Facing up to structural and institutional racism
With the seemingly bizarre Florida court verdict announced this week, in which Neighbourhood Watch activist George Zimmerman was acquitted of following and shooting dead black youth Tray Martin, while, in another Florida case, black domestic abuse victim Marissa Alexander was given a 20 year prison sentence for firing warning shots to scare off her violent partner (he was unharmed), I thought it worth summarizing how institutional and structural racism relates to the experience of being non-white in the UK.
As regular readers of my website, blog, Twitter feed and Facebook contributions will know, I have for many years been involved, one way or another, in issues concerning racism and how to reduce it. In the UK, the history of racism is intimately connected to our history as a nation and as a culture; from the Elizabethan Privateers, the slave trade and through events of the 20th Century such as Cable Street and, later, Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Britain has displayed an economic and social structure in which State and government policies have gradually changed from being explicitly supportive of racism to becoming critical and then explicitly, from about the 1980s onwards, anti-racist. Yet, as a great many non-white, Jewish, Islamic and other non-majority British Citizens (or visitors) can testify, being ‘other’ can be a very uncomfortable existence even now.
Freedom, as has been said by many, is a delicate and fragile thing and civilization is a state of culture and society that requires both personal and collective commitment. It is thus a duty to oppose the disenfranchisement, both social and political, of disadvantaged groups unless atomistic anarchy, in which the most violent and charismatic people rule the rest of us, is to be avoided. In that notion of vigilance in favour of civilization over oppression I also include feminism and the fight to equalize sexual preferences between adults. Indeed, one might say that the essential ingredients of misogyny, homophobia and other bigotries are so similar as to warrant very similar and universal condemnation. But this piece is primarily about facing up to the powerful remnants of the UK’s cultural inheritance in which to be non-white is still to be treated and viewed as a second class citizen and a second class person.
One of the most difficult aspects of campaigning against structural and institutional racism is persuading institutions and social structures that the phenomenon even exists – let alone that it exists in specific instances. Even though there is a considerable body of social research, academic analyses, personal polemics, works of cultural and critical theory and blogs that implicitly and explicitly outline and portray the problem in terms that are not difficult to comprehend, the topic of how racist attitudes persist and affect the outcomes of the lives of non-white people within predominantly white societies, including the UK, is rarely considered to be a serious topic for debate or consideration outside of what critics of anti-racism call the ‘race industry’.
One reason for this lack of seriousness surrounding the problem generally is to do with the ways in which institutional and structural racism itself mitigates against including the subject, as a serious area of study, within our educational systems, places of work and other fora; there is a feedback loop in which a lack of understanding of the effects (the oppression of non-white minorities by the white majority) leads to a demotion of the subject’s importance and the lack of inclusion in Equality of Opportunity policies and practices; in fact it is quite unusual, even amongst otherwise enlightened individuals, to find people who understand what institutional and structural racism actually is.
Though slightly different in scale and meaning, the terms ‘institutional’ and ‘structural’ both encompass one very crucial concept; that the prevailing attitudes and responses to non-white people within and around a given institution or social structure (from the scale of a family right through to the scale of a nation) tend to unfairly bring about a negative set of outcomes for the lives of non-white individuals. That is not to say that racism enacted in other countries by non-white majorities towards others does not exist – it most certainly does – but it is to frame the concept as it occurs in the UK. To save mentioning institutional and structural types throughout this piece I’ll now just stick to the term ‘institutional’ and readers may assume I mean to include both.
Over the years, I have read several definitions that help to pin down the essential ingredients of institutional racism and the other day I found these three paragraphs as part of an article in The Guardian (from 1999)
“The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
The Macpherson report
“Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.”
A. Sivanandan, Director, Institute of Race Relations
“If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions.”
