The video of a white officer calmly kneeling against the neck of a black man, fatally ignoring his pleas for air, was always going to provoke outrage. Yet no one could have quite predicted the scope and intensity of the moral eruption that followed the death of George Floyd. Celebrities, protesters, corporations and governments around the world rushed to condemn racism, vowing to eliminate it for good.
Almost 10 months later, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with murdering Floyd, is about to start. And while nobody promised to eliminate racism in less than a year, enough has happened since Floyd’s death for us to ask ourselves an important question: how likely is it that today’s antiracist activists will succeed?
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For the sake of clarity, it is worth noting that even though no racial group has a monopoly on racist views — the idea that skin colour defines the quality of a person — when “racism” is spoken of these days, what is really meant, of course, is white racism. As many have pointed out, that isn’t to say that white people cannot be the target of racism. Whitebashing is certainly a thing these days; it is generally safe, even quite trendy, to make all sorts of derogatory comments about “whiteness” under the guise of “speaking truth to power”.
But we should also acknowledge that in western societies like Britain, the type of racism with the power to limit one’s life chances is typically that practised and condoned by white folk. This is partly down to the sheer potency of numbers. I, for example, cannot realistically choose not to worry about the attitudes of Britain’s 85% white population towards people of black heritage such as myself. In contrast, a white Brit does not have to be concerned in the same way about what black folk, who constitute just 3% of Britain, think about white people.
The existence of that choice is a fundamental difference; one that justifies today’s consistent focus on white racism, however repetitive or even unfair it may seem to some white Brits. But does this emphasis make the task of abolishing racism any easier?
I am not convinced — not least because today’s activists are overly focussed on the non-material sphere of life: on words, on what can and cannot be said, and by whom.
This approach to “fixing” the race problem is underpinned by a strong belief in the almost magical power of language. It assumes that the world runs on “narratives”, and that language is the only reality. Change the story, and you change everything. All of which means that white racism can be moralised into non-existence with the correct phrasing; that if we frequently mention how exploitative slavery and colonialism were, and how much western nations like Britain profited from them, white citizens will no longer believe that their societies are any better or more advanced than others.
This preoccupation with words is partly the ideological outcome of poststructuralist thinking, with its intellectually fashionable emphasis on highlighting how certain accepted “facts” function to reinforce the dominant position of powerful actors — in this case, white westerners. This approach, by its very nature, places great importance on words and how they are used.
But the current antiracist emphasis on language is also a consequence of the kind of people driving the race debate. Following the furious fallout from cataclysmic events such as George Floyd’s death, antiracism, long a dissident reaction to white discrimination, has now achieved mainstream prominence — and, in the process, has generated its own elite elements. These are usually well-educated middle or upper-class writers, scholars, intellectuals and artists. People whose trade, like mine, is in words and ideas. It is people from this group who the organisers of public debate — chiefly the media — usually call upon to opine on race in Britain, as I am doing at the moment.
The disproportionate influence of middle-class authors is, of course, not confined to the race debate. But that does not mean we should ignore its practical consequences. For more often than not, this intellectualist preoccupation with language is accompanied by a tendency to ignore the material priorities of those minorities at the margins of society. Decolonising the curriculum might be something I feel strongly about, considering I work in academia, but I suspect the minimum-wage level might be a more important issue for the black immigrant working the till at Sainsbury’s.
Indeed, the reality is that only 1 in 3 British workers earn their living either in managerial positions or in jobs generally classified as “professional”, namely those requiring a degree-level qualification. This generally applies to all ethnic groups, with Indians being the most likely to work in professional jobs (33%), while Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are the least likely (18%).
While there may be racial issues at play here as well, with some minorities perhaps working jobs below their qualifications, this nevertheless offers a picture of the socioeconomic structure of Britain, including minority Britain. More importantly, it shows how the more material priorities of some segments of that society are often obscured in the middle-class dominated race debate. This is not about today’s activists holding bad or even consciously selfish intentions, but about the fact that we are all prone to view the world, as well as what most needs to be changed about it, through the lens of our own everyday situation.
And this works both ways. Roughly five years ago, during a trip spent travelling around Nigeria — my country of birth — a banker friend urged me to “keep things positive” if I decided to write about the experience in “western media” when I returned to Britain. I asked why he would say that, considering Nigeria was in the middle of a huge economic crisis, with civil servants going unpaid for months and millions struggling to feed their families. My (well-paid) friend replied that this was nothing new in Nigeria, and was, in fact, better not emphasised. “You know negative western media stories on Africa only make these white folk and others look down on us,” he pointed out.
It typified the attitude among Africa’s privileged classes towards how their continent is viewed. While the majority poor population are often keen for the international media to highlight their suffering in the desperate hope some help might be forthcoming, affluent Africans are usually more concerned with the “negative stereotypes” they believe discussing poverty in Africa perpetuates. Their priorities are driven by their socioeconomic realities; they are the ones who travel abroad and come into contact with white people in international settings, conferences and what not. They understandably want to be treated as equals in these settings, not patronised, especially as they are accustomed to being treated deferentially in their own societies as a result of their class status.
