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By Koos Couvée
In the autumn of last year I sat in a jam-packed room at the independent Bookmarks bookshop in Holborn, where Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley launched their new book, titled The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age.
In the book, Lentin and Titley explore how today, in what widely regarded as a post-racial era, racism increasingly finds its articulation through notions of culture, and more specifically through attacks on multiculturalism. However, they show that firstly, even amongst its critics, there is no coherent idea of what multiculturalism is and secondly, that multicultural policies persist across Europe. The book argues that the attack on multiculturalism is an attack on the multicultural reality of life in the West today. It is the possible co-existence of different groups of people that is being questioned, and this questioning has moved from the far right fringes into the heart of the mainstream political debate.
Alana Lentin is a political sociologist and social theorist, currently working as Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. Her work centres around the study of race, racism and anti-racism and she has done extensive research into the contemporary politics of (im)migration and collective action for migrants’ rights. Months after the launch of the book, I meet her to talk about the book’s main theoretical insights and its relevance for understanding racism in contemporary Britain.
KC: Your book is very much concerned with the notion of post-racialism. Can you explain what you mean by this?
AL: Firstly, we have to be careful, because as soon as you say it is no longer possible to talk about race, or that it has been acknowledged that we have entered a post-racial era, people will cite you a list of examples where notions of race are used. We are not just concerned with language, and here there is a difference between European countries, and the UK and the US. In continental Europe it’s virtually impossible to talk about race, the word is never really used in political discourse. But in countries where the terms post-race and post-racism have come onto the agenda, we’re not just talking about supplanting the word with other euphemisms, although that is going on as well.
What we’re talking about when we discuss post-racialism, is that a silence about race is a silence about racism. In post-racial ideology, ‘real racism’ is a thing of the past –historical events like the Holocaust, Apartheid and slavery, and at a push the way migrants were treated when they came to the UK and other European countries. Today, even quite blatant examples of institutional racism are seen as removed from those historical examples.
This means that when Mark Duggan was shot by police, for example, it is entirely possible to argue that the event is entirely dislocated from having anything to do with race. That same type of argument was applied in the Dianne Abbott tweet storm. What Dianne Abbott was talking about, namely the history of colonialism, in which divide and rule was a common tactic, gets written out of the story and the fact that her tweet centred on white people, means that you can have this generalisation of anti-white racism. Gavan and I wrote about this in the Guardian.
Post-racialism is best understood as a two-step, or two-sided argument. The first step is that racism is a thing of the past. Secondly, the implication of that idea is that racism is now universal – the natural attitude that any human being would have when placed in a situation where they would be confronted with something different or strange. Hence anyone can be racist, and Dianne Abbott is equally racist as she named white people, regardless of what she said.
You have a situation in which race is sidelined, and by sidelining race you have a lack of attention to racism. Where people are the victims of racism, it can easily be argued that it is something else – the issue is relativised.
KC: You argue that in a post-racial era, contemporary racism finds its articulation in a discourse around notions of culture. Can you talk about the relationship between race and culture in constituting racist discourse?
AL: In a post-racial era, the era we are supposed to be living in, where people experience racial discrimination, they are said to be experiencing it due to other factors that are non-racial. What we see is an acceptance by the Right, and liberals, of the anti-racist principle that race has no basis in biological fact. This is an argument that anti-racists were already making in the interwar period, notably the anthropologist Franz Boas, and of course W.B. Du Bois, who went a long way to proving this.
This idea then becomes the orthodoxy in the post-war era, and becomes cemented in the for example in the UNESCO Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice. In the 1980’s and the 1990’s, the new Right adopts these ideas into its thinking. So rather than argue that immigrants shouldn’t be here because they are genetically inferior to us in some way, they argue that immigrants are incompatible with us culturally. So they use the anti-racist language which prefers to talk about different cultures rather than different races because it is more palatable, but they use it obviously to very different effect. That again is a denial of racism.
Our basic argument is that whether or not you discriminate against someone or a certain group based on their biological or their cultural features is that acts of discrimination result in the same level of oppression. It is immaterial to the racialised person whether it’s their biological or their cultural make-up that has been pointed out. What we argue in our book is that culturalisation, or culturalism, works the same was as old racism because it naturalises aspects of people’s culture and makes those people unable to be defined in any other way.
