We saw the rise of “cultural racism” in France in the first post. Another term for the same type of racism found in the literature is the “new racism”. In a future post I’ll outline the rise of this new racism in Britain as a companion to the first post on its rise in France. For now, however, I present a description of the new racism as explored by Martin Barker in The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe (1981). Yes, it’s another old source. As mentioned earlier, I’m going through the sources I find often cited in more recent literature first.
The Components of the New Racism
The first point we notice in surveying the debates over and the expressions of the new racism is the centrality of the idea of a “way of life or a culture”
National consciousness is the sheet anchor for the unconditional loyalties and acceptance of duties and responsibilities, based on personal identification with the national community, which underlie civic duty and patriotism [Sherman, Alfred. ‘Why Britain can’t be wished away’, Daily Telegraph, 8 September 1978].
Thus Alfred Sherman, Director of the right-wing Institute for Policy Studies in one of the Daily Telegraph‘s regular centre-page pronouncements on race. We are bound together by feelings of oneness, and indeed these are strengthened by recognition that others are different. ‘It is from a recognition of racial differences that a desire develops in most groups to be among their own kind; and this leads to distrust and hostility when newcomers come in’ [Page]. Thus Robin Page, in another of these pronouncements. But Page was aware that this left him open to a charge of racism which he was keen to avoid. So he made it clear that ‘the whole question of race is not a matter of being superior or inferior, dirty or clean, but of being different‘ [ibid.].
(Barker, 20. My bolding in all quotations. I have exchanged Barker’s end-note numbers with full references in-line.)
Immigration posed a threat because it meant “aliens” would destroy the “homogeneity” of the insiders. Enoch Powell was a strident voice in the 1970s and proudly announced that “heroic measures” were called for: “repatriation”. The justification: “human nature”.
They would indeed be heroic measures, measures which radically altered the prospective pattern of our future immigration, but they would be measures based on and operating with human nature as it is, not measures which purport to manipulate and alter human nature by laws, bureaucracy and propaganda [Powell, Enoch. ‘Speech to Stretford Young Conservatives,’ in Daily Telegraph, 22 January 1977].
And here we have reached the core of the new racism. It is a theory of human nature. Human nature is such that it is natural to form a bounded community, a nation, aware of its differences from other nations. They are not better or worse. But feelings of antagonism will be aroused if outsiders are admitted. And there grows up a special form of connection between a nation and the place it lives: ‘Britain is not a geographical expression or a New-World territory open to all comers with one foot in their old home and one in their new. It is the national home and birthright of its indigenous peoples’ [Sherman, ‘Why Britain . . .’ ]. It is becoming clear that expressions of this sort are not just rhetoric, but rhetoric whose emotional content is warranted by an emergent theory.
“Nothing racist”, goes the idea, because it only being kind to the foreigners, too! Barker continues:
Foreigners too have their natural homes. Stopping immigration is being kind to them as well. When we consider the East African Asians, for example, it would be kinder to stop them coming here; after all ‘what would have been more natural than for them to quit their Diaspora and return to help build their independent homelands, Mother India, Pakistan, Bangladesh?’ [Sherman, ‘Why Britain . . .’ ]. John Page represented this point of view in Parliament: ‘I fail to see’, he argued, ‘how the natural home of an ex-Malawi Goan can be Harrow West’ [Hansard. House of Commons Official Report, vol. 914, no. 137, Monday 5 July 1976 p. 1077]. Your natural home is really the only place for you to be; for that is something rooted in your nature, via your culture. ‘Parliament can no more turn a Chinese into an Englishman than it can turn a man into a woman’, wrote Sherman [‘Why Britain . . .’ ].
Barker challenges this deployment of the “natural home” idea:
But why not? It is not anywhere claimed that it is because Chinese, or Africans, or Jamaicans or whatever have different human natures. No, we are biologically all sufficiently alike that they too form communities in the same way. Each community is a common expression of human nature; all of us form exclusive communities on the basis of shared sentiments, shutting out outsiders. And that is predicated on tradition, which is the strongest thing we have got: ‘Of course, the dominant culture in this country is going to be the culture that has been developed here for over a thousand years.’ Thus did Norman St John-Stevas make the explicit connection on the same BBC programme that I quoted above.
And draws attention to how its cruelty is justified by a belief it is kind:
The application of this idea of a natural home, predicated on the cultural inhabitation of a place over a long time, was seen for what it was in a heartless action of Robert Taylor, MP. An immigrant in his constituency had been deserted by her husband. Taylor quickly got in touch with the Home Secretary about the case, because it was so obvious to him what ought to be done: ‘The Home Secretary agreed with me that the most sensible action would be to return the family to their natural environment in Sierra Leone’ [Hansard. House of Commons Official Report, vol. 914, no. 137, Monday 5 July 1976 p.996, my – i.e. Barker’s – emphasis]. If she won’t go, she must be made to. For we have a right, an instinct, to defend our own homeland. Or as Powell so precisely formulated it shortly after setting the scene for the new theory of racism:
An instinct to preserve an identity and defend a territory is one of the deepest and strongest implanted in mankind. I happen to believe that the instinct is good, and that its beneficial effects are not exhausted. (Powell, BBC 1, 9 June 1969.)
