Anti-racism, Materialism and the Sewell Report

by | 7 Apr 2021

One might be forgiven for thinking that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ Report was released a day early. The Report’s insistence that Britain is not institutionally racist, and indeed that Britain could serve as a ‘beacon’ for other European countries (p.8), certainly feels like a clumsily executed April Fool’s Day joke. This feeling is buttressed by statements seeking to reframe ‘the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves’ (p.8) and the embarrassing news that several experts credited in the report have no recollection of being consulted. Expert opinion is very much set against the Report. 

The overwhelming temptation therefore, might be to simply dismiss the Report as an act of political hackery par excellence. Such a temptation, should, however, be resisted. There are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the report represents an almost perfect encapsulation of a number of contemporary right-wing attempts to grapple with issues of race and racism. In particular, it very much maps on to the Conservative Party’s attempted political realignments around the issue. Secondly, the Report quite skilfully reflects and manipulates real fissures within mainstream thinking about racism and anti-racism. 

Accordingly, the Report represents a symptomatic document of the present conjuncture. In particular, it highlights how the right has sought to exploit contemporary struggles around racism in pursuit of its political agenda and points to the shifting political realignments in Britain and globally. 

Race/Class/Race/Class

Perhaps the defining manoeuvre of the report is its framing of ‘race’ is entirely divorced from – and opposed to – the more mundane material concerns, of class, housing and geography. The Chair’s foreword to the Report puts it most succinctly:

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. Too often ‘racism’ is the catch-all explanation, and can be simply implicitly accepted rather than explicitly examined.

The evidence shows that geography, family influence, socio-economic background, culture and religion have more significant impact on life chances than the existence of racism. (p.8)

Two points stand out here. Firstly, ‘racism’ appears here to be understood as a resulting from direct animus towards ‘ethnic minorities’. Here, the Commission essentially accepts the objective existence of separate races, ethnicities etc. and sees racism as concerned with discrimination against people who fall into these groups. Secondly, the Commission argues that in order to characterise a disparity as ‘racist’, this disparity must be able to be traced ‘directly’ back to this racial animus. Insofar as there might be some ‘other’ reason for the disparity, ‘racism’ cannot serve as an explanatory value.

Here, the Report is at pains to insist upon the necessity for ‘objective data’ in proving accusations of racism, arguing that this data must demonstrate that ‘racism’ alone is the cause of social disparities (p.31). The logic of this position is most starkly illustrated in the Report’s discussion of the fact that black and Asian communities have an increased risk of dying from Covid. Against the idea that this is due to ‘racism’ the Commission notes:

[T]he increased risk of dying from COVID-19 is mainly due to an increased risk of exposure to infection. This is attributed to the facts that 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 such as healthcare or transport; and to live with older relatives who themselves are at higher risk due to their age or having other comorbidities such as diabetes and obesity. (p.30)

To anyone with even a passing familiarity with how structural racism actually works this statement will appear nonsensical. Race, as a material reality, is articulated through questions of housing, labour and health. The fact that racialised people are disproportionately exposed to the risk of death from Covid because of their conditions of living and working does not disprove racism; it is structural racism in action! If racism is – as Ruth Wilson Gilmore memorably put it in Golden Gulag (at p.28) – the ‘production  and  exploitation  of  group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death’, we could hardly find a better example of it than this one.

In positing that race and racism must be mechanically opposed to social, economic and material factors, the Commission’s Report falls back on naturalising racism. For them, racism is rooted in ‘the tendency of groups to favour their own’, or ‘affinity bias’ (p.36). Of course, by simply taking the existence of race for granted, the Report does not question the social processes which constitute the contours of a particular ‘group’ and who is thought to be ‘one’s own’. 

