The myth of black-on-white racism
Over the last few months, particularly in the wake of the conviction of three Asian men in Scotland for the racist murder of Kriss Donald, there has been numerous mutterings on blogs and elsewhere about ‘black-on-white’ racism, suggesting that such prejudice might be as common in Britain today as white racism. These mutterings were given further volume by a discussion on Radio Asian Network, during which a number of Asian people phoned into to admit either they were racist against whites or believed that such racism was widespread or both.
My immediate response was to question the significance of such racism within society. I generally invoke the picture of a school run by 100% Muslims where pupils are all white and non-Muslim. Would the teachers in this school develop low expectations for the white children? Clearly, there is compelling evidence that the reverse is often true with regards to black pupils. Moreover, one has to consider how unlikely such a scenario is, given the under-representation of blacks and Muslims in education. Institutionalised racism excludes people from social and economic opportunity.
Bitching about ugly gooras generally does not.
Now I would go a step further. I’m not sure referring to white people as stupid honkies and treating white people with suspicion counts as genuine racism. Of course, calling a white person a honky or kicking him in the teeth whilst saying it are racist as defined under the law. But that kind of racism is, I would suggest, uncommon and perhaps not what people on Radio Asian Network were talking about. What they were referring to, I would suggest, was a widespread mistrust and dislike of white people.
That doesn’t count as racism, in my book.
Take the example of institutionalised racism against black pupils in British schools. What were the authors or the report Getting It. Getting It Right referring to? They were talking about the kind of racism defined by writers like Modood (2005), whereby black people’s physical characteristics are a trope for associating all young black with a “street culture” that it is violent and anti-authoritarian. The result is that, statistically, black children are far more likely to be permanently or temporarily excluded from school compared to white children committing exactly the same offence. In short, white teachers have stereotypical views of black culture and take it out on the kids.
However, it would be more difficult to argue that black and Asian people have stereotypical views of white culture – and if they do, it is far from clear what these stereotypes are. The implausibility of this notion is down to the fact that, not put too finer point on it, ‘white’ (middle class) cultures get shoved down the British peoples’ throats from the birth to the grave. In education, schools staffed disproportionately by white professionals teach a curriculum that marginalizes non-European and working class history and thought. At home, outside of specific genres such as music, British people are presented with a visual media where whites are similarly over-represented and are more likely to appear in positive roles (the first black person on Eastenders was a burglar). It is simply a lot harder to have essentialized, monolithic views about white people because – well – British society is just so white!
This is not to suggest, of course, the ethnic minorities are huddled in some grim ghetto invisible, wretched and unable to speak. Far from it! Indeed, Britons do live in an increasingly multicultural society which is vibrant and gives voice to a multiplicity of different world views. It is not a issue of variety, however, but of dominance, especially of key public institutions. Only this week, the Muslim Council of Britain finally issued a national teaching package on Islam to schools, in order to challenge some of Orientalist and just plain inaccurate textbooks on Islam still in use, even though for many years Islam has simply not been taught. This is down to the way Religious Education has been locally organised such that it was frequently excluded from the curriculum in schools of Local Authorities where number of Muslims residing locally were few or none. This is just one example of a structural racism whereby knowledge of minority groups is marginalised and even excluded from the public sphere.
Such exclusion, in the above example, is symptomatic of a statist, monocultural approach to education. The multiculturalism that argues for the value of people living comfortably with more than one deeply felt identity cannot work as long as the dominant culture is so paranoid about its own identity that it is afraid to educate its citizens about the depth of variety of alternative identities in its midst. This paranoia is especially evident in the mass media, most recently in the bogus brouhaha over liberals trying to ‘ban Christmas’, a non-story better seen as an attempt by self-appointed cultural custodians to adopt Christmas (and Christianity) as nationalist emblems, despite the festival's much derided commercialisation.
As Stone (2004) argues cogently, Islamophobia is a serious and persistent problem in the criminal justice system, in employment, in education and in the media in Britain today. And as organisations such as the Institute for Race Relations persist in saying, other forms of racism are similarly pervasive throughout society. Racism may have reformulated itself, it may have become more polite, it may even be on the decline, but it nonetheless continues to exclude ethnic minorities, not white people, from opportunity in Britain today. This is real racism.
Anything else, I would suggest, is a phantom. That might not be the message Tony Blair, his token black friend Trevor Phillips and their apologists want us to hear, of course.
But understanding their views is not a matter of race, I would suggest, but of simply learning to tell your left from your far right.