Global Extremes

Back to the future of multi-ethnic Britain

The route towards an anti-racist, inclusive Britain exists, but who is willing to take it?

Thomas Sealy
21 July 2020
Black lives Matter protest in central London, 19 Jul 2020
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Picture by Thabo Jaiyesimi. SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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As momentum generated by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests continues, in Britain more pointed questions are now being asked about what it means and what is needed to fulfil the promises of anti-racism. This is indicated in how Britain came to international attention with the toppling of the statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol. A key aspect of this is a call to engage with Britain’s colonial history more critically in order to develop a more inclusive vision of Britain and conception of ‘Britishness’ able to reflect more fully its past, present and future.

One key issue that arises for this task is around how the ‘Black’ in Black lives is conceived when it comes to who is being affected, how, and what needs to be done about it. A number of reactions to the BLM movement have oriented around the ‘Black’ in Black Lives Matter. There have been those who have reacted against it, such as the White Lives Matter banner flown over a football game involving Burnley Football Club. However, there have also been anti-racist responses, such as those that added an intersectional slant, such as Black Trans Lives Matter. Others have focussed more narrowly on the ‘Black’, highlighting specifically anti-Black racism that exists also among other ethnic minority communities, such as south Asians and Arabs. There have also been those who point to the specificity of anti-Black racism whilst also noting forms of racism that affect different ethnic minorities.

What kind of ‘map’ is needed in order to address the various challenges for anti-racism in Britain today?

In response to the BLM protests, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a new review into racism and discrimination, an announcement that has received criticism from some who highlight a number of existing reviews with plentiful recommendations for action.

Yet, both of these issues and the challenges at stake, point towards another report that although now two decades old remains relevant. Returning to the report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (CMEB), the so-called Parekh Report, proves extremely instructive. Covering a wide spectrum of issues, sectors and institutions, the report highlights a route for Britain to develop what it calls ‘a community of communities’. That is, that Britain engages with its history and national story in order to develop an inclusive sense of Britishness that is sensitive to its internal differences based on the diversity of people and their origins from different parts of the world.

Significant is that this engagement is also able to address various forms and ‘targets’ of racism. Anti-racism in Britain has increasingly incorporated thinking in terms of ethnic and religious minorities. This shift is a result of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Britain recognised in the report. Moreover, a significant strand in this has been the fact that for Muslims, earlier conceptualisations of racism, and consequently anti-racism that was focussed on ‘political blackness’, were unable to capture forms of discrimination they faced based on their being an ethno-religious minority, and thus anti-Muslim racism or Islamophobia has become a prominent focus.

While racism in general has declined in recent years, anti-Muslim racism has shown the reverse trend

This point is also reflected in the work of some of the Commission’s prominent commissioners. The late Stuart Hall highlighted racism’s twin logics of biology and culture, and Tariq Modood has for more than two decades been at the forefront of arguing for a conception of ‘cultural racism’, notably that found in the notion of Islamophobia. This is not a matter of weighing competing forms of racism against each other, but to point out that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution and we must be ‘even-handed’ between different identity formations that people hold in order to build inclusivity.

The focus on ‘multi-ethnic’ points to something important: that there are different groups with different identities each facing discrimination in related but also different ways. This is also reflected in the different patterns of how groups are affected by discrimination across different sectors, such as the labour market, education, policing, criminal justice system and so on. Moreover, it also seems that while racism in general has declined in recent years, anti-Muslim racism has shown the reverse trend. These different impacts and outcomes suggest a more nuanced understanding and approach to addressing systemic issues is required. It is the vision provided by CMEB along these lines that makes it just as pertinent now as it was twenty years ago.

BLM has been effective in providing a slogan and movement that can mobilise a great variety of people from across ethnic groups, minority and majority, as well as across the political spectrum to call for action and meaningful change in recognition of entrenched patterns of racism. The lesson from the CMEB report, nevertheless, is that the goals of anti-racism require that we are attentive to different forms and targets and attuned to difference and nuance if it is to reflect the current challenges as they have emerged out of Britain’s history. In this and for the task of building positive forms of inclusion and tackling differing manifestations of racism and the identities of those who face it, going back to the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain remains an apt guide.

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