The result of this analysis is that the Commission pitches this conception of ‘race’ against class, as well as geography. The Report insists that class and geography are the real drivers of inequality in Britain, noting 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’ (p.38), this is especially true in the North-East of England. This is compounded by the fact that ‘[t]here is a sense of stagnation about the fate and life chances of poorer White groups, which is less the case with ethnic minority groups’, since ‘there was no national narrative encouraging the advancement for this group in the way there has been for ethnic minorities’ (p.38). The narrative, then, is one of competition between race and class. The real problem is not racism – which has subsided in importance – but socio-economic difference. In this telling, then, the ‘real’ victims are a working class, which is coded as white. 

This set of assumptions that underpin the broad thrust of the recommendations of the Report. By delinking racism from any broader social and economic issues, it is possible to simply erase the existence of institutional or systemic racism (which needs to be rooted in direct racial animus). Accordingly, the ultimate solution to the problem is racism is an individualistic one, with the aim to ‘emphasise to every ethnic group that we treat individuals fairly, and not on the basis of their ethnicity’ (p.47). This particular framing accounts for the preponderance of neoliberal recommendations focused around ‘empowering individuals’ and opening up access to elite jobs (p.22-23).

Of course, the Report does not eschew ‘collective’ solutions entirely, but these do not focus on the racism of institutions, but rather the cultural failings of minority groups. Insofar as minority groups cannot ‘blame’ their failures on racism, the Report notes that ‘culture’ may be the missing link. In particular, the Report argues that certain groups have a culture of ‘family breakdown’ and a failure to integrate, which holds back their progress (41-43). The solution to this – of course! – is the cultivation of a proud multicultural Britishness, which will encourage integration and stability. 

Living in a Material World 

A very common word used to describe the Report has been ‘gaslighting’. In the face of anti-racist mobilisations across the globe and determined actions to highlight the pervasive racism in the Britain, the Report simply shrugs. Indeed, whilst it notes the ‘idealism’ of ‘well-intentioned young people’, it fears that their emphasis on institutional racism risks ‘alienating the decent centre ground’ (p.27). For the Report, insistence on forms of structural racism has in fact undermined racial cohesion, as amplified by ‘social media’ (p.29).

What is notable here is that the report plays the ideological role of deflection. It purports to take racism seriously, but deflects the responsibility back onto anti-racists (who insist things are worse than they are) and racialised communities themselves (by rooting the condition of these communities in their own cultural failings). This ideological role, however, is centrally underpinned by the mechanical separation of race from its wider material context. It is only in isolating race in this way that the report can set structural racism against its ‘competing’ explanation of material deprivation, class and geography.

Here, of course, the Report flies directly against the insights of radical anti-racist theorists and activists. Figures such as – to name a few personal favourites – Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, CLR James, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Paul Gilroy and Ambalavaner Sivanandan (figures who of course have myriad disagreements!) insist on the co-constitutive relationship between capitalist modernity and race, racism, race-thinking and racialisation. 

Capitalism, as an expansive system organised around the geographically and geopolitically differentiated exploitation of labour needs racism. Capitalist social relations expanded internationally through the racialised dispossession of non-capitalist societies, techniques of racialisation were crucial in imposing labour discipline – up to and including slavery – on the working class, and racialisation (in sometimes subtle forms) remains key in managing and dividing populations in contemporary capitalism, both internationally and domestically.

Accordingly, racism and racialisation are not simply about ‘prejudice’ but are crucially material phenomena. We can only understand the contours of who is racialised into which ‘groups’ through an account of capitalist exploitation, domination and management. At the same time, a key aspect of the ‘experience’ of racism is the degree to which it shapes and conditions the social, economic and political lives of racialised peoples. As WEB DuBois put it the ‘color line’ concerns ‘how far differences of race’ are ‘the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing … the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization’.

Accordingly any attempt to try and think race and racism outside of relations of capitalism and class is simply a category error. The Commission – evidently – does not share this standpoint, indeed, it specifically notes that ‘[t]erms like ‘Structural Racism’ have roots in a critique of capitalism, which states that racism is inextricably linked to capitalism’ (p.36). 

