Police patrollng Stamford Hill in north London. Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images

November 30, 2020   5 mins

We all know that racism is about prejudice and power. Or at least that is an increasingly popular definition, one that has become more mainstream during this most racially-conscious of years.

By this logic, evidence of prejudice is insufficient qualification for racism; the group you are prejudiced against also needs to be structurally oppressed. This explains why many say that white people can’t be victims of racism; they may suffer prejudice, but they are not systematically disadvantaged in school, employment and the criminal justice system on the basis of their race. And this is why, for many, there is no distinction between racism and structural racism; racism is structural by definition.

But this definition raises an important question: that if racism is about disadvantages in education, employment and the criminal justice system, what does this mean for ethnic minorities who are not disadvantaged in contemporary Britain along those lines?

The Labour Party, an avowedly anti-racist movement, has been plagued in recent years by accusations of anti-Semitism. The recent EHRC report found “a culture within the party which, at best, did not do enough to prevent anti-Semitism and, at worst, could be seen to accept it”.

Many Labour supporters and sympathisers have tried nobly to make sense of this contradiction. In a recent article, Novara Media writer Ash Sarkar distinguished anti-Semitism from other forms of racism. Anti-Semitism, she contended, is unrelated to “systemic disadvantage in either the jobs market or the criminal justice system”. Sarkar emphasised in a later tweet that she does not think Jews are privileged, or that they don’t face racism; she simply thinks that the racism they face is different from the racism other minorities face.

Nevertheless, Sarkar seems more sympathetic to the structural definition of racism. She argues, for instance, that “better party strategy, or fairer media coverage, does not result in a healthier anti-racist politic”. This is because “the bullying of black MPs might be stamped out, but it would not mean that Labour’s policy on policing or immigration would improve”. So a “healthier anti-racist politics” is one that focuses on structural inequalities rather than interpersonal prejudice.

The anti-Semitism scandal within the Labour Party has been specifically about the spread of noxious ideas and instances of interpersonal abuse. Sarkar, on the other hand, argues that anti-racism is actually about dismantling the material inequalities in our society, and that “racism against Jewish people does not result in the harsher prison sentences, wage gaps, stop and search or unequal healthcare outcomes that we see with other groups“.

Jews, by this logic, do not qualify under this definition of racism, which emphasises structural inequalities — that same definition to which Sarkar and many others are most attached to. If structural inequalities are the basis for racism, then Jews in contemporary Britain cannot by definition be victims of racism.

This concept of racism is not only insensitive to anti-Semitism; it also fails to account for prejudice against other minorities in Britain. British-Indians and British-Chinese people, for example, have the highest educational attainment out of all ethnic groups in the country. They also have the largest percentage, as a share of their population, in the higher managerial, administrative and professional roles.

More than 30% of British-Indians are employed in professional roles — the highest rate of all ethnic minorities in the country. They are stopped and searched by the police at the same rate as white people; British-Chinese people are stopped and searched at an even lower rate. How can the structural definition of racism, then, account for racism against these particular ethnic minorities?

One could argue that it is a basis for explaining racism against some groups but not others. But invoking structural inequalities, without explaining how and why race is the critical factor in these inequalities, shows this definition falls foul of the disparity fallacy: that different outcomes in education, employment and the criminal justice system are necessarily a consequence of race.

Structural inequalities might be a consequence of race, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are. If these outcomes were necessarily because of race, this wouldn’t just mean that minorities with worse outcomes were racially disadvantaged. It would also imply that some minorities, like Jewish people, are racially privileged. (And remember: if you are racially privileged, you can’t be a victim of racism.)

This would seem to be the view of Andrew Murray, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s advisers. Murray says that Corbyn struggled to empathise with Jews because “he’s empathetic with the poor, the disadvantaged, the migrant, the marginalised… Happily, that is not the Jewish community in Britain today”. He adds that Corbyn would have empathised with the Jewish community in “the 1930s” or at “Cable Street” — but not now, and this is because “the Jewish community is relatively prosperous”. Murray’s statement is delivered with the grace and subtlety befitting an aristocratic communist.

Murray was expressing that Jews don’t count in an understanding of racism that emphasises structural oppression. This is an instance of one account of racism monopolising the other ways it manifests itself. This isn’t simply wrongheaded. In the case of anti-Semitism, it is especially dangerous. As the German social democrat August Babel said, anti-Semitism is the “socialism of the fools”. Jews supposedly possess power and privilege; so to call them out thus makes one a foe of structural inequalities.

This is why the rapper Wiley, in his hate-filled logorrhoea on Twitter, promoted the (untrue) view that Jews played a disproportionate role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This is linked, in his mind, to the exploitative role of Jewish music managers in contemporary Britain. Wiley genuinely believes he was identifying and condemning structural racism.

One of the saddest parts of that episode was seeing some young black men on my social media feeds expressing sympathy with him. If racism is about prejudice and power, what language can we use to condemn black men from working class backgrounds endorsing anti-Jewish ideas? As the writer John-Paul Pagano puts it, “when racism poses as resistance by victims of racism, as anti-Semitism often does, it disqualifies Jews from concern”.

Similarly with American rapper Ice Cube, who shared on his Twitter account a painting of hook-nosed men sitting atop slaves. In light of the death of George Floyd, he thought he was just identifying the forces hindering racial progress; like Wiley, he was convinced he was expressing anger at the structural inequalities that plague his country.

The French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, after multiple convictions of hate speech against Jews, also rejects the charge of anti-Semitism; he affirms he is simply inveighing against the Establishment and Zionism. He, too, filters his racial prejudice through the paradigm of fighting structural inequalities.

Ethnic minority people can express rage at racism without deploying anti-Semitic tropes; they can even adhere to the structural definition without resorting to anti-Semitism. But the issue is that this definition is blind to the prejudices against Jews and other minorities. Chinese people, Indians and, increasingly, Nigerians in contemporary Britain do not easily fit within the paradigm of structural oppression.

This is not to say that racism can’t be manifested structurally; of course it can. But racism is more complex than simply looking at which groups are distributed at the bottom or top of our society’s institutions. Recognising the messy truth is more important than endorsing a clean narrative. The former enables you to finely target different manifestations of prejudice; the latter stunts your curiosity and compassion.

Labour activists and avowed anti-racists will only be able to express genuine compassion with Jews once they recognise that the structural definition of racism is not simply limiting but dangerous, adding fuel to the already-dangerous flames of anti-Semitism.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.