Debates about identity, racism and “blackness” have re-emerged in the student movement this year.
The summer conference of the Black Students’ Campaign, a liberation campaign within the National Union of Students (NUS), was framed by explosive debates about identity, racism and how we organise. These debates drew on the discussions happening in wider society, from the question of who can be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, to how we can stop the Tories’ Islamophobic Prevent agenda.
Journalist Gary Younge was at the conference to receive a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to anti-racist work. He opened the day with a keynote speech recognising the significant strides of anti-racist politics over the past year but also the many obstacles we still face as a movement. He concluded by reinforcing the idea of “black” in a political sense and not as a personal identity, arguing that the common struggle we face as a consequence of racism binds us together under a political identity which can act as a powerful block when united.
This year the Black Students’ Campaign was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and Denis Fernando, the first ever Black Students’ Officer, told his story of pulling the campaign together. In the 1990s he had faced an NUS bureaucracy which was not only unrepresentative of students from different backgrounds, but was unwilling to change. He saw that there was a need for unity among black and minority ethnic students to challenge the status quo.
So the “black” in Black Students’ Campaign was used as a category of struggle, not simply an ethnic description.
Denis and the other activists who helped to form the Black Students’ Campaign stood in the tradition of socialists and anti-racists who had fought fiercely in the decades before under the politically black banner. The current debate in student politics is notable for the absence of that struggle and the dominance of identity politics on the campuses today.
The first motion put to this year’s conference — and the source of the controversy — resolved that either the Black Students’ Officer must be “ethnically black” or the name of the campaign must be changed.
There were emotive speeches on both sides as it was battled out. The motion was proposed and driven by a group who asserted that their identity was the basis of their politics. Those arguing against the motion were left wing activists who had been involved in the Black Students’ Campaign over the past year — including an intervention by Malia Bouattia, the recently elected NUS president and a prominent campaigner for Palestinian rights and against the Prevent agenda.
The motion was so strongly contested that there was an attempt to take it to a secret ballot; however, when this fell there was an open vote and the motion was voted down by a clear majority. It was very clear from the speeches following that this wasn’t the end of the discussion, and neither should it be, as there are some crucial issues to be brought out.
Those supporting the motion did so on the basis that there is a specific form of anti-black racism which targets people who are “ethnically black” in a different to way to the racism experienced by other ethnic groups.
This argument comes from a good starting point which recognises that we need to understand and take on oppression, however it can lead down very divisive channels. First of all, who decides who is ethnically black? And what are the criteria? Would it be how directly you are linked to Africa, what colour your skin is or how much you know about your cultural heritage?
This idea suggests that all “ethnically black” people have the same interests, but black people are not homogeneous — an “ethnically black” person in Ghana has a different experience to someone who grew up in London, and a black call centre worker has a different experience to a black MP.
The identity politics that is common in the student movement today states that there are distinct forms of racism which intersect with other oppressions, such as those based on gender or sexuality. This can end up implying that there is a hierarchy in which the worst off are “ethnically black”, women, LBGT+, and so on, with others in privileged positions by comparison. This can have very harmful consequences when it comes to understanding who has the power — and the interest — to fight oppression.
This hierarchy suggests that we should stick to our atomised oppressed groups to fight back since we can only understand other people within our groups. But it also states that the colour of our skin or where we come from is the main line of division — thereby not taking into account the fundamental division of class. Although some activists today will talk about oppression based on “class”, they tend to mean that in a descriptive sense of poverty or lack of opportunities, rather than in the Marxist sense of class as a relationship to the means of production and to other groups in society — a relationship which can potentially give us power as part of a collective.
There is a common misunderstanding that racism comes from individual antagonisms and from ideas in individuals’ heads. In some extreme cases it is argued that white people are inherently racist and there will always be a subconscious level of racism which they must be aware of and thus temper their behaviour.
As socialists we argue that racism comes from the top; it is not something which has been around since the start of time but has developed with the advance of capitalism. Race itself is a social construct, with its origins in the Atlantic slave trade and embedded in the domination of empires. It is used to divide the working class against itself — but as an ideology, racism has been forced to change in response to struggles against it.
This understanding of the material roots of racism challenges the notion that black leaders are an answer to racism. Was it an advance for black Londoners when black Tottenham MP David Lammy, after the murder of Mark Duggan by police in 2011, called the rioters
“mindless, mindless people” rather than identifying with their struggle against police racism?
We need to look towards a strategy which unites our class in a struggle against racism which can radically transform society — not simply ally with others who look like us but would rather maintain the status quo.
In assessing the debates in the student movement today it is useful to look back to previous movements and understand the origins of the term “politically black”.
The term black emerged from the struggles of the 1960s as a political category that could unite all those who faced racism because of the colour of their skin. In Britain, after the 1962 immigration act was passed — the first of many restricting immigration — there was a rising level of activity against racism. Groups and campaigns were set up to challenge police and state racism, as well as taking on the bigots on the streets.
There were many different ethnic groups who had come to Britain from around the Commonwealth and beyond and who faced racism, but they could be united through their experiences at the hands of the same authorities and their attempts to fight back.