The Commission for Racial Equality
Above from The Guardian: Wednesday 24 February 1999
There are many other similar definitions and partial explanations and I would recommend looking at as many as you can. But they all have several features in common: they do not require the institutions concerned to have overtly racist policies or overtly racist personnel (or stakeholders) and they do not require written or unwritten racist intentions; they do not require racism as defined by law to have occurred within the institutions nor do they require any complaint to have been made against institutions. The emphasis in the vast majority of definitions (except those devised by racists to undermine anti-racist campaigners) is on the disadvantages experienced by non-white people as a result of the ways in which the institutions operate – whether or not the non-white people being disadvantaged are directly connected to those institutions. The importance of the observation that institutional racism acts at a distance as effectively as close-up can not be over emphasized.
It is the experience of non-white people in the UK to be often the subjects of media attention, speculation and comment and it is no different in local pubs, cafés, clubs, places of work and of worship. From the white Christ that adorns the local church to the snide comments on the bus, non-white people are in no doubt that a large minority of white people are quite at ease with being openly racist in their presentations of their persona and beliefs. If witnessed, racial abuse is actionable under UK law. But how many Churches have changed their icons to represent the most likely skin colours of residents of the middle-east 2000 years ago?
Everywhere one looks in the UK there are symbols of white supremacy reflecting our history as a nation. And, over the past few decades, a very short time in history, the general trend of declining racism has been interrupted by the rise and fall of racist political groups such as the National Front, the BNP (British National Party) and the EDL (English Defence League) – and UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) policies and followers are not far from the positions of some extremist groups.
Despite the general decline in racism, the vast majority of non-white people in the UK have experienced a great deal of racist abuse and comment throughout their lives; particularly those old enough to have experienced life before anti-racist legislation came into force – simply because the vast majority of white people were openly racist in the 1950s and 60s compared to a very large minority now. Data for such interactions is available from many research institutions such as the Runnymede Trust, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Economic and Social Research Council and a number of universities and independent researchers such as Robert Ford at the University of Manchester. The extent to which racism operates against non-white people by virtue of the number of racists is also confirmed in the everyday experiences of non-white people all around the country.
But social research, by it’s very nature, is not the same as scientific proof (one can not run parallel countries or communities to act as controls and we have no means of running blind – blind to social mores – and repeatable experiments with specific attention to ubiquitous variables) and so it is with astounding and upsetting regularity that the experiences of non-white minorities are reduced by ‘scientific’ commentators to the status of unreliable or irrational anecdotal evidence; indeed, I have recently and often experienced such criticism on-line.
Such social researchers in the organizations I have mentioned are, though, fully aware of the limitations of their data. While all social and political research is subject to the same limitations of proof, the limitations do not prevent informed people from estimating the likely consequences of prevailing social attitudes nor do they prevent ordinary people from expressing a desire to oppose racism when it is exposed and to formulate policies to further reduce its effects. But, for many people – particularly, but by no means exclusively, white men – the very act of trying to expose institutional racism is seen as an attack on the very essence of ‘British Culture’ rather than a useful addition to it.
When institutional racism, in contrast to a violent racist attack, is the subject under discussion, the racist or ‘neutral’ commentator is particularly adept at trying to avoid or end the discussion – not because those individuals support overt racism but because they do not see how damaging is the feeling of insecurity felt by non-white people who have no immediate way of knowing which of their friends, colleagues, associates or acquaintances are amongst those working against them by either design or omission. Or, if white racists do recognize the damage, such damage is often welcomed as a bulwark against the perceived threats to the tribal supremacy of the ruling group.
So when a non-white person wishes to have sight of specific policies that protect them against a sizable minority of racists (a minority that is often allowed, by the majority, vastly superior cultural positioning compared to the non-white minority) and is rebuked or not taken seriously, the immediate assumption by the person requesting the information is that they are unlikely to be welcomed within that social milieu or organization.
