It is difficult not to feel that the reaction to George Floyd’s murder has been about cosmetics. We have been treated to woke capitalism as corporations gorged themselves on a feast of liberal identity politics because it was a useful substitution for any meaningful change. We have seen statues topple leaving behind only ripples of changes. They were feel-good moments, cathartic anger, but they achieved nothing more than the spectacle in the moment.
Mostly it has been very difficult to talk about racism. Right now, polarisation and tribal culture are dictating this conversation. I believe that this is largely the fault of those who have maintained the status quo, but those of us seeking to change it are struggling to do so without a degree of nuance. Discussions on racism in the UK are an example.
There are those who believe criticisms are unjust as the country is much better on race relations than America, and others who believe the quality of life between second-generation Britons and their parents aren’t different enough to suggest that Britain has made progress. Attempting to talk about this, particularly online, can sometimes invite a flood of criticism from somewhere.
This has prompted me lately to wonder about the viability of cancel culture in changing minds. As a liberal Muslim writer, it does worry me in that censorship as part of a political culture becomes appropriated nefariously by the right, be it the western conservatives or the religious zealots. If we are being truthful, so far it has preyed mostly on those at the bottom. The rich and powerful have survived their brushes with the purifying fire of online social liberalism because their wealth affords them the daily chance of redemption. It’s those at the bottom who have not fared so fortunately. And with Donald Trump as President of USA, Brexit in process, and Boris Johnson as the PM, there is no evidence that it works either.
Britain is constantly embroiled in the disease of treating progress on racism as proof that we are now a post-racial society. Suggestions of institutional racism evoke outrage as if one is saying that the entire country is swamped in bigotry. A more nuanced observation is that though there is a degree of tolerance across society to reject overt racism, it lurks within microaggressions and there remains a significant gap between whites and most non-whites in material wealth and treatment. The NHS suffers from institutional racism. This doesn’t mean that brown and Black doctors are encountering brutal racism from the management daily, but that there is a significant pay gap.
Saying that employers are racist doesn’t mean that they are necessarily spewing hateful words, but that minorities have to apply several times more than a white candidate for an interview. Pointing out that racism intersects with sexism is to say that British Bangladeshi and Pakistani women suffer from unfairly higher levels of unemployment than their male peers. It’s to say that regarding police brutality in England and Wales, despite accounting for 3% of national population according to the 2011 Census, Black people make up for 8% of deaths in police custody, more than twice as likely to die as white people.
This might then suggest that racism is tied to whiteness. But here is the problem with this. Would they cancel the Asian Muslim in Birmingham who opposes LGBT education for their children in Birmingham? Within South Asian spaces, there is a greater awareness that racism is not merely the preserve of white culture but also mined from our own customs. And try as we might, we cannot cancel our own people, except plead to a common humanity through dialogue and persuasion. So, should we be more wary about this habit of consigning people to permanent shame?
Moreover, how do we begin to address that racism affects groups to varying degrees, and some barely at all? The same census on police brutality showed that Asians accounted for 8% of the national population but were only 3% of deaths within custody. The economic status of British Indians and Chinese groups is significantly more advanced than any mother demographic group, particularly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. The latter duo record far higher levels of poverty and unemployment, whilst British Indians and British Chinese citizens are much less likely to be welfare-dependent, and more commonly located within high-paying white-collar professions.
The white working-class, seen as the epitome of the racist Leave vote, are hardly the wielders of economic power over minorities either. Only 9% of white boys entitled to free school meals make it to university, the lowest of any demographic. The second lowest is the white working-class girl. The highest are Black and Asian women not entitled to free school means, recording well over 40%. These figures are from the UCAS End of Cycle Report in 2015 and paint a story of white working-class boys being utterly left behind. This is due to an abandonment of entire regions to poverty and unemployment following the closure of heavy industries and the mines. Visit some towns badly affected by Thatcherism and you see the ghosts of an industrial past still lurking in places rusting away.
Now, there is poverty in London, predominantly in Newham and Tower Hamlets with the highest density in ethnic minorities, so one might argue that there is nothing separating them from those in the former industrial towns. But someone born in London is rewarded with a greater likelihood of access to good education and jobs than a person living in towns where the high street is in ruins and jobs are fleeing with students south.
What privilege does a white working-class boy in a council estate, living on benefits in a town abandoned by the government, have over me living in London? They might have racial privilege in many situations, but evidence would show me to be significantly more advantaged because of geography. To be a working-class Londoner is to have a boat cast out a life raft with you splashing in the seas with the faintest chance of catching it. To be a working-class northerner is to watch the boat sail away knowing that you will have to swim after it.
This is not to dispute the existence of institutional racism as it remains a very real issue. But discussing racism as simply about whiteness or white privilege ignores the economic struggles that rope us all in together. It ignores how living in a society of fundamental wealth inequalities connects us across racial lines, by showing us what we have in common. This is certainly something the political right would like much of the population to ignore. But those on the left are also starting to forget the worth of universalism and shared values in defeating racism.