Racism: individual, institutional and structural

Issue: 168

Esme Choonara

The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked a global rebellion against racism that has been remarkable in its reach, determination and resilience.1 The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has shone a spotlight not just on police racism, but on how racism impacts on all areas of our lives—in education, health, employment, entertainment and more. The movement has drawn thousands into struggle, battled state repression, torn down statues and forced a debate about racism onto the national agenda. The force and tenacity of the movement can only be understood in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular the revelation of the disproportionate impact of the virus on people from black, Asian and other minority ethnicities.2 As the great US revolutionary Angela Davis puts it:

This moment is a conjuncture between the Covid-19 crisis and the increasing awareness of the structural nature of racism. Moments like this do arise. They’re totally unpredictable, and we cannot base our organising on the idea that we can usher in such a moment. What we can do is take advantage of the moment.3

But although there has been much welcome attention given to the need to tackle structural or institutional racism, it is not always clear what is meant by these terms. This article will examine some of the competing theories of institutional racism. In particular, it will address the question of why systemic forms of racism exist and argue against theories that see these as a product of whiteness per se or “white supremacy”—insisting instead that racism is tightly bound to the functioning and perpetuation of capitalism.

Institutional racism from Stephen Lawrence to Black Power

The term “institutional racism” is in Britain most closely associated with the inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence that concluded in 1999. When the inquiry, chaired by William Macpherson, announced that the police were institutionally racist, it was a vindication of many years of struggles by black people and the wider anti-racist movement.4 Macpherson insisted, “there must be an unequivocal acceptance of institutional racism and its nature before it can be addressed”.5 Until this point, racism had largely been officially viewed as a problem caused by badly behaved immigrants and the natural fears of the “indigenous” population, or as a clash of cultures that required better integration.

The previous major inquiry into racism in Britain had taken place in 1981, in the wake of the Brixton riots earlier that year, and was chaired by Lord Scarman.6 It had specifically concluded that “‘institutional racism’ does not exist in Britain”, even if “racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination, are yet to be eliminated”.7 Despite police harassment being widely reported by black people as a key underlying cause of the riots, Scarman largely exonerated the police. Although he admitted that there may have been a few regrettable racist incidents, he suggested that these should be sympathetically understood as largely occurring when “an officer was young, inexperienced and frightened”.8 The Macpherson report was therefore a watershed in understanding racism in Britain.9 For anti-racists it confirmed that racism was not just about individual acts fuelled by misunderstanding, bias or prejudice; it was about the way in which the state and wider society enshrined, encouraged and produced racist inequality. The report forced a nationwide debate about the realities of discrimination and the need to systematically tackle racism.

The response was, of course, far less radical than the potential. Tony Blair’s New Labour was in government when Macpherson reported. Despite then home secretary Jack Straw expressing his commitment to root out racism, he was simultaneously strengthening another strand of state racism with the Asylum and Immigration Bill, passed into law in 2000. This law dispersed asylum seekers away from their support networks and replaced the paltry sums of money that they received with vouchers to further impoverish them and delineate them as outside of the norms of British society.

In local government and in many other organisations there was confusion about how to tackle institutional racism. The confusion flowed partly from the ambiguous nature of Macpherson’s definition of institutional racism. He described it as:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping.10

This definition, which took from Scarman the notion of “unwitting prejudice”, conflated individual and institutional racism, amounting to what Hassan Mahamdallie describes as “a compromise with the state”. It failed to explain the origin and functioning of institutional racism, and it held out to the police the possibility that it could reform itself.11

Despite the weaknesses in Macpherson’s definition, the concept of institutional racism clearly threatens those who want to deny any structural or organisational responsibility for racism. Thus, for the past two decades, there has been a concerted attempt by right-wing commentators, politicians and those at the top of the police to deny the existence of institutional racism. Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick has repeatedly denied that the police are institutionally racist or that the term itself is useful.12 The most recent attempts by the right to undermine the concept can be seen in the way in which Boris Johnson has promoted a series of black and Asian advisors who are critical of the notion of institutional racism. Under pressure from the 2020 BLM protests and the evidence of racial health inequalities surrounding the pandemic, Johnson felt obliged to announce a commission on race. This is reportedly being set up by prime ministerial advisor Munira Mirza, who has described institutional racism as “more of a perception than reality”, and is to be headed by Tony Sewell, an old ally of Johnson’s who has argued that the “supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy”.13

