Race is once more central to British politics—from Black Lives Matter to the ethnically diverse Tory government’s obsession with deporting refugees, and the rise of a far right claiming that white people are being oppressed by “wokeness”. Several new books considered here address why this is happening now and what can be done about it.
Although the right tends to view the return of discussions of race as simply drummed up by the woke left, Nadya Ali is right to say, in her The Violence of Britishness: Racism, Borders and the Conditions of Citizenship, “Attempts to dismiss border violence and its devastating effects on those targeted for deportation as ‘culture wars’ designed to distract from the real issues fatally misunderstand both the logic of these policies and what they signify in British politics today”.1
This article is in three sections covering discussions of the history of racism, what is new about the past decade and, finally, how racism can be challenged.
The history of racism
Around five years ago, several popular books on the experience of race in Britain kicked off a new conversation on the subject. These tended to focus on individual experience of racism.2 However, the recent centring of race in cultural and political discussions has led to new publications taking a wider historical perspective. Kenan Malik’s Not So Black and White: A History of Race From White Supremacy to Identity Politics offers an intellectual history of racial ideas over the past 400 years; Kehinde Andrews’s The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World details the long history of Western racism; and Howard French’s Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World—1471 to the Second World War explains how capitalism developed specifically around Africa and the Caribbean.
Understanding history is political. In Britain, following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the revived Black Lives Matter movement led to profound questioning of the amnesia about the slave trade and the British Empire as well as what light these shine on modern society. Malik’s Not So Black and White is an informative and revealing history of ideas, covering far more than can be discussed here. According to Malik, the book is about identity as well as race because the two “are inextricably linked. To tell the story of one, we also have to tell the story of the other”.3 He complains that many current commentators and academics “suggest that to defend the Enlightenment is to defend racism and imperialism… There are elements of truth on both sides. One theme of this book is the need to comprehend both the immense significance of the Enlightenment and the depth of the contradictions and paradoxes that rent it”.4 He also examines how ideas of who is black and who is white were created and have evolved. For instance, when the term “caucasian” was coined in 1775, it meant “not just Europeans but also the inhabitants of North Africa, Western Asia and the Indian subcontinent”.5 Yet, in the same period, one of the United States’ “founding fathers”, Benjamin Franklin, complained about other Europeans coming to settle in colonial British America, because he believed that “only ‘the Saxons’ and ‘the English’ were truly white”.6
Malik occasionally falls in with mainstream bourgeois logic in a way that seems odd in a radical book. He says, for instance, that in 1930s Germany, “Many saw the Nazis as the only force capable of crushing the Communists”.7 This assumes that the views of Germany’s ruling class were a common sense and that their view that Communism needed crushing was held by the “many”. It is surprising that Malik puts it in those terms since he also, for example, writes well on the US Communist Party’s central role in the anti-racist struggle to defend the “Scottsboro Boys”, nine black teenagers wrongfully accused of the rape of two white women in the Deep South. Elsewhere, Malik notes the view, expressed by C L R James in his The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, that the revolutionary fervour of the Haitian rebels, who liberated their country from slavery and colonial rule in a struggle between 1791 to 1804, was inspired by the French Revolution. However, he adds, “More recent accounts have downplayed or ignored their revolutionary ideology, instead stressing factors such as religion and the African cultures from which slaves had been snatched”.8 He suggests various reasons for this rethinking of the history, but not the most obvious—that, unlike James, who was a Marxist, more recent historians struggle to imagine people being motivated by a political vision of revolutionary change.
Nevertheless, Malik does highlight how the labour movement challenged racism in the belly of the beast, the US South, when militant workers recognised challenging racism as central to their struggle. One example is the battle for a ten-hour day in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1892, just as Jim Crow apartheid was being established. Black and white workers struck together and within “four days, the employers agreed to a ten-hour day and overtime pay”.9 Of course, this sort of interracial solidarity among workers was far from the rule.
The conclusion of Malik’s book is that anti-racism is weakened by identity politics, but he sometimes overemphasises the distinction between identity and class solidarity. For instance, he talks of the “conservatism” of the US’s Black Power movement in the 1960s, quoting black nationalist Harold Cruse’s characterisation of it as “nothing but the economic and political philosophy of Booker T Washington given a 1960s militant shot in the arm”.10 Yet, Black Power was a large, rapidly changing movement that was seen as a revolutionary threat by US authorities; dismissing it in this fashion is simply too great a generalisation.