They are, therefore, irritated by unflattering news stories about poverty in Africa because they know this helps shape how they themselves will be perceived abroad — as people associated with an unsuccessful continent. In essence, they are more interested in what is said about Africa than in the material reality of Africa for the majority of its inhabitants.
In recent years, I have come to notice similar class-based preoccupations in today’s western-centric antiracism, which is often too distant from the everyday material problems of the vast majority of black and brown-skinned people in the world, including here in the rich West. It is an antiracism that seems to believe policing language and boosting the influence of black and brown-skinned people in western cultural spaces is the highway to racial equality. Language and culture certainly matter, but the truth is that they can often be a distraction in the pursuit of racial equality.
Marx, despite everything, was correct in his key observation that it is the material world which determines ideology, not the other way round. Indeed, white racism today is the primordial manifestation of a global class system; one that, thanks mostly to material factors, has the power to impact black and brown lives. While it is true that numbers alone create a huge power differential between whites and others in a country like Britain, in a global context where whites constitute less than 15% of the world’s population, the only reason white racism is feared and talked about is because of the disproportionate power wielded by white wealth. Racism, after all, can only thrive when a particular racial group possesses the capacity to dominate others. Then it simply becomes a question of whether they choose to exploit that ability or not.
It needs hardly stating that the white capacity to dominate stems from their wealth. Despite the recent economic success of a few non-white nations, most notably Japan and China, 6 of the 10 largest economies in the world today are white-majority nations. Britain alone has a larger GDP than Africa. And when it comes to per capita wealth, crucial for deciding the negotiating power of individuals in a capitalist world, 17 of the top 20 nations are white-majority societies. Crucially, whites run much of today’s world because of this wealth, not because of their words. If the west were poor, nobody would care about white racism because it would be a toothless beast.
This white economic power is also reflected in our domestic reality: median white British household wealth stands at £314,000 compared to £66,000 for the median British-Bangladeshi family and £34,000 for the black African family. These material realities are far more important for the enabling of white racism than whether we read more or less Shakespeare in British schools. Or whether Churchill ends up pronounced a racist or not.
That is not to deny the power of words and morality. Moral arguments played a significant role in ending the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism by rendering both embarrassingly difficult to defend. People generally like to think themselves as good, and most find it unsettling to be accused of injustice. As it happens, British identity is very much intertwined with a self-image of fairness. This is why accusations of racial inequality usually provoke a strong reaction from mainstream (by that I mean “white”) Britain; it stems from a psychological need to protect that self-image.
This desire to not be seen as unfair has often proved an ally to those who have found themselves in a disadvantageous power relationship with Britain. Obafemi Awolowo, one of colonial Nigeria’s key pro-independence leaders, often emphasised that Nigerian independence was won “without firing a single shot” thanks to a combination of mass mobilisation and moral persuasion. His message was simple yet powerful: colonial rule does not meet the moral standards and democratic values the British professed to practise. In other words, it was a fundamentally unfair system deployed by a country that claimed to uphold fairness. With time, Britain had to acknowledge that this contradiction couldn’t be squared and the system had to go.
In a similar vein, the UK protests following George Floyd’s death, demanding an end to racial inequality, have also elicited a commitment to greater fairness from the majority population. This is not to be sneered at. But one thing history shows clearly is that while moral arguments were effective in helping end the formalised racial hierarchies we saw during slavery and colonialism, they did not, and could not, end the informal racial hierarchies stemming from economic hierarchies. These hierarchies place the wealthiest racial group — white people — at the top, the collectively poorest large racial group — black people — at the bottom, and everyone else somewhere in the middle.
Aside from the practical implications of this, the knowledge that their nations tend to be wealthier and better-developed helps foster a sense of superiority among more than a few white people, while simultaneously placing many black and brown-skinned folk at a psychological disadvantage.
Meanwhile, historical debates over how we got to where we are today might be important, but unless we actually believe they can lead to white folk one day deciding to hand over half their collective wealth — which I don’t believe will happen — then “winning” such debates won’t change much in the real world. Focusing on the non-material aspects of white racism may come more naturally to those driving the race debate; it is certainly easier than coming up with practical solutions to its long-lasting material aspects. But only the latter can truly change the everyday realities of Britain’s minorities.
This is why I think by far the most important British reaction to the protests following George Floyd’s death was the government’s establishment of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, due to release its report soon. Of course, the true measure of this initiative will be in the depths of its findings and the plausibility of its recommendations to reduce the material disparities between this country’s racial groups. But acknowledging that socioeconomic power differentials are the key to enabling white racism today is a crucial beginning to a more equal and racially harmonious Britain. The sooner we start focussing more on the material side of things, the better.