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Reforming the system? - Assimilation, integration, Labour and multiculturalism

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Marxists are revolutionary integrationists. We reject the demand for black people “assimilate” into white society. We reject the strategy that calls for black people simply to “integrate”, through equal opportunity policies, into the capitalist system. Instead we fight for the integration of black workers and youth into the working class movement.

This is very different from the assimilation and integration demanded by the capitalists. The experience of black people in Britain since the war shows why both this form of assimilation and capitalist integrationism are false strategies for fighting racism.

The “cricket test”
It is commonplace in Western Europe and the USA for ethnic and national minorities to be confronted with tremendous pressure to assimilate into the majority population. This has been especially true in post-war Britain.

A cornerstone of post-war establishment “Race Relations” was the call on immigrant communities to abandon their existing culture - their language, mode of dress, music, traditions, indeed any patterns of social behaviour that were particular to their national or ethnic group. Instead they were supposed to embrace the prevailing culture in their new country of residence.

While this approach went decidedly out of vogue in Britain in the 1970s, to be replaced in the education system and local authorities by the doctrine of multiculturalism (see below), it has been making something of a come back over recent years. The right-wing Tory politician and former minister Norman Tebbit summed this up with his infamous “Cricket Test”.

According to Tebbit it was understandable if first generation immigrants should support India, Pakistan or the West Indies when they play England at cricket, but if their children do the same then there is a problem: they are not assimilating.

This petty example was carefully chosen by Tebbit to make a deadly serious point. Black people were being told that if they encounter disadvantage in Britain, it is a natural consequence of being “different”, “alien”, and of somehow refusing to change. The argument is an excuse and justification for British racism.

Yet from the onset of post-war immigration there were many black people who at first attempted to assimilate, and even some who argued that a gradual process of assimilation was the best way to erode the racist attitudes and discrimination they encountered in Britain. This approach was soon revealed to be a totally inadequate response to racism.

Marxists put no obstacles in the path of genuinely free and voluntary assimilation of peoples. Our aim is a world free of borders and nation states, in which the resources of the entire planet and the labour of all humanity can be applied to meet the needs of everybody. That is why revolutionary socialists call for the broadest possible interaction and solidarity between working people of different nations and ethnic groups.

Far from upholding hallowed “national traditions”, let alone actively promoting any bourgeois national culture (even that of an oppressed nationality), we look to a future in which humanity will at last have the possibility of creating a new culture - voluntarily combining all the best from national cultures and abandoning those elements that are based on the ignorance, oppression and despair of the past.

This is what the Russian revolutionary leader, Lenin, meant when he wrote of “the international culture of democracy and of the world working class movement”, a culture which would take “from each national culture only its democratic and socialist elements”, whilst opposing each and every reactionary element or violation of the rights of one nation by another.

But the British establishment’s repeated demand on immigrants to assimilate has nothing in common with the democratic and internationalist principle of free and voluntary integration. On the contrary the demand is based on force, fraud and racism.

Encouragement to assimilate was founded on the carefully cultivated myth that Britain was a land of unbounded opportunity, in which prospects for advancement were available to all citizens on an equal basis, irrespective of national or ethnic origin.

The predominant culture itself - the culture of British capitalism - contained deeply embedded assumptions of black racial inferiority that had been promoted from the earliest days of colonialism and slavery.

Coercion was widely used to compel certain forms of assimilation, such as in the spheres of language and dress. And above all, black immigrants who at first genuinely attempted to assimilate were obstructed at every turn by systematic racist discrimination.

The “colour bar”
Many black immigrants from the Caribbean in the 1950s expected a swift and easy path into the mainstream of British life. In Jamaica and Barbados the colonial authorities had practiced a policy of Anglicisation since the abolition of slavery - incorporating British cultural, political and social attitudes into the education system and religious institutions on a vast scale. Many West Indians had fought for Britain in the world wars; the Queen’s birthday was one of the main festival days.