Ideas of institutional racism in fact have a more radical origin than Macpherson. The roots of the concept lie with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and in particular with Stokely Carmichael and Charles V Hamilton. These figures argued that racism needs to be understood not simply as a series of events perpetrated by individual racists, but as structured into the way capitalist society functions. They write:

When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city—Birmingham, Alabama—500 black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism.14

It is this broader understanding of racism that is most useful for the movement today. It chimes with an understanding of how many social and economic factors have contributed to the disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 among people from black, Asian and other minority ethnic backgrounds. These include discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare and even in access to outside spaces and clean air that contribute to racial health inequalities.15

Notions of structural and institutional racism are often used interchangeably by anti-racist activists and writers as a way to recognise that racism is not limited to individuals and attitudes. However, there is no general agreement about how to categorise or describe different levels of systemic racism. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge prefers the term structural racism to institutional racism as racism “is built into spaces much broader than our traditional institutions”.16 Ibram X Kendi at times uses “institutional racism”, “systemic racism” and “structural racism”, but prefers the term “racist policies” to signify the agency of racist policymakers that shape institutional practices.17 Within social theory, there have been several attempts to classify and define the different levels at which racism operates—usually forming three levels of analysis that Coretta Phillips describes as “micro, meso and macro” levels.18

A useful framework that I will apply here is to think of racism as operating at the structural, institutional and individual levels.19 In this usage, institutional racism refers specifically to the discriminatory policies and practices of state or non-state institutions, including policies and practices relating to employment, service delivery and internal organisational structure. These practices may at times explicitly name “race”, as under apartheid in South Africa or in the Jim Crow segregation laws in the US. More generally today, however, they discriminate through less explicit methods such as racial profiling, which I discuss below. Structural racism should be understood as the “totality of ways in which societies foster discrimination” under capitalism, including the way in which economic imperatives structure and perpetuate racism.20 Following this framework, the systemic multifactorial racism described by Carmichael and Hamilton above would actually be most accurately described as structural racism. In this way structural racism frames institutional racism, which in turn often shapes the nature of individual racism—although it would be overly simplistic to see the creation of racism as seamlessly flowing in this direction without interruption or conflict. These three levels of analysis are explored in more detail in the case studies below.

Institutional racism: function or bias?

Although there is widespread agreement in the anti-racist movement that systemic forms of racism exist, explanations for its root causes vary. It is interesting to note that Carmichael and Hamilton use the term “function” in their explanation of institutional racism. Similarly Audrey Farrell argued, shortly after the Stephen Lawrence inquiry: “Across the world, police racism is best understood by looking at the function performed by the police within capitalism rather than by looking at the composition of the police force or the characteristics of individual policemen”.21

However, for many contemporary activists, the explanation for racism lies not with the role or function of the institution or organisation in question, but with the personnel within it. Thus, Eddo-Lodge argues, “structural racism is dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people with the same biases, joining together to make up one organisation, and acting accordingly”.22 The implication here is that white people come together, whether consciously or unconsciously, to exclude black people and that this is what creates institutional racism. US author Robin DiAngelo makes a similar argument, proposing that the sheer number of white people in positions of power is what creates structural racism—or “white supremacy”, as she calls it. She argues, “whites hold the social and institutional positions in society and infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices and norms of society”.23 For DiAngelo, racism is seen as flowing from whiteness itself.24 This is a position shared by Kehinde Andrews, who goes so far as to call whiteness a “psychosis” and argues that “there is no point reasoning with a psychosis, just as there is no point engaging in a rational debate with whiteness”.25 This approach to whiteness—one that sees racism as a primarily psychosocial phenomenon lodged in the white unconscious—is not new. It was advocated by Judith Katz and the Race Awareness Training of the 1980s in which the best a white person can aspire to is to become an “anti-racist racist”.26 It informs much unconscious bias training today.27

DiAngelo, like many theorists of white privilege, accepts that racist ideas have historical and material roots, but she sees white people today as simply absorbing the dominant ideas in a system that she claims benefits them. This is a pessimistic view in which white people are not only unable to genuinely break with racism, but it is hard to see how any white person can ever challenge any of the ideas or injustices of capitalism.

