The Socialist 17 June 2008 |
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It was only a little over forty years ago that black people in the US, the most powerful capitalist country in the world, won equal rights in law - and only then as a result of a magnificent mass movement that shook the country to its foundations. Malcolm X, who played a key role in that movement, famously declared: "You can't have capitalism without racism". No wonder - US capitalism came into being via the barbaric exploitation of African slaves.
Yet today a black man is the favourite to win the US presidential election, which inevitably raises hope in Britain and internationally that racism could become a thing of the past. However, Hannah Sell looks at the issues surrounding racism, and concludes that unfortunately, Malcolm X's statement remains true today.
Love Music Hate Racism 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed to an international audience the rotten underbelly of US capitalism. The people who were left trapped in New Orleans, many of whom have still not been rehoused, were the poor, and they were overwhelmingly African American.
The truth was laid bare: while the US black middle class has undoubtedly grown, poverty is the norm for the majority. Unemployment is twice as high amongst the black population as amongst the white. Black people are twice as likely to die from disease, accident or murder at every stage of their lives. Around 24% of black families live below the poverty line, compared to 8% of the white population.
In Britain, New Labour would have us believe that, under its rule, a major campaign has been conducted to make racism unacceptable. In fact, while the situation is less stark than in the US, the same fault-lines nonetheless exist. Low pay is endemic among all sections of the working class in Britain. Nonetheless, Black and Asian ethnic minorities earn less, on average, than white people, with differences amongst men ranging from earning an average of 10% less for Chinese men to 27% less for Bangladeshi men.
Ethnic minorities have higher than average rates of poverty. Rates are highest for Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Black Africans, reaching nearly two thirds for Bangladeshis.
There has been widespread coverage in the press about education failing male black and Asian school students, particularly Afro-Caribbean boys. However, it is not the case that ethnic minority communities earn less on average because they are less qualified.
On the contrary, proportionately more young blacks and Asians stay on at school than white students. A 2004 survey by the Department for Education and Skills showed that ethnic minority participation in higher education varied from 39% to 70%, but that all ethnic minorities had a higher percentage participation than the 38% of whites.
Racism and discrimination unquestionably exist in the education system. However, the primary problem is not the racism in education but in society as a whole. Despite spending more time in education, young blacks are more likely to be unemployed, low paid or homeless. Black Africans have exceptionally high levels of degree-level qualifications, yet have high levels of unemployment. The response of many is to try to overcome every obstacle, to be better educated and harder working.
Protest against the BNP after the Greater London Assembly elections, photo Sarah Mayo
However, there is a section of youth, especially of Afro-Caribbean young men, whose response is to rebel against, and turn away from, much of society. It is only by ending discrimination in the whole of society, not just education, that this will be changed.
In America, big business consciously set out to create a black middle class. The hope was that black 'role models' would create the illusion that the American dream was realisable for blacks. Today, while nothing has changed for the majority, a minority have 'made it'. There are black police chiefs, judges and generals.
In Britain, the number of black and Asian people who have 'made it' is even smaller than in the US. Ethnic minorities are barely represented among managers and employers of big companies. None of the 98 high court judges come from black or Asian ethnic minorities, and only four of the 563 circuit judges. There are pathetically few black or Asian MPs. British capitalism has proved itself incapable of qualitatively improving the living conditions of all but a tiny minority of black and Asian people.
Roots of racism
Love Music Hate Racism 2007, photo Paul Mattsson
Racism is part of the fabric of British society. But racism is not inherent in people. Originally, early capitalism developed racism in order to justify the slave trade. British capitalists 'led' the world in slave trading. The cities of Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol, and to an extent London, were built on the blood of hundreds of thousands of slaves. From 1783 to 1793 alone, Liverpool merchants made profits of over £2 million from selling 303,737 slaves.
Slavery was abandoned when it had outlived its usefulness. Racism was then adapted as a pseudo-scientific concept. It was used to justify the subjugation and exploitation of Africa, Asia and Latin America under colonial rule. Brutal and dictatorial rule was combined with pious rubbish about the 'white man's burden' - the supposed need to educate and bring God to the peoples of the colonial countries.
Today capitalism has adapted racism to new ends. In the twentieth century, revolutionary movements worldwide forced the imperialist powers to abandon direct colonial rule. However, the peoples of the neo-colonial countries continue to be held in a vice of exploitation by the major multinational corporations and their tools - the IMF and the World Bank. Modern capitalism has created phenomenal riches and yet billions are still in poverty.
More than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water and 841 million suffer from malnutrition. Meanwhile a total of 8.3 million individuals worldwide personally have $30,800 billion worth of financial assets. More of these billionaires come from the US than from any other continent, with Europe in second place.
Despite the slightly more hidden character of colonial exploitation, racism is still used as a tool to justify it. However, racism is also used to divide working-class people in Britain and in the other economically advanced capitalist countries.
Sowing divisions amongst the oppressed is one of the most important means by which any minority ruling elite can seek to divide and conquer the exploited majority. Racism is a method of divide and rule that has been used in the past and will be used again.
Protesters confront BNP GLA assembly member Richard Barnbrook, photo Bob Severn
Amongst the majority of people in Britain, blatantly racist ideas are far less socially acceptable than they were 30 years ago. This positive change has taken place for a number of reasons. Primarily, it was because of the determination and increased confidence of blacks and Asians to fight discrimination and racism. This has been combined with a strong feeling amongst a large section of the white population, especially youth, that all discrimination, and in particular racism, is wrong and should be combated.
