It’s tempting to focus solely on ways in which identity gives us some control over our lives — our desire to choose what parts of ourselves to emphasize and mark what we think is important. It’s only right that we should want to determine how the world sees us, but it’s wrong to think struggles over identity automatically benefit those facing oppression. While struggles over identity can unite behind movements in support of multiculturalism, they can also motivate those who fight for the opposite, demanding ‘white rights’ and ethnic purity.
That the concept of identity can be used by both the right and the left shows that the process of constructing one does not take place in a vacuum. Because we live in a racist society our choices about how to characterize ourselves are at best secondary. Even if we choose to downplay or ignore some aspects of ourselves, there are others who will assert an identity upon us. Equally, if we demand to be included in an identity, such as Britishness, there are those who will deem us unworthy or unqualified.
Racial prejudice forces us to define ourselves with categories that it has created. The limits it places on our attempts to classify ourselves often seem so deeply ingrained they are often assumed to be an ever-present part of the human condition. Yet the idea of races, and in particular, a hierarchy of races with white people at the top, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In his ground breaking book, The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen writes that when the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there. Nor, according to colonial records, would there be for another 60 years. The Africans who were shipped to the Virginia plantations were slaves, bought and sold by Europeans who ‘white’, instead identifying themselves with the land they had come from — England, Holland, Ireland and so on. The idea of ‘whiteness’ had yet to be constructed. On the basis of whiteness, came a whole ideology of social division and control. And, in the centuries that followed, it would help generate a ‘science’ of racial difference.
So those racial groups we are asked to choose from, or are allotted, are far from reflections of the ‘natural order’ but instead mirror a system of racial categorisation — after all, if there was no racism the colour of our skin or the texture of our hair would matter little to anyone. While the concept of race is today scientifically discredited, the racism all around is very real. And, that experience of racism leads many to organise in a way that is today known as ‘identity politics’, in its most basic form an attempt to unite all those who suffer a particular form of oppression in order to struggle for change.
What is meant by ‘identity politics’ is not always clear. It covers many different political approaches, some of which have posed a revolutionary challenge to the system, and others which adopted a more conciliatory position. As a way of organising it has some clear strengths. People can be gathered on the basis of a shared sense of injustice and anger — and being part of a struggle for change helps enhance a sense of unity. That in turn helps mask divisions about aims and strategies in the ranks. The simple act of coming together helps turn oppression from a problem experienced by individuals, who generally feel powerless, into something experienced by a group, which has a greater potential to act. Such collective action is the very basis of solidarity. The huge gains made by women, black and LGBT+ people in the 20th century were the result of mass campaigns began in the 1960s and 70s that organised among those at the sharp end of prejudice, even if they evolved by drawing in wider layers of support.
But mobilising on the basis of identity has some real weaknesses too — and the struggle against racism provides clear examples of this. The overriding assumption is that there can be unity among all of racism’s victims, or, at the very least, among particular ethnically defined groups that experience it. However, even those who suffer very similar forms of prejudice can interpret their experiences in very different ways.
For some, racism acts as a burning indictment of a system, inspiring rage easily transferred into political action. Many will attend their first political meetings and demonstrations as a result of their own experiences and become open to radical interpretations of the world around them. Racism pushes others to more pessimistic conclusions, believing that little or nothing can be done to stop prejudice because it merely reflects human nature. Still others will make conservative assumptions that blame the victims themselves — if only we worked harder and behaved better, we could disprove racist ideas, they argue. As British-Asian, home secretary Sajid Javid undoubtedly experiences racism but his reaction to it seems only to push him ever more to the right in a desperate bid to show he too can be racist. Few anti-racists would argue that a politician who deliberately fans anti-migrant prejudice has a place in the movement.
And from these differences of perspective, all sorts of differences of strategy emerge. On the one hand, there are black and Asian people who think we should avoid confrontation and concentrate on economic and political success instead. For them, our main aim should be getting more BME people into positions of power. On the other hand, there are those who argue we need a movement on the streets to target the state and the racists directly. Organising on the basis of identity and the common experience of oppression may hide political divisions, but in the process of doing so it often makes them more pronounced. Campaigns based on race or ethnicity are often dominated by more articulate, middle class people who declare themselves to be ‘community leaders’ but often have their own agenda to advance.
Even where identity-based politics seeks to mobilise collectively it is undermined by the way it encourages us to think of oppression as an individual injury. To gauge the extent of this injury we are to measure our own position in society, and the way we experience the world, against that of a ‘normal person’. But what is this ‘normal’? Asad Haider, in his book Mistaken Identity, argues that normal is equated with white, middle class and male. ‘By coding demands that come from marginal or subordinate groups as identity politics, the white male identity is enshrined with the status of the neutral, general, and universal… If it is not questioned, people of colour, along with other oppressed groups, have no choice but to articulate their political demands in terms of inclusion in the bourgeois masculinist ideal,’ he says.
