Anti-racists took a big step forward this year but, as Weyman Bennett and Julie Sherry argue, we still face major threats from the establishment as well as the far right and fascism.
In 2020 the issue of racism and resistance rocketed to the top of the political agenda. Despite his continued protestations, it ended with Donald Trump defeated electorally and on his way out of the White House, but the racist movement he inspired both in the US and internationally is still very much alive and kicking.
Meanwhile the Black Lives Matter protests (BLM) that exploded in the wake of the death of George Floyd were on an even larger scale than those of 1968 and they spread across the world. These mobilisations highlighted not just the modern, day-to-day realities of racism and discrimination, but also the way that capitalism was born out of slavery and violence.
Floyd’s death was the immediate catalyst, but the response was undoubtedly fuelled also by a pandemic which has had a hugely disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. Millions of mainly young people, including hundreds of thousands in Britain, defied the lockdown and erupted onto the streets.
The protesters brought with them a series of radical demands, the most prominent of which was a call to defund the police. One particular highlight was the tearing down of slaveholder Edward Colston’s statue and its dispatch into the harbour by protesters in Bristol. The international impact of this was highlighted by the fact that it reverberated across the Atlantic and was referred to by Rev Al Sharpton at Floyd’s funeral. Far from simply being a symbolic gesture, it played a critical role in regenerating demands to decolonise education.
Meanwhile the government told us to ‘clap for carers’ while BAME workers were disproportionately infected and dying.
The Tories’ calamitous handling of the health crisis has not led to any softening of the ‘hostile environment’ — in fact the opposite is the case. The resumption of deportation flights to Jamaica, despite the Windrush scandal, and the ramping up of attempts to criminalise refugees has been an integral part of government strategy. Home secretary Priti Patel and Boris Johnson are pushing ahead with an agenda that has seen asylum seekers separated off and housed in ex-army barracks in Penally, Wales and Folkestone.
Meanwhile Afro-Caribbean and Muslim communities have been blamed for the spread of Covid-19 because of their supposed ‘cultural differences’. There has been no let up in the use of stop and search particularly under the Coronavirus Act and Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. These provisions have seen black people targeted in a massively disproportionate way.
In these circumstances nobody should be confused by Tory attempts to put ‘black faces in high places’. The inclusion of figures like Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel in the cabinet has done no more to blunt racism than the inclusion of black politicians, police chiefs and public officials in the US establishment has created a “post racial society” there.
Of course there will be attempts to co-opt those who were out on the streets into the political mainstream. That was certainly the case in the US where the Democrats benefited from the BLM movement flowing into the campaign to mobilise the vote for Biden.
In Britain, while nobody is likely to be pulled towards the Tories, Labour is no longer such a massive pull for anti-racists following the demise of Jeremy Corbyn. His successor Sir Keir Starmer dismissed BLM as a “moment” and argued that the Bristol protesters’ actions had been “completely wrong”.
Internal strife inside the Labour Party has seen arguments about racism turned on their head. Now Jeremy Corbyn and the left are branded as antisemitic, despite years of anti-racist work. It should be remembered that on the very day he was elected Labour leader in 2015, Corbyn’s first public act was to come and address a huge pro-refugee rally organised by Stand Up To Racism (SUTR).
Along with Corbyn, Diane Abbott has disappeared from the front bench. She has gone from being the most vilified and racially abused MP to someone who could possibly face disciplinary action for her views. Meanwhile a report into Islamophobia has been systematically ignored by the party despite the damning nature of the evidence involved.
Attempts to divide and rule are being replicated internationally from Trump’s flirtations with far right Proud Boys to Emmanuel Macron and Sebastian Kurz’s offensives against Muslim communities in France and Austria. The offensive against Muslims in France has come from a man who was once the darling of the centre but who now sees Islam as a threat to European culture. And behind the racism and Islamophobia comes the growth of antisemitism with the use of tropes by racist populists from Victor Orban in Hungary to Rudi Giuliani in the US.
Race and class are intrinsically linked in the present crisis. In such circumstances, people’s despair and alienation can go in many directions. Even the booing of players taking a knee by Millwall football “fans” shows what a fault-line racism is.
Similarly, conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine protests can easily develop racist undercurrents. Notorious antisemite David Icke spoke on some of the sizeable London rallies while the far right have attempted to relate to the crowds.
In Britain at present, the far right remain on the margins. SUTR and Unite Against Fascism’s successful mobilisations against Tommy Robinson and the FLA/DFLA in 2019 had a huge effect on their confidence and numbers.
Similar success has been achieved by anti-fascist groups in other parts of Europe. 2020 saw the final humiliation of Golden Dawn in Greece with the conviction and lengthy imprisonment of its leaders for operating a criminal organisation. This was a tribute to the work of groups such as KEERFA, the United Movement against Racism and the Fascist Threat. In Austria dogged campaigning culminated in a real setback for the fascists in elections in Vienna.
But in France and elsewhere the fascists remain strong. Macron’s behaviour is in part an attempt to outflank National Rally’s Marine Le Pen. Meanwhile across Europe, the pandemic has exacerbated deeply entrenched discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Trump’s defeat will not mean that his brand of racist populism will go away anymore than setbacks for the far right in Britain means that their threat has disappeared.
The economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis will be immense. Already hundreds of thousands have joined the dole queues. Only the extension of the furlough scheme has staved off the kind of jobs massacre we saw in the 1980s, but that lifeline will end in the spring. Any disruption caused by Brexit can intensify the crisis.
In these circumstances it is obvious that the Tories will continue to target refugees, migrants and Muslim communities, offering them up as scapegoats for their own failings.
But it’s far from automatic that they will succeed. Just like in the US the hundreds of thousands of BLM protesters in Britain were from all backgrounds. The fact that protests took place from Dorset to the Orkney Islands shows that sections of the white working class, students and others are committed to fighting racism.
This solidarity is a reflection of the fact that despite the very clear additional discrimination faced by BAME communities, there is also a common experience of exploitation and alienation that is shared across the ethnic divide.
SUTR along with a network of international organisations is determined to build upon this on Saturday 20 March. On this day protests will be held across the continents to mark UN Anti-Racism Day. In Britain the events are supported by the Trades Union Congress and will be held on a local basis to ensure Covid-19 safety.
These events are not token. They are an attempt to make a major political statement that working class people will oppose the politics of divide and rule. The broader and more powerful these mobilisations are, the more they reflect the BLM movement and involve trade union, faith groups and campaigning organisations, the more they can shape the future.
Socialists and anti-racists have to be at the heart of immunising working class communities from the virus of racism as well as fighting against the poverty and discrimination faced by BAME communities.
For socialists, BLM has opened up many fresh opportunities. A new generation of activists has burst onto the scene. Parliamentary elections and the Labour project have not been at the heart of their activism. They have been asking the big questions about the racism in our society and the need for fundamental social change.
Revolutionary change, and the tradition of revolutionary struggle by anti-racists, has even come onto our Sunday night TV screens with Steve McQueen’s series of Small Axe films.
While building the widest possible anti-racist alliance through SUTR, socialists need to fight to win the new generation of activists to the idea of revolutionary change.