What the Prospect dossier is and is not about
Firstly, this is not about multiculturalism. Only one of the pieces makes any direct reference to debates about multiculturalism, and this is in relation to cultural industries.
What this really is, is an attack on the claim that racism exists and shapes social outcomes and, as others point out, this is a longstanding point of political debate and struggle. The most effective method of silencing a critique of racism is to argue that racism no longer exists at all. Those claiming to suffer from its consequences must be pursuing their own selfish agendas or be hopeless losers unable to succeed in the happy meritocracy of Boris-Johnson-land.
Actually, I thought the Prospect pieces were uncontroversial apart from their framing by Munira Mirza's introduction and conclusion. What are the main arguments of the pieces? For Tony Sewell, the point is to say that blaming racism does not help young black men overcome social barriers. For Sonya Dyer, the problem is that specialist arts provision relegates minority artists to an ethnic silo there to tick organisational boxes but never quite entering the mainstream. For Swaran Singh, the gripe is that allegations of institutional racism threaten to take attention away from the urgent mental health needs of minority communities and disproportionality in diagnostic outcomes does not invalidate the process of those diagnoses in the writer's view. Each of these arguments has been heard before, including among anti-racists. None constitutes an argument against the existence of racism or the need to challenge racism.
That more troubling suggestion only emerges in the two pieces by Mirza. Mirza appointed by Boris Johnson as lead adviser for culture and arts in London, without any discernible prior experience apart from her willingness to front attacks on a variety of left and liberal causes. When she bleats that 'some people from ethnic minorities are left unsure whether an opportunity or promotion has been given to them on the basis of merit or box ticking, and can face the quiet resentment of colleagues', it is hard to imagine that she is not reflecting on her own odd and under-qualified career trajectory.
This experience of box-ticking opportunity may be true for Mirza, but it is unlikely to resonate with other minority ethnic professionals. Research in the field identifies the substantial over-qualification of minority ethnic people across workplaces, particularly in more senior roles. I am not denying that there are those who occupy their roles, in part, due to a concern to reflect diversity but this will never be the only consideration in an appointment, and frankly, there are plenty of straight white men occupying senior roles as a result of chance, nepotism and inertia. I no longer expect socially mobile minority ethnic people to be better than their white peers and instead accept that, if they are as good, they are entitled to their job.
Opening up the debate
Some points of contention in engagement with other responses here:
I have already said that I think that the focus on multiculturalism is a diversion this is not what the Prospect articles discuss.
Is Britain in the shadow of US race politics? This argument has been made in relation to policy debates for decades and, in the realm of policy, it has some validity. In terms of the battle over popular understanding, I don't understand the point being made. US commentators and activists always struggled to understand the aspiration to unity through political blackness which emerged from a particular moment of anti-racist activism in Britain. Whatever the shortcomings of this formulation in terms of changing wider consciousness, the aspiration was not a result of some misplaced Ameriphilia.
Is multiculturalism up to the challenges of super-diversity? Was it ever designed to be? If we return to my point that what is at stake here is the legitimacy of political debate and action around racism, then so-called super-diversity raises new challenges of organisation and understanding but these could never be met by the bureaucratic systems developed to contain the critique of institutional racism. At my most cynical, I would say that the diversion into endless and ineffective bureaucratic activity signalled the defeat of the potentially radical moment of British anti-racism represented by the Stephen Lawrence campaign (and the many many family campaigns that preceded and accompanied it).
Other responses point us back in a more fruitful direction what difference does ethnic status make to social outcomes and how can we challenge this? That surely must be the question to address not the cul-de-sacs offered by Prospect, newly converted Tories, or others set on disrupting the possibility of any collective response to social injustice.
The challenges before us
We are on the brink of some of the most cataclysmic attacks on minority ethnic and other poor communities that have been seen in a generation. Proposals to cap welfare and housing benefits, and to blow apart incapacity benefit, threaten to impoverish large swathes of minority communities in an instant. At the same time, much of the much-celebrated social mobility among our communities in recent years has occurred through the public sector it is likely that a disproportionate number of the 500, 000 jobs lost will be among minority communities.
In this context, Munira Mirza's claim that anti-racism has gone too far, that it is all about censoring speech and is only an excessive policing of relations between individuals, seems very calculated and very frightening.
It doesn't matter whether we characterise what lies ahead as a result of colour or cultural racism, whether it is an unintended consequence of other measures or whether it is a cold calculation that these groups (remember we are talking first of all about the poor end of minority communities) are not the electoral supporters of the Conservative Party and, in any case, are too voiceless to cause difficulties. Whatever the intentions (and how did we get tricked back to the thankless challenge of guessing intentions?) the combined attacks on the most disadvantaged will harden lines of class and race perhaps to such an extent that some minority groups will remember what they have in common: not culture but social positioning.
As always, the challenge remains both analytic and political. Understanding if, when, and how racism continues to scar social life is one challenge. Speaking to each other in a way that might allow us to do something about it is another altogether. Let's hope we are up to it.
Gargi Bhattacharyya is Professor of Sociology at the School of Languages and Social Sciences, University of Ashton, and the author of
Dangerous Brown Men: Exploiting Sex, Violence and Feminism in the 'War on Terror' (Zed Books/ Macmillan, 2008).
- Responding to Prevent 2011
- Prevent On Campus: The Flipside
- Extremism, Islamophobia and Muslim Converts
- Prevent Deja vu
- Beyond Race and Multiculturalism?
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