Race Attacks: Not Black And White

When Michael Mansfield QC announced the setting up of a Civil Rights Movement after the Stephen Lawrence enquiry it presented anti-fascists with a challenge. If the Far Right could capitalise on the growing level of race attacks it would give them a major boost and so any movement set up to deal with the issue will have an impact, one way or the other, on the anti-fascist movement. AFA has been discussing the possibility of launching a new initiative around race attacks for some time (see previous article), and the new Civil Rights Movement has forced the pace.

Below we reprint a copy of the leaflet London AFA distributed at the founding conference.

In Britain the Far Right have been forced, through physical confrontation, onto the margins of society. As we all know, conditions are very different in the rest of Europe. Here the absence of an electoral profile for the Far Right has allowed government, media, race relations and political circles to regard race attacks as no more than another form of anti-social behaviour. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry has highlighted the limitations of the analysis and calls for a more fundamental review of racism in society. Race attacks are at an all-time high. Estimates based on British Crime Survey figures, put racially motivated incidents at between 2,500 and 3,000 a week and rising. The recent Joseph Rowntree report suggests that this figure needs to be adjusted upwards due to even greater levels of under-reporting than previously feared. Moreover, it is clear that racist violence has been on a steadily rising curve since 1982.

THE FAR RIGHT, MORE SYMPTOM THAN CAUSE?

It should be noted with concern that Britain now has a race attack record on par with Germany, where membership of the Far Right is numbered in tens of thousands, and where fascist parties recently entered regional government. In the past the growth in racial incidents may often have had a relationship to Far Right activity in the area. Today, it is quite incorrect to lay the blame for race attacks with the relevant fringe groups such as Combat 18.

The British National Party have sought to break their forced isolation by shifting towards more electoral models, learning from their European counterparts. With their call for 'Rights For Whites' they have presented themselves as the champions of the white working class feeding off the racialisation of working class community problems. This tactical retreat by the BNP has taken them out of the headlines. They are much less visible to those who don't live in their target communities and their new direction is less newsworthy. In the BNP's own words from 1994: "No more meetings, marches, punch-ups".

Between 1982 and 1998 despite having stood fewer candidates, the Far Right's number of votes rose by roughly one thousand per cent. Now the BNP, which claims a thirty five per cent growth in membership in 1998 alone, intends to distribute recruitment propaganda to an estimated twenty million people as part of its European election campaign in June 1999.

So while the BNP are working hard to position themselves to benefit from the current racial tensions they remain as much symptom as cause.

SO WHAT IS REALLY GOING WRONG?

Despite good intentions, current equal opportunities practice contributes to the deepening racist climate in the country. The orthodox equal opportunity approach is individually focused and morally based. It sees racism as an individual problem or set of flawed personal beliefs. Crucially, it falsely assumes that there is a uniform access to power by all whites and uniform denial of access to power to all blacks. The resulting strategies: anti-racist training, education for young people and advertising campaigns have been rigorously applied. The clear problem is that despite being reached by this model, people's views are not being altered for the better. Instead, many only learn to express racist views where they feel 'safe'.

This doesn't bridge the divides within society, it just builds a wall of silence. The fact that banning racist language in the home is even being discussed is a clear indication that orthodox equal opportunities models have failed to marshal widespread support.

A failure in anti-racist training and education fails all in society. It presents simplistic and patronising identities of many black people (what has been described as the "samosas, saris and steel drum" approach) while many white people are left feeling that a celebration of cultural diversity means any culture other than their own. This situation has been exacerbated by the significant cuts in youth and community services which have resulted in reduced activities and opportunities, particularly in inner city areas. This all allows the BNP to step in and offer a racist identity to the 'cultureless' white working class. So much for fostering better community relations!

The main problem with the orthodox approach is that it over simplifies the problem and divides local communities into 'perpetrators' and 'victims'. This portrays white people, particularly the working class, as inherently racist; resulting in policy that all too often racialises very real social problems: housing, education, access to council services, lack of meaningful political representation, etc.

The genuine grievances about social inequalities, which the white working class share with many of their black working class counterparts, are dismissed through a fear of pandering to the 'perpetrator' community. In a society where the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, a policy of redistributing the limited resources available to working class communities on ethnic grounds, can only set the most impoverished against each other.

Racists are not born, they are made. Race attacks are the extreme outcome of this process. Race attacks have become part of a systematic attempt in some areas to make them, or to keep them, 'white'.

As such this race attack epidemic has more in common with political terrorism than street crime. In all areas of policy and practice the government is calling for work to be evidence-based. The vigorous application of orthodox equal opportunities through the Town Halls, should have loosened the grip of racism on each successive generation. On the contrary, according to research in South East London, racist attitudes in school children are more extreme than those held by their parents.

In any other field, such a systematic failure would have led to a questioning of both policy and practice. The race relations industry prevents the necessary debate on its work by accusing its critics of racism. It is vital that such a response must not be allowed to dominate the future Civil Rights Movement.

DOES THE ANSWER LIE WITH THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM?

Despite the total failure of the criminal justice system to respond effectively to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, it has been argued that legislation is the solution. There is already a substantial lack of confidence in the police among ethnic minorities. This is based on the dismal clear up rates for racially motivated crime, compounded by the police's ability to only detect a racial element in one in three crimes where a racial motive is later identified. Against this background the notion of 'additional sentences' is simply a distraction: yet again being focused on the individual rather than tackling a wider political problem. Other than providing mouth-watering propaganda for right-wing extremists, it can expect to have no tangible effect.

SUMMARY

• Orthodox models of equal opportunities racialise social problems in such a way as to set communities against each other.
• Equal opportunities models which assume that there is a uniform access to power by all whites and a uniform denial of access to power to all blacks must be rejected.
• Anti-racist strategies that are not broadly accepted as reasonable and rational by working class communities (both black and white) are counterproductive and deflect attempts to tackle extreme racism.
• The impact of systematic cuts in youth and community provision and its relationship with the rise of racial tension should be seen as a straightforward case of cause and effect.
• The race attack epidemic is a symptom of a wider problem and cannot be solved by additional legislation.
• Race attackers are made not born.
• Organised and systematic racial violence must be addressed from a political rather than criminal perspective.

PROPOSALS

1. As a matter of urgency the isolation of the victims of race attacks must be reversed through a pro-active, grass roots strategy.

2. All deaths in police custody to be investigated by an independent and accountable body.

3. The Civil Rights Movement should initiate an independent review of current equal opportunities policy and practice in order to support the adoption of an evidence-based approach.