Define, Divide and Rule: The Race Report Shows the State is Not Interested in Racial Liberation

The race report deliberately misunderstands racism - telling us it is interpersonal, rather than structural, and denying the role of class.

by Annie Olaloku-Teriba

1 April 2021

Demonstrators take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in London on 12 July 2020.
Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Munira Mirza (of Spiked fame), who doesn’t believe that structural racism exists, commissioned a report on behalf of a conservative government, which doesn’t believe structural racism exists, appointing at its helm Tony Sewell (of feminising boys fame), who doesn’t believe structural racism exists. We knew what the outcome would be.

The report itself, a stunning 258-page tour de force of obscenely bad statistical methodology and complete conjecture which claims to have consulted people without them knowing it, purports to offer ‘a new race agenda’ built on the same mythologies that Sewell has spent years peddling to build his unique brand of ‘Black genius’. The ‘race agenda’ has always been to erase the central role of race-making in how we experience the world, and to erase the continuing legacy of racial logics – the extreme spatial management and hyper-exploitation of the global majority who bear the brunt of imperialist exploits. So the report offers nothing new.

Instead of recognising the role of race, and the racism it produces, we got the same tired conservative narrative of personal responsibility in the face of odds that are stacked overwhelmingly against minority communities. Essential to this approach has been the reframing of fundamentally political issues within the technocratic language of ‘race relations’ – mentioned three times more often than ‘anti-racism’ in the body of the report. In this frame, the different racial/ethnic categories, set by the state, are immutable communities with essentially different interests which the state must step in to manage. This strategy of define, divide and rule is not new, it’s borrowed from the same colonial policies that pushed so many from the Global South out of their home countries.

Define.

Until 1991, the UK census did not gather any specific ethnicity data. Before then, from the 1960s, data was based on whether a person was born in “the Old Commonwealth” (Australia, Canada and New Zealand – so white), ‘the New Commonwealth’ (including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the West Indies – so, not white), or ‘the African Commonwealth’ (including Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya – so again, not white). Responding to the political resistance generated by the inter-ethnic solidarity of the latter two groups, the state spent much of the 1970s looking for a language to encapsulate distinctive ethnic groupings. The result, a hodgepodge of racial/ethnic categories that stole the language of blackness from the grassroots movements who asserted a radical politics through it and presented it back to us a fixed category to subdue our political imaginaries.

The language of BAME emerged from this state project. BAME was the so-called replacement for an explicitly political blackness – but the term was doing political work too, only in this case it was for a state which would rather talk the talk of equality of opportunity within the confines of the British state than countenance the kind of large scale social transformation required for genuine racial liberation. It is no surprise then that the report has nothing to say of the horrors of British imperialism, or the regime of border violence disproportionately experienced by the victims of those imperial exploits.

Divide.

Once the work of definition was done, and the once expansive horizons of anti-imperialist anti-racism narrowed considerably, the state moved in to divide. For years the incessant and misleading use of BAME fed a moral panic that we didn’t have the data to account for the specificities of the experiences of different communities – a myth – while it quietly erased the relationship of exploitation that structures Britain’s relationship, not just with the Black, brown, and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller populations here, but across the globe. In centering the experiences of those in the imperial core, BAME rid us of the internationalism which characterised the resistance of the late 20th Century, leaving us fighting for scraps in the form of minimal state funding and undermining the kind of solidarity we need to mount a fundamental challenge to the ongoing racial order.

The Sewell report actively extends this project. This report came just days after the announcement that the government would scrap the use of BAME to much fanfare. Indeed, Recommendation 24 specifically demands the disaggregation of the term BAME – but to what end? Claiming that the language of BAME, one given to our communities from without, had masked deeper disparities for certain communities, the report sets out to pit these categories against each other.

