In a bold move Anti-Fascist Action organised a debate around the question "Is Anti-Racism Working?" at the annual October Rally. With a wide range of opinion on the panel, the starting point was Roger Hewitt's controversial film challenging liberal anti-racist policies - 'Routes of Racism'. The film suggested that where anti-racist policies were applied clumsily they can lead to young white working class people feeling they were being treated unfairly, and this contributed to the increased level of racism and racist attacks. In other words, anti-racism isn't working.
The panel was made up of Guardian journalist and author Gary Younge, Roger Hewitt, Weyman Bennett from the Anti-Nazi League and Gary O'Shea from AFA. Two other speakers were invited, Kumar Murshid from the National Assembly Against Racism and Lee Jasper from the 1990 Trust, but despite both accepting the invitation neither turned up.
With racist attacks increasing and the Far Right growing all across Europe, the question 'Is Anti-Racism Working?' is far from academic. AFA's argument is that current anti-racist policies are alienating sections of the white working class and these communities are being divided along racial lines, particularly in the allocation of resources. Since the working class have historically proved to be the backbone of resistance to fascism, this division can only help the fascists.
In contrast to AFA's analysis the ANL's message was complacent. Given the growth of fascism and race attacks "we've won the war" was hardly an appropriate opening and the suggestion was it should be very much business as usual; pickets, petitions and marches. Given that they have made no impact on the fascists in this country it was almost comical when they suggested that the growth of the Far Right in Europe was down to the absence of an ANL-type organisation.
In the course of a two hour debate the overwhelming impression was that the ANL's strategy was based on being active, rather than whether the activity made a difference. The ANL highlighted the issue of institutional racism although this was challenged by AFA, arguing that having a certain quota of black police, for example, would not make the police force any better or more accountable. As the AFA speaker said "if everyone was the same colour would injustice end?" The introduction of institutional racism into the debate avoids the key question, which is whether the existing anti-racist policies make things better or worse? Undoubtedly this is a controversial issue and many people are reluctant to discuss it because they're afraid of being labelled 'racist'.
Gary Younge felt that AFA put too much emphasis on class, and in particular the problems that exist in working class communities, arguing that racism exists in the middle class as well. Undoubtedly this is true, but for AFA there is a specific reason to concentrate on what happens in working class communities because this is where the battle will be fought, whether that is a battle for hearts and minds or a battle for the streets.
He also said it was wrong to suggest that working class victims of racial violence had everything in common with the working class perpetrators. Again, clearly true, and while race attackers must be isolated in their communities we have to look at the causes of conflict; in this case it is clear that as more and more resources, in already deprived areas, are allocated on increasingly racial lines this will lead to resentment and hostility. If resources are allocated on the basis of need not colour then a source of conflict can be removed which in turn will lead to a decrease in racial violence. The alternative to this, which was almost inevitably aired, was that racists were born not made and that was that.
All the panel agreed that class and race were connected issues, and one example of how problems can arise was raised by a member of the audience who described a situation in Glasgow where some Kosovan refugees were being housed in a particularly run down estate by the council. The local residents had campaigned for 10 years to get repairs and improvements done but to no avail; yet the flats were done up for the refugees. When the residents complained about the unfairness of the council's behaviour in not doing the repairs before, they were accused of being racist!
As Roger Hewitt pointed out, unless class is brought into the equation and the whole issue of unfairness (real or perceived) addressed, there will in all probability be a racist backlash. The fact that racism exists is undeniable, just as there is class division within races, and unless we deal with the issues in a connected way then race will become the defining factor - a strategy that only benefits racist parties.
With a packed audience and a lively debate, it was a very worthwhile and enjoyable event. AFA would like to thank all the speakers for participating because we believe this issue is vital if we are to prevent a racist backlash in this country.
You only have to look across the Channel to see how the fascists have exploited the alienation of the white working class. As the AFA speaker pointed out, referring to several surveys that identified British youth as being among the most reactionary in Europe, the only reason this country is unique in not having fascists elected is because AFA smashed them off the streets in the early 1990s. This is no time to be complacent - it could happen here.