Of course it is true that there are a disproportionate number of white people in positions of institutional and corporate power—this arises from and reinforces structural racism. Moreover, a spectrum of racist workplace cultures does exist. However, the appropriate question is: where does the legitimacy for individual or collective bias or prejudice come from? These practices and cultures are not just an aggregate of the cumulative attitudes of flawed individuals or an inevitable product of whiteness. They are framed by the laws, organisational practices, policies and constitutions that shape the functioning and culture of any organisation and the structures that materially create and recreate racist inequality. This is why, as Ambalavaner Sivanandan argued in the 1980s, merely challenging the attitudes and biases of police officers, immigration officials and housing officers makes no difference to the material impact of racism as long as racist stop and search practices, racist immigration laws and lack of access to housing persist.28

The real test of the argument about whether function or personnel create structural racism is to look at a concrete example where black people do hold significant positions of power to see whether that significantly ameliorates racism. One of the legacies of the anti-racist struggles of previous generations has been to open up opportunities for a layer of black and Asian people to enter the establishment and find positions of power and authority. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has forensically detailed the rise of a black elite in the US, including black politicians, police chiefs and a wider black middle class, culminating, of course, in the election of a black president.29

Of particular relevance here is her account of the response to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25 year old black man arrested in Baltimore in April 2015 who suffered severe injuries to his spinal cord during his detention, leading to his death a week later. His death was marked with protests that were then attacked by the police, sparking an uprising that raged for several days. Taylor points out that what was notable about Baltimore, compared to other cities that erupted over police brutality at the time, was that almost all positions of power were held by African Americans. The mayor, the police commissioner, the attorney general and eight out of 15 members of the city council were black. The superintendent of schools and the entire housing board were black. In fact three of the six police officers involved in the arrest of Freddie Gray were also black. Yet there was still no justice for Freddie Gray and no let-up in repression of the protestors. The black mayor and President Obama both behaved like any non-black politician and denounced protestors as “criminals” and “thugs”. Replacing white people with black personnel did nothing to alter the behaviour of the police and the criminal justice system or the political response. To look in more detail at how structural and institutional racism work, it is useful to briefly consider two examples.

Case study: the police and racial profiling

Day to day harassment by the police is the most direct experience of state racism faced by working-class black and Asian communities. As Taylor writes of the US: “Police brutality has been the single most important political rallying cry across Black communities for decades, because it is the most visceral evidence of the second-class citizenship of poor and working-class African Americans”.30 In Britain, racist policing is evident in the disproportionate use of stop and search, tasers and physical restraint on black people, as well as the fact that black people are twice as likely to die in police custody than white people.31 But these manifestations of racism do not simply emerge from the biases of individual officers—they have systemic causes.

At an individual level, it is clear that there are police officers who hold racist ideas. These include long-perpetuated stereotypes of black men as violent, aggressive and predisposed to criminality and of Muslims as culturally separate and prone to religious extremism.32 These attitudes both contribute to and feed off racist organisational cultures as evidenced by international research into the centrality of racism to police canteen cultures over the past few decades.33

However, individual biases are legitimised, and indeed encouraged, by institutional police racism, which embeds racial profiling into street policing, not just in Britain and the US but across Europe.34 This racial profiling determines which neighbourhoods are policed and with what approach. One way in which racial profiling has been formally entrenched in the police was revealed by reports by Amnesty and others that detailed how the Metropolitan police have compiled a semi-secret Gangs Matrix to which individuals can be added regardless of whether they have committed any crime, purely on the basis of spurious assumptions about friendship groups, cultural expressions or social media use.35 As of July 2016, almost 90 percent of those on the matrix were from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds, the vast majority young black men and boys.36 Racial profiling is also enshrined in the Origins software, which is produced by Webber Phillips, a company founded by former Equality and Human Rights Commission chairman Trevor Phillips. Many British police forces have paid thousands of pounds for the computer programme, which purports to help identify the crimes that different ethnicities “specialise” in.37 Phillips, it should be remembered, has (among other outrages) described Macpherson’s use of the term institutional racism as “a mistake whose consequences are still felt today”.38

This racial profiling is driven by a broader political narrative that sees young black men as a threat. The Gangs Matrix, for example, was created in response to Boris Johnson’s conflation of the 2011 riots that followed the police shooting of Mark Duggan with gang violence. The narrative around criminal cultures has been extended and enshrined through the government’s Prevent programme in order to also criminalise and target Muslims in Britain and to enlist public sector workers to assist with this.39