The sub-set within this sphere that I choose to write about most often (I don’t have time to tackle everything) is the institutional racism within the cult of Anthroposophy and the way in which Anthroposophical organizations including Steiner Schools, the Steiner Christian Community, Camphill Communities, Biodynamic Farms, the Triodos Bank and many other associated organizations, refuse to acknowledge how their evasion of the subject of Steiner’s explicitly racist ‘spiritual’ hierarchy is, in itself, a racist position. From a non-white person’s perspective, the lack of a full and proper explanation from Steiner’s followers of how their institution, founded on explicitly racist texts, can conduct itself without racism becoming part of their pedagogy, attitudes and actions is not a neutral position but a purposeful avoidance of a proper, ethical and, more recently, legal obligation.
As I have pointed out before elsewhere, most non-white people have experienced abuse from organizations that do not have explicit racist texts – so we are not inclined to accept claims that there is no racism within Anthroposophy. Many Anthroposophists and Steiner advocates seem genuinely amazed when we ask why they chose a racist esoteric religion over a non-racist version of the same; many claim they were not aware of Steiner’s opinions yet they refuse to change their allegiance once informed; many refer to statements from senior Anthroposophists condemning ‘all racism’ with no accompanying analysis of what that might mean in practice (and with plenty of qualifying statements aimed at casting doubt on Steiner’s racism, the complainant or both); some simply deny that a hierarchy in which white Aryans are at the top and blacks are at the bottom is racist; many launch fierce ad-hominem attacks on their critics, dismissing all evidence out of hand.
Yet all one wishes from most organisations is a transparent, honest and informed appraisal of the extent to which racism informs their operations. In the case of Anthroposophy, the historian and academic Peter Staudenmaier has come under particularly heavy attack. Staudenmaier’s detailed and well referenced work was overseen by Cornell University and included a great many field trips to search the historical archives in countries in which Anthroposophy has had state support. He is now a professor of modern German history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Given the claim by Anthroposophists that Anthroposophy is not a racist doctrine, one might be forgiven for thinking that they would welcome his exacting and balanced analysis as a basis for change yet that is far from the case. Given that many commercial concerns in Germany, such as Volkswagen, opened their doors to historians after the Nazi era and have, ever since, worked with anti-racism campaigners to dig up the truth about their Nazi past, it is astonishing that Anthroposophy still resists such self criticism and reconciliation with critics – indeed, they still cling to many of the Theosophical traditions of ‘blood and soil’ to which Steiner and many Nazis lent their support. Indeed, one might speculate that Steiner/Waldorf’s UK operation has been so successful precisely due to the lack of self-exposure; Germany after Hitler could not be so complacent.
As I have mentioned, most non-white people in the UK have experienced direct and damaging racism of one kind or another, often life threatening. Not unfairly, people who have been abused, ridiculed, spat at, beaten, shot, stabbed, monkey-chanted, refused admission, refused accommodation, passed over for promotion, not allowed to participate or simply told to “fuck off” because they have a different skin colour like to know that any organisation to which they lend their labour or expertise, either voluntarily or for remuneration, is a safe environment in which their input will receive as much appreciation as everyone else’s. So we do not come to the debate concerning institutional racism from a position of not knowing the difference between direct racism and its more subtle but equally damaging sibling. We come seeking reassurance that our time, effort and emotional energies will not again be treated as wholly dispensable.
A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation further dis-aggregates types of racism thus.
Elite racism is reproduced at a national level through the media, the government and other influential figures. This racism is often hidden or unchallenged and frequently expressed as the ‘norm’ and shapes public perceptions. For example, misinformation and racialised reporting in the press sanction widely held negative views about asylum seekers.
This is an understanding of how a more ‘localised’ racism is expressed, for example, the way disabled black children in schools express their experience of unequal treatment, or the ways in which some white women in social housing talk about their Bangladeshi neighbours as a threat to their families or see them as inferior and ‘unhygienic’. It may also be about the way some young white, black or Asian working-class men express their changing position in a hierarchical society through acts of racial violence.