School children were saturated with the notion that they were British: they saluted the British flag every morning, sang English songs, were taught “proper” English in place of their own language, played cricket as their principal sport etc. They were taught how the British parliament had abolished the slave trade.

Their teachers did not dwell on which nation had developed and profited from the slave trade.

This forcible grafting of a ready-made national culture on to a subject colonial people could not be maintained indefinitely. That it could be attempted at all - quite unlike the circumstances that confronted the British colonialists in India - was a direct result of the violent uprooting and dissolution of the pre-colonial culture of African-Caribbeans.

The traumatic severing of the black slaves from their prior social system and culture, and the social atomisation of them as slaves, enabled the colonial authorities to attempt the systematic implantation of the culture of Victorian England.

The large scale migration of the 1950s exposed this fraud to the cold light of the English day. Between 1953 and 30 June 1962 265,737 immigrants arrived from the West Indies.

They encountered systematic discrimination in all walks of life. The worst paid and most demeaning jobs were reserved for them. Job discrimination, quotas and even outright colour bars were widespread across industry.

Extensive job downgrading occurred as racist employment practices kept the bulk of the skilled jobs white. Black clerical and professional employees suffered acutely. Only a handful found skilled or professional work; the overwhelming majority were forced to take the lowest paid manual jobs, semi-skilled or unskilled.

In the allocation of housing, racist discrimination was even more acute. Surveys in the 1950s revealed that only one in every six landlords in London would accept black tenants; in Birmingham the figure was only 15 in every 1000.

The infamous signs stating “No Blacks” proliferated at rented properties across the major cities. Overcrowded in temporary accommodation, able to secure only the worst-maintained housing, prey to profiteering landlords and estate agents offering properties only at extra fees, the inevitable result was to concentrate black people in distinct, run-down areas of the inner cities.

The very “assimilation” that formed the sum total of establishment advice to the black immigrant was being obstructed at every turn by colour prejudice and institutionalised racial oppression.

Above all, popular white racism reinforced the lesson that the prevailing national culture itself constituted an insuperable obstacle to the assimilation of black immigrants.

Abuse was a daily event. Racist strikes took place against the “competition” posed by black workers in industry. Transport workers in the West Bromwich and Wolverhampton Corporations struck against the employment of black workers and in favour of stricter quotas on the numbers of black employees.

By 1958 white racist antagonism to the increased presence of black immigrants in the workplace and in the urban environment flared into violence, with the return of racist rioting to the streets of the cities. Gangs of whites attacked blacks in simultaneous outbursts in Nottingham and in Notting Hill in West London.

Very much the same pattern existed for Asians, especially from the sub-continent. Encouraged to come to Britain to do menial jobs, they were then subject to ghettoisation and racism. The epicentre of the British Commonwealth, which they had been taught was the centre of civilisation, was soon exposed as the crucible of racism.

Four decades on, the prospects for a gradual process of assimilation into British capitalist society as a solution to racism look even more distant than in the 1950s.

Whereas Race Relations legislation, introduced by Labour governments in 1965, 1968 and 1976, brought in some legal restrictions on race discrimination, the post-war years witnessed a simultaneous process of the tightening of immigration controls against black immigrants from Commonwealth countries.

Although tendencies towards assimilation have been significant, with increased instances of intermarriage, a degree of integration in schools and workplaces and a discernible process of cultural assimilation among the more middle class black people, this is far from being a uniform or even a predominant pattern.

Why? Because racism is not declining. It is on the rise.

Continuing discrimination in jobs and education can be seen from the unemployment figures. In 1991 the national unemployment rate was 9%. For African-Caribbeans it was 16%, and among Bangladeshis and Pakistanis an extraordinary one in four were out of work.

The Labour Force Survey of 1993 showed that the unemployment rate had reached 28% for African-Caribbeans and 35% for Asians, with black workers generally being seven times more likely than whites to lose their jobs. Opportunities for promotion remain far more restricted - white workers are twice as likely to rise out of manual and unskilled positions.

The criminal justice system continues to discriminate against black defendants both in the rate of convictions and in sentencing.

