How State Racism Divides Multicultural Britain

MulticulturalismThis article by Estelle du Boulay and Prity Patel-Bedia appears in the February 2011 edition of Labour Briefing

David Cameron’s recent attack on ‘the doctrine of state multiculturalism’ for cultivating separatism and with it ‘domestic Islamic extremism’ fails to recognise that state racism – the race and class inequalities indivisible from state power – engineers the division of communities in British society.

Multiculturalism does not render itself to any easy definition. Original proponents of multiculturalism described ideals of respect and growth leading to greater equality. In its simplest form it is the co-existence of diverse cultures together in unity; however this is meaningless without the state accepting that ‘unity’ cannot be achieved without addressing dominant culture and power structures.

Multiculturalism has fallen short by never moving beyond ‘culture’ and into an understanding and challenging of institutional racism. It was a state response to campaigns against racist attacks, police harassment, and discrimination in housing, entertainment centres, and employment. Put simply, racist police officers who abuse their authority will stop doing so, not when they ‘understand black people better’, but when black people have an effective way to bring such officers before an impartial court to account for their actions.

The failure to deal with these root issues forms the basis for the criticism multiculturalism draws from across the political spectrum today. The limitations of the concept leave it open to hijacking by those who seek to blame individual ethnic, religious and cultural communities, most notably attacking Muslims, for a failure to integrate rather than identifying the institutional barriers to integration that prevented multiculturalism from succeeding.

In recent years there has been a consistent attack from the state on spaces catering for specific ‘identity’ groups – such as minority faith schools, places of worship and even autonomous women’s organisations – for encouraging non-inclusivity and intolerance of others. This simplistic approach does not get to the heart of the most widespread exclusions in British society: inequality of provision and access to decent housing, education, healthcare and employment affecting the working classes from all backgrounds. Without a shared a collective struggle, it is these divisions and the subsequent fight over available resources that pitches one community against another and ignites inter-community conflict and racism.

It is equally disingenuous for any government to argue that multiculturalism is responsible for tying its hands in relation to affording human rights, such as tackling forced marriage in Asian communities, for fear of being labelled racist or culturally insensitive. No sign of that same fear was visible when draconian anti-terrorism laws, such as control orders or the use of Section 44 stops without reasonable suspicion, were introduced and used so discriminately against black communities. If anything this highlights the value of autonomous organisations representing specific ethnic and cultural groups and positioned within a broader struggle for human rights, such as Newham Asian Women’s Project or Southall Black Sisters, who have been the drivers for progressive institutional change on issues such as forced marriage.

Under the cover of remedying multiculturalism’s shortcomings, the government has tasked itself with delivering a stronger vision of ‘British identity’. Any vision dictated by a government will provide no solution to excluded communities. For Cameron to conclude that a collective national identity should be forged over a collective tolerance of diverse cultures gives rise to a vision of assimilated peoples, homogenised into a ‘Stepford wives’ model.

Stemming from this debate and the financial implications it carries is the question of the ailing Preventing Violent Extremism agenda, already under review. Strides are afoot to further relocate the role of PVE within the Community Cohesion agenda. By diverting local authority funding from community projects to set PVE up, civil society has already been co-opted into providing surveillance over welfare and engraining divisive rhetoric at a community level. The outcome of this co-option is an absence of vocal critique to PVE. Without challenge, government can define an extremist threat as looming and pervasive, deepening alienation of black communities in the process.

The irony of Cameron’s speech coming on the day EDL marching through Luton was lost on few. By focusing public suspicion on Muslims an ever more dangerous alignment and legitimisation between mainstream and far-right agendas occurs. This persistent scapegoating by the state of one section of society must be met by a concerted resistance from diverse but united communities. Multiculturalism may not provide such a platform, but a movement that focuses on fundamental human rights and social justice, precisely because it is founded on collective strength, does.

This need for struggle is powerfully summarised by Ambalavaner Sivanandan in his 2005 essay ‘Race, Terror and Civil Society’: “Anti-racism is the element that infuses politics into multiculturalism and makes it dynamic and progressive… Resistance to, or struggle against, racism engenders a more just society, enlarges the democratic remit and provides the dynamics of integration that leads to a pluralistic society.”

Estelle du Boulay and Prity Patel-Bedia work for the community based anti-racist and civil liberty organisation Newham Monitoring Project.