To understand police racism at a systemic level, however, it is necessary to look at wider questions of policing and the state. First, there is the way in which class, neoliberalism and discrimination in other areas interplay with crime and policing. Coretta Phillips suggests, for example, that black people are more “available” to police on the streets due to higher levels of school exclusions and unemployment as well as concentration in particular neighbourhoods.40 Similarly, criminologist Anthony Gunter has shown how neoliberal models of education and social intervention have boosted racist and punitive approaches to black boys and young men. These approaches extend beyond the criminal justice system into schools, housing, youth services and multi-agency “early intervention programmes” and gang awareness schemes.41

However, the most fundamental structural aspect of understanding police racism is to consider how the police fit into a system of class rule. This raises the question of who decides what is a crime in the first place. Why are so many resources channelled into policing some of the poorest people in society, while our government gets away with (entirely legally, it seems) causing thousands of avoidable excess deaths from coronavirus? The police must be understood as a central part of the repressive capacities of the capitalist state and therefore as a tool of class domination: the class domination that has been bound up with racism since the birth of capitalism. Of course there can be splits in the ruling class, including in the state itself—look at the divisions in Britain over Brexit, for example. However, the role of the state is clear when you consider the most punitive parts of the state apparatus—the police, the army, border controls and prisons—where repressive and racist practices, policies and laws are enacted on behalf of the capitalist class.

This is why, as discussed earlier, simply replacing or retraining individuals does not alter the state’s role in defending the interests of the capitalist class. It also explains the repressive behaviour of the state in countries in the Global South where racism does not always have the same dynamic as in the US and Europe. One stark example is from post-apartheid South Africa, where official racism was dismantled and the police were placed under the command of a black female police chief and a black president. This did not stop state forces shooting dead 34 black striking miners in Marikana in August 2012.42

Case study: racism in healthcare

If policing represents the institution most clearly associated with structural racism, the National Health Service is probably the part of the state that is the most cherished and defended by working-class people in Britain. Yet racial disparities in health outcomes are well-documented, pre-dating Covid-19. Racism affects all areas of our healthcare. For instance, horrific statistics show that five times as many black women die from maternal complications as white women.43 Other research has revealed that people from black and other minority ethnicities are less likely to receive effective pain relief and that black people receive punitive treatment in mental health services.44 Even the dissemination of information about emerging coronavirus symptoms has been rightly criticised due to the illustration of the symptom of “Covid toe” using almost exclusively images of white skin. Medicine itself has a long history of racism, which unfortunately there is insufficient space to explore here, but many of the myths about inherent racial differences still go unchallenged in medical practice.45

Unequal treatment and health outcomes cannot be understood simply in terms of the individual biases of medical practitioners, although these undoubtedly exist and should be challenged. As health academic Derek Griffith argues:

Though most directly measured by assessing racial differences in the quality of services provided by providers, healthcare disparities are not simply the result of healthcare providers’ individual misbehaviour or miseducation. The extent and persistence of healthcare disparities suggest that racial differences in healthcare quality are rooted in institutional inequities that are entrenched in the healthcare system. Thus, addressing healthcare disparities requires a systemic approach.46

Institutional racism in healthcare can be seen in employment and in policies and practices within both public and private health systems. Despite having one of the most diverse workforces in the world, the NHS’s black staff are concentrated in lower grades and in outsourced healthcare. Staff from BAME backgrounds are more likely to face bullying, harassment and formal discipline at work.47 The Covid crisis has shown the impact of institutional racism on staff—and not just those on the lowest grades. An astonishing 94 percent of doctors and 71 percent of nurses who have died from Covid-19 are from BAME backgrounds.48 In part, as Kambiz Boomla points out, this is because many doctors and nurses from BAME backgrounds have historically been recruited from abroad into inferior employment structures that formally institute discrimination into the workforce.49 Many health workers born outside Britain still face onerous restrictions trying to practice in the country, including language tests and complex visa applications. It is also the case that, because health workers from BAME backgrounds are less likely to be promoted, they are more likely to be in direct patient-facing roles with greater risk of exposure to Covid-19. Black health workers including nurses and doctors have also reported having less access to PPE (personal protective equipment) and feeling less able to speak out over safety issues at work.50

Racism is also institutionalised in the NHS through policies that charge migrants for use of the health service—part of the Tory’s racist “hostile environment”. This policy has had a catastrophic impact on access to healthcare for refugees and undocumented migrants, but also for those who struggle to prove residency, such as those of Caribbean heritage who have been caught up in the Windrush scandal.51 The hostile environment has also undermined the universality of the NHS, threatened public health and led to wider racial profiling in healthcare as demands to prove entitlement to free treatment are selectively applied.

