Sewell’s denialism is a problem of strategic, as well as structural, racism

Many of Britain’s leading antiracists have devoted themselves, over the last week, to refuting – and sometimes ridiculing – the racism denial of a new official report on ‘racial and ethnic disparities’. This document is now notorious for the attempt of its chair, Tony Sewell (right), to put a positive gloss on the ‘slave period’ of the ‘Caribbean experience’, and for having no more ambitious antiracist proposal than the abolition of ‘BAME’ (British and minority ethnic) terminology. Its central conclusion that it ‘found no evidence of systemic or institutional racism’ has cued many admirable demonstrations that quite the opposite is the case, and that the report offers little or nothing to address real problems of racism and inequality.

Much of this commentary has been, however, rather beside the point. A commission appointed by Boris Johnson and handpicked by his close advisor Munira Mirza, as part of the nationalist regime’s response to Black Lives Matter, was hardly likely to do otherwise. A swifter appraisal could have been made merely by searching for the term ‘Islamophobia’, the widely used name for anti-Muslim racism, which has been the most prominent overt type in the UK – through which hostility to people of colour continues to be legitimised – since the turn of the century. The term does not appear in the report.

Another search is also illuminating: any reference to ‘Conservative Party’ is also absent, although the evidence that the party is institutionally racist against Muslims is so substantial that the former Tory Chancellor, Sajid Javid, famously bounced Johnson (during the 2019 leadership contest) into agreeing to an inquiry into the problem. Johnson himself had, of course, used an attack on Muslim women’s dress to achieve his pole position in the party; after winning, he soon diluted the inquiry into a looser examination of how it dealt with racism more generally, whose long-delayed report, it was also revealed this week, has been sat on further for the last two months. It is hardly surprising that a governing party which is itself institutionally racist commissions a report which denies institutional racism.

However these are but instances of the larger context which has also been missed in most responses to Sewell. The report’s denial of structural racism should be seen as a kind of anti-antiracism, which in turn is part of the strategic racism which is central to the nationalist Tory regime. Brexit was won, in the 2016 referendum, only through the method of racist anti-immigration mobilisation which Johnson’s Vote Leave campaign, directed by Dominic Cummings, borrowed from Nigel Farage’s UKIP success over the previous decade. This mobilisation had been so potent that even before Johnson assumed power in 2019, Theresa May’s interim regime had thoroughly embraced it, baking anti-immigrant racism (via ending freedom of movement) into the UK’s Brexit ‘red lines’. Johnson then won the leadership by doubling down on his Islamophobic comments for the benefit of party members, and finally a parliamentary majority partly by re-emphasising hostility to immigrants and Europeans for the benefit of the Tories’ new electoral base.

The regime’s strategic racism has confused some observers because of its selective, pick’n’mix approach – favouring Jews, Hindus and Hong Kongers while targeting Muslims, East Europeans, travellers and poor immigrants generally – and because of its parallel tweaks to the immigration rules, which attempt to mitigate the economic damage of Brexit. But there is little doubt that a regime which actively celebrates the cruelty of deportation flights – even to Jamaica in the aftermath of Windrush – and dreams up ever more fantastical ways of demonising and punishing defenceless asylum seekers, is still fixated on the approach which served its leaders so well in 2016.

This is now widely described as one of ‘culture war’, and its audience as ‘cultural (or social) conservatives’. Certainly, the regime’s targeting of what can be broadly described as cultural institutions (universities, museums , the National Trust) and its cultivation of reactionary heritage iconography plays into this framing, as does the salience of wider impulses such as transphobia and even, still, homophobia, for sections of its audience. But the ‘culture’ that Johnson seeks to promote is above all racial-national; this alone glues together the full minority electorate which gives him power in the UK system.

‘Strategic racism’ is therefore a more accurate way of framing how the regime aims to maintain and expand power, as it presides over a Brexitised economy and a pandemic toll heading towards 200,000. The importance of Sewell is that this appeal has to fly against the UK’s powerful, legally entrenched normative antiracism. In this context, anti-antiracism legitimised by people of colour – which, apart from a token white man, the commissioners were – is a powerful protective shield. It does not matter that the report’s arguments are threadbare or confused, the presentation messy, and the omissions huge. What counts for the regime is that the messages – British society is not structurally racist, it’s not racist to be proud of Britain, even slavery wasn’t entirely bad, etc. – cut through, via a tame press, submissive television news and simple social media memes, to the half of the electorate to which they can realistically hope to appeal. As even the BBC website notes, surely the controversy was also ‘part of the plan‘, enabling Conservatives to pit their black commissioners against the antiracist critics. Priyamvada Gopal tweeted that if the report were a student dissertation, it would be a Fail. But as a strategic racist initiative, it was a B+. Job done.

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