Coming face to face with hate

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Author Hsiao-Hung Pai set out to understand where bigots learn their behaviour. She talks to Socialist Review about the results of her research, her new book, Angry White People.

Could you say something about the approach you take in the book? Why did you decide to interview and spend time with the likes of the EDL’s Tommy Robinson, and give their words space?

Racism is reproduced from the top down, by the state and institutions in society. Meanwhile, there are socio-economic circumstances behind people’s choice to be active in practising racism. I was interested in finding out what’s behind such people’s deep anger and hatred. When starting out on this book project, I decided that I must try to get close to the people I was writing about, mainly because that was the only method to get to know them and understand where they’re coming from and how their ideas evolved. Also because I wanted to know it for myself: as someone from an ethnic minority who has experienced racism first hand, I’ve always wanted to know about it. This is the same method I adopted in previous projects.

I was aware what it could mean to give the likes of Tommy Robinson space. But that space only confirmed the racist nature of his movement and all that he stands for. It is clear for all to see. Someone in the media (I’m yet to find out who it was) leaked the pdf of this book to Tommy Robinson a few weeks ago, and the fact that he’s furious and calls it a “book with a far-left agenda”, and ran a little smear campaign against it on social media, should tell us that giving him space isn’t the issue. Winning the argument is.

And you are always careful in the book to debunk any racist myths your interviewees come out with, such as “Muslim grooming” or “refusal to integrate”. Why do you think the mainstream media have been so keen to give the EDL an uncritical platform?

Far-right figureheads like Tommy Robinson have been portrayed in the media as underdogs — and the Brits have a natural soft spot for the underdog, don’t they? The problem with the media reporting of the far-right has always been not addressing the real issue — because it’s not in their interest to. Tommy Robinson has been given a lot of air time talking about Muslim men grooming girls, for instance, and the media are quite happy to go along with his framework and rarely offer an alternative viewpoint. In this way, the media are implicitly endorsing and advertising views of the likes of Robinson. For instance, on a recent BBC Radio 4 programme, Robinson was given 30 minutes to talk about his ideas and Pegida UK. The entire programme was structured according to Robinson’s ideological framework, with a few respondents in between. We might as well listen to a Pegida broadcast.

The question of class comes up a lot. In Luton, where the EDL started, people mention the Vauxhall plant closing in 2000, the lack of investment in estates and youth services. And Darren, an ex-EDLer, talks about the working class collective spirit having been smashed in the 1980s. How important is this to providing a breeding ground for far-right and Nazi organisations?

It is very important. Many of the EDL activists and followers come from decaying manufacturing working class communities, such as in the West Midlands and the north east. The degradation of their communities and the lack of opportunities explains their sense of marginalisation and alienation. Many of them are in flexible, casual employment, and have little sense of industrial identity. Many of them feel hopeless for the future. The only thing they have left is their “psychological wage”, their invented national identity. They’re easy prey to far-right groups.

Class comes up in a more positive sense too, through some of the trade unionists and community anti-racist activists you meet.

Wherever there’s racism, there is resistance. UAF, trade unions and local community organisations all played a huge part in resisting the EDL and the like. When I went into a Stepney pub randomly talking to local people about EDL activities, two CWU members told me how they took part in organising to keep the EDL away from Tower Hamlets. When I talked to a born-and-bred Eastender about racism, he proudly recalled his dad’s history of fighting fascists at Cable Street.
These experiences gave a great sense of unity between communities. I also talked with activists from the Colombian, Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian migrant communities, about how they cope with and fight against discriminatory policies and racism in society. These are all part of a collective resistance against racism.

Darren’s story I felt confirmed the strategy of UAF, which names organisations as racist and keeps naming them, to break away the softer supporters from the hardcore racists and Nazis. The other lesson I took was the need for broad united fronts on the ground — Muslim communities and organisations, trade unions, churches, socialists, councillors. What has your research taught you about how to challenge the EDL and similar groups?

Yes, I think the naming and shaming approach would work very well if combined with education and information campaigns. I feel that it’s important to offer analysis of the problems in people’s lives, and provide information that challenges their racism, for example, explaining why migrants aren’t taking their jobs, why Muslims aren’t their enemy. Many of them simply don’t have the information — they’re not in an environment where they can access alternative information — and are therefore easily misled. Some people can change given the circumstances. Those semi-employed youth I met in Farley Hill, their minds weren’t made up and they are often led by peer pressure.

And yes, it is the united fronts of all community groups, faith groups and trade unions that are capable of fighting the racism of the far-right.