Heighten the Contradictions

Whilst the Commission’s attempt to mechanically separate ‘race’ and ‘class’ feels very clumsy, it should be noted that they are hardly alone in doing this. It is not the case that mainstream liberal anti-racists can be found calling for the abolition of capitalist social relations, or pointing out the inexorable links between imperialist capitalism and racism. Similarly, there are many radical approaches to whiteness and white privilege and/or anti-black racism that understand these phenomena as in some autonomous from – and prior to – capitalist and colonial practices of exploitation. The idea that ‘race’ and ‘class’ are separate and competing explanations for inequality and deprivation is in fact a pervasive one across the political spectrum. 

The point here is not to collapse the Report, liberalism and certain forms of anti-racism, but rather to note that – in some senses – they start from a shared premise. Read in this light, the Report can actually be understood as taking advantage of the contradictions of these forms of anti-racism. Simply put, if you do hold that race and class operate as competing explanations, then ‘racism’ alone does start to look anaemic as an argument. The figures that Commission puts forward on deprivation – whilst clearly fudged – do reflect the fact that the uneven geography of capitalism cannot just be ‘explained’ by the abstraction of ‘race’. The ultimate triumph here is the Report reaffirming the category of the ‘white working class’ as a distinct entity, obscuring the fact that the vast majority of racialised people in Britain belong to the working class, and in fact some of its most impoverished sections. 

This is indicative of the way in which the Report has a somewhat deft facility with the contradictions of the anti-racism: particularly official anti-racism, but also at the grassroots. The Report, for instance, attacks unconscious bias training as a mechanism for dealing with racism at work (123-125), noting that it is unproven, may have unintended consequences and obscures the necessity for broader institutional transformations. This is all true! Unconscious bias training is often the last, desperate stand of technocratic managers who wish to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about racism, without confronting or engaging with it structurally. It is for this reason that has become such an essential part of official and liberal ‘anti-racism’. Yet the Report responds to this by suggesting a deepening of neoliberal responses to racism at work calling for more depictions of minorities in the workplace and training programmes (to help racialised minorities be good enough for the job) (128).

Similar operations are at work in the way in which the report handles the question of BAME as a category. Here the Report is quite incisive, noting:

It is demeaning to be categorised in relation to what we are not, rather than what we are: British Indian, British Caribbean and so on. The BAME acronym also disguises huge differences in outcomes between ethnic groups. … It also allows our institutions and businesses to point to the success of some BAME people in their organisation and absolve themselves of responsibility for people from those minority groups that are doing less well. (p.60)

If further argues that the BAME label can prevent ‘sensitivity to differences within racial or ethnic groups, such as urban middleclass Gujaratis vs rural Mirpuri’ (p.33). Once again, this does point to real contradictions within the label of BAME. The arguments raised by the Commission in fact mirror those made by many contemporary anti-racists, who insist that we need to distinguish between different racialised groups, often with the aim of insisting that one particular form of racism is ‘worse’, or that racism can exist between different groups within the BAME umbrella. 

Yet again, the way that the Report ‘resolves’ this tension is deeply problematic, insofar as it depoliticises and naturalisesrace. The report takes for granted here the ‘natural’ and ‘objective’ character of ‘Indian’ and ‘Caribbean’ as describing ‘what we are’. In so doing, it misses the fact that these categories are in fact produced through social practices and social relations, and that these practices and relations have been associated with the expansion and defence of capitalism. What this further obscures is how through anti-racist practices racialised people have sought to connected their shared experiences of racism through the creation of more inclusive groupings to help unite their struggles (in Britain this was most clearly true in the case of the category of ‘politically black’ ). 

In a sense, BAME as a label represents such unity only ‘from above’. It was a translation of anti-racist struggles into an institutional imperative to categorise and manage racial antagonisms and difference. But the answer to that is not the fragmentation into ‘real’ or ‘objective’ racial and ethnic identities. In its own way this too reinforces the bureaucratic imperative of the state to fix, monitor and classify these different groups through targeted interventions. In this way, the Report once again ‘resolves’ a contradiction, but on the basis best designed to undermine collective anti-racist mobilisation. 