The continuing effect of immigration and nationality legislation is to identify black people as outsiders or aliens, to discriminate against families whose relatives wish to join them in Britain, and to subject black communities to routine harassment and violence by police and immigration officials.

Racial attacks continue to spiral, increasing year on year to the point where, by 1993, there were an estimated 140,000 such incidents.

But the myth of peaceful, gradualist assimilation is far from dead. Indeed “liberal” capitalism has every interest in promoting this myth. It continues to receive assistance from the small black-British bourgeoisie, for whom the concept of a viable anti-racist capitalism has obvious attractions.

The principal mouthpiece of black bourgeoisification, The Voice newspaper, went so far as to revive the language of the colonial Anglicisation policy when it claimed in its review of 1989 that:

“The eighties have brought us closer to a goal we have long been pursuing: integration into British society. As it ends, we are now generally more prosperous, secure and settled into the ‘mother country’.”

For the mass of black people in Britain, the notion that assimilation into British national culture is the answer to racism has been proved utterly wrong.

It is a reactionary utopia: utopian because the prevailing culture is itself racist, presenting black people with enormous obstacles to full and free integration, reactionary because it raises the inherently racist demand to abandon of the cultural legacy of Caribbean, African and Asian societies in favour of a purportedly “superior” British culture.

Above all, assimilation is not an option for the majority of the racially oppressed. Skin colour cannot be changed, and it remains key to racist discrimination. Even generations of mixed marriages in areas where black communities have lived in Britain for over a century, such as Cardiff and Liverpool, have not lessened or overcome racism.

Whilst the “assimilation” of ethnic minorities is at one level a process which proceeds spontaneously in capitalist society, it does not proceed smoothly, uninterruptedly, without coercion or in a single direction.

The tendency of the capitalist system towards economic crisis, the sharpening of antagonisms and rivalries between bourgeois nation states, and the continuing domination and super-exploitation by the advanced capitalist states of the entire semi-colonial world, is strengthening racism.

The end of the Cold War and the old bi-polar world order has sharpened tendencies towards the emergence and consolidation of rival imperialist blocs. The increased pace of the drive towards European economic and political union has brought in its wake a renewed wave of restrictive racist border controls - the rise of “Fortress Europe” - as well as giving impetus to the development of avowedly racist far-right and fascist parties in every one of the European powers.

This has happened before. In the 1930s, those Jews who imagined that assimilation into bourgeois society alone would protect them from the ravages of anti-Semitism were to be freed from this illusion in the most barbaric manner imaginable.

If the assimilated Jews - whose identity was by no means as immediately visible as that of black people today - were subjected under the doctrine of “racial purity” to ruthless investigations of ethnic origin which disregarded supposed “assimilation”, how much less can this be a realistic option for black people today?

Black capitalism?
Escape into the capitalist class is not an option for the millions of black people in Britain. Under-investment, competition and plain racist discrimination profoundly limit the prospects even for those few who have the capital to start a serious business venture.

What is more, racist ideas remain necessary today for capitalism to justify its economic enslavement of the black semi-colonies and to keep the working class itself divided along racial lines. Thus even black capitalists have been disappointed to find that their newly acquired class brothers and sisters in the bourgeoisie are not colour-blind.

Money, capital and social status cannot wholly obliterate the experience of racism even for the tiny minority of black people that possess them. What is more, the material interests of black capitalists will of necessity become separate from and opposed to the interests of the working class black majority.

The example of George Ward, black newspaper proprietor and boss of the notorious anti-union Grunwicks company in London, is instructive.

Recounting a personal experience that will be familiar to countless black applicants for professional posts today, he wrote:

“I had an unpleasant taste of racial discrimination when I pursued my luck in interviews with one or two small accounting firms that no doubt imagined, from my name, that I was purely English [i.e. white]. I got an immediate rebuff when they saw the colour of my skin.”

But Ward’s subsequent career only confirms the Marxist view that black capitalists are no friends of black workers.

