Written by:
Omar Khan

Don't take the bait: public discourse and racism

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In the wake of openly racist comments from the leader of the world's most powerful country, our Director Dr Omar Khan unpicks how race equality advocates have avoided being distracted from the key issues by mainstream public discourse

Image: US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

How should we respond to racist language? When we call it out, we risk contributing to polarisation, and even the further mobilisation of an embattled base who view angering ‘liberals’ and being called a racist “as a badge of honour,” as Steve Bannon put it. Yet, in letting racist comments pass, do we end up normalising racist discourse? Affecting not just the quality of our public debate, but the quality of life of minority ethnic people and, ultimately, policies that harm us?

Don't take the bait

One answer is to take care with the content of our response. A rough guideline could be: do call it out; don’t take the bait. So, yes, do call racist comments racist. But don’t make the particular comments the main story. Instead, focus on the policies and actions that such comments seek to justify or hide.

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explained this week, Donald Trump’s racist comments directed at her and three other Congresswomen of colour were to deflect from his policies, including putting children in cages. More generally, Trump and other racists seek to engage in public social media spats to hide their policy failures, and to increase division between groups that are all worse off because of those failures.

In Britain too there is a tendency to debate whether a particular comment or person is racist, rather than focusing on how institutions and policies result in racially disproportionate outcomes for particular groups. The government’s half-apology to the Windrush generation, for example, suggested that it wasn’t the personal intent of ministers for older Caribbean people to get caught up in the hostile environment policies. But intent is irrelevant. We don’t need to look into the souls of ministers, no matter how senior, to see the predictable effects of their policies. These policies continue to worsen, rather than improve, extensive and longstanding racial inequalities in Britain.

Policies, not people

Perhaps the most disproportionate and consequential racial inequalities are found in the criminal justice system and the labour market. We should foreground these inequalities and call for systemic changes in our courts, prisons and workplaces, rather than getting drawn into debates about whether golliwogs are really racist (yes, they are). By following a debate that is all about whether Boris Johnson or Donald Trump is personally a racist, we contribute to a public understanding of racism as a personal attribute of a particular individual. Instead, the deep cruelty of racism is in its capacity to limit the possibilities for people of colour to reach their potential, affecting all measurements of quality of life from education to health and everything in between. If we are all exhausted by debates about racist comments, it is more difficult to focus on changing institutional cultures, practices and policies, which can make a difference to this racially unequal reality. Focusing on personalities seems a particularly bad strategy given the public has such a poor understanding of racism already.

Why does it matter?

Nonetheless, public discourse matters, especially when it’s the President or Prime Minister. The main issue is still not about who is or isn't racist per se, but the wider consequences, on everyone, of this daily normalising of racist discourse and actions. Obviously when those doing the normalising are more powerful or influential leaders, the consequences are more profound. Again, following AOC, Trump’s words would have been understood by tens of millions of young children to mean that they don’t belong, that they aren’t really American. At the same time the signal is sent to white people that racism isn’t real, or isn’t so bad: that it is somehow justified. People of colour, meanwhile, understand that their lives and experiences matter less, that the racism they experience is either not truly happening, or not significant.

Excluded from full citizenship

Again, we’re not exempt from such discourse – and policies – in the UK. The 1981 Immigration Act Britain eliminated the principle of birthright citizenship, building on decades of increasingly racist citizenship law. We saw the consequences clearly in the Windrush injustice, but the laws will continue to affect people of colour in this country for as long as they exist. There’s also of course the case of Shamima Begum, who was stripped of her British citizenship because of where her parents were born.

Politicians implement such policies, in part, because of a public discourse, which continues to view BME and migrant Britons as less than fully British. There are limits to this narrative, however, as we were shown in the near-consensus view that diversity was a positive story - and even a cause for the success - of the England men’s cricket team’s World Cup win. But you don’t have wait long before another politician or tabloid journalist openly questions the Britishness of people of colour.

The real question

We need to try to make the debate on racism less about personalities and words, and more about institutions, actions and outcomes. We also need to link the conversation on racism to wider forms of injustice, and to strengthening our democracy more widely, providing greater power and voice to everyone. The question then, isn’t whether we call out racism - of course we must - but what else we do. The question is: how do we ensure that our public discourse and public institutions don’t continue to produce unequal outcomes that are justified by that racism?

Image by Ståle Grut and NRK via Flickr

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