French’s enormously ambitious Born in Blackness sets out to show how relations with Africa and Africans were crucial to the development of modern capitalism. It repeats the argument, developed by the likes of James, that capitalism developed alongside modern racism. However, it also goes further, showing how Africa was vital to Europe even before the slave trade. Throughout, he tells a story of interaction and revolt, with African states and enslaved peoples described as having their own agency and being much more than mere pawns in the hands of Europeans. The book’s power comes from its demonstration of the interplay between ideology and material forces, building on the methods of James and W E B Du Bois, both of whom are discussed by French.
Outraged by the historical erasure of so much African history, French points to the existence of urban civilisations in West Africa such as Djenné-Djenno, an ancient city situated in modern Mali that dates back to at least 250 BCE. He notes that, “early in the Christian era”, it would have been placed “among the ranks of world-class cities”.11 More importantly for his argument, French sets out to show that the relationship between Europe and Africa in the late Middle Ages was far from incidental. The voyages of “discovery” undertaken by the Portuguese, in particular, were motivated more by the desire to find the source of African gold, which European treasuries had come to rely on, than by the hope of locating alternative routes to China and India. As gold production in the Mali Empire of West Africa declined, “Mints across Europe experienced acute shortages of gold… Some were forced to suspend their operations or shut down altogether, including the mint in Flanders, which halted production from 1402 to 1410”.12
Once Portuguese navigators found direct links to suppliers of gold in 1482, they negotiated with the local Akan people to set up a permanent settlement at Elmina (a name derived from the Portuguese word for “mine”) on what became known as the Gold Coast and is Ghana today.13 French notes the flow of gold “propelled complex economic integration based on long-distance trade in an increasingly diverse range of high value goods”.14 So, Portugal’s rulers sent sailors to Africa looking for African riches—gold, pepper and ivory—only incidentally trading in slaves at first. The relationship between Europe and these African civilisations can be compared to the relationship between Christian Europe and the Muslim-ruled Iberian Peninsula during the medieval period, when Islamic Spain was known to have some of the most advanced and indeed “multicultural” ideas in Europe.15
Things changed as the Atlantic slave trade and New World plantations took off. For the Europeans, slaves became property to work to death. French notes that the first Maroon communities of escaped slaves, established with the aid of indigenous Americans, were formed in 1526. Thus, these Africans were the first slaves to be settled in what would eventually become the US, “not the latterly more famous enslaved residents of Jamestown, Virginia, who arrived 93 years later, in 1619”.16
French describes a “quasi-world war” over the South Atlantic Ocean as European colonial and slavery got into full swing. This was followed by a “war over what subsequently became the Atlantic’s most coveted sea, the Caribbean”, which began in earnest when Oliver Cromwell, who took office as Lord Protector in 1653, conceived what he called the “Western Design”, an English expedition to end Spanish dominance over the West Indies.17 After the English Revolution, the new republican state was free to expand in a capitalist direction and soon did so, becoming the world’s leading slaving power. French defends the historian Eric Williams, whose Capitalism and Slavery showed the central importance of the Atlantic slave trade to the development of capitalism: “Western scholarly traditions had devoted almost no serious thought to the fairly obvious possibility that plantation colonies, slave labour, the trade in slaves and the sugar plantation complex, whether taken individually or considered together, had ever made a serious contribution to the industrialisation of Britain”.18
French details the development of the modern Americas, fuming that the resistance of the enslaved to their oppression is written out of history again and again. One example is the German Coast uprising of 1811, the largest slave revolt in US history, when the enslaved revolutionary Charles Deslondes attempted to march on New Orleans. Despite the drama of these events, “the longest published scholarly account runs to a mere 24 pages”.19
The specific role of the British Empire is not the central point in any of the above books, though French engages with it in some detail. To grasp the strange mixture of amnesia and whitewashing that characterises Britain’s relationship to its imperial past, US historian Caroline Elkins’s Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire is invaluable.20 Elkins shows how empire justified itself at its peak. The purpose of British expansion was supposedly the provision of justice and the rule of law to all its subjects. Unfortunately, many of these subjects were not “civilised” enough to quietly accept these gifts, so the rule of law was often put aside, with “exceptional state-directed violence” used repeatedly and then “exonerated” by the authorities.21
Andrews’s The New Age of Empire shares the rage at racism expressed by other authors considered here, but he is hamstrung by his politics when it comes to discussing what can be done about it. His view of history, in which anti-black racism is a constant, means he cannot accept the historical shifts in ideas about race presented by Malik. Nor is he able to move through the forensic detail of the history of revolts and rebellions as French does. He is hostile to any alternative put forward by the left, justifying this by distorting what Karl Marx and other left wingers have said about racism. He also asserts that “academics have tended to locate class as the primary prism through which to understand society”. 22 This is simply untrue. Yes, many people who challenged colonial and imperialist ideas took such a view in the 1960s and, as late as the 1980s, some academics did hold this view, but it has never been generally accepted across academia. Moreover, postmodernism has now been a powerful current in British universities for over 30 years. Sadly, the resulting drift away from Marxism means that many young academics look no further into Marx’s ideas than Cedric Robinson’s dismissive critique of them in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (though Robinson’s book is more nuanced than Andrews’s reading of it suggests).23
What has changed and why?
