and the result is inevitably a purely apologetic exercise.
The trouble is that the backlash among run-of-the-mill liberals presents a theoretically inferior model to the inquiry’s findings, which at least state their reasoning clearly and provide their data, as opposed to the essentially anecdotal character of their opponents’ responses. If our ‘natural’ allies behave more deceitfully than our ‘natural’ enemies, whom we know are also lying, some analytical caution is in order.
No such restraint is on show over at Socialist Worker towers, unsurprisingly, whose emergency editorial concludes:
That Sewell’s report deliberately sets out to attack the idea of institutional racism shows just how worried the state is. For a growing number of people, institutional racism best explains why it is that patterns of prejudice are repeated throughout capitalist society. It tells us why the police are up to 19 times more likely to stop a black young man than a white one. It explains why prisons are disproportionately filled with black and Asian people. And it explains why the poorest ethnic groups are concentrated in the worst, and most overcrowded, homes. Rather than saying that individual prejudice is to blame for this phenomenon, institutional racism says the problem is systemic - that it is built into the capitalist system.7
Almost nothing here is true, except perhaps the point that “a growing number of people” hold it to be so, which is therefore no cause for celebration. The pushing of this agenda proves the opposite of the ‘weakness’ of the state, or more accurately the government: it proves that Johnson and his odious friends are quite happy to press on with an overtly reactionary backlash to the liberalisation of race relations since the late 1960s. It is their rabid support base who are ‘worried’ about woke statue-defilers, not the Johnsonistas themselves. They have the smell of blood in their nostrils - and it is not their blood.
Institutional racism offers no explanation for the phenomena listed here, for the reasons we have already stated; instead, it occludes a serious explanation, and ironically lends spurious credibility to supposedly ‘data-driven’ documents like the Sewell report by providing a flattering contrast. If the use of the institutional racism concept entailed that racism “is built into the capitalist system”, then William Macpherson and the various worthies involved in his eponymous inquiry were clearly none the wiser, as are the armies of liberal journalists and NGO types currently having a collective hernia about Tony Sewell.
We must, then, seek after the sense of these extraordinary assertions. And it is not hard to find: if the analysis of institutional racism necessarily leads people to anti-capitalist consciousness, then there is no need for soi-disant socialists to make any criticisms at all of Runnymede Trust types (the Socialist Worker piece also quotes Begum, it so happens, and she will likely find the Socialist Workers Party article a rather more pleasant read than this one). The mass movement against racism will spontaneously grow over into one against capital and the state; the class character of bourgeois anti-racist liberalism is irrelevant, except inasmuch as it will leave the ‘revolutionaries’ as the ‘best fighters’ for the movement, since their tactics will be the more militant and therefore effective. This is, in substance, the same strategic framework that governed the popular front policy of Georgi Dimitrov, and it is the long-standing policy of the SWP in relation to its anti-racist work, though it is getting more craven by the year.8
Instead of telling ourselves just-so stories, we must make a serious attempt to confront the relationship between racism and capitalist class rule. For illustrative purposes, let us look at what Sewell and company have to say on the matter. There is a short section of their report dealing specifically with “geography, class and ethnicity”: “The UK suffers from acute geographical inequality. That is hardly news. But the scale of the gulf in opportunity is seldom appreciated,” the authors note - and, as good Tories, ‘opportunity’ is the key word here. There are simply no prospects for people outside London and a handful of other cities, most of which are declining in comparison. “It is the ex-industrial and mining areas, and towns on the coastal periphery, which are the poorest and least productive places. Towns like Barnsley in South Yorkshire, Dudley in the West Midlands, Middlesbrough in the North East or Blackburn in the North West.”9
The authors get themselves into a bit of muddle on how this geographical and class distribution actually overlaps with ethnic backgrounds. They make great hay out of the fact that these deprived localities are disproportionately white compared to the national average, and especially compared to London. They must also concede that “the most concentrated pockets of deprivation are found among ethnic minority groups, particularly Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black groups”, but nonetheless assert that “it is the poorer white people, outside London, who are the largest group to be found in areas with multidimensional disadvantages, from income to longevity of life”.10 This is to subtly change the terms of discussion and therefore misrepresent the data - we are no longer comparing relative, but absolute, magnitudes.
Absolute numbers matter too, of course. The Socialist Worker article is wrong to assert that the authors see their only meaningful remedy, education, as “a zero-sum game, where if some groups advance others must be left behind” - or at least that is not what they claim here. Instead their rhetoric is, like that of the government, of ‘levelling up’ and increasing social mobility. The problem with this for any socialist is comically obvious: there is simply not very much room at the top of capitalist society, so social mobility is a wholly fantastical ‘solution’ to the problem. As good Tories, the Sewell commission discreetly assume that inequality is quite natural and so attempts to seriously reduce it are dangerous utopianism. Yet ‘equality of opportunity’ is a goal shared by the liberals whom the SWP refuse to criticise. For them, too, either inequality is simply assumed, or the occasion of risible ‘solutions’ (teaching everyone in deindustrialised towns how to code, and things of that sort).