It is very obvious in the case of Islam today, the fact that somebody is a practising Muslim often signified through the wearing of the veil, is a shorthand to everything that person could stand for. We don’t need to know anything else about that person, apart from what has been told us by the signifier; the hijab for example.This is where Stuart Hall’s notion of the floating signifier comes in.
What scholars like Robert Young and Etienne Balibar have pointed out, is that this whole argument, that came to the fore in the ‘80’s and the 90’s, is a rather dangerous one because it completely elides the fact that race and culture, i.e. genetics and culture, were always mutually reinforcing concepts for compounding otherness, for setting people apart. The historical case of anti-Semitism exemplifies this in the best way possible. Jews in Germany who were completely assimilated and couldn’t be told apart physically from their fellow Germans, were nonetheless feared, and what was feared about them was elements of their culture which was said to express something about the way they were made up internally. Philosopher Hannah Arendt talks about the ‘Jewish essence’, which was said to underlie why Jews were hated in this way or that way. Race and culture have always been constituted together.
KC: I’d like to pick up on what you said about the culturalisation of politics. In his seminal piece ‘Multiculturalism or the Cultural logic of multinational capitalism’ Slavoj Zizek blames multiculturalism itself for the culturalisation of politics. Is Zizek right? Has the doctrine of multiculturalism itself given rise to the culturalisation of politics, which now paradoxically, comes back to haunt it?
AL: Well, the short answer is yes. But itis important to clarify the distinction between our position and that of Slavoj Zizek. Firstly, Zizek doesn’t know anything about the history of anti-racist politics, so he cannot do justice to what actually happened. You have to know historically what actually happened with multiculturalism before you can start to pass judgment onto who is actually responsible for it.
Although I trust that Zizek’s political intentions are different, his basic position tallies completely with that of the liberal commentariat, people like Nick Cohen and others who like to bang on about how multiculturalism is responsible for destroying European identity, or people like Kenan Malik, who talk a lot about how multiculturalism is responsible for the essentialisation of groups of people. What they do is they take elements of the critique that has been usefully worked out by anti-racists, and they apply it to make a different argument which basically leads you down the road of minorities are responsible for discohesion in society. They talk about an alliance of minorities and liberal do-gooders who are responsible for this, which is similar to Zizek’s stance.
Our argument is a different one, and it is three sided. Firstly, there is nothing really called multiculturalism that is specifically spelled out and worked out in terms of social policy in any European country. There are sets of initiatives and policies that have operated in very different ways in different places. Even a country like France, which has officially rejected multiculturalism, has had various types of multicultural policies, if we understand multicultural policies as being this quite wishy-washy set of social policies where the rights of minorities are accommodated in various piecemeal ways. That is the most coherent thing you can say about multicultural policy.
The second point is that multiculturalism is not something that was asked for by excluded minority groups. In the US, post civil rights, you had a situation in which the civil rights discourse of meritocracy and universal rights was being morphed into a much more radical critique of the state, something which Dr King himself had already embarked on before his assassination, for example. That is then taken up by groups like the Black Panthers, it happens in the context of the Vietnam War, so it is a time in which a lot of people are becoming radicalised. And there are potentials for solidarity between anti-racists and other identity movements, such as the women’s movement and the queer movement. Similar things are happening in France, Britain and other western centres of postcolonial immigration.
It is at this point, and progressively so over the next twenty years, that the establishment realises it needs to intervene, because it is losing control of the situation. Examples of repression in the US are very obvious with the targeted imprisonment and assassination of Black leaders.One of the things that happens in the UK, which is well charted by Paul Gilroy in ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’, is the way in which there is a quite concertned effort by the state to instil what we would call multicultural policies as a way of, as Gilroy puts it, ‘taking the fight off the streets and into the town hall.’ What the state wanted to do is de-radicalise the movement and split its potential solidarities with different movements and immigrants from different backgrounds up. Author Arun Kundnani describes a mirroring of the old colonial arrangement in the UK, where various patriarchal community leaders, who often have some sort of religious agenda, are roped in to being spokespeople for what we now refer to as ‘communities’. The result is that quite a lot of money is pumped into initiatives that they hold dear and attention is defleissected away from the more grassroots movements who then die a death because of exactly this divide and rule policy. That is where multiculturalism comes from as a policy, it is not something that anti-racists have asked for, and it is not, as Zizek contends, the result of an alliance between minority activists and a liberal elite.
