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Multiculturalism or anti-racism?

About the author
Alana Lentin is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Sussex. She is the author of Racism and Anti-racism in Europe.
“What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which people are equal under the law, where there are some common values.” (Trevor Phillips, April 2004)
Trevor Phillips’s attack on the utility of multiculturalism – with particular reference to modern Britain, where he heads the Commission for Racial Equality – is a symbol of how globalisation is indeed helping to dissolve national frontiers.

What do I mean by this? Quite simply, there appears to be a growing consensus among western governments and decision–makers, particularly in the context of the post–9/11 “war on terror” that the west must ideologically stand together. Trevor Phillips could not have made his comments before 11 September 2001; neither, perhaps, may he have wanted to.

After that watershed, however, the idea is becoming more widely shared among western elites that governments must do all they can to ensure social order and unity – and that the use of force and the denial of civil liberties can be legitimate to advance these ends. What were once fundamental national differences – between, for example, the French republican politics of assimilation and the British model of cultural relativist coexistence – are retreating in the face of a common vision of the importance of national security achievable only through internal social cohesion.

What is striking about this trend is how the emphasis on an essentially nationalist exclusivity combines with an overall claim for the specificity of “western civilisation”. And it is in the context of an increasingly introverted, yet dominating and expansionist vision of westerness that multiculturalism has come under attack.

It may not be surprising in principle that multiculturalism should be caught up in the “moral panics” of the early 21st century. But it is ironic that many people who for at least two decades have questioned and proposed alternatives to the multicultural model now find themselves, by default, defending it – in case it is replaced by arrangements of a significantly less progressive and more anti–cosmopolitan nature.

For example, anti–racist activists long opposed to the way that multiculturalism envisioned society as composed of “minority ethnic communities” and their members as passive recipients of institutional support – rather than proactive political agents – resist the idea that the multicultural model is outdated.

It is not hard to understand why some former critics of multiculturalism have turned defenders in response to its architects’ post–9/11 wish to move on. But this “any port in a storm” attitude is, I would argue, deeply regressive and inadequate even in furthering the model’s professed values of tolerance, diversity and justice. To see why, a recovery of the context in which multiculturalism as a concept evolved is necessary.

From politics to community

It is taken for granted that the concept of multiculturalism refers to the struggle of minority ethnic groups for recognition of their cultural diversity in western societies. It is indeed fair to say that multiculturalism is a reaction to pressure on immigrants, their descendents, and other minorities (national, linguistic, religious, sexual) should shed their particularisms and assimilate into the culture of the dominant “host” community.

On this level, multiculturalism has played a role in mirroring the diversity of contemporary western societies, where it is impossible to speak of a single culture, lifestyle, religion or set of national traditions dominating the daily consciousnesses of all the citizens. But it has been far less effective in shifting the power–balance at the political level.

One of the reasons for this is that the multiculturalist model has not truly responded to the real demands and aspirations of members of minority communities themselves; its focus on culture has been driven too often by “community leaders”, not from the bottom up. Those it was ostensibly designed to benefit did not themselves demand it.

The “top–down” nature of multiculturalist policy–making is illustrated by modern British experience where – as Paul Gilroy’s 1992 essay “The End of Anti–Racism” points out – local governments in the early 1980s instigated it in reaction to the nationalism of Conservative central government. However, the policy’s cultural focus destroyed the autonomous, highly politicised anti–racism of the local “race committees” established in the 1970s in reaction to the far right and institutional racism.

Moreover, the multicultural model is vulnerable to the charge that it uncritically endorses the image of enclosed, internally homogeneous cultural groups, each taking its place in a “mosaic” of equal but different communities – and so ignores both group heterogeneity and the fact that members of minorities often identify with a hybridity of cultural references , including that of the dominant society.

More importantly, multiculturalism’s exclusive focus on culture can present an apolitical picture of “minority” experience and agency that evades the daily realities of institutionalised racism. This emphasis on culture lies at the heart of the problem of multiculturalism, and – I would argue – makes it an unworthy prize for progressive voices now seeking to reclaim it.

From race to culture

The origins of contemporary multiculturalist policies can be found in the post–1945 anti–racism of international institutions, specifically in the emphasis placed by organisations such as Unesco on the principle of cultural relativism as a means of combating racism.

This stance formed the background for the elite response to racism among many western governments, and played an important role in elevating the discourse of culture to its current status. The group of anthropologists and anti–racist scientists who drafted the Unesco “statement on the nature of race differences” (1951) set out both to disprove race as a scientific theory and to propose an alternative concept for understanding human difference.

This alternative concept was culture. In accepting that “race” as a categorisation of humanity was scientifically false, the Unesco scientists nevertheless understood that human diversity – especially in an era of immigration – needed explaining.

Culture was seen as a means of capturing the differences between human groups. No superiority or inferiority was inferred; rather, the uneven spread of “progress” created a coexistence of equal–but–different groups, each bringing to the world its own competencies. Unesco promoted the idea of intercultural knowledge as a means of combining cross–cultural understanding and cultural diversity with the slogan: “reconciling fidelity to oneself with openness to others”.

For the Unesco approach, the continuing realities of racism were attributed to individual prejudice; the historic role of the European nation–state in utilising the category of race in its political projects was ignored.

Thus, by replacing race with culture, the Unesco project failed to engage with the realities of imperialism, slavery, class inequalities, tight migration controls – and, ultimately, the Nazi genocide. In this, Unesco permitted European states to deny the centrality of the idea of race to their formation – an evasion that persists, even (as David Theo Goldberg argues in The Racial State) in the unmentionable modern version of “racelessness” promoted by western states today.

From identity to solidarity

These two broad trends – post–9/11 moral panics (over immigration, asylum, terrorism and Islam) and the long–term, elite avoidance of racism’s roots in western culture – form the essential background to the current debate on multiculturalism and its discontents.

In such circumstances, those who seek to recuperate multiculturalism from the promoters of socially cohesive (read: nationalist) citizenship are generally aware of this. Many are also active in defending the rights of asylum–seekers and migrants against unequal social and labour rights, detention and unjust deportation.

But their promotion of multiculturalism as policy, in continuing to elevate culture as the primary definition of difference, reifies group identity and ultimately diminishes the possibilities for political solidarity against racist discrimination.

It is a waste of time to attempt to save multiculturalism from attack. Rather, the primary focus of all those concerned with creating a society based on equal social, political – and yes, cultural – rights should be on the persistence of state racism and its extension into the new realms opened up by the “war on terror”.


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