From the broad sweep of history, we move to a specific era: the period since the global financial crash began in 2007. It seems bizarre now that mainstream US news commentators could argue that Barack Obama’s 2008 election meant the country was entering a “post-racial era”.24 In Britain, a few years earlier in 2002, the chair of the Conservative Party warned its conference that the party might not get back into office because it was seen as too white and too racist: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.” Who was this Tory chairperson? None other than Theresa May, who would, a decade later, launch the “hostile environment” policy against migrants when she was in charge of the Home Office.25
David Cameron, who became party leader in 2005, initially took seriously the attempts to appear less “nasty”. He launched an “A-List” of party candidates to pull more women and people from ethnic minorities into the ranks of Tory parliamentarians. A year later, “the selection of Priti Patel, a British Asian woman, for the safe Essex seat of Witham…was widely hailed as a success for the scheme”.26 However, after Cameron became prime minister in the wake of the economic crash, he was prepared to use racist scapegoating to deflect anger from his austerity policies. Similarly, as home secretary from 2019 to 2022, Patel was at the forefront of pushing through anti-immigrant legislation.
Several books have looked specifically at racism in Britain during this period. The best are Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State and the more academic Race and Crisis. In Empire’s Endgame a range of authors, writing collectively, rage at recent government policy and discuss possible alternatives. Race and Crisis is a collection of essays looking at the fallout from the European “refugee crisis” of 2015. It argues that comprehending this event is key to grasping all that followed, from Brexit to the Windrush scandal.
Liam Stanley’s Britain Alone: How a Decade of Conflict Remade the Nation makes some useful points about the events around Brexit and the hostile environment, though some of his theoretical arguments are confusing. He notes that the basis for much of what was to come was provided by the previous Labour government. In a 2002 white paper, “Secure Borders, Safe Haven”, Labour had presented immigration as “a threat to British values, especially the value of tolerance”. Its recommendations were incorporated into the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act.27
Much of Britain’s establishment at the time saw its future in states opening up internationally through incorporation within neoliberal bodies such as the European Union: “The nation was eroding alongside the state”.28 This view of the world suggested that “wealth inequality could be justified as the legitimate outcome of meritocratic competition”. However, after the crash, “blaming people for their poverty became increasingly untenable”. This resulted in the “rehabilitation of low-income white Britons as ‘left behind’”, thus creating “the image of a relatively powerless national people—racialised as white—whose interests could be represented by a nationalist wildcat elite because the ‘metropolitan elite’ would not”.29 The “hostile environment” was an intensification of this kind of “othering” of migrants.
What started as a policy of blaming “illegal immigrants” for shortages, particularly in the NHS, developed into one that, May claimed, would also “ensure that legal immigrants make a proper contribution to our key public services”. In this way, it rapidly expanded into a system that placed the blame for problems in public services on all immigrants.30 This created the context for the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of people who had come legally to Britain before 1973, mainly of Caribbean origin, were treated as illegal immigrants, losing their jobs and being deemed ineligible for benefits or healthcare. The Home Office refused to use “central tax and pension records, which could prove someone has been working, to support people’s applications”.31 Instead, it relied on people having their own documentation, including payslips and bank statements. The policy effectively turned everyone from NHS receptionists to employers and landlords into border guards, giving them responsibility for checking the right of people to use a service—and by implication suggesting that many people accessing the service were stealing from legitimate users.
