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"I'm not a racist, but..."

Isn’t class-prejudice and anti-foreigner-prejudice just as bad as race-prejudice?

Many voters are 'against immigration' and against foreign aid (they say things to me on the doorstep along the lines of: "We should take care of our own; that's enough"); and yet they insist that they are not racists. This includes many Tories and the whole of UKIP - and many ordinary voters.

My reaction, perhaps like yours, is to suspect that, actually, in many cases they are racists. But it is hard to prove that; dangerous to say it (at least, to someone's face) - and, I increasingly suspect, not always true, not by any means.

The real problem comes when the person saying something like this is black or Asian themselves. A good example would be the Asian Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi who went on Question Time up against Nick Griffin, but who has time and time again conceded alarmingly much ground to him (see for example her remarks here). Is it really at all plausible to call her a racist?

So this is what I am thinking: don't those of us who are unhappy with the views of the likes of Warsi need tactically to shift ground? Don't we need to more accurately identify what is unacceptable about the proposals of UKIP, Warsi, etc?

What I am saying boils do to this: When people say “I’m not racist, but…”, maybe we ought to take them at face-value.

Instead of becoming involved in a totally-counterproductive “Yes you are!” back-and-forth, why not say something like this: "OK, I accept that you are not a racist. You are not prejudiced for or against anyone and everyone merely on the grounds of their skin pigmentation. But that doesn't make your position any more acceptable. Because you are prejudiced against people from abroad, and you are prejudiced in particular against poor people (from abroad). You want to stop people from other countries coming to live here, especially if they lack money, and yet you are not willing to offer serious levels of help to other countries to sort out their desperate economic/environmental etc problems. How is that compatible with humanity? With human decency? How is it decent for you to create Fortress Britain, and just let people in the rest of the world go hang?"

Class prejudice is in many cases the real driving force of politics and of social attitudes. And failing to take classism seriously results in our losing the so-called white working class. Read Wilkinson and Pickett, or Veblen, or indeed Marx - class it where it is at. It is class that explains the lack of solidarity between black/Asian Tories and black/Asian foreigners, etc.

(By the way, the term 'classism' of course has its own vicissitudes. What’s at stake in connection with whether ‘classism’ is the right word to use hereabouts is the distinction between exploitation and oppression/prejudice. It is conceivable (although not very likely) that you could have capitalist societies in which there was no gender or racial inequality. That’s why liberals committed to a broadly capitalist society can often be quite genuinely opposed to racism and sexism (and very good it is too when they are). What is not at all conceivable is that you could have capitalism without exploitation and hence without classes. We need to make sure we don’t collapse the two. Collapsing exploitation into prejudice leads to the danger of confusing what Marx called 'real human equality' with the kind of 'political equality' which marks the limits of what is possible in this society for both the exploited and the oppressed. Such equating can lead to treating class as merely an identity. It is (or at least can be) an identity, but it is also so much more than that. It is an inevitable economic reality, so long as we allow exploitative capitalist relations to continue. But the present post concerns chiefly prejudice; so I’ll now leave aside this important worry, and return to my main argument.)

What all this boils down to is that even if anti-immigration politicians and their supporters are not racists, nevertheless they surely are both classist and xenophobic. It is not acceptable to want to pull up the drawbridge, and leave other human beings suffering outside it (especially when, as a result of trade etc, it is often partly our responsibility that their economies and environments are in such desperate shape). Even if you are black or Asian, it is not acceptable to want to keep other people out of where you live, just because you are happy with what you’ve got.

To be class-prejudiced is as bad as to be racist. To be xenophobic is as bad as to be racist. Racism has come somehow to seem to be the worst form of prejudice; but it isn't. Any form of prejudice, anything that stops us seeing the other as fully human, and that stops us from treating them decently, is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to be prejudiced against someone just because they have a different accent from you, or just because they are poorer than you, or just because they live abroad. If we think of racism as ‘the worst’, then these other forms of discrimination, such as looking down on people and actively discriminating against them because of their accent, or what-have-you, come to seem not really that bad. But they are.

So: we don't need to try to pin the 'racist' label on those on the right-wing of British politics who are in practice in danger of being little more than the 'acceptable' face of the BNP. We can slam their attitudes on immigration and on foreign aid without resorting to any such tendentiousness. We can convict them of being uncaring, of being classist, of being prejudiced against the poor and against those from poor countries, of being unwilling to share, of being xenophobic.

Surely that's enough.

P.S. None of this is meant to imply that there shouldn’t be any limits on immigration at all. At some point there would have to be: there is no way that this island can accommodate (say) 500 million people. But there cannot be a humane debate about immigration-limits until we have limited (and hopefully vanquished) prejudice against the poor, against foreigners, and so forth. And that is why the covertly prejudiced discourse of the right on immigration that I have discussed is so pernicious.

About the author

Rupert Read was a Green Party councillor in Norwich and a candidate in the 2009 European Parliamentary elections. He is Chair of the Green House thinktank.

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