Saturday, July 01, 2017
The "left" and racism in a time of Brexit
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that, after a quarter century on release to my trade union as a full time lay official, and following fourteen years’ service in the purgatory that is the National Executive Council (NEC) of UNISON, I have returned to work.
I am therefore trying to study for a work-related exam and had no intention of blogging at you this weekend. Unfortunately, having expressed an opinion which some found controversial I have been confronted with such a steaming pile of online ordure that I have to say something.
Like many of you, I am sure, I spend some of my online time in that privatised and corporately controlled part of the internet which we know as Facebook. It was there that, after having chaired a characteristically lively but also good humoured and largely comradely meeting of the General Committee of Brighton Pavilion Labour Party on Thursday evening I ventured to express a few views.
I deplored those who – it seems to me – want to make support for Brexit a litmus test of support for Labour’s leadership. Although this was in the context of Corbyn having dismissed three frontbenchers for having signed up to a mischievous amendment from Chukka Umanna it wasn’t that act to which I was referring.
Rather, I was alarmed that some socialist comrades seemed to see the list of those (including leftwing backbenchers) who had supported that amendment (some in good faith) as a “hit list” for deselection, whereas in my view socialists can legitimately take the view that free movement of labour is worth defending (and extending) and that the membership of the EU single market is, in reality, in the interests of workers in the UK.
I was quite prepared for this view to attract opprobrium from some for whom support for Jeremy Corbyn does appear to be more about a fan club than considered support for the principles he has espoused all his adult life – and in particular from those in the semi-detached fan-club who won’t actually join the Labour Party to provide any effective support for the leadership, but are desperately keen to invent reasons why they were right to line up with UKIP and vote for the UK to exit the EU.
What I wasn’t prepared for was a shocking display of (let me generously describe this as) unconscious racism from socialist(?) “comrades” who could not handle being challenged about their Lexit-obsession by a black person identifying the racist consequences of last year’s referendum outcome.
One “comrade” seriously asked a black fellow trade union member “Why does a UK wide referendum effect you more than others?” Seriously. Asked.
I guess the spike in race hate crime after the referendum result may be easier to forget if you weren’t on the receiving end of it. However, the same individual, when it was put to them (not unreasonably) that they would next be telling their interlocutor that they had “a chip on their shoulder” responded with “no i wouldn't say you've got a chip on your shoulder. I’d say you've a boulder on your back (covering both shoulders), which must be effecting brain functions, which has led you to play the race card and call myself and anyone else who disagrees with the public majority of the referendum, racist and a white supremacist.”
Another “comrade” responded to observations from a black comrade that “if you were Black and/or an immigrant and been the victim of racist abuse (as I have many times since June 2016) the views here may be different. But most of you are not and can therefore choose to chase after UKIP voters instead of recognising what is happening around you to your neighbours and friends who are immigrants or children of immigrants like me.” with the response that “I'm from an immigrant working class family who suffered racism from the moment they arrived in this country so your tedious identity politics liberalism doesn't work on people like me but good try.”
On another thread this same “comrade” seriously (seriously) told a black person that they would be rescuing them with a leftwing government in the context of dismissing the concerns which they had expressed (“we'll be saving you from the massive racism a right-wing Tory government would unleash”) – before being demolished in debate by a young white comrade demonstrating that it is quite possible to spot – and call out – prejudice even if one is not on the receiving end of it.
To say that I am disappointed to find that self-professed socialist activists have the same grasp of racism which we sometimes find in newly arrived white managers in the London Borough of Lambeth (who are invariably shocked to learn that the organisation – sensibly – accepts that it is institutionally racist) would be the least that I could say.
The capitalism in which we live is the capitalism which depended upon and was shaped by the Atlantic slave trade. Our cities (and our world) continue to be shaped by the consequences of those centuries of racist genocide and oppression. Socialists who cannot see the absolute centrality of this experience to our struggle today are as far from socialism as those who think that gender oppression can somehow be relegated for future resolution.
Twenty years ago UNISON activists in local government in London fought hard to make our employers accept their institutional racism. We forced them to commission research which showed that white managers systematically favoured white subordinates and admitted in interviews that the ethnicity of an employee was a powerful determinant of whether disciplinary action would be taken against them. I was as shocked then as I am now by the stark findings of that research.
I am not shocked – but I am angry – that institutions can be so deliberately forgetful about their own racism. I am both shocked and angry that self-proclaimed socialist activists can be less intelligent and aware about racism than the institutionally racist organisation for which I work.
Having said this, I can now go back to revising for my exam. If you could avoid annoying me again for the next week or so I would be grateful.