Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Runnymede, Race and the Right

Dr Tony Sewell and David Goodhart

Britain is moving to the right on the issues of race and race equality. The mood music for black and ethnic minorities in the UK has changed and we now hear the primal drums of racism being beaten across the country.
There is an established culture of routine denial about the reality of social and institutional racism. This represents a fundamental shift in political perspectives affecting both the right and left wing sections of the media and current academic and political discourse.
Attacks on Muslim communities, massive increase in stop and search figures, attacks on multiculturalism, huge and disproportionate spending cuts targeting black public sector workers and communities are just a few of the issues that result in the most hostile political and social environment ever faced by black communities in the UK.
Last year we saw the right wing journal Prospect  published a series of articles written by black people who rejected the primacy of race in assessing black disadvantage and laying the blame for apparent racial disadvantage at the door of ‘dysfunctional’ black families and communities. 
In such hostile environment it is important that black and anti racist organisations retain a clear perspective on the importance of challenging racism and the widespread nature and effects of structural racism. As we know when the economy dips racism rises and so we can expect to see further attacks on the concepts of black self-organisation, race equality, anti racism and multiculturalism.
Into such contentious waters I question why the liberal anti racist think tank the Runnymede Trust have inexplicably decided to hold a closed meeting to discuss the motion ‘Is race no longer a significant disadvantage?’
They promote the event with the following teaser; “Over the past two months government discourse has turned from challenging racial inequalities to encouraging greater integration. Prospect Magazine argued in late 2010 that there is a need to move on from talking about racism. Are they right?”
Runnymede are legitimate to confront a right wing agenda against race equality, but the big question here is why on earth are they allowing this right wing white journal, to set the agenda on race?
Could we ever imagine The British Board of Deputies - a body representing the Jewish community in Britain - holding a debate ‘Is anti-Semitism no longer significant in the UK?  With speakers David Irvine and Nick Griffin on one side and Jonathan Freedland and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the other?
Runnymede has invited David Goodhart (Founder and Former Editor, Prospect Magazine) and the ubiquitous Dr. Tony Sewell (Director, Generating Genius).
Both have a terrible reputation within anti racist groups for being apologists for racism in the UK.
This is what Trevor Phillips then head of the CRE said about Goodhart: "Is this the wit and wisdom of Enoch Powell? Jottings from the BNP leader's weblog? The xenophobes should come clean. Their argument is not about immigration at all. They are liberal Powellites: what really bothers them is race and culture."
Gary Younge Guardian journalist commentating on Goodhart stated: “When it comes to debates on race and immigration, honesty is usually the first casualty, recent contributions by David Goodhart on these pages and elsewhere being no exception.”
And Dr Tony Sewell seems to have made a career out of pathologising black parents and discounting the historical and contemporary effects of institutional racism in the British state education system.
Luckily, both are opposed in the debate by Joseph Harker (Assistant Comment Editor, the Guardian) and Afua Hirsch (Legal Affairs Correspondent, the Guardian) both of whom have great credibility and will no doubt effectively challenge the vacuous and dangerous nonsense espoused by both Sewell and Goodhart.
I believe that the Runnymede Trust has made a dangerous and unnecessary concession to the racist right in hosting this debate in this way. The right wing attack anti racism and multiculturalism with an evangelic fervour, and there is no need for anti racist organisations such as Runnymede to go out of their way to appear “balanced” in what seems to be a vain and liberal attempt to appear neutral on the issues of race and racism.
Tackling racism by its very definition is a deeply political project and yet there are those who believe that defeating racism is simply a matter of implementing a civil service approach that reduces the political project of racism and human rights to effective managerialism and theoretical legal debate.
Black and anti racist organisations are not the BBC. We don’t need to ensure academic balance. These are liberal pretensions that reflect a desire to be all things to all people.
This approach represents a largely ineffective strategy for challenging racism. Runnymede is an organisation whose principles were born out of the struggle for race equality; that they should decide to host such a debate on this premise I believe is a big mistake.