The latest book by Dr Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility, is Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm. It is a challenging title but it gets to the heart of an important aspect of racism. Whether you agree or not with Diangelo’s thesis that “white progressives cause the most daily harm to people of colour”, an understanding that being “nice” is not sufficient to be non-racist, let alone anti-racist, and that racism is systemic in nature, not just individualised, is vital to dealing with it. As Martin Luther King wrote:
“Leaders in Northern and Western states welcomed me to their cities, and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions, only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal”.
In the English context, due to the subtleties of English culture, this is supplemented by a particularly pernicious and subtle brand of racism.
Labour has long prided itself on being an anti-racist party, from the Race Relations Act 1965 to the Equality Act 2010. Nonetheless, Britain remains a highly racially divided country, including within the Labour Party. The antisemitism we have seen in the party and the failure to deal with it has been shameful, not to mention that the Equality and Human Rights Commission found we breached equality law.
There are serious concerns about anti-Black racism in the party that are being investigated by the Forde Inquiry, which has yet to report. The resignation of Marsha de Cordova MP from the role of Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary has been concerning, with Clive Lewis MP recently saying that Black party members are in a “bad place”. While the Labour Party has adopted its first Islamophobia code of conduct, it is concerning that the suspension of Trevor Phillips was lifted despite his horrific comments (his disciplinary case remains active).
In the words of Jermain Jackman, a former Labour national executive committee (NEC) candidate, “how can we call ourselves an antiracist party that fights for equality and justice when we have racism, inequality and injustice within our own movement?” While we may never eliminate racism, the Labour Party, and Labour members, should be doing much more to address it.
What should we do? Firstly, we need a commitment from the bottom to the top of the party to tackle racism, understanding that it is about more than being “nice”. As Diangelo writes, “nice racism results in personal complacency toward anti-racist efforts while upholding material consequences”.
We need a commitment to challenging ourselves, working together and putting time and energy towards addressing systemic racism in the Labour Party. That means educating ourselves about what racism is and taking the time to think carefully and critically about how it manifests and can be tackled. It means challenging why there are not more BAME candidates or elected representatives, whether for local councils, parliament or the NEC. It means questioning why the chair, vice-chairs, secretary and treasurer of a CLP or socialist society “just happen” to all be white. It means, as Angela Davis has written, that “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist”.
Secondly, while there are groups such as Socialists of Colour and the 1987 Caucus, amongst others, doing good work within the Labour Party, Labour needs to swiftly make a democratic and effective BAME structure a reality following the rule change at conference to establish it. We will not properly tackle racism without providing BAME people with a space to come together to discuss and lead action on racism.
Thirdly, a much clearer framework for tackling systemic racism within the party needs to be put in place. There should be a clear action plan with tangible and measurable objectives that are reported on publicly regularly. This should include guidance for local parties on what they should be doing to tackle racism, as well as national targets for BAME representation and support for initiatives such as the Bernie Grant Leadership Programme. Labour has committed to bring a new Race Equality Act through parliament if elected, but we need the equivalent for the Labour Party now.
Of course, racism is not the only type of discrimination that is prevalent in the Labour Party and that needs to be urgently addressed. While every type of discrimination is unique it is also the case that there is scope for tackling different types of discrimination together. Labour’s new independent process for dealing with complaints is an example, but there are surely many more.
Racism, and all forms of discrimination, are complex, misunderstood and always developing. Racism is about power more than it is about intent. As Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Antiracist, has said, “if a policy is leading to racial injustice, it doesn’t really matter if the policymaker intended for that policy to lead to racial injustice. If an idea is suggesting that white people are superior, it doesn’t really matter if the expressor of that idea intended for that idea to connote white superiority.” It is also a harsh reality, though, that there are some in the Labour Party who have a vested interest in not sharing power with underrepresented groups and will look for any justification to protect their positions.
Whether you are nice or not, you are capable of benefiting from and perpetuating racism and other types of discrimination. Tackling racism in the Labour Party requires real commitment, education and thought, a national group for BAME members that fully represents them effectively and a clear action plan that links it with efforts to tackle other types of discrimination. Making that a reality would be the really nice thing to do.