In particular, it seeks to separate Black African and Caribbean communities and weaponise the marginal advances of the former to advance the same bootstraps rhetoric which gaslights the communities who are held back in overpoliced and underfunded areas. Apparently, disproportionate educational exclusions, underemployment and sentencing have little to do with the persistent wealth gap for Black families. Instead, we are told it’s down to the breakdown of the family structure and the rise of single-parent households. Here the report moves with remarkable dexterity between incommensurable racial and ethnic categories – the specific deprivation of Bangladeshi and Pakistani households folds into the bizarre addition of the category of South Asian which masks huge disparities between these groups and Indians, as the reports own data shows.

For anyone serious about the realities of race, class is a watchword. As the late Stuart Hall put it, “race is the modality in which class is lived”. And yet, the few references to class in this lengthy report all act to racialise the true working class as white, and strip Black and brown communities of the nuances of class. This is typical of the types of statistical gerrymandering that the report consistently engages in. Class is not understood as a specific relationship to exploitation but is rather euphemised as a glorified form of social capital when it suits the commission.

We see this in the report’s treatment of stop and search. At the top, we are told that stop and search powers can be used for tackling a range of offences – “counter-terrorism, burglary, illegal drug use, violent crime and anti-social behaviour” and yet the narrative and impetus of stop and search are consistently centred on “drug-related crimes” and “knife crime” – two types of crime which continue to be racialised as non-white, and especially Black, in the public’s psyche. According to the commissioners, this narrative has nothing to do with racism, and even less to do with the disproportionate rates of stop and searches performed on inner-city Black and brown youth.

We are told that stop and search is disproportionately used against Black and brown people because they ‘happen’ to disproportionately live in the 9% of neighbourhoods in London which accounted for over half of all stop and searches carried out in London between July and September 2020. Again, nothing to do with racism, the historically rooted over-representation of Black and brown people in the working class – instead, Black and brown communities just happen to be disproportionately policed because of a.. statistical fluke? The myopia of the report becomes even more damning when by its own admission white people are more than twice as likely as Black people to be arrested as a result of a stop and search, and more than five times as likely as Asian people. In other words, you are more likely to be stopped, searched and ‘innocent’ if you’re not white. Apparently not racism.

Rule: the end of state anti-racism.

When race is working, it doesn’t need to be deliberate. What late twentieth century organisers and theorists – the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the Institute for Race Relations, the British Black Panthers and many more – saw was a global system that trapped us all into the logics of racialism, of investing phenotypical differences with essential cultural and material differences. The experiences of non-white people in Britain were inextricably bound to the history of the slaveship and the colony, which produced a world in which the countries we came from continue to be destabilised and pillaged for imperial interests.

Our resistance to that politics of difference was a politics of resolute solidarity. One which recognised that racial capitalism and the structures of race themselves were the problem. Today, we are told to think of race as interpersonal – an action only contributes to racism if there is a deliberate attempt to harm someone because of their race. The report fundamentally misunderstands the argument which uncovers structural racism, by presuming it means that individuals within an institution consciously act to shunt the development of Black and brown people. Instead, we argue that institutions built by and through empire, combined with a broader ideological commitment to racialism (through the project of race relations) renders the state irretrievably enmeshed in the functioning of racism, producing a society in which an anti-racism of the state is not possible.

The report recognises this too and signals the end of the state pretence of offering racial liberation through the same technologies that got us here in the first place. When the report says, “we have spoken in this report about how the UK is open to all its communities. But we are acutely aware that the door may be only half open to some, including the White working class,” that is a statement of intent. Not only will Britain’s minority communities be blamed for the racial domination they experience, their marginal progress will be blamed for the failure of the state to provide the tangible economic, educational and medical support that the working class, across racial lines, so desperately need. As a bonus, they will use the faces of the Black and brown bourgeoisie – from Sewell, to Mirza, to Priti Patel and Kemi Badenoch – to do it. There can be no response to this but to divest from the state as an institution that can provide racial justice and the fallacy of representation as a mode of gaining real community power. There is now no alternative but to throw ourselves into our communities to develop real internationalist political solutions for our political problems.

Annie Olaloku-Teriba is an independent researcher based in London, working on legacies of empire and the complex histories of race.

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