To answer the question ‘what is anti-racism?’, Dr Arun Kundnani takes the reader on a journey through the work of Frantz Fanon, Magnus Hirschfeld, C L R James, Kwame Nkrumah, Cedric Robinson, M N Roy, Coretta Scott-King, A Sivanandan, Johnnie Tillmon, Ellen Woods and many others. On the way we are shown how racism is continuously adapted and used to neutralise class struggle. The key revelation is that racism in society is structural:
“ … as Fanon argued, a society cannot be unconsciously racist, but it can function in a racist way without a large number of people holding racists beliefs consciously or otherwise … the assumption that oppressive cruelty is the behavioural expression of a hateful disposition – ignoring the corporate executives, asset managers, lawmakers, government officials, judges, police officers, corrections officers, military personnel and immigration officers who in the name of security and profit calmly and routinely operate infrastructures of racist violence.”[p.87]
Today, racism is used to maintain the world-wide division of labour by blocking most of the global south from gaining access to places where welfare and labour rights are stronger through the use of violence, detention and deportation at our borders.
“Racism does not stay still: it changes shape, size, contours, purpose, functions it adapts to resistance.”A Sivanandan [p.151]
Anti-racism and anti-capitalism
The book starts by explaining the link between racism and anti-capitalism, and introduces the reader to Magnus Hirschfeld, a German Jewish gay rights activist of the 1920s. Hirschfeld hoped that his book Rassismus would help to weaken the hold that Nazism had over many German people. He saw how the Nazis sought to emphasise shared racial interest between capitalists and workers as a way to weaken socialist movements, by turning the class struggle into a race war. For Hirschfeld, racism is a failure of public reason, which could only be addressed by education. While he linked anti-Semitism with colour-based forms of racism, surprisingly, given his knowledge of the genocide against the Herero people of Southern Africa, he failed to see the link with the violence of colonialism. It was Ruth Benedict who linked the treatment of Jews in Europe with that of the black descendants of slaves in the US and the colonised in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
He continues by exploring slavery, exploitation and the violence of colonisation. We read of the dreadful deeds done by those whose statues adorn our public places. For example, Charles Napier, whose statue stands in Trafalgar Square (p.42) slaughtered thousands in the capture of Sindh, then creating a monopoly for the East India Company to supply opium to China and generate super profits. These imperial methods funded reforms back in Britain in welfare, health, education and housing. Reading about how the British sought to define and categorise those they subjugated in India, I was reminded of a talk given by a survivor of the genocide in Rwanda who explained that the division of people into Hutu and Tutsi was purely an invention of the Belgian colonisers.
Parallels between past and present
Turning to the mid 20th century, we learn how Winston Churchill’s imperial policies in India funded the war effort, and how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Attlee’s government implemented racist policies.
The author draws on many back stories in his book. Nkrumah featured in an early episode of The Crown dancing with a young Queen Elizabeth, but the Netflix production didn’t allude to his formidable intellect. When his book, Neo-Colonialism, which explained how the imperial powers continued to exploit the former colonies, reached the director of the CIA, Nkrumah was ousted as president of Ghana in a coup within months.
“Racism today is an infrastructure of oppression generated over 50 years of neoliberalism.”[p. 170]
The neoliberal advance
In the 1960s Indonesia’s was the largest communist party outside Russia and China. The US installed a regime led by Suharto, with up to a million people murdered by death squads, assisted by the CIA. New laws protected the rights of the multinationals to exploit oil, rubber and cheap labour.
In countries across South America, Asia and Africa, the US repeated its neocolonial formula by supporting foreign military to suppress its population, and installing economic advisors to manage the economy. In the neoliberal empire:
“Credit worthiness and market indicators were the new gods.”[p 187]
Enoch Powell built support in the working class for neoliberalism by manufacturing consent for the market, branding welfare and trade unions as “un-English”, and creating a culture of “White England”. Thousands marched on parliament demanding the implementation his racist expulsion policy. The liberal responses to Powell were to accept his underlying concerns about borders, culture and markets. Such methods persist to this day with echoes of 1930s Germany growing louder.
This is a valuable read, bringing ground breaking work from the past to inform a new generation. We get succinct answers to the questions posed by the title.
What is Anti-racism?: “to be anti-racist implies: working collectively to dismantle racist border policing, carceral and military infrastructure, and commit to redistribution of wealth to the Global South who are equally entitled to world’s resources as the North, and undoing the inequalities that colonisation created.”[p. 225]
Why It Means Anti-capitalism: “Racism serves capitalist interest because it obscures relations of class exploitation in capitalism by deflecting attention away from the fundamental conflict between capitalists and waged workers.”Ellen Woods [p. 128]
What is Anti-racism And Why It Means Anti-capitalism, Arun Kundnani. Verso Books, published 13 June 2023. Details here.
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