As with the police, we can also see how inequalities become embedded into some of the processes and software used in healthcare—for example, with revelations about how those requesting home Covid-19 tests are being subject to credit checks by a private company, discriminating against the many working-class people, especially those who are black and/or refugees, who are unable to pass these credit checks and are also the least likely to be able to drive to a testing station.52

Racial inequalities in health cannot be solved through the health system alone. Structural racism means that health is determined by many overlapping institutions and areas of life—including but not limited to housing quality and neighbourhood segregation, employment, education and discriminatory treatment throughout the criminal justice system.53

Healthcare under capitalism should be understood as a compromise between the demands of working-class people and the needs of capital to have a healthy workforce in order to reduce interruptions to the creation of profits.54 This shapes the way in which healthcare is organised (and frequently reorganised) and what is prioritised, and it also shapes the ideology of healthcare. This is why there is so much emphasis in healthcare on a narrow version of human functionality. This also underlies the widespread discrimination against people with disabilities that we have seen exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.55 Nonetheless, because healthcare is a compromise, there are struggles within it over the direction, funding and philosophy of healthcare. This has been demonstrated by the health workers globally who have been at the forefront of highlighting racism and health inequalities as well as fighting for better pay and PPE during the pandemic.

What about capitalist firms?

Racism is seen most sharply in the institutions of the state, but it is also structured into the functioning of private companies. Many of the biggest corporations, especially in the US, have been quick to seek out ways to align themselves publicly with the BLM movement. Some companies have rightly been called out as hypocrites: for example, L’Oreal, which dropped black transgender model Munroe Bergdof for speaking out against racism in 2017 (although, in the latest twist, Bergdof has now joined L’Oreal’s diversity board in Britain). However, some corporate interventions have been genuinely striking in their political content, including a very strong statement by ice-cream company Ben & Jerrys that explicitly criticised Donald Trump’s encouragement of far-right supporters.

In part, the corporate trend for speaking out against racism is an attempt to align with a big swing in public opinion against racism following the huge BLM protests, especially among the younger consumers targeted by many of these firms.56 Companies are clearly trying to reflect the demographics of their target audience through opinionated social media activity. However, the overt political statements of some of these corporations also illustrate some of the current divisions in the ruling class and in particular the political space created by Donald Trump’s extreme response to the BLM protests. Trump is pursuing a short-termist and hardline approach in order to shore up his “law and order” agenda in the run-up to the US elections. Sections of the US ruling class are clearly dismayed at his approach, which is seen as undermining the longer-term stability that capital needs. This is why sections of the state have blocked some of Trump’s attempts to use federal troops against protesters.

For international capitalism, however, none of the fine words about BLM, donations to good causes, or unconscious bias training for employees mean a fundamental break with either institutional or structural racism. Boardrooms remain stubbornly white and employment practices still entrench racism. McDonald’s has tweeted solidarity with BLM and pledged donations to civil rights groups, yet is facing legal action by its black and Latinx workers over lack of safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.57 Similarly, Amazon, which has donated $10 million to social justice causes and expressed solidarity with BLM, continues to treat black employees who dare to challenge its draconian work practices with contempt.58 For corporations to genuinely tackle structural racism would mean addressing low pay, poor working conditions, zero-hours contracts and unemployment, all of which disproportionately affect black workers. But this would encroach on free market profiteering in a way in which fine words and gestures do not.

Structural racism and capitalism

Every major movement against racism—from the civil rights movement and Black Power movement of the 1960s to today’s BLM movement—has had to confront the question of whether racism can be eliminated within the capitalist system.