In 1977 Ward’s small film processing company - Grunwicks - became a household name as his refusal to grant trade union rights to his predominantly Asian workforce became a focal point for resistance by the trade union and anti-racist movement. No matter how bitter one’s personal experience of racism may be, it is impossible to become and remain a private capitalist without maintaining a ruthless exploitation of the workforce.

The creation of a small black bourgeoisie and a growing black middle class has political consequences for the movement for black liberation. It provides the material foundation for the growth of ideologies within the black community that both support the economic and political status quo, and seek to limit the struggle of the mass of black people within a framework acceptable to that status quo.

In Britain today the black middle class and the small layer of black capitalists form the material foundations for black MPs, such as the lawyers Paul Boateng and Keith Vaz, who do precious little to repay their black working class voters for their expensive suits and beautiful homes.

Neither of them have spoken out against the constant wave of racist deportations, and Boateng’s days as a critic of police harassment of the black community are over. Both are uncritical supporters of Labour’s leader Tony Blair, who is fixed on abandoning even the most limited of Labour’s commitments to the interests of poorest sections of society.

Capitalism inflicted slavery, colonial rule, segregation and discrimination on black people; they are arguably capitalism’s greatest victims.

Joining the capitalist class is an option available only to a tiny minority of black people, and in availing themselves of this option they take up a stance which is opposed to the liberation of the majority of black people.

For the working class majority of black people there is no possibility of joining the exploiters and oppressors.

They can rise only with their class, not out of their class.

The Labour Party
There are two sides to racist ideology: an overt, vicious racism and a disguised “liberal” racism.

The latter manifests itself in reformism. Reformist socialism aims to win crumbs from the capitalists’ table, and limits itself to peaceful protest and parliamentary rhetoric. In Britain, the reformist Labour Party commands the electoral support of the overwhelming majority of African-Caribbean and Asian voters.

The reason for this is that the majority of black people in Britain are working class. Since its foundation, the Labour Party has remained tied at every level to the trade unions, the bedrock organisations of the working class.

As far back as 1906, the political and trade union organisation of the workers in Trinidad - the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association - affiliated to the British Labour Party and conducted a campaign in the British West Indies for economic and political goals, such as shorter working hours, sick leave, and against the “colour bar”.

In post-war Britain high concentrations of black workers in low-paid, unskilled jobs and in industries with large concentrated workforces - such as transport, the health service, textiles and manufacturing - have seen high proportions of African-Caribbean workers belonging to trade unions compared with whites.

The election of Bill Morris as the first black leader of a British trade union, the TGWU, is in part a reflection of this high union membership amongst African-Caribbeans.

Asians are a partial exception to the pattern as far as union membership is concerned, principally because of the high levels of part-time and home working among Asian women.

But they have consistently voted, in their overwhelming majority, for Labour. In general elections the Labour Party has come to rely heavily on the votes of its black supporters and, alone among the parliamentary political parties, it currently has five black MPs - though if the black 5% of the population were represented proportionally, there would be over 30 black MPs.

How has Labour repaid its debt to black working class people? In power Labour has time and again introduced restrictions on black immigration, supported racist policing and defended racist employment policies.
In August 1965 the Labour government of Harold Wilson renewed the Tories’ 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, specifically adding a rule restricting “coloured immigration”.

In 1968 Labour brought in the Kenyan Asian Act which banned most of the Asians, who held British passports, from entering Britain through a discriminatory work-related voucher system. This left 150,000 Asians stateless. Wilson hypocritically claimed that the reasons for this were not racial but “geographical”.

In 1969 James Callaghan, then Labour Home Secretary, bowed to Tory pressure and barred citizens from the “New Commonwealth” - countries with predominantly black populations - from entering Britain to marry their fiancées. In 1971 the Tories finished the job by banning primary immigration altogether.

