The right type of racism

Theresa May announced that the 22nd April would be marked every year as Stephen Lawrence day in honour of the murdered teenager. There were some who felt that this was merely a cynical gesture by a PM under pressure. A sop to distract us from the horrific (and entirely predictable) effects of her hostile environment policies. I want to suggest that the truth might be worse than that. I think she might have been genuine.

There is a tendency to divide racism into two sorts. One is the wrong kind. It uses the N-word unironically and outside of hip hop, it sieg heils in public and stabs black teenagers to death at bus stops.

The right kind is much more polite. The right kind would never identify itself as such. The right kind of racism would never dream of using a racial epithet. But it requires constant performative displays of British Muslim’s loyalty. In France it bans the Burka, whereas in England it frets vocally about the rights of Muslim women, at the same time it slashes funding for refuge centres again and again. The right kind might never use a racial epithet but it does assume that brown people are likely to be illegal immigrants and will send vans to BME areas to deliver just this message. The good racism doesn’t stab anyone, but it does deport them, and intern them in detention centres. It deports now, and only allows appeals later. It destroys landing cards. It legislates that teachers, doctors and landlords must continually survey their students, patients and tenants in case any of them are an illegal immigrant. It doesn’t specify they have to target non-white people, and those with a foreign accent but well, it is the most efficient way.

The thing about the right kind of racism is that both relies upon and fuels the wrong kind.

It relies upon the wrong kind of racism to provide an alibi, a permanent exculpatory comparison. Racism just means the wrong kind. How dare you accuse the proponent of the right kind, of racism?

We can all agree that the wrong kind of racism is bad. It’s repugnant. People from across the political spectrum and every parliamentary party can unite to condemn it as such. Thus Richard Littlejohn can engage in performative outrage at being associated with the “knuckle-scraping scum” of the BNP, and still have published a book like Hell in a Handcart, a “400 page recruiting manual for the British National Party”. It allows the Daily Mail to proudly campaign for justice for the Lawrence family on the one hand, and continually fearmonger about Muslims, migrants and Ed Miliband’s foreign father, on the other.

More importantly, it allows a politician who pioneered the hostile environment, to declare her admiration for Doreen Lawrence and dedicate a day of remembrance to her son. Proponents of the right type may be cynical but I think are also often blind to the link between the right and the wrong. While at the Home Office Theresa May was more vocal on the issue disproportionality in stop and search than any of the Home Secretaries I remember from my lifetime. Part of this was tied to an on-going conflict with the police but in part I think she was genuine. Eye-wateringly disproportionate stop and search figures came to be seen as the bad kind of racism.

One effect of the Lawrence case and the Macpherson inquiry was that forced the country, and parties of all political stripes to accept that racism was a live issue in the police. The riots in 2011 reinforced the idea that the mistrust and resentment engendered had serious effects not just on communities affected but on the ability of the police to carry out their duties. So clear had this lesson become, that eventually even a Conservative Home Secretary had to acknowledge it.

But of course, the right kind of racism doesn’t only rely on wrong kind. It fuels it. The constant drip feed of stories and editorials, and laws and edicts that call into question the position of minorities in the country means people start to view them as an unwelcome intrusion. Continually dehumanising migrants in legislation and print tends to reduce the extent to which people view them as humans. So they shout racist names in the street, vote for racist parties and stab people.

And those in a position to do something about this, the people who print the headlines and make the laws well of course this is nothing to do with them. This is (the wrong type) of racism. They don’t do that, they only do the right type, and so they do nothing.

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A bit of a rant about Rivers of Blood

There are two principles to bear in mind here. One is that censorship is bad. Two is that censorship is not categorically not the same as just not having a public platform. Having your works suppressed, and readers and publishers of them arrested or harassed is censorship. Not being given a a prime time slot on radio four, is not censorship. No one is censoring Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech. Anyone who wants access to the complete transcript can google the words “Rivers of Blood Speech” and they will find ample providers willing to supply it. I invite you to do so now. That’s the beauty of the internet.