In the 1970s and again in the1990s there were magnificent movements of young people and the trade union movement against the far-right, racist National Front and the British National Party (BNP). These movements had a massive effect, leaving the far right, until recently, as miniscule forces.
However, this is not the only trend. There are also increased tensions between different communities which could, if they are not countered, grow worse in coming years. The far-right BNP has been able to increase its electoral support. The New Labour government, far from playing an anti-racist role, bears primary responsibility for increasing racist and xenophobic tensions.
New Labour today is an out-and-out party of big business, and is spearheading attacks on the working class. Relentless cuts and privatisation mean that public services are increasingly hard to get or over-crowded. For example, there are currently up to four million people on council house waiting lists and this is expected to increase by one million as a result of the looming economic crisis.
Yet New Labour has accelerated the Tories' systematic undermining of council housing. Twenty years ago there were more than five million council homes, now there is barely half that number. The chronic lack of housing inevitably leads to tensions between different communities.
A major programme of building high quality publicly-owned houses is the only means to provide housing on a scale that would meet people's needs. This is derided by all the establishment parties, but from 1949 to 1954 an average of 230,000 council houses were built every year.
Pressure on services has been increased by the considerable rise in immigration to Britain. It is estimated that around 700,000 workers have come from Eastern Europe since 2004. In reality the figure is probably higher, and there has also been significant immigration from outside Europe.
These workers are, in general, the lowest paid and most brutally exploited section of the working class. The government, which has in reality encouraged migration from Eastern Europe in order to assist big business, has nonetheless already been prepared to play on the tensions created in order to defend itself.
This will get worse as the coming capitalist economic crisis bites. A glimpse of this has already been given with Brown's reference to 'British jobs for British workers'. The need for a united trade union struggle to stop the 'race to the bottom' for all workers is increasingly urgent.
An increase in racism and xenophobia will affect all ethnic and national minorities. However, the legacy of history means it will still be black and Asian immigrants who are on the sharp end of increased tensions.
The government's participation in brutal wars of subjugation against Afghanistan and Iraq - both majority Muslim countries, with all the accompanying propaganda denigrating the peoples of those countries, has inevitably increased racism, particularly against Muslims, or those who are 'perceived' as being Muslim.
Terrorist attacks such as those in London in July 2005 have also led to increased racism. In the wake of those bombings, racist attacks against Asian people increased 600%. The vast majority of Muslims correctly condemned the July bombings and all similar attacks.
However, a tiny minority are so alienated from society that they support such profoundly mistaken methods. The increased state repression under New Labour can only increase that tiny minority. Since 2005, searches of Asian people have increased by 84% and black people by 51%.
United we are strong
The struggle against racism cannot be limited to explaining that it is wrong, necessary as that is. We also have to explain that, just as it can be in the interests of big business to divide workers by playing the 'race card', it is in the interest of the working class to stand united.
For example, in Britain at the moment, the government is trying to implement brutal pay restraint at the same time as the cost of living is rising sharply. The need for a united movement, starting with a one-day strike of all public-sector workers, is clear. Such a strike would only succeed if it united millions of workers from all ethnic backgrounds.
But it is not automatic that an increase in class struggle will cut across racism. Socialists and trade unionists have to fight a conscious struggle against racism and the far-right, and in defence of democratic rights. The propaganda of much of the capitalist media and of the far right, that immigration is responsible for unemployment and bad housing, will be stepped up in an economic recession.
However, there is a strong anti-racist mood amongst most young people in Britain. This, combined with the role that black and Asian workers already play in the trade union movement, and their confidence and determination to fight racism wherever they find it, bode well for the future. Other battles, such as the mass anti-war movement, also show the potential for united struggle.
The development of a new mass party that stands in the interests of all workers is crucial to the struggle against racism. In a situation where all the establishment parties act in the interests of big business, the BNP have been able to make some gains by falsely posing as a party of the white working class. A national voice that clearly puts the blame for crumbling public services and low pay at the feet of big business, and that leads a united struggle to improve living conditions, would have a tremendous effect in undermining racism.
The Socialist Party argues that such a party would need a socialist programme. It is only by abolishing capitalism and introducing a democratic socialist society, both in Britain and worldwide, that racism could really begin to be overcome on a permanent basis.
While we live in a society where a tiny minority own and control industry, it will always periodically be in their interests to propagate racist ideas. Only under a socialist society, with a democratically planned economy to meet the needs of all, would it be possible to begin to build a society that could really overcome racism and prejudice.
- No to the far-right, racist BNP.
- End cheap labour. For a minimum wage of £8 an hour with no exemptions.
- No more racism in hiring, training and promotion. Immediate re-instatement for all victims of racist dismissal.
- End unemployment. For a 35-hour week with no loss of pay.
- Reverse spending cuts in local government.
- For a massive public spending programme on more houses, schools, hospitals and all other facilities we need.
- For anti-racist education in all schools.
- An end to police harassment and repressive so-called 'anti-terrorism' laws. No detention without trial.
- For democratic control of the police. Elected local authority police bodies to control policing policy.
- End the scapegoating of asylum seekers. For the right of asylum seekers to work.
- End the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Fight to end the rule of profit and exploitation! For a socialist society and economy, run to meet the needs of all humanity, instead of the profits of a few.