. Strained Solidarities: On (re)building a mass anti-racist movement in Britain | Ceasefire Magazine

Strained Solidarities: On (re)building a mass anti-racist movement in Britain Analysis

Anti-racist activists in the UK must eschew stale debates over terminology and representation, and instead focus on building a movement rooted in structural knowledge and powered by cross-communal solidarity, write Ilyas Nagdee and Azfar Shafi.

Editor's Desk, Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, July 22, 2020 16:38 - 0 Comments


For antiracists, the eruption of activism over the last month has been an incredible and poignant sight, with the Black Lives Matter-led mass uprisings across America seeping onto our screens and sweeping onto our streets. Yet, those now looking to dedicate energy towards building on a pre-existing antiracist movement might be in for quite a disappointment.

Beyond the broad left and the – broadly toothless – popular front initiatives against racism, and the vital but perpetually overstretched work of grassroots anti-police violence campaigns, there is no mass movement against state racism that can advance the struggle, defend communities against the inevitable backlash, and co-ordinate long-term organising in Britain.

Organisational issues aside, young activists will also be entering an ‘antiracist’ scene that is wracked by deep ideological faultlines – trapped in the grammar of identity, experience and representation and mired in fractious internal differences.

Perhaps the issue most emblematic of these is the cyclical debate on the validity of terms like ‘BAME’ (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). This debate has been churning in the public sphere and on social media for years – with the bourgeois press, predictably, eager to platform it at every availability – and has in this moment returned to the fore.

Bubbling below the surface of a stale debate on ‘terminology’, though, runs a referendum on the very question of how we conceptualise and mobilise ‘antiracism’, and on the value of collective organising, which will be make-or-break for our movement. The ‘BAME’ debate is only the tip of the iceberg.

In this essay we will try to broaden the lens of the debate, and to focus on the deeper issues militating against the kind of mass antiracist organising we now need.

We are not presumptuous enough to believe that we have all the solutions to racism pre-determined for black and brown youth to simply implement on our behalf.

But the strategic and theoretic dysfunction within British antiracism is so deep, and seemingly so pervasive, that a sudden surge of activists will push these existing bottlenecks to breaking point and threaten to split apart an already fragmented movement.

Strategic disagreements could be productive, if we had the organisational forms to facilitate them. Theoretical disputes could be constructive, if we were rooted in an emancipatory praxis. Discussions on oppression could serve as important correctives, if they were borne out of a commitment to recovering and deepening collective solidarities.

What this boils down to is the fact we are left without the frames to understand and conceptualise antiracism – and this needs to change, urgently.

The strategic priorities of antiracism today

The controversy over collective terms like ‘BAME’ reflects a wider issue of the programmatic and strategic priorities of antiracism today.

Rather than one where mass organisation is a vehicle for change, today we more often understand antiracist organising to be mobilising around narrow prescriptions for policy, funding and piecemeal solutions from government, state institutions and the market; it is in short, the NGO-isation of antiracism.

Gaining traction with the professionalisation of antiracism after the 1981 rebellions, this is the mould that still defines antiracist politics in Britain – the politics of ethnic blocs, resource scarcity and disparity discourse – and it has much to answer for the programmatic disintegration of antiracist organising today.

This mode of antiracism has long privileged ‘great leaders’ or ethnic gatekeepers while the masses remain broadly inert, and the heightened individualism of the age of social media has seen the rise of a new actor to this scene: the influencer.

In the relative absence of radical antiracist institutions, individuals can reap a disturbing amount of authority, often without any concurrent accountability.

This leads to an inverted process of movement building: rather than having organic leadership emerge out of movement organising, social media ‘leaders’ are elevated and work backwards to create a brand to burnish their credentials.

No surprise then that the influencer class has led the fiercest charge against collective antiracist organising: they are merely thinning out the ‘competition’.

From communities of resistance to ethnic constituencies

For today’s mode of antiracist organising, the primary unit is the injured community that requires redress, usually in terms of managing ethnic ‘disparities’ in life experiences and outcomes.

The creation of such a unit requires pressing ethnic groups, with all their internal heterogeneity, into neatly bounded, manageable and ultimately knowable constituencies or blocs, which in turn requires the production of a class of ethnic gatekeepers to speak on their behalf; segueing directly into the trend of representation politics described below.

This privileges a bureaucratic sociological approach to antiracism over a political one. ‘Inequality’ becomes an unfortunate fault to be rectified, rather than seen as a structural feature of exploitation under capitalism. The locus of organising then becomes convincing politicians and market institutions to grant us respite from racism’s worst effects, rather than directing our mass struggles against the institutions that reproduce it, or exerting power as workers and communities to disrupt the political economy of racism.

