The coalition of groups supporting the call to mark UN Anti-Racism Day on March 22nd achieved a notable success in bringing out 10,000 people to the parade and gather in Trafalgar Square on that day.
It is clear that the strong anti-racists strands of public opinion that have been established in the UK over the past several decades are looking for leadership in the current political climate which does not seem to be provided by the mainstream parties.
There is a powerful sense that a catastrophe is not far away, with the examples of a resurgent xenophobic vote gathering momentum in a number of European countries. The advances made by the Front Nationale in local and regional elections over the last weekend in France are the latest in a salutary list of reminders of the knife-edge we might well be balanced on.
It has become common for current affairs commentators to offer up the view that race has ceased to be a salient issue in British political life and the anxieties which are pushing segments of the population to consider voting for parties with explicitly anti-foreigner messages are innocent of the sort overtones which were present in earlier times.
Racism still an issue
This is a dangerously superficial view of the situation. Whilst it is true that the determined battles against race discrimination which newly-arrived immigrants were obliged to take on back in the 1960s and 70s have recorded significant successes in changing the language and some of the attitudes which sustained racism in the past, we ought not to be fooled into thinking that the demon has been permanently exorcised.
Racism has shown itself to have some distinctly modular features, capable of being detached from the conditions which supported its original creation, and made available to other social and political movements aiming for the exclusion of the latest groups of victims. In Britain the anti-Semitism which was directed against the generation of Jews who arrived in the country in the decades around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries moved on to embrace Chinese and Asian communities that established themselves in the seaport towns before the second world war, and then the larger group of Caribbean and Indian subcontinental nationalities who arrived thereafter.
It is true that the advances of scientific insight into what is known about what it is to be human have reduced the force of the old biological arguments which asserted spurious arguments about the superiority/inferiority on the peoples of the world. But the space left by their eclipse has been filled by ‘social’ claims about clashes of values and alleged inherent difficulties of people communicating with one another across cultures.
Shifted onto this ground the new forms of racism are capable of attaching themselves to new groups of victims, but added to rather than replacing the older species which emphasised the significance of colour. The net result is a sleight of hand in which, because other groups of Europeans are added to the list of people against whom aversion is held to be a reasonable reaction, then racism is no longer seen as the heart of the matter.
Election year challenges
MRN, as its name makes explicit, is an indisputable part of a movement for the rights of migrants, wherever they come from and whatever their ethnic group. But we regard our even deeper origins to be a part of the anti-racist movement that brought together the Commonwealth immigrant generations of the decades after the second world war and forged them into a movement that brought about change,
As we move into a year of election campaigning, which will undoubtedly feature claims by politicians across the spectrum that migrants are to blame for our present predicament, then it ought to be clear that we need as a matter of urgency a revival of the anti-racism of past decades. Just as that movement made progress by pushing back against the forms of discrimination that afflicted employment, education and the major public services, so the new anti-racism will lead arguments about the need for equality of treatment in relation to all the structures of society which underpin well-being and social security.
The groups who brought us altogether for the Anti-Racist Day on March 22nd are planning a conference to continue the momentum towards the re-founding of a broad-based, campaigning movement fit for the challenges of the period ahead of us. It will be taking place on 14th June. Put the date in your diary and plan to be there.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.