There are two main strategies to try to tackle institutional racism within capitalism. The first is by trying to retrain the individuals within institutions. Huge amounts have been spent on unconscious bias, diversity and race awareness training for those employed in the public and private sectors over the past few decades—with negligible results. A growing body of evidence shows that these training schemes have at best only marginal impacts on attitudes and no proven impact at all on changing behaviour.59 At worst, these schemes are a diversion from effective action, focusing on personal improvement or introspection at the expense of collective challenges to racism.

The second strategy is to replace the individuals within institutions. Despite the experience of racism and imperialism under Obama’s presidency, this strategy of “Black Faces in High Places” still resonates for many today. Witness, for example, the enthusiastic response from some on the left to a black woman being nominated to run as vice-president for the Democratic Party. Yet even for those that deride this strategy, it can still seem like common sense to follow a version of it by focusing on the advancement of black individuals in their particular field—encouraging an increase in the number of black and Asian people promoted, recognised and rewarded. There is nothing wrong with this in itself. Better representation of black and Asian people in the media, in education, in science and in employment should be encouraged. However, we should be under no illusions that the advancement of the few will improve the situation of the many. Indeed, sometimes it can just add to the myth that if you work hard enough you can overcome the “disadvantage” of racism.

A wider vision of change is instead needed to challenge racism. This involves an understanding of how racism is structured into capitalism and how power resides not in interpersonal relationships or in “whiteness” but in the economic and social relations of a system that derives profit from exploitation. Racism has been central to capital from the earliest days of capitalism. “Race” itself is a social construct created by vested interests to justify the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade.60 This was a point well understood by Marx, who drew the conclusion that the struggle against capitalism was inextricably bound together with the fight against slavery and racism. He wrote of the US, “Every independent workers’ movement was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.61 Racism was further entrenched and reinvented to justify the brutality of colonial conquest and empire-building by the new capitalist powers. It has outlived slavery and colonialism as it is still of structural benefit to capitalism.

Racism has proved to be one of the best ways to divide workforces, driving down wages for both black and white workers. Two famous studies from the US by sociologist Al Szymanski and economist Michael Reich both show how the racial pay gap among workers drives down everyone’s wages in relation to bosses’ incomes—in other words, the beneficiaries of racism in the workforce are not white workers but the capitalist class.62 For the capitalist class more generally, and for politicians in particular, racism also provides a useful mechanism for creating scapegoats onto whom they encourage working-class people to project their grievances. This is one of the ideological driving forces for the Tory’s determination to implement a hostile environment in the NHS or the media’s lurid stories about “health tourists”.63

Racism is also structured into the geopolitics of capitalism: a system of competing nation states that breeds war, nationalism, displacement and inter-imperialist rivalries. As geopolitical allegiances shift, this creates the need for changing ideologies to justify policies that target enemies outside and inside national borders. This can be seen in the racist treatment of Muslims under the war on terror, which has involved state legislation, repression and ideological assault through politicians, state institutions and the media.64

Structural racism and inequities in labour markets clearly benefit the capitalist class. Global inequality and instability create large-scale migrations of people under capitalism, but racism and immigration controls ensure that the majority of migrants, especially the undocumented ones, are vulnerable to low pay and poor working conditions. There are approximately one million undocumented migrants in Britain, and they are especially at risk during the Covid-19 pandemic.65

In Leicester, for example, a report by Labour Behind the Label has detailed how garment companies such as corporate giant Boohoo generate huge profits by subcontracting to sweatshops that employ workers in appalling conditions, paying well below the minimum wage and ignoring the safety concerns about Covid-19.66 Most of those employed in Leicester’s garment production are from ethnic minority backgrounds, with an estimated third born outside Britain. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation due to immigration status, language difficulties, isolation from community and trade union support, high rates of unemployment and fear of speaking out over safety concerns. Despite this, Boohoo, which is estimated to account for about 80 percent of Leicester’s garment production, has repeatedly posted its support for BLM on social media, seemingly without any sense of hypocrisy. This shows once again how shallow corporate support for BLM is when confronted with challenges to their profit margin.