In other words, it reinforces the dynamics of subordination to the state and market, rather than building an insurgent challenge to them. It is therefore no surprise that the state has so effortlessly managed to flip it so as to play black and brown communities off one another for scraps: the desperate poverty, racism and injustices facing them are less likely to be taken as points of solidarity around a shared political project, than as mutually exclusive and competing claims to injury.

“[If] these issues are fought in terms of the specific, particularistic oppressions of women qua women, blacks qua blacks and so on, without being opened out to and informed by other oppressions, they lose their claim to that universality which was their particular contribution to socialism in the first place. And they, further, fall into the error of a new sectarianism – as between blacks versus women, Asians versus Afro-Caribbeans, gays versus blacks, and so on – which pulls rank, this time, on the basis not of belief but of suffering: not who is the true believer but who is the most oppressed.” – A. Sivanandan, All that melts into air is solid: the hokum of New Times, (1990)

The cruel calculus of this politics has heightened and hardened the contradictions between racialised communities. In effect, it is merely a deepening of the stale multiculturalism of decades past rather than any radical alternative to it; the very approach that has historically sown and deepened division between racialised communities in Britain by pitting them against one another for funding and patronage, fragmenting them instead into many competing constituencies.

Beyond the terminology, what this moment needs is a rethinking of organisational forms of antiracism, and a return to the mode of mass politics of past generations that we are often happy to invoke, but rarely seem to learn from.

The problem with a term like BAME is not that it is ‘too collective’, but quite the opposite – BAME is fundamentally a classificatory and monitoring regime that lends itself to manageable ethnic bloc politics, rather an insurgent and broad-based antiracism.

As long as we are stuck in the mould of this form of antiracism, the terminology is irrelevant; we have already failed.

The false promise of representation politics

There is no clearer clarion call in ‘antiracism’ today than the demands around ‘representation’ – nor one that is more polarising.

For years, discourse around racism and racial disparities have centred on how black and brown people are represented in fields of politics, media, business and entertainment — and how the gateway to emancipation for racialised communities must, apparently, run through cultivating more ethnic gatekeepers.

It has also become a major wedge issue underpinning the attack on collective terminology, usually around the disparity between black and Asian representation. This has taken on a particularly sharp edge with the rise of South Asians like Sajid Javid, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak to high office, but it is a grievance that has long been percolating.

But the overwhelming emphasis on representation – particularly political representation – is astonishingly narrow and short-sighted in these times of resurgent state racism; and carries a promise in the popular imaginary that has been betrayed by reality, again and again.

Across various administrations we have seen black and brown politicians trade their political convictions for Cabinet positions.

Paul Boateng, who made his name challenging police violence in the 70s and 80s, went on to fervently support draconian anti-terror policing, tougher asylum restrictions and the criminalisation of Eastern European beggars under the Blair governments.

As an MP – now Lord – who began his Parliamentary career with the bombastic challenge to South African apartheid, “Today Brent South, tomorrow Soweto!”, Boateng soon joined pre-eminent apologists of Israeli apartheid, Labour Friends of Israel, as well as the board of mercenary company Aegis Defence Services – whose base of operations spanned Africa and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Valerie Amos, noted during her academic career for critiquing ‘imperial feminism’, went on to canvas support from various African heads of state for the imperialist war in Iraq, and — in a logic that wouldn’t be out of place in our present government — led Britain’s delegation at the 2001 Durban conference against racism in arguing against the principle of slavery reparations on the basis that, in its time, slavery was not illegal.

One-time human rights lawyer Sadiq Khan quickly swapped moral inclinations for senior office, and the less said about New Labour stalwart Trevor Phillips, the better.

The few politicians who do stand by their convictions – and their communities — however, have paid the price.

The vitriol and abuse Diane Abbott has suffered is a regular testament to her enduring credentials, while the sustained media and legal assault to depose ex-Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman saw the entire political establishment mobilised against him — Conservatives hand-in-hand with Labour.

Representation politics filtered through the prism of ‘BAME’ throws up some clearly absurd results: the rise of another upper-class brown Conservative politician to high office cannot be a ‘black’ victory any more than it can be a working class brown victory. But far more absurd is how much fire and heat have been expended on representation in the first place.

At this juncture, it is our duty to cultivate and nurture organic leadership within black and brown communities, not fast-track the budding careerists in our midst or valorise the worst tendencies within this incipient movement.

