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Editorial: The Tory racism whitewash: how should the left respond?

THE government’s report denying Britain is institutionally racist is not just a deeply flawed document.

It is an attempt to narrow definitions of racism to sets of prejudices.

It excludes an economic or social understanding of racism, sometimes to a moronic degree.

One example of “overly pessimistic narratives” flagged by the report is the fact that black people are more likely than whites to die from Covid-19.

This has been “widely reported as being due to racism,” the report states before reassuring us: “However, the increased risk of dying … is due to an increase risk of exposure to infection … black and south Asian people are more likely to live in urban areas with higher population density and levels of deprivation; work in higher-risk occupations … and to live with older relatives …”

So the fact black people are more likely to live in crowded conditions in poorer areas, and are more concentrated in the often low-paid jobs that cannot be done remotely, is treated as evidence that they are not victims of racism — when it is actually evidence that they are.

This myopic approach runs through the report.

The Tory agenda is clear. The big questions about the role racial oppression plays in society, its expression in the labour market in terms of the jobs black workers are more and less likely to be doing and how much they are paid, the reproduction of racial disadvantage via poverty and the latter’s huge impact on everything from educational outcomes to health — all that is swept aside.

It narrows the purview of anti-racism to exclude campaigning over issues like pay or housing, reducing the scope for collective anti-racist action.

Instead the report talks almost exclusively about attitudes.

This is ironic since one of the most powerful weapons against racist attitudes has been unity built up by trade unions and the political left — not to deny the influence of racism in the histories of both — in struggles for collective goals.

Indeed from Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign to Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress’s united cause with South Africa’s communists and trade unionists in the Tripartite Alliance, victories over racism have been won when forming an integral part of struggles for radical change.

The report does not acknowledge this — as Stand Up to Racism notes, it “celebrates victories which none of the authors fought for,” taking credit for a decline in individual and street racism that has been driven by an anti-racist movement Conservative governments have always opposed, and wheeling out ethnic-minority ministers like Rishi Sunak to say things were worse when he was a kid.

There is no sense in the left denying areas where progress has been made. It downplays the achievements of oppressed communities whose fightback has made anti-racism mainstream in Britain.

It can also undermine anti-racist unity if approached in a divisive fashion, as some advocates of a “white privilege” narrative do in depicting racism as a problem derived from white people for which they need to make amends through awareness and atonement.

This diversion has fed a whole industry around addressing “unconscious bias” and the like.

Too much of the left has swallowed a highly individualist understanding of racism. 

The Tories now seek to exploit that. Britain is not a racist country, they assert. 

If we counter that it is, because most people are racists whether they are aware of it or not, we cut ourselves off from the majority and play into the Tories’ hands.

Instead we must counter that it is, because racist oppression is built into the way our economic system operates, as can be demonstrated by the worse outcomes it generates for black people across the board. 

Our task is to build a united anti-racist movement around the understanding that we have more in common than divides us — including, in the capitalist system, an enemy.

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