'Racism' is about more than colour

November 23, 2007

The problem with standard critical race theory is the narrowness of its remit, says Mike Cole. One of the main tenets of critical race theory is that "white supremacy" is the norm in societies rather than merely the province of the racist right (the other major tenet is primacy of "race" over class). There are a number of significant problems with this use of the term "white supremacy". The first is that it homogenises all white people together in positions of power and privilege.

Writing about the US, critical race theorist Charles Mills acknowledges that not "all whites are better off than all non-whites, but ... as a statistical generalisation, the objective life chances of whites are significantly better". While this is, of course, true, we should not lose sight of the life chances of millions of working-class white people.

To take poverty as one example, in the US, while it is the case that the number of black people living below the poverty line is some three times that of whites, this still leaves more than 16 million "white but not Hispanic" people living in poverty there. In the UK, there are similar indicators of a society underpinned by rampant colour-coded racism, with black people twice as poor as whites, and those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin more than three times as poor as whites. Once again, however, this still leaves some 12 million poor white people in the UK.

That such statistics are indicative of racism, however, is beyond doubt, and to interpret them it is useful to employ the concept of "racialisation". Given that there is widespread agreement among geneticists and social scientists that "race" is a meaningless concept, racialisation describes the process by which people are falsely categorised into distinct "races". Statistics such as these are indicative of racialised capitalism rather than white supremacy.

A second problem with "white supremacy" is that it is inherently unable to explain non-colour-coded racism. In the UK, for example, this form of racism has been and is directed at the Irish and at gypsy/traveller communities. There is also a well-documented history of anti-Semitism, too. It is also important to underline the fact that Islamophobia is not necessarily triggered by skin colour. It is often sparked by one or more (perceived) symbols of the Muslim faith. Finally, a new form of non- colour-coded racism has manifested itself recently in the UK. This has all the hallmarks of traditional racism, but it is directed towards newly arrived groups of people. It has been described by A. Sivanandan, director of the Institute of Race Relations, as "xeno-racism". It appears that there are some similarities in the xeno-racialisation of Eastern European migrant workers and the racialisation of Asian and black workers in the immediate postwar period, a point I address in my latest book.

"White supremacy" is counterproductive as a political unifier and rallying point against racism. John Preston concluded an article in The Times Higher advocating critical race theory ("All shades of a wide white world", October 19) by citing the US journal Race Traitor , which seeks the "abolition of the racial category 'white'". Elsewhere, Preston has argued "the abolition of whiteness is ... not just an optional extra in terms of defeating capitalism (nor something which will be necessarily abolished post-capitalism) but fundamental to the Marxist educational project as praxis". Indeed, for Preston, "the abolition of capitalism and whiteness seem to be fundamentally connected in the current historical circumstances of Western capitalist development".

From my Marxist perspective, coupling the "abolition of whiteness" to the "abolition of capitalism" is a worrying development that, if it gained ground in Marxist theory, would most certainly further undermine the Marxist project.

I am not questioning the sincerity of the protagonists of "the abolition of whiteness", nor suggesting in any way that they are anti-white people but merely questioning its extreme vulnerability to misunderstanding. Anti-racists have made some progress in the UK at least in making anti- racism a mainstream rallying point, and this is reflected, in part, in legislation. Even if it were a good idea, the chances of making "the abolition of whiteness" a successful political unifier and rallying point against racism are virtually non-existent.

The usage of "white supremacy" should be restricted to its everyday meaning. To describe and analyse contemporary racism we need a wide- ranging and fluid conception of racism. Only then can we fully understand its multiple manifestations and work towards its eradication.

Mike Cole is research professor in education and equality at Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln. His latest book, Marxism and Educational Theory : Origins and Issues, is published by Routledge, £22.99. An extended version of this article will appear in Ethnicities in 2008.

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