An antiracist ‘movement’ that has stripped itself of substantive politics in favour of the fleeting pleasures of representation is destined to disappoint. It is a damning indictment that we can still labour under the illusion that representation will save us – and it is this very illusion that is tearing apart collective antiracist organising today.

Arming ourselves with theory

There are no shortcuts: as part of a return to a political antiracism, we need theory. Remarkably, for a generation so steeped in the reality of racism, popular antiracist theory and analysis remains shallow, liberal, and overly reliant on frames imported from the US.

The US racial taxonomy of Black/White/Indigenous/‘People of Colour’ does not pertain to the British context, where the border logics of citizenship, subjecthood, immigrant and asylum seeker status, rather than the settler-slave logic of American racism, have been central to the shifting modes of racist social control in Britain.

Elsewhere, we have also seen a general tendency to elevate experience over and above analysis, thereby absolving ourselves of the work of understanding the why of racism, beyond simply the what.

At best this produces a petty anti-intellectualism and a question-begging approach to understanding racism – racism becomes its own justification, rather than opening out to broader questions of power and exploitation.

At worst, this leads to a narrowing of the antiracist frame to the arena of immediate experience, and elides the urgency of combatting the domination we don’t see – such as the oft-invisibilised impact of black male deaths in custody on black women, or the ravages of imperialist plunder, forever out of sight, and out of mind.

All too easily, this commonsense theorisation of race can fall into ethnic or cultural authenticity politics, tired ‘race vs class’ debates, or a mode of ‘antiracism’ where exploring the nuances of one’s racialised existence becomes more important than overcoming the conditions that render one inferior.

Any framework of race and racism must centre the fact that there is no category of race today that can exist outside the class structure of society; that neither can exist outside the capitalist-imperialist imperatives of accumulation, extraction and expulsion, and that all – including race itself – must eventually be abolished.

The elevation of experience over analysis leads to the charge that collective antiracism is undesirable because it ‘erases’ specific racist experiences. It goes without saying that racism is never experienced in exactly the same way – whether across ethnic communities, or by individuals within them .

Racism is not merely an abstract force, and our antiracism must of course be attentive to peoples’ particularities and pains but, crucially, it must do so with the aim of, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore put it, “reinvigorating the notion of the universal” as its centrifugal force, not towards endless fragmentation.

Such universalism must rest not on the minutiae of subjective experience but on universal social facts: the totality of capitalism today, the centrality of accumulation and exploitation to the process of racism, and the overriding imperative to vanquish them. Our antiracism must, without question, be anti-capitalist.

In turn, we need an antiracist class politics that focuses on the deep commonalities of structural oppression facing working class black and brown communities, not the petty similarities fixated upon by their bourgeois counterparts (the minor pains of being mis-named, being mistaken for someone else, and so on).

We need an antiracism that recognises, as the late Sivanandan wrote, that “there are two racisms: the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills”, and that the petit bourgeois preoccupation with the indignity of ‘microaggressions’ cannot compare with the racial injustices facing their working class counterparts – and should never be the principal locus of our antiracism.

Mistaking the trees for the woods

Few questions are more fraught and contested in the world of antiracism than that of solidarity – whether it exists, whether it can exist, or indeed if it’s even a worthwhile pursuit.

It’s important that we consider the ideological hardening against solidarity, which is often based on a misunderstanding of what solidarity actually is. Today it is often framed as either predicated on ‘sameness’ – amounting to a ‘social club’ politics – or as a transaction, a fragile quid pro quo between otherwise atomised and independent campaigns, which reinforces market dynamics.

According to this formulation, ‘BAME solidarity’ fails because it presumes a shared experience that does not exist; whereas an exclusively ‘black solidarity’ or an ‘Asian solidarity’ – which somehow can transcend the cleavages of class, caste, nationality, religion, gender etc – need only be activated.

In these highly networked times, where garnering support for our causes seems to be at the mercy of short-term memories and shorter attention spans, it can seem like solidarity itself is in short supply: encouraging a culture of scarcity and suspicion.

But this demeans the power of solidarity, which in its truest form is a transformative relationship that aims to build around a shared political project, or build across difference to create new subjectivities, and deepen collective organising.

Taken this way, solidarity is an index of struggle: it signals the existence of organising.

If we can reject the need for solidarity, that either means we’ve overcome the conditions that demand it, or that we’ve given up on the struggle. Self-evidently, neither is the case.

Further underpinning the fragmentation of collective antiracist solidarity is the mistake of understanding racism as merely embodied in those at the receiving end of it, rather than understanding its structural functions.