The controversy over the BAME label also draws attention to how parochial and nationalist discussions of anti-racism can be. It is telling that foreign policy is completely absent from the Report. There is no sense that Britain’s role in the world might be undergirded by, or promoting of, racism. Yet any understanding of why Britain’s ‘minorities’ are in Britain in the first place needs to reckon with its historical and contemporary role as an imperial power, and how this shaped the very axes of racialisation. But of course, this spirit is the same one that animates though who celebrate liberal world leaders even as they continue to prosecute racist wars abroad. Similarly, the question of migration (the hostile environment! Windrush!) remains almost entirely absent from the report.

Finally, it would be remiss in noting that the Commission itself objectively embodies one of the contradictions of official anti-racism – the role and question of ‘representation’. The Commission’s ethnic and racial composition is a relatively representative one, comprising a large majority of racialised people, a number of different ethnicities and one white member. In their way, they illustrate almost perfectly the limits of the ‘politics of representation’, insofar as these impeccable identity credentials have produced a profoundly conservative report. Throughout the report, however, questions of representation are weaponised. Minority success is posited as the key factor in overcoming racism (as opposed to structural change). Most tellingly, the Report states that anti-racists must stop acting negatively towards (ethnic minority) police officers so as to achieve greater representation in the police force (p.189)

Tear Down that (Red) Wall

In reading the Report seriously, therefore, we need to attend to its political effects. In particular, the Report needs to be understood within the wider context of the political realignment of the right both in Britain and internationally. On a very vulgar level we can see the political functionality of the report simply as a form of trolling. To say, at the height of global outrage against racism, that structural racism simply does not exist, is a powerful message. And here we should not discount the role that trolling has played in mobilising an insurgent right in the English-speaking world. 

However, this trolling also articulates a deeper set of political calculations. The first, again quite straightforward is that the Report – and the Conservative Party – do not outright deny racism. The Report is at pains to repeat that racism does exist and is a problem, but it sets this against a progress narrative. The commissioning of the Report, and the racial and ethnic composition of the panel, demonstrate a desire to be ‘seen’ to take racism seriously. This particular manoeuvre fits very squarely with the Conservative Party’s deployment of ethnic minorities to attack ‘woke’ liberals and anti-racists. The particular brilliance of this move – and one very much on display in the Report – is to argue that in fact anti-racists are cheapening the discourse of anti-racism by overextending it. In such a manoeuvre, the Party can attempt to retain some of the liberal anti-racist credentials it gained under Cameron, even as it denies racism is a problem.

The Report is also reflective of the deeper realignment attempted by the right in the English-speaking world. Ever since the mid-2000s, in the face of fear about demographic change, the English-speaking right has sought to rebuild its electoral coalition. What they seem to have hit upon in the present context is rebuilding an electoral base through a ‘racialised nationalism’ which attempts to recruit the ‘white working class’ to the right. 

We should not overblow how successful this project has ultimately been, it has been a contradictory process, and one aided by various forms of gerrymandering and skewed electoral systems. Nevertheless, this realignment has to some degree borne electoral fruit. In the US, Trumpism mobilised these forces to win its (fragile) victory in 2016. In the UK, however, the Conservative Party was far more successful. Post the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Conservative Party was able to use polarisation around the Leave/Remain issue to make significant inroads into ‘Labour heartlands’, in part via using the concept of the ‘white working class’. This, of course, bore fruit in the 2019 general election, where the Conservatives won a number of formerly Labour, Brexit-voting seats. 

In a sense the narrative of the Report perfectly fits with this political agenda. On a straightforward level, it insists that the real left behinds, are not racial minorities ‘in London’, but rather poor white communities in the North. This dovetails almost perfectly with the Conservative pivot to these communities and its levelling up agenda. But more deeply than this, the Report contributes to the idea that there is a competition between recognising the pervasiveness of structural racism and in fighting for increased investment to the North of England. By mechanically separating off race from class, it essentially affirms that class belongs to the ‘white working class’, whilst ethnic minorities at best belong to ‘London’. Despite the colour blind and universalistic tone, therefore, the Report actually cannot imagine the common set of social processes that might oppress and exploit racialised people and white members of the working class. Thus, whilst buttressing a Conservative coalition it also splinters and undermines the possibility of a political coalition of those with a shared interest in dismantling a racist capitalism.

