The word “race”, as applied to variation among human beings, never had any scientific justification. Now it has become an indiscriminate label to cover ignorance...
It is hard to go a week without hearing of an attack on someone because of their racial origin. And there are frequent accusations of racism because of comments about immigration, national origin, or religious customs and observances. But it’s race, however you define it.
Worse, the labelling of legitimate debate as “racist” closes down discussion from the start. Jack Wilshere, an England footballer, commented on the qualifications for representing the country at football saying that players should be English. He was condemned in some quarters for being “racist”. His accusers in their own mind took that to mean “English-born” and not about recent passport qualification – a debate in many sports.
Similarly, any proposal to restrict immigration runs the risk of being branded “racist”. Opposition to open-door, unrestricted immigration is frequently conflated with racism.
A few years ago in Southwark, south London, 30 per cent of youth were without work, the majority of them black. Later Czech, Russian and Polish white workers settled in the borough in rapidly increasing numbers, taking many jobs that were available.
Self-styled “anti-racists” welcomed migration with enthusiasm matching that of gangmasters and the London hospitality trade. But here were black workers out of work because of cheaper foreign, but mainly white, workers. Local (true) racists who had always opposed migrants on account of colour now found the majority of new migrants were white. Ideology based on race left both “racists” and “anti-racists” alike confused about the stance to take, regardless of how they styled themselves.
At times the term “race” is supplanted by “community”. What a hateful, divisive concept that is – as if everyone can be defined in this way as having a common world view and attitudes. This is applied to immigrant “communities” in the main; as if they all behave in the same way and somehow don’t really belong to Britain.
Until recently, most parliamentarians thought this was ok. We have the “Asian” community – or Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Roma – the list is nearly endless. In the run-up to the separatist referendum will we start to hear more about the Scottish “community”? And what a diverse part of Britain Scotland is anyway: the subdivision would not stop with the creation of a border.
“Community” means you don’t really belong to the country and you’re not expected or encouraged to belong either: “stick to your old ways, don’t become British workers”; “stay rooted in the past and your own ghetto”.
The furore in Sheffield over the behaviour of recently-arrived Slovakian Gypsies is a good example. Some definitely don’t fit with the understanding of many people in Sheffield. But, they’re not homogenous any more than the people living in Park Gate before they came. David Blunkett may not be right to predict riots but he is, somewhat belatedly and hypocritically, right to say what he did about adapting to life in Britain. Now on the one hand he’s condemned as racist, and on the other real racists have a new target group.
As workers, we have to sort out some clarity on race, on racism, on immigration and communalism. “Outsiders” are almost always endowed by other human societies with negative or positive attributes depending on the conditions at the time. However in the 18th and 19th centuries the expansion of capitalism meant that imperial conquests and exploitation of material and human resources required ideological underpinning.
Slaves and the imposition of slavery were best served by a description of the human condition that allowed for different “grades” of humanity and the de-humanising of many. It is easier to treat people as slaves if their skin colour, hair and other superficial characteristics enable them to be typified as sub-human. That developed into the mid-20th century Nazi ideology of “Untermensch” and is evident in many current conflicts.
New characteristics are now ascribed to Russians, Chinese, Afghans and just about everyone in the Middle East; the better to reduce opposition to the next “honourable” attack on behalf of this corporation or that. So we go back to the future with the ideology of the East India Company of the 17th and 18th centuries.
In 1998, the Archaeological Institute of America [AIA] published a statement on race. It helps any worker engaging in advancing class interests against those who say we’re not all human in the same way: “In the United States both scholars and the general public have become conditioned to viewing human races as natural and separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. With the vast expansion of scientific knowledge in this country, however, it has become clear that human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. Evidence from the analysis of genetics indicates that most physical variation, about 94 per cent, lies within so-called racial groups.” And following the sequencing of the human genome, it is now clear, as the US National Institutes of Health explains, that (apart from identical twins) between any two humans “the amount of genetic variation—biochemical individuality—is about 0.1 per cent”. Science shows there is only one race – the human race.
The AIA statement goes on to explain how we’ve ended up with the muddle on race and on the dangers that it brings. It exposes the idiocy of racists and the inherent mendacity of its obverse, multi-racism. If racial differences are minimal to the point of insignificance, why do some workers wed themselves to the notion that there are a multitude of races that should be lionised and “celebrated” in their differences? Such ideas underpinned apartheid.
In a speech in Cuba on 26 July 1991, Nelson Mandela excoriated those who thought they could continue to maintain the apartheid system. He quoted from the South African Congress Alliance Freedom Charter of 1955: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”
Mandela explained, “This was an unambiguous rejection of the racist state that had existed and an affirmation of the only alternative that we find acceptable, one where racism and its structures are finally liquidated...There is reason to believe that we have not yet succeeded in bringing this home to the [South African apartheid] government, and we warn them that if they do not listen we will have to use our power to convince them. That power is the power of the people, and ultimately we know that the masses will not only demand but win full rights in a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa.”
The AIA came up with a working class view on race and racism through study and scientific analysis. South Africans through the practice of class struggle, led by the SACP and ANC, saw their way through to victory over the apartheid state. In Britain it behoves us to similarly base our views in class struggle and science. ■