To state that black people in Britain are affected by police brutality, or Muslims by counter-terror policing, with disproportionate ferocity or frequency, may describe what is happening, but to reduce policing to a ‘black issue’ or counter-terrorism to a ‘Muslim issue’ is a methodological and analytic failure; it sheds no light on why these forms of structural control, coercion and violence come to be, and how they serve the regimes of labour extraction at home and imperialist exploitation abroad.

Focusing solely on which ethnic group is disproportionately prone to any one particular form of racism at any given time also risks missing the totality of state racism, and how seemingly different, even contradictory, aspects of a racist regime connect at the level of the whole.

The harassment of black communities under Sus and the terrorising of Asian migrant communities by immigration enforcement over the past decades weren’t identical, but they were interconnected forms of a racist domestic policing regime that called for an interconnected struggle.

So too today with the way the ‘extremist’ label is primarily directed at South Asian and Arab Muslims, while the ‘gang member’ charge targets black youth, to pick just one example. These, in turn, legitimise new technologies and tactics of policing – such as Prevent and the Gangs Matrix – that criminalise and classify youth; they afflict communities differently but must be opposed together.

Thus, the demand for inter-racial solidarity today need not deploy the iconography of the Bandung era; nor must it necessarily evoke – though it certainly should not erase – the heyday of ‘Political Blackness’, to be considered valid.

Understanding racism in its totality provides more fertile ground for building practical solidarities and joint struggles today – a movement against state violence in Britain must necessarily take on the police, immigration enforcement and the counter-terror apparatus, as the ‘8 to Abolition’ call does in the US.

Strategically, it also compels us to return to the political economy underpinning racist state apparatus. Without that grounding in material processes, racism becomes seen as an exercise in irrational, wanton violence, rather than as a strategy to legitimise exploitation and extraction of land and labour.

Systems and techniques of structural racism do not exist on a flat gradient from bad to worst; they are dialectically constituted and mutually reinforcing. Whether or not we recognise it – whether or not we like it, even – our liberation is, in fact, bound up with one another’s.

The question, then, cannot be whether or not we ‘choose’ solidarity, but how and under what conditions can we make it effective.

This requires a deeper attendance to the issues facing solidarity as a practice today. We need to recognise that solidarity is not just harder to come by, it’s intentionally been made more difficult. Our shop floors today are all too often un-unionised, racialised communities are stratified, and radical organisations of the past have either been destroyed or pacified.

The question of oppression within or between ethnic communities absolutely needs to be addressed. But while caucusing and self-organisation are entirely valid as tactics, in the long run these intercommunal issues need to be handled by people ‘in motion’ – in the course of organising together, rather than abstracted and intellectualised outside of such actions.

Rebuilding solidarity requires organisational forms to facilitate it, and neither an indefinite period of enforced isolation from one another, nor the deployment of race consultants, are sufficient to simultaneously mend inter-communal divisions and move us towards an emancipatory horizon.

The combination of organisational and ideological failures is the reason why, over the years, we have come to the sobering realisation that there will be no ‘lightbulb moment’ on the need for cross-racial solidarity in Britain. But the organisational forms must be created to make it possible, and the drive to rebuild solidarity must be geared towards generating durable, transformative solidarities rooted in the recognition of our shared struggle.


In this moment, to focus on the terrain of terminology would be a continuation of the strategic mistakes we are now reaping the fruits of. To allow this present antiracist upsurge to be canalised into battles over ‘representation’ would hand victory to the powerful – and, as in the past, grant license to black and brown ethnic gatekeepers to defang movements targeting state violence into empty questions of visibility.

Likewise, reacting to the carefully manufactured distance between racialised communities by disavowing solidarity now would be finishing off what the state began back in the 1980s.

The politics underpinning our antiracism matter far more than the terminology we use, and when the contradictions are as sharp, and the stakes are as high as they are at the present moment, to allow for a fracturing of the struggle along racialised lines would be a historic error and a negation of the antiracist legacy we stand on.

A collective antiracist praxis is borne out of a recognition that what we need is more than a mosaic of moments, a patchwork of campaigns or upsurges of energy followed by sharp decline, but rather a sustained antiracist movement ready for the real, long-term graft that comes with that. If it is to have any hope of meaningfully challenging British state racism, our movement must be multi-racial, rooted in working class politics and poised against capitalism.

Ilyas Nagdee

Ilyas Nagdee is a writer and activist with a focus on policing, security and antiracism. He has written for outlets such as The Independent, Guardian, Tribune, Red Pepper and other publications. He tweets at @ilyas_nagdee.

Azfar Shafi is a researcher on counter-terrorism and security. His interests include movements organising against policing, state racism and imperialism.

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