There is a new consensus, especially in the media, which says the problem of racism is far greater today than it was in the past. The idea that racism is on the march was routinely expressed following the surge in votes for Eurosceptic parties in the recent EU elections. The stock reaction to anyone who raises questions about immigration is to accuse them of being racist. Last week, the British Social Attitudes Survey seemed to strengthen the consensus view when it claimed that nearly a third of the people it polled described themselves as a ‘little’ or ‘very’ prejudiced against people of other races. The authors of the survey said the proportion of people describing themselves as prejudiced has increased since the beginning of the century and has returned to the levels of 30 years ago.
Whatever the British Social Attitudes Survey shows, or claims to show, it reveals very little about the power and influence of racism in Britain today. Prejudice is only indirectly related to racism. Prejudice is a preconceived opinion that is not based on direct experience or reason. Prejudice, or pre-judging, can lead to a dislike and rejection of people from different cultural, ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. However, such prejudice, despite its unpleasant and even inhuman elements, should not be equated with racism. Throughout history, human beings have been prejudiced towards people from different communities. In the Middle Ages, peasants in one community would often express suspicion of people who lived in a village just 10km down the road. Not liking or trusting or respecting other people might be a backward and irrational attitude, but it is not necessarily evidence of racism.
It is astounding just how thoroughly the ideology of racism has been crushed. We should recall that until the outbreak of the Second World War, racial thinking was rarely questioned in any part of the world. Even in academic circles, critics of racism were very much in a minority in the 1930s. Back then, the term ‘racist’ was used neutrally and sometimes even positively in Western societies. It was only in the 1930s that the word ‘racism’ started to acquire negative connotations. It was in that decade that the use of the word racism in a derogatory way was first recorded in the English language (1). But even then, the idea of racial equality had few defenders – including within the intellectual community.
Since the 1930s, racism, with its oppressive claim that some people are superior to other, ‘subhuman’ people, has been systematically discredited. The idealisation of the racial superiority of whites and the dehumanisation of people from Africa and Asia has been culturally marginalised. Even the most extreme xenophobic cults and parties now find it difficult explicitly to use the language of racial ideology. The notion of racial superiority is conspicuous by its absence in public discussion in the twenty-first century.
People may still have their prejudices, but very few individuals now define themselves as racist. Indeed, the term racist is looked upon negatively even by people who do feel some form of prejudice against a foreign ethnic or religious group. The fact that such people feel obliged to say ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ indicates that racism enjoys very little cultural validation in modern Western societies.
Historically, racism expressed the worldview of the powerful. A sense of superiority, be it biological, moral or cultural, was integral to the outlook of the elites that dominated Western societies. Today, those with economic, political and cultural power rarely express themselves through the narrative of race. The powerful rarely express open hostility or crude prejudice towards other groups of people. On the contrary, today it tends to be those who feel they have been left behind, who believe they have been socially and culturally marginalised by mainstream society, who express some kind of racist thinking.
The fantasy of race grips the imagination
Paradoxically, the sharp decline in expression of racial pride has been paralleled by a huge increase in public accusations of racism. One reason why such accusations are on the rise is because the definition of racism has changed to the point where it has almost nothing in common with the original meaning of the word. These days, any heated dispute between people of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds has the potential to be branded a racist incident. In his disturbing study, The Myth of Racist Kids, Adrian Hart reported that new anti-racist policies in British schools have led to the rebranding of everyday playground insults as ‘racist behaviour’. Following the lead of other institutions, schools have adopted an expansive definition of racism that includes name-calling and excluding a child from games.
The impact of such anti-racist policies in schools is that youngsters are labelled ‘racist’ even before they have reached an age where they might grasp the meaning of racism. Hart reported that most of the cases of ‘racism’ in schools concerned children aged between nine and 11. Between 2002 and 2009, around 250,000 racist incidents were reported in schools across England and Wales.
In a different era, these incidents would have been labelled playground spats. So why are they now branded ‘racist incidents’? The fantasy of widespread racism is driven by a conviction that, regardless of what individuals say or do, many of them are unconscious or unwitting racists. Since the early 1980s, racism has been subtly redefined as a psychological problem. The redefinition of racism from an act of conscious oppression to an unwitting problem of the mind was boosted by the former British High Court judge, Sir William Macpherson, in his 1999 report into the Metropolitan Police’s handling of the murder of a black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence. The Macpherson report defined institutional racism as something that ‘can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people’. The key word here is ‘unwitting’ – this depicts racism as an unconscious response driven by unspecific emotions. The idea that people can be racists unwittingly means that literally anyone can be a racist – whether they know it or not.
The idea of unwitting racism makes everyone either a potential racist or a potential victim of racism. It racialises every facet of life. It also raises an important question: who decides whether someone is guilty of behaving in a possibly unconscious racist manner? The complexity of the psychological motivation behind so-called unwitting racism was discussed by Macpherson in the following terms: ‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’ In making individual subjective experience the foundation stone of accusations of racism, Macpherson ensured that ‘unwitting racism’ would be a problem that would expand exponentially as time went by.
In effect, what counts in the discussion of racism today is not any particular act but rather the perceptions of the accuser. One of the most insidious consequences of this new view of racism is that it facilitates the stigmatisation of powerless people. In the run-up to the 2010 UK General Election, the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, branded Gillian Duffy, a pensioner who asked a question about immigration, a ‘bigot’. He was overheard making this contemptuous remark and thought it politic to apologise. Last month, the Labour MP for Stockton North, Alex Cunningham, reiterated the accusation against Duffy, saying at a fundraising event that she ‘was a bigoted woman and that’s all there is to it’. When his remarks were made public, he, too, decided to take the coward’s way out and apologise. These apologies notwithstanding, it is clear that for most people, most of the time, making an accusation of racism carries little risk. In fact, such accusations are now routinely used morally to denigrate apparently ‘bigoted’ people.
Increasingly, the institutionalisation of official anti-racism is really an act of moral distancing, an attempt to separate ‘those bigots’ from us, the enlightened people. It’s about pathologising the morally inferior – which rather suggests that this new ideology of anti-racism has more in common with the racist imagination of the nineteenth century than it would ever dare to admit.
(1) See F. Furedi (1998) The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race (Pluto Press : London).