The argument, noted by Stanley, that Britain is run by a “politically correct” liberal elite is given an intellectual gloss in David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, which was published in 2017. Goodhart argues, rather sloppily, that the country is no longer divided primarily by class or into left and right, but rather between “anywheres” and “somewheres”. The book counterposes a cosmopolitan, university-educated elite, who can live anywhere and support migration, with an abandoned majority, who are attached to “somewhere”: “Whites are forced to think about their ethnic identity, often for the first time, when their symbols and priorities no longer automatically dominate in a neighbourhood—as a pub closes and the Polish shop or halal butcher opens”.32 Unfortunately, variations on this nationalist theme have been used on the reformist left, for example, within the right-wing Blue Labour phenomenon and, most recently, by journalist Paul Mason.33
This contrasts with the perspective set out in Nadya Ali’s powerful book, The Violence of Britishness, which emphasises that the very idea of Britishness is associated with racist hierarchies. Ali looks at the use of the hostile environment and the Prevent “anti-terrorism” strategy, which criminalised sections of the population, particularly Muslims. As she emphasises, however, the othering of the Muslim population goes back much further: “Characterisations of the Muslim population as collectively responsible for terrorist violence, which surfaced after the 9/11 and 7/7 Islamist terror attacks in the US and Britain, were eventually translated into policy through the Prevent strategy”.34
Empire’s Endgame also offers insights into scapegoating. It presents an image of the areas in which ordinary British people live and the kind of people they are. For instance, it discusses “the so-called night-time economy outside larger conurbations”, which “revolves disproportionately around takeaways and taxi ranks”: “For most of Britain, this is what the 24-hour economy looks like: low-cost takeaway food and transport alongside old and new forms of low-paid work such as cleaning, call centres, security and logistics”.35 This helps give a context within which we can understand the panic engendered by press and politicians around the notion of “Pakistani grooming gangs”, which supposedly drive cases of child sexual exploitation. The Home Office’s own reports have refuted claims that grooming is somehow a “Muslim problem”, but the casting of Middle Eastern and Asian men as sexual predators has been perpetuated by media and politicians alike. This construction of a threat to “white womanhood”, increasingly also associated with refugees housed in hotels, is an attempt to break down any kind of unity between the oppressed. Recently, this narrative has been exploited by the far right, which is engaging in a new wave of street mobilisations against refugees.36 The authors write:
The significance of the “Pakistani grooming gangs” trope as a symptom of our current crisis is…the way that the state’s systematic marginalisation and neglect of vulnerable people is then mobilised to justify a rapidly expanding authoritarianism. Sexual moral panics offer an effective way to do this as sex is always viewed through the ahistorical prism of morality.37
The collection Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain is an interesting but more uneven attempt to understand the Brexit campaign and the result of the 2016 EU referendum in terms of nostalgia for the British Empire. At its best, it describes how the racism of empire echoes through the present. Indeed, when Liam Fox, as international trade secretary, said Brexit allowed for an internationalisation of British trade, particularly through building closer links with African countries in the Commonwealth, it was branded “Empire 2.0”. Yet, as Virdee and McGeever argue, this was never a realistic goal; instead, it was merely aimed at evoking “warm collective memories of a now lost world where Britain was the global hegemon of the capitalist world economy”.38
How can the rise in racism be challenged?
At their best, many of these books show that racism is a constantly evolving enemy. This does not render the concept of identity meaningless, but the idea of fixed identities is less useful (as is the depiction of racism and anti-racism as part of a zero-sum game in which one group’s advantage must be at another’s expense). Identity is constantly evolving. As Gupta and Virdee argue, new far-right parties across Europe are eager “to stop social fluidities and ambiguities and make the contours of history stand still, and to harden and neaten a social order and render it perpetual. In brief, they seek to make the political boundaries of states firm and impervious in order to render the populations within these states ethnically homogeneous and self-procreating”.39 Indeed, this drive extends beyond Western countries. As Empire’s Endgame highlights:
The full violence of exclusionary nationalisms has been unleashed across the globe—with re-education camps for Uighur Muslims in China, and the spectre of mass internment and statelessness targeting Muslims in India. Meanwhile, in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi defended the genocidal violence against the Rohingya as a matter of national security, and in Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán’s popular campaign to harden the eastern flank of Fortress Europe has trapped people on the border, leaving them starving in camps.40
Empire’s Endgame combines a sense of fury at the rise in racism with a warning about the dangers of losing sight of the real enemies by gatekeeping identities. The authors detail, for example, “When the British army posted on Twitter as part of its #BlackHistoryMonth campaign, the post was widely condemned not because it came from the army, which saw fit to use Black History Month as a marketing opportunity, but because the post wrongly included Asians”.41
The problem with some of these analyses is that they give too much credence to the way Britain’s rulers present their own perspective. For instance, looking at the Windrush scandal in Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, researcher Yasmin Khan complains, “It is hard to think of an example of a failing of policy so closely tied to a lack of historical insight and understanding; essentially, it is a failure of institutional memory about the sort of place that Britain used to have in the world”.42 However, the policy was not the result of an unconscious slip or lack of insight. As Elkins shows, the kind of hypocrisy and inconsistency it evokes has been central to racism as far back to the days of the British Empire.
