02 April 2021, The Tablet

Why the state of race relations in Britain must be of concern to everyone

Why the state of race relations in Britain must be of concern to everyone

A black lives matter march in Brighton last summer.
Rupert Rivett/Alamy

The state of race relations in Britain concerns everybody. It is not a minority issue. This is no less true when a report by a group that consists mainly of people from Black and minority ethnic communities is hotly and angrily disputed by others who are also mainly Black and minority ethnic, because the argument is not about them but about all of us.

About the only point of agreement between them is that the designation Black and minority ethnic itself, usually abbreviated to the initials Bame, has outlived its usefulness. In so far as it fails to take into account the wide disparities between different racial demographics, lumping them altogether as an “other”, a “them”, it comes close to being racist itself. Even the term Black, covering everyone from an Ethiopian to a Nigerian, suffers from the same flaw.

Let us therefore treat the report of the Commission on Racial and Ethic Disparities as very much a product of this BAME way of thinking even as it disparages it: a dying bleat, if you like, from a theory of race that has been overtaken by reality. By its measure, race relations in Britain are improving to the extent that the country can no longer be seen as institutionally racist, that is to say, not rigged against those not of the White majority. It does so by seeking objective evidence, such as pay discrepancies and school performance, when members of one group are compared with another. What this reveals is an British Indian (mainly Hindu) success story. Let us celebrate it as such.

But that is not what racism is about. By that measure, for instance, anti-Semitism does not exist, as pay differentials and academic success would if anything show Jews to be a privileged group. The report itself provides ample evidence for the very thing it denies. “Being made to feel that you do not belong, that no matter how patriotic, law-abiding and hard-working you are, you can be treated differently because of your skin colour, stands against everything this country holds dear,” it states. But then why is it still so widespread? And does not this very experience prove that racism continues to pervade British society, even though the majority do not consciously wish ill on people of a different skin colour?

What has caused most upset is the statement by the commission’s chair, Dr Tony Sewell, regarding slavery. It is a fact that the great majority of dark-skinned people whose family originated in one of the English-speaking Caribbean islands were descended from slaves. Those ancestors were victims of the notorious British crime against humanity called the Atlantic slave trade, which also supplied the labour needs of the southern parts of the United States. Those families emigrated to Britain in search of a better future for themselves, and ran straight into a wall of racism as bad in its own way as the racism in the Deep South. The difference was that the British knew in their hearts it was wrong, and the White majority in the Deep South did not – at least not at that time.

But this isn’t the heart of the matter. What Dr Sewell actually stated was: “There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.“ Whatever it means, it is nonsense. There is plenty of evidence of what the life of Caribbean slaves was really like. For instance, it did not suit slave owners to allow normal family life among their slaves. The women had to be available to satisfy the sexual needs of the dominant White minority, and the men were treated simply as commodities, like cattle, to be bought and sold at the owner’s wishes. The extended family structure of Africans in their own country, partly based on polygamy, did not fit the economics of West Indian sugar plantations, where women were for breeding or for sex, men were for labour or for sale.

The abolition of slavery turned slaves into indentured labourers, with hardly more freedom than they previously had. The domestic structures that emerged were still heavily reliant on single women, the matrifocal family, with a support network of grandmothers, sisters, and women from the same neighbourhood. Men, as husbands and fathers, were largely absent from these arrangements. It is not at all difficult to see this as directly deriving from the experience of slavery. Children had to be looked after, and men were made superfluous to family life because their very presence depended on the will of their slave masters.

The commission’s report expresses concern at the relatively poor academic achievement and employment prospects of young Black Caribbean males in Britain, sons or grandchildren of West Indian immigrants. It talks coyly of “family breakdown” as a possible factor. It means the absence – or just fleeting and unstable presence – of males in most of the families concerned. “Breakdown” is a misnomer. These families are not “broken” in terms in which the commission see things, the normative bourgeois nuclear family. In that sense, they were never “whole”.

Yet in what they achieved, they were a triumph of human nature over extreme adversity, almost entirely due to strong and resilient Black women. The matrifocal family was a success – except, when transferred to late 20th-century Britain, in its failure to socialise its young men and give them a meaningful role in life as husbands and fathers. What had they got to belong to? Gang culture, otherwise the scourge of Caribbean communities in Britain, is an obvious response to the human need for male membership and companionship. 

Dr Sewell’s remarks on slavery look like an almost deliberate refusal to accept where the blame lies, though of course, being ultimately descended from the same Caribbean stock, it does not lie with him personally. Even I am more guilty than he. It seems to me there is a painful ambiguity about how contemporary Black people descended from slaves view slavery. They do not want to be caught in its shackles, so they must assert their independence of it. They must look for factors like “family breakdown” on the one hand or institutional racism in society in general on the other, to explain their difficulties. But they are also aware that slavery helped shape them, even after nearly two centuries.

As W E B Du Bois wrote in 1903: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to  be both a Negro and an American...”

For American read British, and there you have it. It is not contemporary racism that is their deepest problem, but the racism of the slave trade and the way it took away their humanity, distorted and destroyed their culture, violated their women and reduced men to mere cattle. We all live with the consequences.

What do you think?


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