Asking the right questions about race

If racial disparities don’t equate to racism, then what does explain it?

This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The death of George Floyd in 2020 reignited and globalised the protest movement Black Lives Matter. It goes without saying that what happened was a terrible tragedy, but many in Britain, myself included, wondered why a police killing in Minneapolis, 4,000 miles away, would lead to my local bakery publishing a statement on its website.

This is Not America: Why Black Lives in Britain Matter, Tomiwa Owolade (Atlantic, £18.99)

As Tomiwa Owolade points out in This Is Not America, why did British anti-racist activists begin talking urgently about “indigenous rights”, which mean something quite different in the UK than in America.

Whilst it’s true that the pressure-cooker conditions of Lockdown — aided by the dizzying world of social media — created the perfect setting for a moral panic of sorts, our collective reaction posed important questions about the state of liberal societies and their attitudes towards ethnic minority populations.

This question of how we should understand the role of race and racism in contemporary society is what both Owolade and Remi Adekoya seek to illuminate in their insightful books. Both make necessary contributions to what often feels like a narrow and confused public discussion.

Owolade and Adekoya have different explanations for why the murder of George Floyd proved so culturally salient. For Owolade, it was the overwhelming force of American cultural hegemony that amplified the subject internationally. As the phrase goes, “When American sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.” He convincingly demonstrates how this is wrong-headed, weaving elegantly through statistics, literary narratives and personal stories to reveal the radically different social and cultural contexts of the two countries with regard to race.

Whilst African-Americans are foundational to the existence of America via the brutal transatlantic slave trade, most black Britons arrived in Britain in the post-war years, or they are the children of those who did. In his chapter on immigration, Owolade rightly points out that we cannot meaningfully engage in a conversation about race in Britain “without understanding that black British communities are an immigrant population in a way that black Americans are not”. Consequently, this produces fundamentally different questions about belonging, British identity and Britain’s colonial history.

To overlook or downplay this means we miss the complexity of our own society; it removes our ability to explain why, for example, the Lady Hussey affair or Windrush scandal exposed the fraught and often painful question about who is truly British, in a way that would appear peculiar to an American. However, white working-class Brits were conspicuous in their absence from this chapter.

John Barnes mural in Liverpool

In impoverished parts of cities such as Manchester, Leeds and London, immigrant communities and white Brits have lived with, worked with and fallen in love with each other in immeasurable numbers. Though there have been tensions and conflicts along the way, there are strong examples of inter-ethnic and inter-religious solidarity and fusion in ways unique to Britain.

By engaging seriously and thoughtfully with identitarian thinkers such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, Owolade exposes their Kafkaesque, circular logic about what constitutes racism and who is a racist. In his chapter on Critical Race Theory, he demonstrates how Kendi and DiAngelo, far from addressing racist challenges, actually “strip racism of its moral content” by expanding its definition casually and loosely.

This is a powerful point: when we call everything racist, we reduce our ability to discern genuine racial hatred and discrimination. Indeed, this fixation on race is a deeply American one.

It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth, Remi Adekoya (Little Brown, £14.99)

For Adekoya, however, the primary reason for the explosion of Black Lives Matter is “the shared sense of global disregard for blackness”. These issues, “whilst consciously intensified and exploited by race activists, are reflective of the global reality”. Black Lives Matter resonated with so many because it exposed the truth of how black people are persistently at the bottom of the economic pile. He thus strikes at the core question: why does racialised inequality persist? In Adekoya’s words, “a race debate not embedded in detailed material realities is intellectual masturbation”.

Whilst it is widely known that many black African countries experience gross levels of absolute poverty, Adekoya’s book exposes just how shocking it is and questions why this doesn’t inspire outrage for Western anti-racist activists. One example closer to home is that “the median white British household is worth £314,000 compared to £34,000 for the median black African household”.

Now, there are varied reasons for that — median age, intergenerational wealth, etc. — but Adekoya argues that “the chief source of racial group power and status today is collective wealth”. Therefore, “addressing the wealth gap is a practical necessity” to avoid “a toxic environment of mutually perpetuating resentments”.

The strength of Adekoya’s book is that it is rooted in concrete material questions in the context of a debate transfixed by the performative and the representational. Whilst he criticises the West, he recognises that all groups protect their status, and the West is often amenable to the grievances of minorities.

He suggests Western countries should consider some sort of Marshall Plan to support Africa, but also holds the continent’s leaders accountable: “Africa’s ruling classes need to start creating the enabling environments Africans require to realise their potential and multiply black wealth.” We can all sing “Kumbaya” about moral equality, but economic inequality has consequences about who decides what and in whose interest.

Zadie Smith

This is why I sometimes pondered who Owolade’s primary target audience is. It is somewhat frustrating that it still needs to be said that ethnic minority people in Britain are British or that great poets such as Philip Larkin can and do appeal to black people.

In fact, most people in the UK, as he points out, see no contradiction between being black and British. So who are the people that need reminding? In recent decades a (mainly white) middle-class liberal-left elite has capitulated to a patronising, condescending politics of infantilisation and white racial guilt in the name of helping black people and reducing racism.

In this analysis, black people are assumed to be victims of oppression by privileged, nasty whites who must atone for their sin of being born with pale skin. Ironically, yet disturbingly, this has led to a form of “woke racism” (as John McWhorter puts it), which has reinforced the entrenched racial categories that we are ostensibly working to overcome.

Sir Trevor Phillips

Owolade points to the omission in 2020 of Sir Trevor Phillips, John Barnes and Zadie Smith from the 100 Greatest Black Britons list, speculating that this resulted from their criticism of identity politics. Those who present another explanation for racial disparities can expect to face much worse: I was surprised to find so little mention of the 2021 Sewell report on race and ethnic disparities. Whilst one may disagree with its findings, the systematic attempt to delegitimise its authors was indefensible. As Trevor Phillips remarked, the silence of the white establishment was deafening.

Yes, there are key differences in the American and British racial contexts, but it is often what makes our experiences similar that is so fascinating. Why is it that in both countries, anti-racist activists insist on painting their nation’s histories as essentially evil? Why have some historically marginalised groups been able to advance economically and not others? Why is real progress overlooked or even denied, whilst anyone who points out progress is chastised? These questions afflict the Anglo-American sphere in similar ways, suggesting a deeper and broader problem within Western liberal democracies.

The American civil rights movement from the 1950s often gets taught in British schools, not because we’re importing American history, but because it was an extraordinary demonstration of the transformational capacity of human agency in the face of sickening injustice. We need powerful moral stories. Yet today those who advocate for colourblindness are often cast as racism deniers, a moral tragedy indeed. We’ve given up on ideals and given up on the future.

The challenge for critics of identity politics is not just to critique, but to explain and genuinely understand the questions being asked. It is all well and good to say that racial disparities don’t necessarily equate to racism. Then what does explain racial disparities? It is fine to say we shouldn’t have racial quotas. Then how do we guarantee opportunity for all, regardless of race? Both This is Not America and It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth form part of the urgent and long-awaited intellectual work needed to create a genuinely fair and socially just society, one that doesn’t depend on treating ethnic minority people like children.

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