‘We are not where we were’: Why Gary Younge still has hope
The journalist and academic on the Rwanda plan, voter ID, progress on racism and where there's cause for optimism
Amid a cost of living crisis, with a government cracking down on everyone from climate activists to refugees, it feels pertinent to ask whether meaningful social change is a possibility right now.
But for journalist and academic Gary Younge, whose new book ‘Dispatches from the Diaspora‘ collects work from a unique career reporting on race, racism and movements for justice, now is a moment for hope.
“We are not where we were – for better and for worse,” he says. “I think in terms of progressive ideas and notions, in a range of ways, an awful lot of political space has been created. The number of people who know what institutional racism means, or [what] systemic racism means, attitudes around LGBT issues, which is radically different to when I grew up.”
Over three decades – chiefly as a writer at the Guardian, and now as a professor of sociology at Manchester University – Younge has borne witness to some of the events that shaped our age, from Nelson Mandela’s first election campaign to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Twenty years ago, he suggests, it would have been more difficult to bring together “a white woman, a Black youth and a gay campaigner” who would be speaking a common political language.
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“Now, there is a potential – and I haven’t seen it realised yet, but there is a potential – for a significant coalition of people who otherwise wouldn't have seen themselves necessarily as partners,” he says.
Most striking, Younge says, is the way that conversations about race and racism have changed. Raised in Stevenage by a mother from Barbados, Younge grew up in the 1970s, at a time when white children would feel comfortable hurling slurs like ‘woggy‘ and ‘blackie‘; when having the neighbours smear dog shit on your front door was just something, according to police, you’d “have to put up with from time to time”.
For Younge, the 1999 Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence – and the Metropolitan Police’s failure to properly investigate that murder – was a watershed moment.
Writing shortly after the inquiry delivered its landmark finding of “institutional racism” in the Met, Younge explained how before Macpherson, racism was mainly understood as a case of “skinheads beating you up, or of people shouting the N word. And not of the idea that an organisation can let you fall foul of probabilities, not just foul of the law … you’re more likely to be stopped, more likely to be searched, more likely to be in poor housing, more likely to be unemployed, and so on.”
But despite the new mood, he warned that “racism is a very hardy virus … it adapts to the body politic it’s in. And different variants come up, which are more or less deadly, more or less effective, more or less disabling.”
We talk a lot about race, but the way that we talk about it is mostly stupid
From 2023, these words look prescient. In March, a report by Dame Louise Casey, commissioned after the murder of Sarah Everard in 2021, found racism, sexism and homophobia were deeply entrenched in the Met.
More than 20 years on from Macpherson, it might seem as if things have gone backwards. But for Younge, policing is an example of how change never unfolds in a predictable, straight line.
“The police are part of the state. Colonisation made sure, and slavery made sure, that the racism that was in our economics and our politics would be brought into the state. So the idea that even in 20 years, you're going to fix that? It's going to take a while to unpick that and put it together again, and it's going to go in fits and starts, in lurches, in moments of mass protest, and moments of mass despondency,” he says.
If the problems seem more entrenched now, then there’s also more pressure for change. “This notion of the police being a problem was reduced and marginalised to an issue that Black people in London had. Well, now there is a much broader sense of that being a much bigger problem,” he says.
Just don’t expect politicians or much of the media to take the lead. Younge found the recent row over Diane Abbott’s letter to the Observer dispiriting.
“There is still a significant lack of sophistication about race, and actually in a way that was even highlighted in her letter itself,” Younge says. Abbott, who has since apologised for her comments but was suspended as a Labour MP, sought to highlight the nature of racism experienced by Black people in a way that minimised the experiences of people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller and Jewish communities.
While Abbott's letter was “extremely flawed and wrong”, Younge says, he didn’t trust the fervour with which other politicians and commentators joined in the criticism.
“I think that we have a real problem with this at the moment in Britain, which is we talk a lot about race, but the way that we talk about it is mostly stupid.
“We talk about it through these weird portals. Piers Morgan says something, Meghan Markle says something, Jeremy Clarkson says something, Diane Abbott says something and then a half-baked, ill-informed, half-arsed conversation emerges, which is really not about anything very much.”
What’s lacking in Westminster politics right now, Younge says, is a willingness to go against the grain.
“If you look at how the major political parties have colluded on immigration, then you get a sense of the lack of courage and moral fibre and the general spinelessness that is embedded in our electoral system,” he says.
For Younge, there’s a direct link between the racist immigration policies of the past – those that led to the Windrush scandal, for instance – and our current government’s authoritarian moves on asylum.
“It’s a hostility to the ‘other’,” he says, raising the escalating conflict in Sudan as an example. For months, the government has been telling people that hardline asylum policies like the planned deportations to Rwanda are necessary to encourage refugees to take ‘legal’ routes to the UK. Yet British evacuation flights are only accepting UK passport holders, leaving many Sudanese – including, it has emerged, even some NHS doctors – to fend for themselves.
“We have an economy that is utterly dependent on migrant labour. And we have a political class that is utterly dependent on xenophobia. And those two things can't work,” Younge says.
The new rules on voter ID – which are likely to disproportionately exclude people from ethnic minority backgrounds from the polls – are another example of this hostility at work. “That’s just Windrush at the polls, although because it’s not only a migrant issue, what we’re going to see is significant numbers of working class people of all hues disenfranchised. Probably, like Windrush, for a while they will suffer in silence, then like Windrush all these experiences will come to light.”
That, for Younge, comes back to one of his key motivations as a journalist. There’s a common notion, he says, that journalists should be ‘a voice for the voiceless’. “But people have a voice – it’s just that others aren’t hearing them.” The challenge for journalists, then, is to help get those voices heard.
It’s not only journalists who face a challenge. Younge describes where we’re at today as a “mixed moment” politically. “People are more aware – in many ways better informed – but we're also going backwards at the same time. If you look at this government and Rwanda, that wouldn't have been understood as possible ten years ago.”
So, what can we do?
For Younge, an optimist, what he calls ‘active hope’ is key. “Active hope looks like a move towards change. Passive hope is kind of sitting around and hoping that things will get better. But actually, that's not how change works.”
“I see active hope in people campaigning for higher wages; in people campaigning against the deportation bill; in a sense of resistance, which is both local and global.
“Over the last year or so, we’ve had some of the biggest meetings, some of the biggest marches. People putting their livelihoods on the line, people who've never gone on strike before striking, people who maybe haven’t understood themselves in that political sense, asserting themselves.”
Younge once asked: “If nobody dreamed of a better world, what would there be to wake up to?” Today, this "mixed moment" offers us a chance to dream – and act on it.
Gary Younge will be in conversation with openDemocracy’s Daniel Trilling on 19 May at 7pm. Sign up here to join our livestream of the event. Brought to you in association with Newham Bookshop and The Wanstead Tap.
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