In October 2010, Prospect magazine published a high profile intervention that sought to make common front on the argument that 'race is no longer the significant disadvantage it is often portrayed to be'; indeed, that failure to accept the reality of our post-racial ‘human’ times turns race into a distorting lens, anachronistically paternalist at best, divisive and neo-racialising at worst.
With 'Beyond Race and Multiculturalism?' Soundings offers a number of considered responses, issuing from and informed by a range of disciplinary positions that answer to no agenda other than to the call to critical engagement with the issues rather than the clichés.
In the latest issue of Prospect (December 2010), Professor David Coleman, a demographer at Oxford University, makes a number of population projections based on migration and fertility trends. The main point of his article ('When Britain becomes `majority minority'') is about the changed ethnic composition of British population when the population may reach 77 million by 2051. Coleman notes that foreign born mothers have the highest fertility rates; linking that with standard net migration trends, he projects that white Britons will become a minority by 2066. In another projection, this would occur by the end of the century, when white Britons would make up 50% of the population.
When reading these pieces, I was struck like many of the others who have responded with some sense of perplexity. In a rather perverse invocation of the centrality of 'race', Mirza asks us not to treat the three central authors as `ignorant, naive, or unwittingly prejudiced' on the strength of their minority ethnicity. However, the pieces would not have invited such a response -- even had they been written by white people. Rather than introducing newly contentious arguments, much of what was said was familiar from long-standing debates on the quality of anti-racist practices, on the balance between universality and specificity, on the relative weight to be accorded class and race, on how to calculate the precise impact of racism at all the various points in an individual's life and cumulatively and how it differs according to background. This is not to say that versions of these debates are not worth pursuing as they are unlikely to be ever fully resolved. But in themselves the challenge to be rethinking race seemed an overstated moniker to provide them with. However, I was surprised at the way their contributions, contentious or not had been wrapped up as part of a major onslaught on 'the failings of multiculturalist policies today', as if there were some coherent logic or position or even agreement behind them. But, instead, they are the individual interpretations of particular issues or claims in their areas of expertise that trouble them.
Tony Sewell's view that Black (African Caribbean) attainment is nothing to do with institutional racism, and simply a reflection of 'poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour' , lacks any significant evidential basis and poses a profound threat to efforts to move toward social justice in education and in society more broadly. This is because the press and other commentators delight in repeating his views as if they represented a serious analysis of the processes that produce race inequality in education. In the latest available national data (with the exception of Traveller and Gypsy/Roma students) Black Caribbean students were the least likely to achieve five or more higher grade GCSE passes including English and mathematics : if Sewell and his advocates succeed in presenting Black inequality of achievement as merely a reflection of student/parent/community deficit, then they will limit the possibilities for meaningful reform and serious research, which addresses the numerous ways through which the system itself plays an active role in creating and sustaining race inequality (e.g. through leadership negligence, negative teacher attitudes and actions; the curriculum; testing regimes; and inappropriately applied disciplinary sanctions).
As reluctant connoisseurs of multicultural clichés, we were somewhat disappointed that Munira Mirza's essay forgot to report how Birmingham City Council killed Christmas and replaced it with Winterval. As several contributors have noted, her largely anecdotal essay presents a set of arguments that could have been assembled anytime over the last twenty years. Furthermore, it remains mired in the either/or logics it sets out to critique; displays no sense of the motility and changing nature of racisms; depends on the active forgetting of how 'cultural racism' has shifted in the 'war on terror' era to coded discourses of values, compatibility and loyalty; and refuses to engage with how, as Soumaya Ghannoushi (2006) argued, the perennial trope of the 'multiculturalism problem' has become a euphemism for 'the Muslim problem'. As Gargi Bhattacharyya noted, the article is not really about multiculturalism, but proposes a familiar attack 'on the claim that racism exists and shapes social outcomes'.