By Martin Woodley
The UK, like much of the western world is entering a renewed period of austerity, as capital seeks to use the defeats imposed on the working class by the coronavirus pandemic to restore profits. Just as with the previous program of austerity inaugurated by the 2010 coalition government it is necessary to misdirect the anger provoked by such an attack towards minorities, and in particular racial minorities, by fostering a wave of racism.
During the first austerity period hostility was particularly directed against the Muslim communities, particularly as the war on terror and project of regime change in the West Asia and North Africa was still in full flood. However, further momentum was added by stoking hostility toward migrants – both asylum seekers and refugees fleeing the conditions caused by conflicts largely resulting from the military interventions by imperialism, and the so-called economic migration swelled by the toll taken by the global financial crisis of 2008-9.
As the limits to the austerity drive became apparent, added leverage was provided by the stoking of hostility to migration from the new Eastern European EU accession countries. Since the Conservative government was led by EU loyalists the primary movers of this anti-EU migration came from outside of the Conservative Party by forces which later became UKIP and then the Brexit Party.
The aim of Brexit of course is to facilitate a further program of austerity by Americanising the labour market and trade policy in such a way as to further boost profits by facilitating an attack on workers’ conditions at the point of production and relaxing consumer standards. However, the stoking of hostility towards EU migration is now not an issue, and the war on terror is largely over. That however doesn’t mean that the need to misdirect anger at austerity has vanished.
The effects of Brexit are only just beginning to be felt. Moreover, while there was an enormous attack on the working class directly resulting from government policy in the pandemic, the private sector will now attempt to make up for the loss of business and profits which was incurred as a result of the implementation of mitigation measures.
Whereas the campaign against the EU came largely from outside the Conservative Party, the Brexiteers are now fully in charge of the Party and it is the government which is centrally involved in leading a renewed racist offensive. The current incarnation of government led racism lies mainly around questions flowing out of the so called ‘geographic inequality’ – the so called ‘left behind’ communities in the former ‘red wall’ of the north and midlands – and the stoking of a new culture war aimed at consolidating these gains.
In a speech given at the Centre for Policy Studies in 2019, Liz Truss set out the principles on which this new thrust in government policies would be rolled out. Firstly, the problem of racism would be downgraded so as to assert that it is no longer a problem at all. Secondly an explicit connection was made between race and ‘geographic inequality’ whereby it was ‘left behind’ majority white communities in the north of England that were the new disadvantaged – made so first by immigration which lowered their wages and compromised their access to services; and second by service providers overly concerned with metropolitan non-white communities to the detriment of their northern white peers.
These were promoted by the publication of the Sewell Report by the Commission on Racial Disparities, and the House of Commons Education Select Committee report ‘The forgotten: how white working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’. Both of these reports cherry pick the evidence to support their narrative that the so-called ‘white working class’ has been left behind by decades of the application of an aggressive and proactive race industry. Indeed, the Select Committee report’s conclusions could only be arrived at by ‘ignoring overwhelming evidence of disproportionate school exclusions – particularly of black Caribbean children from London schools, as well as the impact of a separate education system comprised of Pupil Referral Units and Alternative Provision.’
Events prior to the Sewell Report
The Sewell Report is leading the backlash against the 2020 uprising led by the Black Lives Matter movement, asserting that the UK has ceased to become a structurally racist society, and laying the blame for the racial disparities at the door of black people themselves. It also echoes the recent messages around black communities pulling ahead of so-called ‘left behind’ white communities. The real content of this message, as encapsulated in the ‘levelling up agenda’, is to rally the northern Brexit voting communities with a further, new instalment of the racist offensive, having received a severe setback with the large and sustained mobilisations in the summer of 2020 primarily around Black Lives Matter.
Every crisis exacerbates social inequalities. This was the case resulting from the financial crisis in 2008 as well as the result of the austerity politics that followed it. This has certainly been carried to a new level by the 2020 public health crisis. The inequalities produced by these crises affected all social disparities, whether they affected majority white communities in the north and midlands, or communities containing large non-white populations in the metropolitan centres.
Crises also produce radicalisation in the population, both to the left and to the right. In order to subvert the radicalisation to the left, especially as it was expressed around Corbynism from 2015, membership of the EU was recruited as a national rallying call to deflect opposition from government policies onto a perceived external cause of the problems besetting the country. This built on the previous opposition to immigration in general that had been spearheaded by the far right, as well as the Islamophobia resulting from the war on terror. This had the desired effect of splitting the Labour Party’s vote, inflicting defeat on the left, and ensuring another period of continuing Tory rule.
The Black Lives Matter movement, which provoked massive and sustained protests throughout the summer of 2020, and led to renewed examination of the racist character of British history, British society and British structural racism, required a further device aimed at subverting the radicalisation in Black communities, among young people and in urban communities generally. This is the new racist offensive, which has been discussed here previously.
The Sewell Report was commissioned in the wake of the 2020 protests precisely to stabilise the ship and to attempt to isolate the insurgency in order to prepare a counteroffensive. The report in particular prepared the ground for the government’s culture war in education, which they had previously declared needed to be more patriotic. So for instance it found that “Britain should be seen as a model for other white-majority countries”; institutional racism does not exist in the UK; that socioeconomic background, family influence, culture and religion have a greater impact on life chances; it attributes differences in outcomes in health to individual and lifestyle choices; that examples of grotesque targeted treatment such as the Windrush scandal, which was a direct consequence of the Home Office’s hostile environment policy towards immigrants, “do not come about by design, and are certainly not deliberately targeted”.