The third point is that when you’re talking about what’s in crisis today in terms of multiculturalism, you’re not even referring to the historical changes I just described. The crucial point is that multicultural policies haven’t really come under attack. You see all kinds of policies that are basically the same types of policies that have been in place for decades. What you call diversity today is just another iteration of multiculturalism. These are the same culturalist politics; i.e. culturalised responses to political or socio-economic issues in society. That is not what is under attack. What is under attack is what has been described as the ‘multiculturalism of fact’ – the lived multicultural experience. The fact that people from different backgrounds live together is under attack and it is being done under the guise of statements saying state multiculturalism has failed.
KC: This is what you are talking about in the book when you talk in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ diversity, correct?
AL: Exactly. This perspective tries to encourage good diversity, i.e. encourage a view of an open minded, tolerant societyin which people eat lovely Chinese food. Politicians like David Lammy exemplify this good diversity because they don’t rock the boat too much, wear the right kind of suits and speak the right kind of received English. We’ve had examples of this in various European settings, for instance the ministers who Sarkozy brought into the government; young women of migrant origin, who couldn’t be more perfect in respresenting ‘good diversity.’ And then there is bad diversity, which is obviously anybody who may be involved in critiquing the state, radicalised youth, riots, Mark Duggan, the list goes on.
KC: I suppose we can safely say that the construction of what constitutes ‘bad diversity’ is largely done through the media. What are your thoughts on racism and the media, the Leveson Inquiry and what has brought about your involvement with the Islam Channel’s Alternative Leveson Inquiry?
AL: I must say I have not paid particular attention to all the pop stars and celebrities at the Leveson enquiry, but what the Islam Channel are doing is use the momentum and name of Leveson in order to draw attention to the issue of racism and islamophobia in the media. I think that’s a good strategy and I am happy to support it. However, it has to be understood that its remit will be very different to the official enquiry. Part of the discussion is around calling it something different so it will be more clearly signposted as having to do with islamophobia in the media, with the subheading ‘the alternative Leveson Inquiry’.
I also think there is a danger in boiling down the issue of racism and islamophobia to the media, as if the media isn’t a reflection of state racism. If you want to take a Gramscian perspective on the whole thing, the media must be understood as a mouthpiece of the general public culture, which is implicated in racism. It’s not about individual attitudes that find expression in the media, it’s more about how people’s thoughts and ideas become cemented through the media’s manipulation of certain discourses which ultimately originate in a general culture of racism, in which the state is deeply involved.
KC: You mean to say that race as a political idea is not so much a description of a social reality but rather a tool that actively seeks to bring about a certain social reality?
AL: Exactly. But having said that, the media has been deeply involved in cementing this notion that Muslims are a threat to British society, this does need to be pointed out. But the extent to which merely pointing out this fact will change media practice, I am quite pessimistic about.
KC: Would you support something like affirmative action in order to increase minority representation in the media?
AL: I don’t think affirmative action is going to work. It’s the idea coming out of the MacPherson inquiry, that you just need more black and ethnic minority police officers to tackle institutional racism within the police, which is completely ridiculous. The small number of BME police officers that joined the force since the inquiry is testament to the fact that people don’t want to be there because it’s a racist institution.
Promoting BME journalists would help, but what is needed is a complete cultural shift, and certain types of reporting need to be made unacceptable. A lot of reporting is involved in spinning rather than reporting things as they actually are. I think it’s a difficult issue, because there is confusion between what sells, and what certain news organisation wish to promote. With the Daily Mail for example, it is very clear that this organisation wants to promote a certain ideology, particularly with regards to immigration.
How can minority journalists survive in that racist structure and should they want to? The few black journalists that point out racism can be counted on one hand – Gary Younge, Hugh Muir, and a few freelancers. Everybody else working in the media has to play the mainstream game. It’s a choice that people make in the end, either being in the tent pissing out, or out of the tent pissing in. There has to be a complete change of culture, and it’s not by parachuting in a group of ethnic minority journalists that it is going to change.
The Crises of Multiculturalism can be purchased from Bookmarks Bookshop and Amazon from £15.99.
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