By framing equality in terms of injury, the battle becomes one of gaining inclusion into the system, and cataloguing the unique ways in which we have been wronged, hence the focus on micro-aggressions. And the questions asked increasingly becomes centred on ‘me’, such as, why didn’t I get the promotion I’m due? And, why am I excluded from the board room? In these very limited terms, success for anti-racism is measured by the pound. That’s why there seem to be endless lists that tell us about the world’s 10 richest Asians, or the 10 most powerful Africans, and so on. When Angela Davis, the black US revolutionary, spoke at the Women of the World festival in London earlier this year she pointed out that a number of leading firms running what she terms the ‘prison-industrial complex’ are now headed by women executives. To her horror, a section of the audience thought this was invitation to applaud, when the point Angela was making was that having a women at the head of company that gorges on racism and violence is no measure of liberation.
You can see tensions between collective and individual demands for liberation in the history of anti-racist struggle in Britain. More than a narrow, exclusively ethnic identity, the term ‘black’was used in the 1970s and 80s as an inclusive category to unite all those who suffered racism. Its primary advantage was that it encompassed Asians, Africans and Caribbean peoples, and their British-born children — and it drew behind its banner many others who also wanted to fight racism. It was a category of struggle for those battling against state racism in the form of immigration controls and the discriminatory policing, as well as the fight against racism in the street — in particular against the fascists of the National Front, and the gangs they inspired.
In the wake of the 1981 Brixton Riots, and the urban uprisings across Britain that followed, the government sought to create a buffer between itself and black working class people by aiding the expansion of the black middle class — but it also wanted to sow seeds of division among those who had rebelled. It set about trying to co-opt black political leaders and business figures, and to help grease the wheel, it announced state funding for all manner of ‘ethnic’ projects. The competition between self-styled community leaders, and the projects they headed, for funding and official recognition played right into the government’s hands. In the name of equality, it decided to spread funding between the different ethnic groups that had together formed ‘black’, and the previous unity began to shatter. Asian groups now competed with Caribbean groups for money to run projects, such as community centres and youth clubs, and soon even these ethnic categories were further broken down in ever more specific, smaller groups.
People who had once stood together increasingly saw each other as competitors and rivals — and many leaders offered themselves as the sole legitimate expression of the community they represented. Meanwhile, the most aspirational and articulate found themselves senior positions in local councils and government-funded bodies, and a select few flew higher still. The Tories, it seems, understood better than most that some adherents to identity politics sought an accommodation with the system, not its abolition.
Marxism has long been attractive to those looking for a more radical approach to the fight against racism. Instead of seeing oppression as rooted in unequal power relations between individuals, communities or ethnicities, Marxists start by arguing that racism is structural — that is built into capitalism. It stems from the way a society, organised into a hierarchy of competing social classes, needs divide and rule to survive.
Racism divides all of society, from the rich to the poor, but crucially it divides workers, and in doing so benefits employers and the rich. Economist Michael Reich analysed income distribution in America in the 1970s and found that the greater the divide between black and white incomes, the greater the inequality between whites themselves. His was one of a number of studies that showed that while black workers inevitably suffered far greater hardships, white workers’ interests were also damaged by the division of racism. Marxists’ understanding of racism’s origins and function has implications. Most importantly, it means that it is both possible and necessary to win white working class people to the fight against racism.
But race prejudice is much more than income inequality, it permeates every aspect of life for those on the receiving end of it. From the way that black children are repeatedly failed by the education system, to the way the criminal justice system deliberately singles them out for blame and punishment, to the way black stereotypes persist in almost every walk of life — and the way in which citizenship is regarded as a privilege to be withdrawn at a whim. The aim of this relentless assault is to reinforce division, and to separate the ‘white working class’ from the ‘other’.
For racism to function as a divisive ideology it requires the backing of the most powerful in society, the ruling class, but is also needs to spread into popular consciousness on its own terms, and become a creature in its own right. In order to poison the minds of workers, it has to offer them a false but convincing explanation for the pain and hardship they experience.
The only way to rid ourselves of this wretched state affairs is to end the system it supports. Marx’s focus on the working class was because he believed them to be the only force with both a material interest and the potential power to overthrow capitalism. But he saw nothing inevitable about this. Marx understood that a divided working class would be unable to meet the challenge. That’s why he described the racism of the British labourer against the Irish labourer as ‘the secret of the impotence of the English working class.’ Struggle, he said, is the key to breaking working class people from backward ideas that tie them to the system.
Often that struggle takes the form of campaigns, strikes and demonstrations that raise people’s confidence in their own abilities and leaves them less open to arguments that scapegoat others. But while class combativity of this sort opens up enormous potential, it will not automatically resolve the problem of racism. For that to happen there has to be a conscious attempt to break the hold of prejudice, particularly among workers, and requires that action be combined with a relentless battle of ideas. That task falls squarely on the shoulders of socialists.