In the first installment of a three part series, Guardian columnist Owen Jones the ways in which racism has changed over time
Today the key target of the far-right is of course Muslims and that is something which is fuelled by the mainstream media in a way which I think tragically has parallels with anti-Semitism. Broad generalisations of an entire group of people, who are portrayed in a sinister way, who have ‘dubious loyalty to their country’, who have sinister plots and aims.
Owen Jones, Writers Against Racism
In the first of a three part interview, Owen discusses the evolution of racism, the prevelance of Islamophobia & the role of the ruling class in perpetuating racism
How has racism changed in terms of attitudes over the course of the last few years? What do you think the key issues are around racism?
“Well firstly, the point I want to make and this is without sounding in any way complacent, this is a way of giving us hope. As a result of the struggle of people, of Black and Minority Ethnic people and of anti-racist and anti-fascist activists, it has been possible to drive various forms of racism back both in terms of winning legal battles and changing the law to protect people against discrimination, but also transforming people’s attitudes. So that’s the first point I’d make, it is possible challenge racism, it is possible to drive it back.
“I think racism constantly changes in terms of ‘fashionable targets’, if you like. In the early part of the Twentieth century, Jewish people and Irish people in particular received the brunt of racism. In the aftermath of World War II, the Windrush and so on it was mostly Black people who were vigorously attacked by racists and then of course, Irish people again during the IRA campaign and Asian people. And today the key target of the far-right is of course Muslims and that is something which is fuelled by the mainstream media in a way which I think tragically has parallels with anti-Semitism. Broad generalisations of an entire group of people, who are portrayed in a sinister way, who have ‘dubious loyalty to their country’, who have sinister plots and aims.
“I think that’s partly how it’s changed and that unfortunately while for other forms of racism you wouldn’t see in polite society; people wouldn’t repeat publicly, those forms of racism still abound.
In terms of Islamophobia, that’s something which infects even liberal people and people who regard themselves as progressive. But the point about racism against Black people, just to underline how not complacent I’m being, if you look at for example stop and search figures, the Queen’s Government figures, black people are much less likely to take drugs than White people, but are six times more likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of possession of drugs and that if they are found with cannabis on them are six times more likely to be charged than a White person found with cannabis.
I think that just underlines how entrenched racism against black people still remains. So even though as I say there’s reasons for hope and to say people can fight and take on racism, there are still huge problems that have to be addressed.”
In your book ‘Chavs’ you mentioned that working class people are far more likely to be in mixed relationships than the ruling class. The media portray the working class as the problem in terms of racism; what’s your view of the perpetuation of racism by the ruling class?
“Well yeah, I think that firstly there is this stereotype that basically middle class people are progressive and enlightened, whilst working class people are often kind of bigots, whether it be homophobic or whether it be racist. And it’s just not borne out by the facts at all.
As you say, we have in this Country one of the highest rates of mixed race relationships on the face of the earth, that’s not, if we’re going to be brutally honest, happening in white suburbs of middle England, it’s not happening so much in places like Surrey, it is happening in working class, often disproportionately inner city communities and in many of those communities you’ll get people from different backgrounds who aren’t just in relationships with each other, they’re also more likely to work with each other, than a lot of these more ‘professional’ groups of people.
They’re more likely to live in the same communities as each other but if you go to the suburbs of London, the leafy suburbs, they’re very white. Black communities in places like Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney are obviously very mixed, so its a really important point to make about that disparity - it’s the same as well by the way with Homophobia because I’d also suggest that working class people are less homophobic than middle class people.
So I think there is that kind of caricature and I think the generalisations that have been used, bigoted generalisations about working class people is that they’re en masse more likely to be riddled with prejudice, racism and homophobia.
That’s not to say racism isn’t there, racism is across all classes really, it’s right across society. So it’s not in any sense about pretending that there’s no racism in working class communities, what I would say is, the difference is between those attitudes often there is an anti-relation sentiment in working class communities. It’s often more likely to be driven by economic insecurities than by overt prejudice.