So given that access to the entire Rivers of Blood Speech is not, actually very difficult to get hold of, the BBC’s decision to read the speech in full, on the basis that few people will have heard it in it’s entirety feels like a bit of a non-sequitur. It’s probably true, but that doesn’t mean the BBC is required to devote some prime programming time to providing it. On it’s own, it doesn’t mean they mustn’t but… It’s a bit like when politicians declare that immigrants must subscribe to our “tolerant, liberal way of life“. Sure, no one is objecting to tolerance, but we have questions about both their premise and their motivation.

The analogy is not accidental. Powell’s speech – for anyone who hasn’t googled it yet – is primarily concerned with the dangers of mass-migration to Britain. And to be clear, while pedants are right when they point out Powell never used the words “rivers of blood”, the speech incited violent racial antagonism against immigrants and their families for decades. Within ten days, a Caribbean man was stabbed to death by youths chanting “Powell” as they did so. That antagonism was far from a perversion of it’s message. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s far-right groups like the National Front looked to Powell, one far-right magazine was even named ‘Powellite’ a pun on the anti-fascist publication ‘Searchlight’.

The speech may have ended Powell’s time as a shadow-cabinet minister, but it was far from the end of his public career. He was a regular talking head on immigration for years to come. Further undermining the implication that Powell’s speech and his ideas have been taboo for so long, that they are due a re-evaluation in the cold-light of day.

And what about the speech itself? Every now and then someone pops up and decides to rehabilitate it, arguing that Powell wasn’t a racist, and / or the speech was really prophetic. But Powell clearly views migrants from the commonwealth as intrinsically unsuitable for life in the UK. Their continued presence is only ever described as cause of distress and suffering for the white population (though he is willing to concede a value in those migrants who come to staff the NHS as trainees then return home). The very presence of “negroes” in a neighbourhood is enough to elicit pity.

He deliberately picks emotive subjects: a little old lady being terrorised by “Negros”, the threat of the “black man having the whip hand over the white”. These are tropes that play to supremacist ideas of the natural dominance of the white race – with their not-very-veiled allusions to slavery; and chauvinistic ideas about the need to protect white womanhood from dishonour by colonial subjects. Finally, he depicts black communities as uncivilised and animalistic: they break windows and fling faeces, their children are: “charming, wide-grinning piccaninnies. They cannot speak English, but one word they know. “Racialist,” they chant.” The word “chant” implying an incantation, a savage, pagan ritual with which the heathen mock and persecute innocent white womanhood.

While he talks about threat of racial conflict the only examples he expounds upon are the threat that white people will be subject to the indignity of accommodating a non-white population. There is no concern for the violence that will be inflicted upon the non-white population either in his hypothetical future; or in reality as a result of his words.

The real target of Powell’s speech is not really immigration but race equality legislation. His fear is that white people will be prosecuted for the engaging in their natural aversion to interacting with people of another race. The fact that many of those arriving come from British colonised territories where they were forced to do just that, does not seem to have occured to Powell.

Though Powell only obliquely acknowledges it, Britain’s imperial expansion is the leitmotif that runs throughout the speech, and the racist fearmongering that underpins it. Powell was a heartbroken imperialist who once wanted to be viceroy of India. The sense of imperial superiority lies beneath a lot of the racist tropes that he toys with in the speech. He clearly views the empire as a good thing but has no wish to see the consequence of colonial exploitation: that people from colonised countries must leave to come to the metropole to find work.

A proper deconstruction of Powell’s speech is probably ovedue to be honest. For too long those revisionist voices that try to portray Powell as little more than a realist have been left unrebutted. But in the context of mounting racist violence; of the “hostile environment“; of “take back control” what confidence can we have that a proper deconstruction is what we will get?

Giving anti-racism campaigners the chance to weigh in is the least the BBC can do given the nature of the material, but it will be of no help if they are to be presented as just one take among many; alongside David Goodhart and James Delingpole’s particular brand of bad faith and racist dog whistle.

The speech has not been censored. Anyone who wants to is free to look it up at their leisure. And it is perfectly right that they should be able to do so. But that doesn’t mean the BBC has to grant it the legitimacy that comes from with a Radio Four dramatisation. The decision to read it in full, will not problematise the speech, it will reinforce the idea that it is just another controversy for us to debate. With wrongs and rights on both sides and the truth probably somewhere in the middle. But the truth isn’t somewhere in the middle. Powell was racist, and so was his speech, we should be wary of debate that obfuscates that fact.