While racism is structured into capitalism, it does not always neatly follow the most direct line of profitability. Take, for example, the question of migrant labour in Britain. Many in the British ruling class are in favour of more liberal immigration controls, since migrant labour is vital to many areas of the economy. The Tories, however, are committed to a more restrictive immigration policy because they are driven not just by questions of profitability but by politics. So racist ideology and structures operate with some degree of independence from the economic base, but they are nevertheless also constrained by it. This explains how the specific institutional forms and focus of racism can change as capitalism evolves. It also reminds us that struggles take place at the political and ideological levels as well as the economic. As Frederick Engels put it:

Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc, development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself.67

As this suggests, struggle is needed against the different concrete manifestations of racism wherever they emerge, not simply abstract propaganda against capitalism. However, as black radicals from Malcolm X to Angela Davis to the Black Panthers came to recognise, in order to challenge structural racism, the logic of capitalism must be confronted and, ultimately, the system dismantled. As Black Panther Huey P Newton argued, in order to achieve liberation: “We have two evils to fight, capitalism and racism. We must destroy both racism and capitalism”.68

Esme Choonara is a health worker and contributor to Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight against Racism.


1 Thank you to Joseph Choonara and Yuri Prasad for comments and suggestions that contributed to this article.

2 Minority ethnicity is used in this article to mean minority in the context of the US and Britain.

3 DuVernay, 2020.

4 For a detailed analysis of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, see Mahamdallie, 2013.

5 Macpherson, 1999.

6 There is a fascinating analysis of the language used by Scarman in Barker and Beezer, 1983.

7 Scarman, 1982, p209.

8 Scarman, 1982, p80.

9 For more, see Bourne, 2001.

10 Macpherson, 1999.

11 Mahamdallie, 2013, p128.

12 Francis, 2020.

13 Devlin, 2020.

14 Carmichael and Hamilton, 1992, p4.

15 For more on health inequalities, see Boomla, 2020. For analysis of access to outside spaces, see Office for National Statistics, 2020.

16 Eddo-Lodge, 2017 ,p64.

17 Kendi, 2019, p222.

18 Phillips, 2010. Another useful example of a three-level analysis of racism can be found in Griffith and others, 2007.

19 This framework draws heavily on definitions proposed by Bailey and others, 2017, and Krieger, 2014.

20 Krieger, 2014.

21 Farrell, 1992, p125.

22 Eddo-Lodge, 2017, p64.

23 DiAngelo, 2019, p22.

24 For a critique of ideas of white privilege see Choonara and Prasad, 2014.

25 Andrews, 2018, p195.

26 Memorably described by Ambalavaner Sivanandan as “psychospiritual mumbojumbo” that “passess off personal satisfaction for political liberation”—Sivanandan, 1980, p104.

27 For critiques of unconscious bias training, see Choonara, 2019; Malik, 2020.

28 Sivanandan, 1990, pp114-115.

29 Taylor, 2016.

30 Taylor, 2020.

31 Dodd, 2020, and BBC, 2020.

32 Phillips, 2010, p185.

33 See, for example, Loftus, 2008. For a fascinating international comparison Bonnet and Caillault, 2015.

34 Delsol, 2015.

35 Amnesty International UK, 2018.

36 There is no space here to discuss the controversies surrounding the use of the term BAME. It is used in this article when referring to reports and statistics that use BAME as a category for analysis.

37 Siddique, 2020.

38 Phillips, 2016, p32.

39 Younis and Jadhav, 2020.

40 Phillips, 2010.

41 Gunter, 2015.

42 See Alexander, 2013.

43 Knight and others, 2018.

44 Agarwal, 2020, pp261-267, and Bailey and others, 2017.

45 For an excellent exploration of racism and science, including medicine, see Saini, 2019.

46 Griffith and others, 2007.

47 Ross and others, 2020.

48 Boomla, 2020.

49 Boomla, 2020.

50 See, for example, Cooper, 2020.

51 Weller and Aldridge, 2019.

52 Moore, 2020.

53 Bailey and others, 2017.

54 For more on the role of welfare under capitalism, see Ferguson, 2014.

55 Ryan, 2020.

56 Taylor, 2020.

57 Khan, 2020.

58 Holpuch, 2020.

59 Kahn, 2018.

60 See Olende, 2013.

61 Marx, 1976, p414. For more on Marx’s relevance to anti-racism and anti-imperialism, see Olende, 2019.

62 Szymanski, 1976, and Reich, 1978.

63 Keep Our NHS Public, 2020.

64 See Kundnani, 2014.

65 Vincent, 2020.

66 Labour Behind the Label, 2020.

67 Engels, 1968.

68 Cited in Foner, 1995, p51.


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