In the sense that there’s a lack of council housing to go round because successive governments didn’t build council (homes) and the far-right and unfortunately much of the mainstream media and political establishment will say ‘hang on a minute there’s not enough housing to go round why is it going to immigrants?’ and it’s the same with a lack of secure jobs, the same with falling wages all of those scapegoat-ees, for instance often the mainstream media and mainstream politicians will whip that up.
So I think that often anti-immigration sentiment in working class communities is often partly pointlessly - to pretend there aren’t fears and insecurities sometimes of the sense of ‘my community is changing around me’ but it really is economic and social insecurities driving that sort of fear.
You mentioned Islamophobia, the murder of Lee Rigby really brought Islamophobia to the top of the agenda. What is your view with regards to the EDL and BNP and their agenda around Islamophobia?
Clearly what happened with the BNP, the far-right, is that it changed it’s key targets and since particularly 9/11, the BNP campaigned against what they called the ‘Islamosization of Britian’ - they launched a campaign against Islam, Nick Griffin described it as ‘Islam is a cancer’, is ‘wicked’ and talks of driving Muslims out and if you compare it to a far-right in other Western European countries, it’s much the same picture.
Compared to the Netherlands where far-right parties are unfortunately one of the biggest parties and call for all the 800 thousand Dutch Muslims to be paid to leave, in Switzerland you have the referendum to ban the minarets and the main mosque in Geneva was repeatedly attacked. One MP of a leading party called for the incitement of racial hatred against Muslims and in France, where Front National is one of the biggest parties, they campaigned against Muslims so it’s part of a European-wide picture of hatred and fear of Muslims and that is something which the BNP have propagated.
The EDL picked up that baton and they have been at the forefront of these intimidating street rallies, now I think because of the action of anti-racist and anti-fascist activism, the anti-Muslim political forces have been sent into chaos and disarray - again not to be complacent about the potential threat of far-right but the EDL and BNP are clearly in chaos at the moment and in meltdown compared to where they used to be. However, I think the more worrying thing is that many of the causes have actually been driven further into the mainstream as well.
This is illustrated by things like the rise of UKIP. UKIP is a hard-right populist party which again taps into fears and insecurities about Muslims with the sense of policies that harnesses peoples fear about Muslims with things like banning the veil and those sorts of approaches. So just because the far-right are in meltdown doesn’t mean their ideas have disappeared, they are probably more dangerous than they were before.
We do an exercise with young people called ‘Burning Questions’ where we ask them to write down what they think the key issues around racism anonymously.
One of the things that often comes out is that ‘why are we (white people) the ones who are getting persecuted?’ What would you say to any young person who wrote that? We are looking at young people between the ages of 11-13 who genuinely believe that white people are discriminated against.
Well I would say that if we look at politics, if we look at the media, if we look at pretty much all key professions, they are dominated by white people, the further you go up the less non-white people there are. In politics, white people are over-represented compared to what they are in British society, black and minority people are under-represented, it’s the same with media – key journalists are overwhelmingly white.
White people aren’t stopped and searched arbitrarily in the street as a rule by the police, employment rates - and this isn’t to put them against each other - but the unemployment rates for young black people are much, much higher than for young white people, so the reality is if you are from a black and minority ethnic community you are more likely to be poorer, you are less likely to be in politics and working for national newspapers, you are more likely to be unemployed – even if you are a graduate, you are far more likely to suffer racially aggravated assaults and attacks so I think on a whole range of issues it’s quite clear that people who do face discrimination are not white people.
As a white person in British society that actually gives the odds stacked in your favour, that doesn’t mean that if you are white you can’t be exploited, but you are not being exploited because you are white you are being exploited because you are working class. So if you are struggling for housing, if you are struggling to get a secure job that is not because you are white, that is not because of immigrants it’s to do with the fact that working class people get a raw deal in modern Britain.
There is just so few opportunities, there is so little housing, there is so little jobs and the people who struggle most are working class so there are people who do really struggle who are white but they are not struggling because they are white, they are struggling because they are working class so that is what we have got to come to terms with.