Many key organisers were influenced by black nationalist politics and drew inspiration from Civil Rights and Black Power struggles in the US and from the Pan-Africanist movements that followed the end of colonial rule in Africa. But there was also a strong current of Marxism running through the movements that ensured a focus on working class unity as the means to achieve liberation.
During the 1970s and 1980s there were huge battles which solidified the term black as a broad, political category. The political alienation of the early Thatcher years, vicious police racism and high youth unemployment combined and in 1981 there was a wave of riots in areas of cities with large black and Asian populations — south London’s Brixton, Birmingham’s Handsworth, Liverpool’s Toxteth and Leeds’ Chapeltown, as well as other towns and cities across the country.
The Tories feared the riots could feed into growing working class anger at cuts and job losses. They appointed a high court judge, Lord Scarman, to investigate the causes and how to stop them.
Scarman’s report did not accept that there was institutional racism and instead identified Caribbean and Asian families as the root of the problem. He advised a programme of community policing and investment in the inner cities. The state set out to co-opt political leaders from black communities in the same way the American state bought off sections of the Civil Rights Movement.
Labour Party left wingers argued that bringing community groups into a closer relationship with the local authority, through grant funding and open decision making, was a way of extending democracy and giving black people political power. This sounded radical to some at the time.
A minority of black activists saw it rather as an attempt at divide and rule. But their increasingly black nationalist alternative didn’t offer a viable alternative. Black-only community defence campaigns were short-lived and didn’t reflect the multicultural reality of the struggles. Ultimately, a whole swathe of activists ceased to believe it was possible to end racism once and for all, and lowered their sights to attempting to win small reforms.
Local authorities used the influence they had gained from providing funding to shift the terminology of black struggles. They moved against the use of “black” as a political category in favour of a series of ethnicities — first black and Asian, and then ever smaller subdivisions until Asian became Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese and Other Asian. Community groups bidding for council funding now had to prove they represented particular ethnicities and then join the fierce competition for dwindling resources.
Those activists whose politics was based in postmodernist notions of identity actually embraced these changes. They argued that it was right to break down the concept of “blackness” because it simply covered up a whole number of different and specific experiences of oppression.
This kind of politics came to dominate much of the left, and particularly those who ran Labour councils, in 1980s and 1990s. In practice this undermined the idea of solidarity which was so central to the use of the term black in its broad, political sense. Of course, this process of breaking down solidarity had already begun as a result of the very real defeats suffered by workers at the hands of the Tories through that period.
The levels of both workers’ struggle and the fight against racism and fascism have not since reached the same heights as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been moments of broad unity — the Stop the War movement in the early 2000s; the campaigns against the British National Party and later the English Defence League. In these mass movements a sense of unity and solidarity has dominated and slogans such as “Black and White Unite and Fight” have fitted.
However, the term politically black has waned away with the struggle so it’s not surprising that many who use identity as a tool of liberation would seek to change it — or that young people who have grown up since the waning of that struggle would have less of an attachment to the term.
The influence of US radical politics has also been greater among activists in Britain in recent years, especially in the colleges, with the advance of privilege theory and related concepts. Academics, of course, shape student politics and they have long looked away from the working class as the agent of change and liberation.
The impact of US movements such as Black Lives Matter has also been central. These movements have rightly inspired people here, but it is important that we recognise the differences between American society and the British experience. Some activists organised solidarity actions with Black Lives Matter and took it as primarily important that they be “black-led” — but this clashes with the reality and history of British society, which has always been multicultural and has not seen the kind of segregation that has defined US history.
This leads some activists to look to terms such as “people of colour”, which sounds very inclusive. However, it doesn’t have the same potential force that the term black has. The term black starts from what unites us to make us a strong group, a collective force; people of colour starts with our differences to make a group of individuals — a collection of people rather than a collective.
However much the debate has changed, we still face fundamentally the same problems as activists back in the 70s and 80s — there is still huge structural inequality, institutional racism and racist scapegoating. However, the primary targets of racism have changed; the sights are now set on Muslims and immigrants. Arab and Asian students now make up a large section of the Black Students’ Campaign and rightly so.
Fighting against Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism doesn’t mean that we ignore the struggles of other black students — if anything it means the opposite; it means we must be bigger, bolder and more willing to link arms against the racism of the state.
After Malia’s election as president there was a huge racist backlash in the NUS, including a disaffiliation campaign led by the right wing. There is a reason Malia and the Black Students’ Campaign are under attack and it’s because the right is scared of the power we have when we move together. Malia was elected because these tactics are the most effective. The Black Students’ Campaign is the kind of organisation the right is scared of and one we should fight to defend and to build as the most organised progressive block within the NUS.
Right now there is more of a need than ever to remain united and not split off into our different compartmentalised sections. We shouldn’t throw out the term politically black as it still holds great potential to bind the anti-racist movement together — a movement which is so vital right now.
As anti-racists we should be proud of what we have already achieved but now is the time to move forward in unity to stop the Prevent agenda, to demand refugees are welcomed into Britain and to smash institutional racism.