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Fri 4 December 2020

Liam Shrivastava, of the Institute of Race Relations, tackles new right-wing efforts to quash the campaign for racial equality

In a Black History Month debate in Parliament on Tuesday, the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch spoke of a “dangerous trend in race relations… that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression”.

She was referring to an academic field of study that, until recently, was mostly found in social sciences faculties, particularly those in the US from where it originates.

‘Critical race theory’ emerged in the 1980s when black Harvard law professor Derrick Bell highlighted the incongruities between legal rights won during the Civil Rights Movement and the racial injustices that still permeated America – the practices in law and wider society that result in racist outcomes in employment, education and the justice system.

In the UK, this is understood as ‘institutional racism’, a concept used to describe the Metropolitan Police by Sir William Macpherson in his inquiry into the investigation of the death of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in a racist attack in Eltham, south-east London, on 22 April 1993.  

Most of us have never heard of critical race theory. I myself only came across it when studying for a Master’s degree in social sciences. So to suggest, as one Conservative MP has, that this is an ideology which is being taught within UK classrooms is complete nonsense.

Significant, however, is the regularity with which this theory is now being deployed by right-wing conservatives to warn about the supposed threat to British values – and a rather selective British history – that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement poses. In the face of deadly racial inequalities, which have been exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic, BLM, a youth-led anti-racist movement, is articulating a form of politics that is sorely needed.

Last week, another line of attack – this time from within academia – was used against the racial equality movement. University of Kent Professor Matthew Goodwin, in evidence to Parliament’s Education Committee and then on Times Radio, argued that focusing on racial diversity and inclusion threatens the social mobility of white working-class boys. They suffer a “status deficit” due to “historic grievances within black and minority ethnic communities,” Goodwin claimed.  

Whether it be critical race theory, unconscious bias or the catch-all term ‘identity politics’, these phrases are mobilised to quieten the campaign against structural inequality.

Ironically, both Badenoch and Goodwin have used their own identities – as a black woman and white working-class man respectively – to bolster their arguments. As Badenoch reflected on the history of black people in Britain, she proudly declared that “I should know, I am one of them”. As others have pointed out, Badenoch exemplifies the limitations of relying too heavily on an individual’s lived experience as a marker of anti-racism.

We are repeatedly witnessing figures on the right denounce appeals for equality, claiming that this installs a victimhood complex.

Following the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black and minority ethnic communities and the BLM protests this summer, the Government – led by key advisor to the Prime Minister Munira Mirza – set up a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Dr Tony Sewell.

Both Mirza and Sewell have questioned the efficacy of institutional racism as a concept. Much like Badenoch describing critical race theory, Sewell has previously suggested that institutional racism has led young black boys to see themselves as victims, while Mirza has argued that anti-racism fosters a “culture of grievance“. Sewell’s appointment to the commission is subject to a legal challenge by The Monitoring Group. 


Trans-Atlantic Transposition

New guidance recently published by the Department for Education on teaching Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) stated that schools “should not under any circumstances” work with any external groups that take “extreme political stances” or promote “divisive or victim narratives that are harmful to British society”.

Once again, the word “victim” rears its head. While the guidance is ambiguous and in actuality, non-statutory, we are repeatedly witnessing figures on the right denounce appeals for equality, claiming that this installs a victimhood complex in the minds of young people. Demands for justice are consequently sidelined, while black Conservative MPs such as Badenoch and her colleague Adam Afriyie proselytise on concepts of hard work and merit.

This individualised myth of meritocracy is the scaffolding that upholds structural inequality in Britain, whereby the most ethnically diverse Cabinet in the country’s history presides over deepening racial injustice.

Badenoch also warned of the dangers of transposing race relations in the US to the UK. Whilst it is indeed true that our history is very different to the US, and that progressives here have recently been criticised for importing concepts such as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour), Badenoch’s tirade against critical race theory was a US importation of its own.

In recent months, President Donald Trump has made several references to the alleged dangers of critical race theory, describing it as “un-American” and deploying it alongside other panic-inducing spectres such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter. Trump has used such groups and concepts as a stick to beat his presidential opponent Joe Biden and, in a similar vein, Badenoch criticised Labour MPs for not condemning “many of the actions of that political movement [Black Lives Matter]”.

Across the transatlantic right, these signifiers – along with consistent references to victimhood, grievance and division – are discursive weapons in the battle against racial justice campaigns.

Liam Shrivastava is communications officer at the Institute of Race Relations


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