A related issue is agency. Understanding people’s experience is necessary, and shared identity can help groups to organise, but it is also crucial to grasp how change can ultimately be won. When Marxists talk about class, it is not simply as another identity (as it is when authors such as Goodhart evoke the “white working class”). Rather, it is as a source of social power and potential collective organisation. Large sections of the working class, from immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds, have been inspired by the collective strength shown in the recent strike wave in Britain. This can be counterposed to the idea that the supposed “left behind” are somehow the beneficiaries of the “wages of whiteness”. Ali observes of the slogan of the right-wing Brexit campaign, “‘Taking back control’ is turning out to be something of a pyrrhic victory. The wages of whiteness overwhelmingly benefit a small plutocratic class rather than white Britons at large”.43 When Du Bois coined the term “psychological wage” to describe the ideological hold of racism in the US South, he did not present this as a material benefit for white workers. On the contrary, it went against their material interests by stopping them from developing “a united fight for higher wages and better working conditions”.44
Common struggle over economic and social issues has to be combined with struggles against the growing racist offensive in Britain—the vile “Rwanda plan” to deport refugees to Africa, new laws against those claiming asylum and attempts to further dehumanise refugees by housing them on barges rather than in the supposed luxury they presently “enjoy” in British hotels. These struggles can take the form of a united fight to challenge racism. This is necessary precisely because the hostile environment policy has been key to attempts to divide people in Britain against one other. In this context, it is worth reiterating a point made by Esme Choonara in a 2013 collection of essays, Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, which still resonates a decade later:
United front campaigns are testing grounds for…different strategies, and socialists have much experience, ideas and energy to offer to these debates. Our understanding of the link between racism and capitalism means that we can be optimistic about being able to win white workers away from racism, emphasising the role of black and white unity and linking the fight to wider class struggle.45
Ken Olende is researching a PhD on race and racism in modern Britain. He has previously worked as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, a journalist on Socialist Worker and the editor of Unite Against Fascism’s Unity magazine.
1 Ali, 2023, p127.
2 The most notable were Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury, 2017), Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (Vintage, 2018) and Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (Two Roads, 2018). All are worth reading, but Akala’s has a wider political understanding due to his sense of history.
3 Malik, 2023, p3.
4 Malik, 2023, p17.
5 Malik, 2023, p40.
6 Malik, 2023, p71.
7 Malik, 2023, p128.
8 Malik, 2023, p147.
9 Malik, 2023, p171.
10 Malik, 2023, p221. Washington was an emancipated slave who became a spokesperson for black “self-help”, an accommodation to racism in which the focus became the development of “black capitalism”. Incidentally, Cruse’s quote was intended as a compliment.
11 French, 2021, p18.
12 French, 2021, p51.
13 French, 2021, p91.
14 French, 2021, p97.
15 This is looked at in detail in Ivan Hannaford’s Race: The History of an Idea in the West, which is a useful academic book about shifting conceptions of race and peoples since the ancient world. He notes, “The Jewish and Moorish presence in Spain has an important place in history because it is an example of significant human migration and settlement over a long period of time without the necessity of using the convenient catch-all explanation of race.”—Hannaford, 1996, p101.
16 French, 2021, p135.
17 French, 2021, p148.
18 French, 2021, p155.
19 French, 2021, p349.
20 John Newsinger’s older The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (Bookmarks, 2006) offers a Marxist account of how Britain acquired the largest empire in world history, driven by the twin desires of exploiting the colonised and competing with other big powers.
21 Elkins, 2022, p27.
22 Andrews, 2021, pxxi.
23 Olende, 2021.
24 Schorr, 2008.
25 White and Perkins, 2002.
26 Press Association, 2006.
27 Stanley, 2022, p83.
28 Stanley, 2022, p3.
29 Stanley, 2022, p93.
30 Olende, 2020, p154.
31 Olende, 2020, p155-156.
32 Goodhart, 2017, p68.
33 “Free movement does not just suppress wage growth at the low end. It says to people with strong cultural traditions, a strong sense of place and community (sometimes all they have left from the industrial era), ‘Your past does not matter’. It promotes the ideal worker as a rootless person with no attachment to place or community, and with limited political rights, whose citizenship resides in their ability to work alone.”—Mason, 2017.
34 Ali, 2023, p37.
35 Bhattacharyya, Elliott-Cooper and others, 2021, p121.
36 Ringrose, 2023.
37 Bhattacharyya, Elliott-Cooper and others, 2021, p123.
38 Virdee and McGeever, 2019, p59.
39 Gupta and Virdee, 2019, p7.
40 Bhattacharyya, Elliott-Cooper and others, 2021, p58.
41 Bhattacharyya, Elliott-Cooper and others, 2021, p97.
42 Khan, 2019, p107.
43 Ali, 2023, p126.
44 Du Bois, 1998, p701.
45 Choonara, 2013, p309.