Racism UK 2015

Dr. Mike Cole’s new book Racism: A Critical Analysis traces the legacy of racism across three continents, from its origins to the present day, from a neo-Marxist perspective. For the Pluto Blog, he shares his take on racism in the UK today and the ideological manoeuvrings of the Conservative Party.

‘In the six month lead up to the 2015 General Election, politicians and others fell over each other to Racismoutdo their opponents’ racism in an attempt to win the favour of the electorate. Xeno-racism (that directed at predominantly white eastern European migrant workers) eclipsed other forms of racism, while anti-refugee and anti-asylum-seeker racism came second. It was left to the white supremacist fringe to invoke anti-Asian or anti-black racism.

While one of the most important facts about ethnicity in Britain is that there is more poverty in every minority ethnic group than among the white British population, a clear legacy of the colonial era, there has been some upward social mobility among Britain’s black and Asian population,. Thus David Cameron, at the recent Conservative Party Conference, is able to wax lyrical about black British and British Asian members of his Government, while at the same time, his Home Secretary can ratchet up the barometer of anti-immigrant racism, by drawing on ‘evidence’ that suits her purpose – ‘the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero’. Against the arguments of some commentators, I would suggest that there is no real contradiction between the respective conference speeches of David Cameron and Theresa May. So Cameron can express genuine ‘disgrace’ that ‘people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs’, as May warns that the ‘numbers coming in from Europe are unsustainable’, and ‘we must work to control immigration to put Britain first’, and Cameron has no reason to disagree.

This is because ‘playing the race card’ in the UK in 2015 does not primarily invoke skin colour.  What wins votes is xeno-racism and Islamophobia (more to do with appearance that skin colour), and until 3 year old Aylan Kurdi’s body was washed up on the beach in Turkey, anti-refugee and anti-asylum-seeker racism (not necessarily colour-coded). Aylan’s tragic death meant that even the most radical of radical right politicians had to acknowledge the horrors of the current refugee crisis (this is not, of course, to say that this form of racism won’t return, once the appalling death of Aylan has been erased from people’s memories).

While Cameron wants ‘all our children’ to know they are part of ‘the proudest multi-racial democracy on earth’ and warns that being black or Asian doesn’t mean you should be treated differently, the Home Secretary can claim that Britain is only recently a country of immigrants. She can do this because she is not talking about the descendants of people from the former colonies, but about Eastern Europeans (those unmoved by Aylan’s death can also read ‘immigrants’ as referring to refugees and asylum-seekers.

Politicians attempt to legitimate their claims that they are not racist by asserting that, like the great British people, they are merely worried about numbers. As long as they get away with this deception, as long as racism is popularly perceived as only colour-coded, they (and their media supporters) are freed to have a ‘rational’ debate about numbers, fired by the desire for votes, personal ambitions or both.

Another significant form or racism in Britain today is, of course, Islamophobia. Islamophobia feeds off the ‘war on terror’, which nourishes Islamophobia which in turn increases support for the war on terror. Social control of the Muslim population in general is perceived as a legitimate exercise. Recently, Cameron unveiled a new strategy to combat ‘extremism’, stating the battle was ‘perhaps the defining one of this century.’  The response of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), the country’s largest umbrella Islamic organisation, was to argue that while terrorism was a real threat, which of course it is, the government’s strategy was based on poor analysis and risked alienating those whose support it needed, and provoking a backlash in Muslim communities which could drive people to Islamism and terrorism.

Challenging Islamophobia and all forms of racism must be part of a different politics and indeed a different economic vision. Before the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party (Corbyn has a long and notable history of opposing racism), the articulation of antiracism in the context of democratic socialism, rather than the inevitability of neoliberal capitalism of which racism is integral, was confined to tiny groups of revolutionary socialists. Thankfully, it is now part of mainstream political debate.’


Dr Mike Cole is Professor in Education, University of East London; and Emeritus Research Professor in Education and Equality, Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln. His latest books are Racism and Education in the UK and the US: Towards a Socialist Alternative (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and Critical Race Theory and Education: a Marxist Response (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


Racism: A Critical Analysis is available to buy from Pluto Press here.

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