In this way, the Report also articulates a wider strategic dilemma faced by the right in the post-2008 era. In what way is it possible to mobilise communities ravaged by neoliberalism, whilst simultaneously arguing for an upholding neoliberalism? Part of the solution to this is that described above, attempting to summon up a ‘white working class’ political subject in competition with racialised groups for scarce resources. At the same time, the Report’s ‘solutions’ to the issues of racism help buttress this project. The report calls for a deepening of neoliberal practices of ‘entrepreneurship’ to racialised communities, so as to help unleash their potential. Simultaneously the report argues that these communities are being held back by their ‘cultural’ unwillingness to integrate. This unwillingness is in part blamed on anti-racists who have an overly pessimistic view of race in Britain today. Against this, the Report recommends the construction of a Britishness which is positive about Britain’s history. Here the report fits squarely into the Conservative Party’s ‘culture war’ agenda in relation to education and Britain’s imperial history, seeking a ‘nuanced’ account of the British Empire which plays down its violent and destructive nature.

The circle is thus squared through the articulation of a racialised nationalism with which to defend neoliberalism. 

Anti-racism is anti-capitalism

At this stage in its lifecycle, the Report may not be long for this world. The furore and fallout  seem to have spread sufficiently that we can hope the Report will be so discredited as to damage its authors and its conclusions. However, what I have attempted to outline here is the fact that the Report is not simply an isolated event. Rather, it reflects real contradictions within official anti-racism, and represents – symptomatically – the attempt by the Conservative Party to respond to those contradictions in our present conjuncture. 

At the core of this lies the attempt to separate out practices of racism and racialisation from the broader context of capitalist social relations. In the Report, this is used to pit the concerns of racialised communities against a (mythical) white working class. It is crucial to note, however, that many self-declared anti-racisms are guilty of doing the same. Any response to the Report – and the wider political tendency it represents – will have to tackle this head on.

What does it mean, then, to recognise the co-constitutive nature of racism and capitalism in Britain today? On a basic level, it means recognising that deprivation in the North of England, and the material inequalities suffered by racialised communities are not isolated – or competing – incidents. They are both moments in the totality of capitalist social relations. To address this properly, means not taking for granted the existence of ‘scare resources’ which are then distributed by an alienated state apparatus, but drawing attention to the social processes through which this scarcity is produced in the first place. Crucially, these social processes are not simply – or even primarily – domestic. Britain’s global position is a direct result of the history of its Empire, and today Britain sits at the heart of a global capitalist system, drawing value from impoverished and immiserated people the world over. 

To take this seriously, then, involves a concrete understanding of how capitalist social relations shape and are shaped by racialisation. This demands attention to the specific forms that racialisation takes in particular contexts, and recognising that there is no pure static picture or pattern to this. Pointing to these social relations also means taking seriously the fact that there are groups of people – of workers – who benefit more than others from capitalism. This cannot, and should not, be a moralistic position, but it should lead us to question where and how political agency should be located, and point to the limits of certain struggles, particularly those in the advanced capitalist world. At the same time, though, this perspective should help us understand that anti-racist struggles cannot be waged alone. If racism is part of a social totality that must be dismantled, then successful anti-racism demands political organisations and movements that are coalitional in nature.

4 Comments

  1. thank you

    Reply
  2. Well said family

    Reply
  3. This review reminds me of creationists arguing against atheists. When the atheist says, “but evolution”, the creationst says, “but god works through evolution”. Much as “race is enacted through poverty” is an equally unsupported claim… like much of this phantom institutional racism. Thank you to the commission for beginning to recapture ground ceded to the religion of wokeness.

    Reply
  4. Thank you so much. I am learning new things.

    Reply

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