How State-Sanctioned Multiculturalism Killed Radical Anti-Racism in Britain

Enter the rainbow nation.

by Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee

21 June 2022

Protesters march at a 1979 demonstration against the racist murder of Altab Ali. Alan Denney/Flickr

‘Antiracism from above’ – the process through which radical antiracism was contained and incorporated into the mould of formal British politics – found its ideological expression in the doctrine of state multiculturalism, which reached its high point with the election of the New Labour government in 1997. While its roots stretched back to the immediate post-war years, British state multiculturalism emerged in its contemporary form through the 1970s, once the division of (white) natives and (non-white) foreigners was no longer simple and clean, and a new social mechanism of integration for non-white people was needed. 

This shift was catalysed by the official response to 1981, where Lord Leslie Scarman’s report (commissioned as an inquiry into the Brixton uprisings of the same year) reflected a liberal multiculturalist ethos – for example, by stating that “training of police officers must prepare them for policing a multi-racial society”. Multiculturalism also undergirded the policy of the Greater London Council and other left Labour councils in the 1980s, which shaped the character of its antiracist programmes. To be sure, the development of state multiculturalism was not seamless. Lord Scarman’s proposals around social change grated against the Conservative government’s unbridled racism, and the emphasis on antiracism, feminism and gay rights by the Labour left served as an attack point for the Conservative government and Labour rightwingers, against what they caricatured as the ‘Loony Left’. 

Ultimately, however, multiculturalism won the day, and, over the decades, antiracism from above was codified in the doctrine of state multiculturalism – where a nominally antiracist politics was allotted a corner in the political landscape. There, professional antiracists were able to stake out a presence in mainstream British politics, as pundits and talking heads, as long as they did not bring into question the underlying political status quo. This arrangement reached its apex as part of the governing ideology of the New Labour governments, before the 2007/08 financial crash led to the decline of state multiculturalism. 

In this way, antiracism from above became entangled with the British state rather than presenting an opposition to it. Multiculturalism served as a means for the state to manage the contradictions of governing a racist society without meaningfully addressing them – instead enveloping them a dense vocabulary of ‘culture’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘diversity’, ‘identity’ and so on. 

At worst, multiculturalism provided an alibi for racist state agencies. This contradiction was laid bare in a pamphlet by the National Convention of Black Teachers on policing and race training, highlighting how between 1981 and 1984: “[The] police training establishment implemented a number of new programmes. So that cadets, recruits and officers may now be taught multi-agency policing methods in the morning and commando work in the afternoon: multiculturalism in one course and the use of plastic bullets in the next: concepts of American-imported racism-awareness on the one hand and Northern Ireland style repression on the other.”

As multiculturalism was elevated to an ideology of governance, racism itself was emptied of its ideological substance. This was underlined by the response to policing following the 1981 uprisings, whereby the question of state racism which the police were enforcing became recast as a matter of racial attitudes among the police. More broadly, structural racism was refashioned as an issue of managing racist attitudes and interpersonal hostility. This in turn held the door open for apolitical and procedural ‘solutions’ to racism – such as the new racism awareness trainings prescribed by professional antiracists. 

After the 1981 uprisings, such professionals were drawn from the ranks of organisations like the Racism Awareness Programme Unit (RAPU) to help in smoothing out the hard edges of the police force. Nearly 40 years later, their US counterparts were soothing the hearts of white America, as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility shot to the top of bestseller lists at the height of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Labour leader Keir Starmer’s warmest gesture towards the protests was to prescribe unconscious bias training for his MPs. And before the dust had settled, race consultants on both sides of the Atlantic were polishing up their portfolios and waxing lyrical about their ‘anti-oppression workshops’ and ‘antiracist dinner parties’, like shameless antiracist ambulance chasers. 

This emphasis on racism as a procedural matter continued to be reflected in, for example, the Macpherson definition of ‘institutional racism’ following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry in 1999, which defined the term as referring to: “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin [which can] be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour”. And importantly, the watershed Macpherson report still only found institutional racism in the Metropolitan Police Force, rather than identifying them as the organised expression of state racism. 

Such a mechanical understanding of racism necessarily reshapes antiracist action: if racism is a matter of procedure, then antiracism doesn’t require mass struggle, but rather for pressure to be exerted on the levers of institutional power to enforce antiracist policies. State multiculturalism also provided the opportunity to drown out the sensibilities of radical Black* [‘Black*’ here is used to denote the framework referred to as ‘political Blackness’, referring to people of African, Asian and Caribbean descent in Britain] politics that had developed in the era of Black Power. 

All movements for justice are fraught with contradictions. This much will be clear to anyone who has engaged in organising, and found themselves forced to struggle over political lines and clarity within their organisations almost as fiercely as they must with wider society. This is as much the case in antiracism as in another other field of organising, and the Black Power era was no exception. Reflecting on the demise of Universal Coloured People’s Association, founder Obi Egbuna spoke on the disparate ways in which members understood the purpose of the organisation, and how this fractured UCPA from within, saying: “Within [UCPA], there were members who believed that the answer to the black man’s problem lay in the overthrow of the capitalist system, and there were others who felt it lay in the Black man going to the House of Lords; there were some who saw themselves as part of the international Black revolution, and there was a faction who believed that the Black man in this country should concern himself only with what goes on in this country. In short, it became all too clear that what we had was not one movement, but movements within a movement.” 

Though UCPA emerged as Black Power in Britain was in its infancy, these contradictions never went away. Rather, these various ideological tendencies were strengthened or silenced at any given time either by internal motion of Black Power politics, or the external pressures applied by the state. By the early 1980s, these contradictions had matured. What the development of antiracism from above did was to seize upon these already-existing conflicts, with multiculturalism empowering those tendencies who would have felt that the answer indeed lay in sending a Black man to the House of Lords. 

This article is an edited extract from ‘Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism’ by Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee, available now from Pluto Press.  

Azfar Shafi is researcher and organiser with a focus on policing, counter-terrorism and imperialism. Ilyas Nagdee is an activist and writer focusing on anti-racism, civil liberties and policing.

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