Race or class
The Sewell report is not wrong to say that many of the ills attributed to ‘race’ are ultimately a matter of class, in other words. Indeed, they do not go nearly far enough, since many of their ‘other’ contributing causes - for example, family breakdown and background crime levels - are, insofar as they are real, very closely correlated with social class as well. The big lie is the point where they and their Guardianista critics are agreed - that education and associated ‘equality of opportunity’ is the remedy.
Once we take it as ‘natural’ that there are only a few places at the top, however, we accept that ‘management has a right to manage’, and more broadly it is the business of the bourgeois elite to produce a pliable workforce for ongoing economic activity. This produces two phenomena. The high premium on successful entry to the bourgeois professional class will tend to make membership of this layer hereditary, no matter how formally ‘meritocratic’ the mechanisms of entry appear to be; the generosity of the spoils allow parents to give their kids an edge. Thus pre-existing imbalances between - for example - different ethnic backgrounds will tend to perpetuate themselves in the composition of the professional and bourgeois elite.
The second problem has to do with what it means for the workforce to be pliable. That is, in the end, a matter of offering the worker the choice between whatever conditions the company is prepared to offer and, ideally, the dole queue. The fundamental mechanism for ensuring this is competition - there must be Engels’s famous “reserve army of labour” to threaten the employed with destitution by replacing them. Once there is such an army, the working class - all things being equal - is trivially divided, in practice especially between migrant and native labour. There is thus a real tendency towards sectionalism in the consciousness of ordinary workers, which may well express itself in racist or otherwise nativist forms. Popular racism is, in the end, just such a form of sectional, backward, false class-consciousness.11 The capitalist class may then exploit this consciousness to master the labour market more fully, playing groups of workers off against each other.
Thus the failure of Sewell and co to truly take account of the fact that, given that the structures of disadvantage they discuss really are essentially structures of class and class proxies (geography, social cohesion, etc), at the very bottom of these structures we still find disproportionate numbers from the country’s major ethnic minorities. So long as our ambition is ‘equality of opportunity’ within a steep social hierarchy, we must reproduce old bigotries or, at best, replace them with new ones. As good Tories, meanwhile, the background to the mass deprivation of the ex-industrial towns is nearly invisible to them: it is as if they were just hit with a meteorite. Of course, they were instead victim to the vicious and victorious struggle of the Thatcher government against the power of organised labour. The very institutions that could cut against the atomising effects of exploitation - trade unions, mutuals, workers’ political parties - were gutted, destroyed or politically tamed.
This has led to some important questions disappearing from the agenda, their being - in an age of trivial rates of industrial action and ‘capitalist realism’ at the level of high politics - essentially hypothetical. They were not always, however. Suppose you are a trade union rep on a building site. Some of the workers on the site are vulgar racists. It is a duty to challenge such racism, of course. However, when the time comes to go on strike, you need those racist workers so far as possible to vote for action in a ballot and to maintain discipline during the walkout, and you need them to do this, regardless of how successful you have been in disabusing them of their prejudices. Otherwise they will scab and the strike may be defeated. The experience of united struggle can, of course, have its own ‘educational effect’, but even if it does not, and our racist colleagues remain as ignorant as they were to begin with, it is in the interests of black and Asian workers that their action succeeds, and therefore that their racist antagonists participate in the action. (Compare the professions, where the sacking of some bigot opens up career opportunities for those more junior … )
As we said, these were once concrete, rather than abstract, concerns: we have recently had cause to remember the case of the Shrewsbury pickets, and it is worth mentioning that, a few years before playing a key role in this important strike alongside communists and socialists, Ricky Tomlinson was a member of the fascist National Front. There is something more important going on here than merely strike tactics, which is that it is not in the material interests of workers, whether at the level of some partial struggle or the class as a whole, to be divided into warring sections; unity in action makes best use of the one clear advantage the working class has over the capitalist class, which is that there are a lot more of us. It is, broadly speaking, the understanding of that reality which we call (true) class-consciousness.
Racist ideology is plainly a threat in this connection, and so anti-racism (in the sense of explicit ideological struggle against racism) is therefore a necessary corrective - but not sufficient. For, as we argue and Sewell’s commission half-acknowledges, the structure of structural racism is the class structure - the domination of society by the capitalist class. Restricting ourselves to liberal forms of anti-racism leaves us powerless to fight against this domination: we need, instead, a strategy to rebuild the elementary organs of solidarity of the workers’ movement and fight, openly, for a total alternative: socialism.
p8. The report is available at assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974507/20210331_-_CRED_Report_-_FINAL_-_Web_Accessible.pdf.↩︎
This was the subject of my last article, ‘Anti-racism as a straitjacket’, April 1.↩︎
In part - we leave out of account here the petty bourgeoisie.↩︎