A Sivanandan: In Memoriam

Written by:
Lester Holloway
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Dr Omar Khan, Runnymede’s Director, pays tribute to A.Sivanandan

Runnymede is very saddened to learn that Ambalavaner Sivanandan passed away on 3 January.

We send our condolences to his family, friends and many colleagues and supporters at the Institute of Race Relations. Runnymede’s Director, Omar Khan, briefly reflects on Sivanandan’s enormous contribution to thinking and doing on anti-racism in Britain.

Describing the world as it is hard enough. Doing so in incisive but readable prose is even harder. Linking that prose to the lived experiences of those affected is more difficult still – especially where those affected have been excluded, ignored and discriminated against.

A Sivanandan, who has sadly passed away on 3 January, managed to do all three as the longstanding (latterly Emeritus) Director of the Institute of Race Relations, and as the founding editor and longstanding contributor to the influential journal Race and Class.

Reading Sivanandan’s 1981 article ‘From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain’, one is struck not merely by his encyclopaedic knowledge of the individuals, organisations and issues affecting Britain’s Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities in the 1940s-1970s, but also his ability to connect those people and ideas in a wider narrative.

His argument certainly defended and explained the need for black self-organisation against British racism. At the same time, Sivanandan’s wider internationalism was central to his thinking over the decades, including a commitment to a radical reform of the global economy as the only means of addressing racism and inequality not only in Britain but around the world.

Others, notably the IRR, have outlined Sivanandan’s biography, crucial role and insights, and visitors to their website can also leave messages in his memory. In the coming year we will seek to reflect on Sivanandan’s insights and actions in the context of Runnymede’s 50th anniversary, and here we briefly summarise just one of his many important contributions.

Sivanandan’s response to multiculturalism, and his criticism of ‘identity politics’ reveals his intellectual acuity, but also his dexterity and pragmatism. While defending the right and need of black communities to self-organise, Sivanandan was always wary of a politics that focused too narrowly on the experiences of a particular community or ethnic group, and on failing to connect personal injustices with wider structural inequalities, whether of race or class.

While he initially criticised multiculturalism as potentially fostering a dangerous form of identity politics, by the 2000s, and in response to prominent public condemnations (including by David Cameron), he carefully shifted his position to defend a form of multiculturalism.

As his seven ‘theses on multiculturalism’ demonstrate, he remained a critic of certain forms of multiculturalism, and he was also clearly influenced by how race and security were being connected in a way that led to widespread Islamophobia post 9/11 and 7/7:

> In itself multiculturalism simply means cultural diversity. But, in practice, that diversity can either be progressive leading to integration or regressive leading to separatism.

> The force that drives multiculturalism in either direction is the reaction to racism and, in particular, the racism of the state which sets the seal on institutional and popular racism.
The reaction to racism is either resistance (struggle) or accommodation. (Submission is not an option, nor is terrorism.)

> Resistance to, or struggle against, racism engenders a more just society, enlarges the democratic remit and provides the dynamics of integration that leads to a pluralist society.
Accommodating to racism engenders a retreat from mainstream society into the safety of one’s own ethnicity and leads to separatism.

> Anti-racism is the element that infuses politics into multiculturalism and makes it dynamic and progressive. (Note that the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 were the result of anti-racist struggles of the ’60 and ’70s.)

> Remove the anti-racist element and multiculturalism descends into culturalism/ethnicism. (Witness the post-Scarman settlement that reduced the fight against racism to a fight for culture and led to ethnic enclaves.) 'Race, terror and civil society', Race & Class (Vol. 47, no. 3, 2006) See also ‘Coming to Terms with Multiculturalism’.

Unfortunately I never got a chance to ask Sivanandan how he now viewed Runnymede’s important report ‘The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain’, and whether in his view it adequately navigated the above seven theses.

But considering how varying governments over the nearly two decades since the Lawrence Inquiry and the MEB report have increasingly ignored issues of race as a matter of public policy, and the rise of overt racism in Britain, the US and Europe, Sivanandan’s careful piercing of the myth of liberal tolerance and goodwill looks as prescient in 2018 as it did 40 and more years ago.

Though he wouldn’t have put it in these terms, Sivanandan was undoubtedly right that putting race equality on the policy agenda will require greater mobilisation among and within Britain’s BME communities, and that this needs to be connected to but not subsumed within struggles against class inequality.

Sivanandan’s admonition to ‘speak from’ communities and not merely to ‘advise’ the opinion-formers or government of the day is one that is as relevant as ever in 2018.

From his principled position to his community focus to his clear writing, Sivanandan’s example is one that is all the more of a loss in today’s environment, with separate and more specialised institutions of the university and thinktank, and much atrophied anti-racist community organisations.

It is precisely this combination of principle, intellectual rigour, and grassroots focus that we will need if we are to build on Sivanandan’s extraordinary legacy in resisting and rebelling against racism in 21st century Britain.

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