Racism and Commonsense
We have, there, the bones of a theory that justifies racism. It is a theory linking race and nation [see side box]. According to the theory we have in our nature a tendency to form exclusive groups. These are our strength; without them, we would in fact hardly be human. To be human, is to have the strength of a tradition around you. And our lives are committed to these traditions. Ordinary people live these traditions and, if the traditions are disrupted or even threatened with disruption, tempers will rise:
National consciousness, like any other major human drive — all of which are bound up with instinct for self-preservation — is a major constructive force provided legitimate channels; thwarted and frustrated, it becomes explosive [Sherman, ‘Why Britain . . .’ ].
They are, then, legitimate instincts. These instincts express themselves in feelings, as beliefs to which we feel committed. They are our commonsense. This new Tory theory of race offers what we may call a philosophy and a politics of commonsense. For commonsense is now understood as made up out of gut reactions based on the best in our nature; it is the realization of customs, traditions, culture, way of life. The politics of it are made possible by the philosophy of it:
It is part of the British way of life for the father to provide a home for the family, and it is the same in India. The husband is expected to provide the house for his wife. There is no rational argument in favour of saying that a wife in another country should be in a position to provide a home for her husband and children. It is contrary to all commonsense, human nature, and the way of life of both Britain and the subcontinent [Stanbrook, Hansard p.1052].
There can be no rational argument other than that authorized by a way of life; and this is a direct expression of human nature. It constitutes commonsense. To be able to offer this sort of theoretical reason for supporting prejudice was an important breakthrough. And Whitelaw no doubt felt secure when preparing the nation for yet more restrictive Tory ideas on immigration, with the remark that: ‘I think the nation can expect that, when they are announced, the Conservative proposals on immigration will be commonsense proposals’ (March 1978). Thus is racism theorized out of the guts and made into commonsense.
This, then, is the character of the new racism. It is a theory that I shall call biological, or better, pseudo-biological culturalism. Nations on this view are not built out of politics and economics, but out of human nature. It is in our biology, our instincts, to defend our way of life, traditions and customs against outsiders — not because they are inferior, but because they are part of different cultures. This is a non-rational process; and none the worse for it. For we are soaked in, made up out of, our traditions and our culture.
On this new racist theory Barker points out that similar ideas have been with us for a long time. It is not entirely new. But in subsequent chapters he addresses the way the new expression of the idea has made new connections that have brought us serious dangers. (These will emerge in future posts.)
Barker further observes that this new theory did not pop into existence “naturally” or easily. It was pushed into the arena through effort.
It would be senseless to deny that there are real problems and tensions surrounding immigration; but in themselves these do not add up to a theory, or a conceptualization of race. People’s experience is particular, and close to their lives. After Powell’s 1968 speeches, which themselves constituted a first major move in this process, there was an increasingly conscious bid to organize people’s experiences and prejudices. Without a doubt, the newspapers — and certain ones in particular — played a very large role in this process. Many writers have documented this part of the re-emergence of a powerful racist current; I will only cite one example, since it shows very clearly the dubious methods used to organize people’s experiences of immigration, to provide a set of focusing concepts around which reactions would be more than individual prejudice.
After Thatcher’s 1978 speech, the Daily Mail ran a series of articles entitled ‘Immigration — the Great Debate’. Much like the other Great Debate on education, it had a lean and a bias the equal of the Tower of Pisa. As part of it, an article appeared (headlined ‘They’ve taken over my home town…’), supposedly telling the story of a Harlesden man returning to his childhood haunts to find them overrun with immigrants. ‘Roger Coultas’, the hero of the story, had been there when the first immigrants arrived and had welcomed the firstcomers with full English tolerance. Subsequently, he had emigrated to Australia. Returning, homesick, he had found a ‘massive’ 24 per cent black population and his street ‘taken over’:
He slumped against an old Victorian statue and said: ‘We used to have a community singsong round here on New Year’s Day, whole families of people. We’’d end up with a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.’ He shook his head, said he’d been robbed of his birthright, his roots. ‘I wonder how many thousands of Britons have been cheated in just the same way. And more to the point, HOW MANY MILLIONS ARE GOING TO SUFFER THE SAME FATE IN THE FUTURE?’ (Daily Mail, February 1978.)
The following week, the local Harlesden newspaper challenged the Daily Mail to say what street this was and who was Roger Coultas, since they doubted their very existence. The Mail did not respond. But even if they did exist, it would not alter the heavily loaded nature of this article. The presentation of Coultas as an ‘ordinary, genuine Englishman’, tolerant but concerned; the presentation of his as a typical experience and response — all bespeak the pushing of a well worked-out view, a theory of immigration and race.
What I am arguing is that there has been a conscious bid by the Tories, led from their Right, since 1968, for a new theorization of race. It is powerful in that it avoids the older definitions of race that were so evidently tainted with Hitlerism. We must see the new theory of race, not as an appeal to commonsense, but as a struggle to create a new commonsense. And to a horrifying extent, it has been successful. I have tried to trace some of the steps of its emergence in Chapter 3.
Again, the message of Chapter 3 is for a new post. So also is Barker’s study of how the new racism fueled the rise of the National Front.
Barker, Martin. 1982. The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe. Frederick, Md.: Aletheia Books/University Publications of America.
Harris, Nigel. 1968. “Race and Nation.” International Socialism, 1:34, 22–27.
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