Back in office in 1974 Wilson and Callaghan took up where the Tories had left off. Despite the Labour Party conference having voted to repeal the 1971 Act, they kept it in place. Labour Minister, Merlyn Rees, admitted that the laws were designed to stop black people coming in and declared that they would be toughened. Under Labour disgusting “virginity tests” were introduced on Asian women arriving to marry their fiancées.

In 1976 a Labour Green Paper on nationality laid the groundwork for the Tories’ 1981 Nationality Act. Michael Foot - a so-called “left winger” - issued a Department of Employment memorandum saying that work permits for blacks should not be renewed if a white worker could be found who was available for the job.

Why has the Labour Party introduced this succession of racist laws? The reason is that Labour is bound, hand and foot, to the interests of the capitalist class.

During the long boom, and the consequent labour shortage, after the Second World War, British capitalism was keen to encourage workers from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent to come to Britain as cheap labour. As popular racism rose in Britain in the early 1960s and as the period of post-war economic expansion drew to a close at the end of the decade, the capitalists reversed their policy.

The Labour Party, despite claiming to stand for the interests of working people, is firmly committed to working within and maintaining the capitalist system.

They leave the power of big business and the unelected state bureaucracy and civil service untouched. They can only govern with the consent of the ruling class. Thus they uphold the fictitious “national interest” - in reality the interests of the capitalists - as opposed to those of the workers they claim to represent.

In the face of the sharp rise in racism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Labour Party studiously avoided championing the interests of the black working class in order to avoid losing votes from white racists.

Today, after years of anti-racist campaigning, an increased degree of integration in the schools and the workplaces, and above all a new awareness of the importance of the black vote, Labour presents an anti-racist image to the electorate.

In local authorities throughout the 1980s Labour administrations promoted equal opportunities policies challenging the more overt forms of racial discrimination in employment.

The new ideology which Labour shares with many other mainstream politicians, educationalists and institutions such as the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is that of multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism stresses the need for inter-racial harmony, and declares its aim to be a society that tolerates a diversity of cultures. Black and white should therefore have equal rights and equal opportunities before the law, it says.

In this way, multiculturalists think that racial prejudice can be progressively undermined through education, until it vanishes altogether. People of different national origins, different colours, religions and cultures, will gradually learn to accept each other; the whole of society will be enriched in the process.

Clearly revolutionary socialists share these aims. Yet we reject multiculturalism as a strategy for black liberation. Why?

The answer lies in our understanding of the root causes of racism, what it is that gives rise to it and reproduces it, year in, year out, generation after generation.

Multiculturalism works on the assumption that racism is a mere prejudice without any material foundation, a hangover from the past.

It can, according to this view, be progressively eradicated through education. It is an irrational prejudice that will die out once it is exposed to the compelling force of rational argument, just as the idea that the earth is flat died out.

One big billboard advertisement from the Commission for Racial Equality summed this up. Under the words, “There are some places where racism doesn’t exist”, it showed a picture of three babies, with the words “here, here and here” written across on their heads.

Now it is true - despite the arguments of the racists - that very young children show no innate predisposition towards racial prejudice. But the multiculturalists of the CRE are suggesting something more: that only poor education and exposure to the surviving remnants of racist ideas changes this situation and turns white kids into racists in later life.

The conclusion to be drawn from the multiculturalist approach is that education and legal reform will create inter-racial harmony, without any need to make fundamental changes to the economic system or the institutions of the state.

It is a blueprint for inter-racial harmony under capitalism.

Capitalist society constantly re-creates the conditions for racism. We support every legal reform and education programme that genuinely lessens the impact of racial discrimination. But we should never lose sight of what it is that created the racist ideology in the first place: capitalism, colonialism, the slave trade and imperialism.

In the sphere of education - both in the schools and, more widely, through the media - multiculturalism provides information and knowledge about different cultures, nationalities and traditions, in order to present them on an equal footing, as “equally valid”.

This is fine as far as it goes - which is not very far at all. It is one thing to teach primary school children about Ramadan and Diwali, but quite another to expose how black people are discriminated against in housing, employment and the criminal justice system.