In the course of your research Tommy Robinson left the EDL and later went on to form Pegida UK, modelled after the German anti-Muslim organisation. He claimed he’d changed his ideas and didn’t want to be associated with the racists in the EDL. You suggest it’s more a question of tactics.

Tommy Robinson’s transition from EDL to Pegida demonstrates his ambition in the past two years to “dialogue” with the mainstream. Through his growing relationship with the media in 2013 he saw that EDL street movement had become a burden to him. He wanted to reshape his brand. The BBC producers introduced him to Quilliam. He made a deal with Quilliam, who promised him a fee for acting the part of a de-radicalised extremist. Overall, leaving the EDL since 2013 has given Robinson a much more mainstream platform for his politics. His adoption of the Pegida model is a question of tactics — in his words, a “style” change — in order to draw support from the wider society.

He said, “I know that the majority of people in this country are concerned with the influence of Islam. It’s about giving them the organisation that they can openly admit to supporting.” He says of Pegida, “Policies wise, we’re more or less the same as the EDL. What the EDL was saying all these years has been proven right. Grooming. FGM. Infiltration in schools. All these things we were talking about for ten years. No one wanted to listen. We were called extremists. Now people see, actually, we were right all along.”

It’s clear to see that Robinson’s ideas remain unchanged. The aim of his change of tactics is to appeal to middle England and wider society and broaden his political space.

You spend quite a lot of time outlining the “official racism” of government policies. What is the relationship between state racism and the fortunes of groups like the EDL?

I think that there’s an interactive relationship between state racism and those ideologies that we consider only belonging to the far-right. Racism in government policies and media culture interacts with anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-migrant racism of the far-right. They constantly endorse and reinforce each other. Who needs the EDL and Pegida when we have Katie Hopkins, Nick Ferrari, Andrew Gilligan, John Ware and the like? Who needs Tommy Robinson and Paul Weston (co-leader of Pegida UK who argues that Muslims shouldn’t hold public office) when we have the likes of Eric Pickles?

Researchers such as Spinwatch are right to argue that the most dangerous Islamophobia is practised by the state and its institutions. When David Cameron said, “Muslim women should learn English to help tackle extremism”, the EDL cheered and applauded. “Coming round slowly,” they said of Cameron. Championing the government’s “comprehensive review into boosting opportunity and integration to bring Britain together as one nation”, some of the media contributed to reproducing Cameron’s myth that “young men are vulnerable to radicalisation because submissive Muslim mothers couldn’t speak out against the radical imams”. This all fits well with the EDL narrative of radicalisation.

When government policies are victimising refugees and returning child refugees to war zones in the Middle East and the media endorsing such policies, far-right groups become louder and much more confident. Pegida UK and the like will only have more grounds to breed when political elites and mainstream societies make it acceptable to victimise ethnic minority communities and war-fleeing asylum seekers. If we allow regressive state policies across Europe to carry on targeting refugees, and sensationalist tabloid journalism to reproduce prejudices every single day, then we shouldn’t be too surprised when far-right groups get a free ride.

Review: Angry White People

Subtitled “Coming face-to-face with the British far right”, this journalistic investigation begins with a foreword by poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who makes the simple point that the so-called “white working class” whose industries have been destroyed and who are living in poor housing conditions, are doing so next to black workers facing the same conditions. The solution for both is to reject divide-and-rule from above and unite.

Hsiao-Hung Pai wants to understand what it is that drives people to join racist organisations like the EDL and spout such hatred against Muslims or migrants. As she writes, no one is born a bigot. Where do they learn this behaviour?

Angry White People is problematic for socialists because it uses the method of giving space to racists in order for us to understand them. However, Hsiao-Hung never does this uncritically — unlike the mainstream media, as she points out. She always makes space to debunk racist arguments with a page or two of statistics and facts, and she demonstrates how particular myths feed off narratives coming from above.

She asserts throughout the book that racism starts with the ruling class and those institutions and structures which act in its interests. In the rest of society there is a struggle over ideas — as well as a struggle to survive in conditions which for many have deteriorated over the past three decades.

Her central interviewee, Darren, exemplifies this. He was centrally involved in the EDL at its inception in Luton, but went on to reject racism and begin to look to the left for answers. His story powerfully vindicates the strategy of naming the EDL as racist and building broad alliances in towns to come out and march against them.

Interviews with Paul Sillett of UAF, trade unionists in the East End of London, migrant rights organisations and Muslim activists all build up a picture of how to fight racist groups.

But Hsiao-Hung also seeks to show how necessary it is to challenge the broader social issues that create the conditions in which racism can thrive. Angry White People is a useful addition to our anti-racist tool box.

Sally Campbell

Angry White People by Hsiao-Hung Pai is published by Zed Books, £12.99