But making headway on these issues is fraught with difficulties. Often characterized as ‘playing the race card’, ‘playing the victim’, being ‘hyper-sensitive’, ‘exaggerating’, having an ‘inferiority complex’, having a ‘chip on the shoulder’, ‘trouble-making’ or simply ‘lying through (your) teeth’, complaints or clarifications concerning an organization attitude to racism by non-white people are very often met with comments that tend to undermine further the confidence of the questioners.
At both the local and international level, Anthroposophy is in denial concerning its past and present institutionally racist values. But why might this matter? My experiences, about which I have written elsewhere, concerning Steiner and Anthroposophy, are replicated all over the UK by a great many organizations of all types: witness the extremes to which the Metropolitan Police will go to undermine the Lawrence family– effecting the confidence in the police of millions of non-white people; remember the Ford advertisement in which non-white employees were airbrushed out of a group staff photograph? Trawl the net and you will find vast numbers of examples.
In the area of the UK where I live (the county of Devon in the rural South West peninsula) I have experienced a great deal of racism. When moving from Essex, in the south East of England in 1964 I don’t recall much difference between the two counties in attitude and now, nearly 50 years later, one can observe as much racism in Devon (now a UKIP EU stronghold) as one might in parts of Essex (once a BNP target area) – perhaps it is only in the major metropolitan areas of the country that racism is more positively discouraged. Two of my experiences about 10 years ago while working alone in North Devon were life threatening yet I did not report them – largely due to a much publicised racist ‘comedy’ called ‘Snow White and the Seven Asylum Seekers’ that was due to be performed in the area and publicised around the time of the attacks.
Local and national newspapers hotly debated the show and the local Council in which the show was to be performed was split about 50/50 for and against. Given the mood of the community and given that both attacks took place without independent witnesses, and given that in the past I have not been believed, I did not think my chances of success, if I reported the attacks, were remotely good. If people in positions of authority were split as to the amount of racism acceptable in a racist pantomime, one is not filled with confidence; indeed one’s confidence – already low because of threats of imminent death by people from the same locale – is massively undermined. Furthermore, an unsuccessful complaint might have caused reprisals and my daughter was still young at the time.
All of this matters because many politicians are very much against any proper examination of racism of any kind. My field of expertise and interest was, for nearly 25 years, environmental sustainability and energy policy so maintaining links with environmental groups has been important to me. But the local Green Party and the local Transition Town group, The Soil Association and many other environmental institutions held in high regard by many green campaigners (but not, in many respects, by me) and by many individuals of all political persuasions are also very much Steiner connected. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone (there are a few) in my area of Devon able to be openly critical of Anthroposophy lest they are made unwelcome by their community or employer. As a professional and voluntary environmental campaigner (I have a science background) I have been both supportive and critical of many environmental issues and was, at one point, very much employable in the field. But, like so many non-white people in many, many professions and occupations, the casual acceptance of institutional racism and the lack of overwhelming criticism leveled at people who are openly racist within the work and social communities in which we all have to operate effectively bars many non-white people from participation – and, I’m sorry to say, I’ve had to encounter and challenge racism within every job I’ve ever had.
So the next time a white person reads something by a non-white writer concerning institutional racism it would be nice if s/he started out from a position of support for the writer; assume the writer has the benefit of a life-time’s experience of daily slights and worse; assume the writer has also some technical expertise in the subject and, if the white reader is not sure of the veracity of the claims under discussion, or knows very little about the subject, then by all means s/he should check the facts before demanding ‘proof’. White people should be aware that non-white people see white people give each other the benefit of the doubt all the time when subjects that have already been researched are discussed in the public domain.
The attitude that white people often have towards non-white writers in matters concerning racism, that of spreading mistrust and obfuscation, also is evident in the ways in which both white and non-white readers flock to the authority of the white anti-racist while the non-white anti-racist is often followed by indifference or ignored altogether. In that area too I ask white and non-white people alike to support those who are fighting for the rights of all to be treated with fairness and dignity.
Nick Nakorn 14th July 2013