This is in direct contrast to an independent investigation into the Windrush scandal by an alliance of sixteen anti racism organisations, which prompted an official apology from Home Secretary Priti Patel, and which concluded that the Home Office displayed an “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards race”, and that “the failings are ‘consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism’”.
Even a United Nations human rights expert issued a devastating critique of the Sewell report.
“The five-member United Nations panel, led by an American attorney and rights activist, Dominique Day, and including human rights experts from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, said the report drew on dubious evidence to rationalize white supremacy and ignored the findings of other United Nations panels and human rights experts.
“The panel aimed a scathing rebuttal at the British commission’s attempt to draw positive lessons from slavery, or ‘the Caribbean experience’, which the commission report said was not exclusively about profit and loss ‘but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a remodelled African/Britain.’ This ‘mythical’ representation of slavery, the panel said, was an attempt to sanitize history, and a deliberate misrepresentation.”
Panel members urged the British government to categorically reject the commission findings, warning that its historical distortions and falsehoods ‘may license further racism, the promotion of negative racial stereotypes, and racial discrimination.’
The ‘mythical’ representation of slavery is essentially an attempt to portray slavery as a means of uplift whereby savage Africans were transformed into civilised black Britons. As David Olusoga has written;
“Shockingly, the authors – perhaps unwittingly – deploy a version of an argument that was used by the slave owners themselves in defence of slavery 200 years ago: the idea that by becoming culturally British, black people were somehow beneficiaries of the system.”
A flavour of the immediate response to the publication of the report can be seen in Guardian politics live stream from 31 March 2021. Gracie Bradley, interim director at Liberty, said the government was “complicit in violating the rights of racial minorities” through the hostile environment, Prevent, prison camps for refugees and increased police powers, including those proposed in the new policing bill. In fact, the Home Office is conducting an immigration policy orders of magnitude harsher than even that pursued under Theresa May. Current Home Secretary, Priti Patel has sanctioned so called ‘pushback’ tactics to intercept and turn around boats carrying migrants in the middle of the English Channel; is funding reception centres in France to intercept migrants before they even begin a crossing; and has assumed powers to block visas from countries that refuse to take back ‘illegal migrants’.
A ramping up of the culture war
A trenchant critic of the report, David Olusoga in fact draws on a simultaneous, if more developed instance of ratcheting up the culture war from the US.
“This report is, in effect, Britain’s version of the 1776 report, a similarly poorly written document published in the last days of the Trump administration by a similarly dubious and politically compromised commission. The authors of the 1776 report blamed racial disadvantage in the US not on the legacies of slavery, segregation and continuing racism but on the teaching of the histories of slavery and segregation in American schools and universities. To counter this, they called for critical scholarship to be replaced by what they called “patriotic education”. There are statements in the UK’s race disparities report that come dangerously close to similar conclusions.”
The 1776 report was in part a response to The New York Times 1619 project, which was first published in August 2019 in commemoration of the arrival of the first shipment of African slaves to the English colony of Virginia. The intent behind the publication of these reports – one could almost say that the British report was inspired by the US report – is obvious when even a casual investigation is made on the effects after the reports were published and hence focussed attention on the culture war narratives contained therein.
For example, the 1776 commission released its report on 18 January 2021, two days before the end of Trump’s term and the inauguration of Joe Biden. Biden had been elected in large measure due to the extraordinary mobilisation of black votes, notably in Georgia. This extraordinary mobilisation was itself due in large measure to the summer of rage following the killing of George Floyd, which featured the largest sustained multiracial protests in US history led by Black Lives Matter. In order to put a brake on the momentum, and then begin to regain the initiative it was imperative that the multiracial character of the mobilisations be broken by the Republican Party and its white supremacist base.
In September 2020 at an extraordinary White House Conference on American History Trump announced “the left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’s totally discredited 1619 Project.” This was the signal for the right to regain the initiative following the summer of rage. Since then the main lines of attack in the culture war have been an assault on the teaching of what has become called ‘Critical Race Theory’ in schools, colleges and universities, but which in essence is a ban on explaining anything about US history and society in terms of racism.
In the Virginia gubernatorial contest, recently won by Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, the focus of attack was directed at a work of fiction; Pulitzer prize winning novel Beloved, by the Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison – widely considered to be one of the most important American literary works. The basis of the attack on this work was that the then governor, and recent Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McCauliffe, in 2016 vetoed a Republican bill aimed at enabling Virginia school students to exempt themselves from class based on that material being covered. This is reflective of a general attack being fought in state legislatures and schools boards across the country. The 1776 Project Political Action Committee and the group 1776 Action have been extremely active in this struggle which has led to a wave of conservative victories in school board elections across the country.
The effect of the offensive launched around the 1776 project was immediate. The Washington Post published an article on 30 August 2021, entitled “Hate crimes rise to highest level in 12 years amid increasing attacks on Black and Asian people, FBI says”.
“In all, the federal agency tallied 7,759 hate crimes last year, a tumultuous 12 months marked by a global pandemic, a divisive presidential election and upheaval in the economy. The total represented an increase of 6 percent from 2019 and the most since 2008, when 7,783 hate crimes were reported.”
Incidentally, 2008 was the year in which Barack Obama was elected President, the financial crisis hit the global economy, and the Tea Party was launched with an explicitly racist overtone.
These latest figures are certainly a significant undercount, since the Stop AAPI Hate organisation reported 6,603 cases between March 2020 and March 2021, mainly due to hatred against Asians whipped up due first to the pandemic and subsequently to the new cold war against China. The generalisation of race hate intended by the culture war is already producing rich returns as manifested in the latest election results.
The UK government is following a similar path toward similar ends – to prevent the consolidation of a multi racial radicalisation against the conditions which are bound to ensue following the new austerity offensive.