Once defined by grassroots action and collective struggle, anti-racist movements are now more mainstream than ever before. Today, individualism and corporate agendas have stepped in, and the neoliberal assault on the left has fragmented Black Power movements.
In their new book, Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Anti-Racism (Pluto Books), authors Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee call for a recovering of radical histories of anti-racist struggle, and a new, socialist, multi-racial organising from below.
To mark the release of the book, Huck spoke to the authors about how police uphold structural racism, the usefulness and limits of social media in collective organising, and why race and racism must be understood not at the level of the individual, but within its systemic context.
Black Power movements had a huge impact globally as you demonstrate in the book, but in the UK, this history is continually erased. Why is that?
Azfar: In America, Black Power emerged from a longer tradition of older forms of Black organising, which became the civil rights movement and eventually split off into Black Power. So there’s a long history of institutions building a foundation of activists there, even if they broke off in different ways. In the UK however, post-World War Two, a lot of Afro-Caribbean and Asian people in Britain had gone back home once the colonies started decolonising, so when Black Power did emerge in Britain, it was in many (but not all) cases starting from zero in terms of a lack of durable institutional footprint.
Secondly, the historical erasure of Black Power in Britain is due to what we describe as ‘Antiracism from Above’, which eventually became the politics of state multiculturalism from the 1980s onwards. In part, this relied on having the memories of Black Power erased and reframing Black Power as a sort of immature politics in comparison to later forms of Black institutional politics which turned away from the autonomy and antagonism towards groups like the Labour Party that defined Black Power organising. For the people who benefitted from this multicultural turn over the course of the 1980s onwards, their politics were framed as the logical conclusion of Black Power politics, rather than the negation of it.
The ’60s and ’70s saw a massive surge in the Black Power movement, and this intersected with labour struggles and the fight for better working conditions. What circumstances made these decades such politically strong and resistant years?
Azfar: What Black Power represented was not just a sort of narrow single issue antiracist politics: it was struggles for community, for self-determination, struggles against police and state violence, against economic exclusion and social marginalisation. So, Black Power emerged as the organised political expression of the most excluded, alienated sections of the British population who had seen the failures of the postwar social order, of social democracy, and the welfare state, which, despite having been built on their labour in Britain and abroad in the colonies, offered them the least in return.
The Black Power generation from the late ’60s onwards was a rejection of the previous status quo, and was a full frontal attack on the institutions within British life which had made life intolerable for them. This included the policing apparatus and the state, as well as sections of what we understand as the broad British left, including parts of the trade union movement, particularly their leadership, especially at national level, who had colluded with racist parties to deny Black and brown people the ability to organise. It was a response to suffocation on all fronts, socioeconomic and political, and was an attempt to rebuild the new type of politics.
Tell me more about Antiracism from Above’s three-pronged strategy that you dissect within the book.
Ilyas: The first is ‘Black enterprise’: this is the way in which racism is redefined from a political problem to one of simply economics – and this was connected to Thatcher’s entrepreneurial project, so the idea of creating a Black middle class and ‘responsible Black leaders’. The second is representation politics; the politics of Black faces in high places, which turns Black communities into constituencies who are there to be represented and/or groomed for electioneering purposes, which completely homogenises them.
The last one is the growth of civil society funded by left labour councils, local and national governments, to undertake nominally antiracist work. What this does is replace the organisational form of radical popular parties into professionalised organisations, which meant that they neither reflected the militancy nor the urgency of the demands of the communities. You suddenly had organisations who were dependent on funding, meaning that there was either overt or covert encouragement of depoliticisation and professionalisation and the promotion of scarcity culture.
Azfar: By changing these three components of the struggle, ‘Antiracism from Above’ negated the ability for Black Power to reproduce itself and build an independent antiracist, radical politics. Instead of Black Power, we now have a Black civic power; we have NGOs and charities doing the work. Instead of Black Power, we have Black corporatism. This negated the politics of radical self-determination that Black Power represented, it negated the politics of mass social struggle that Black Power had advanced, and it negated the role of our history.
In the book, you demonstrate how the police and policing have always had a huge role, not only in the social control of non-white populations in the UK, but also in the colonies. Where did this kind of come from and what is its relevance today with the kind of resurgence of policing, especially in relation to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act?
Ilyas: Many people locate the origins of the police in people like Robert Peel and the establishment of the Metropolitan Police, but in the book we go back a little bit further and we talk about the Marine police office established in Wapping, which was the private police of those that were profiting of slavery to ensure the protection of goods brought in from the colonies. Many of the tactics practiced in the colonies developed into the formation of everyday policing in Britain. So, for example, we know that in the 1981 Toxteth riots, Merseyside police deployed CS gas [a common type of tear gas]; this was the first time CS Gas was used on the British mainland. Prior to that, CS gas had only ever been used in the North of Ireland against uprisings against the British occupation there.
We also look at deaths after incidents with police vehicles, [such as] the death of a disabled white youth after being rammed by a police car during the Toxteth riots. Since then, deaths following incidents with police vehicles have risen and in 2019, we saw the number of deaths following interaction with a police vehicle reach a 13 year high. And one of the things in the PCSC Act is the lowering of standards of what’s considered reckless police driving. The arsenal of weaponry used by police against protesters, against poor communities, against racialised communities, along with some of the tactics used in policing, now root themselves back in those struggles in [the colonies].
Azfar: If we understand that race is not ‘real’ in a scientific sense and is ideological and political, the question is, how is race made the material? How does an abstract idea become a force that shapes people’s lives and destinies? Police are central to this if we understand that race provides the scaffolding for society and social order. The police are the ones that police the boundaries of that social order.
Historically, we’ve seen attempts to suppress antiracist organising and the shift towards a more individualist culture, exacerbated by social media. What is the solution to these challenges?
Ilyas: Social media has completely reframed the way that a whole generation of people consider what solidarity is and what solidarity can be. There’s been so much written about the way social media can form an immediate response to things or even democratise movements by creating a horizontal field of people that can all participate in conversations.
I think one of the things that social media has done is bridge some geographical divides, but also it’s done very little to narrow the social gulfs that have opened up over the last few decades. The online sphere thrives on the fire of pile-ons which doesn’t allow the space for the slow burn process of building solidarity. And so, I think social media has led to this weird form of mutual surveillance. One of the lines from the book is: “Today’s spy cops need not don a uniform or enter a protest, all they have to do is make a Twitter account.”
You argue in the book that race should not primarily be framed as an identity, but as a social force and something that people are subject to within society. How do you feel that current antiracist efforts fail on this?
Ilyas: Rather than a focus on dismantling structural racism and the processes that produce race and therefore racism, we continue to see a heavy focus on the individual and the inability to recognise that racism is race in motion, that the two are interconnected. We know that race isn’t a fixed biological reality and racialisation works both positively and negatively and through different markers. But the way in which race is spoken about in Britain today provides the primary stumbling blocks to organising antiracist collectives that can properly take on structural racism, because there’s almost no consensus on what structural racism is.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Anti-Racism is out now on Pluto Books.
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