That would mean going beyond an education on the “equal validity” of different cultures towards explaining the systematic oppression of black people. It would mean going beyond multicultural education to anti-racist education.

This may seem like a small step - but it is a step too far for the multicultural establishment, because it is directly political. It would be illegal under the Education Act - it would mean “bringing politics into the schools”. Meanwhile the Tories are able to introduce a new national curriculum focusing on the “achievements of Britain in history” - all “non-political” of course.

A similar approach can be seen in the multiculturalists’ stress on “positive images”.

The idea here is that images on television and in the media should get away from stereotyped racist images of black people and focus on black success stories. In this way, they believe, not only will whites accept black people more easily, but black youth will have “role models” as examples to aspire to.

But the persistent images of successful black executives, businessmen and women conceal rather than challenge the realities of racism.

Black youth are less likely to get work and promotion than their white counterparts not because they lack “role models” but because there is racial discrimination built into the system. They will not get jobs or promotion just by showing more images of successful black people on TV. On the contrary, the effect of this approach is to deny that any real obstacles to black advancement exist.

Ultimately “positive images” suffers from the same weakness as the strategy of building up black capitalism - it is based on the lie that every individual really has the same chance to succeed. We just need to be told “you can do it” and the door will be open.

For millions the door won’t open. It has to be kicked down by the working class, black and white.

What about legal reforms? Labour’s 1991 document Opportunity Britain - a thoroughly multiculturalist document - supports the recommendations of the CRE to extend the Race Equality Act into government, the police, prisons and the immigration service, and to give local authorities the specific duty to combat racism.

Ethnic monitoring is to ensure equal opportunities legislation is put into practice. The police will, we are told, be made to follow up cases of racial harassment sympathetically.

But the weakness of “equality before the law” as a solution can be seen on any High Street in a black area. Police flag down expensive cars driven by black people and systematically harass them. Brian Douglas, a black man murdered by police in South London in May 1995 was stopped for an alleged motoring offence.

Yet the motoring laws of this country are technically “colour blind”.

Similarly, racial discrimination by employers is against the law.

But the problems of proving to the satisfaction of a judge or industrial tribunal that an employer discriminated against somebody on racial grounds are immense - a whole pattern of blatant discrimination has to be proved. And of course, hiring and firing remains in the hands of employers.

One final, and major feature of reformist multiculturalism is its reactionary attitude to immigration control. Labour politician Roy Hattersley once summed this up famously:

“Without integration, limitation [of immigration] is inexcusable; without limitation, integration is impossible.”

This means: in order to have good race relations there have to be strict immigration controls. The priority here is not to defeat racism, but to maintain “inter-racial harmony”.

Immigration laws are aimed at calming the fears of white racists about a black influx into Britain. And this lets the cat out of the bag. It is an admission that all immigration controls are racist, that they are aimed specifically at stopping black people entering Britain.

At root multiculturalism sees the presence of a black population in Britain as an historical accident, a once-only event which is the prime cause of modern racism.

Since the existence of a black minority is what causes or “stirs up” racism, the white racists have to be assured that there will be no further waves of black migration in the future. It assumes that if white people are given time to adjust, to work with black people in the workplace and live with them on the estates, eventually racism will disappear altogether.

Multiculturalism is bourgeois integrationism. It would never have gained support in the first place if it had not corresponded to one element of reality. Capitalism has integrated black people into the workforce. The overt racism and petty apartheid in pubs, clubs and rented accommodation which were the forms racism took in the 1950s and 1960s are less widespread now - though they have not disappeared completely.

And there has been a section of the African-Caribbean, and in particular the Asian population, which is developing as a small but relatively prosperous petit-bourgeois layer, concentrated in the professions and small businesses.
But multiculturalism cannot give a coherent explanation of the fact that in the Britain of the 1990s racism is nevertheless on the rise, as is racial inequality in jobs, housing and education.

In periods of capitalist prosperity multiculturalism is, at best, an inadequate programme of reforms. In periods of crisis and recession it is reduced to sheer utopianism, and even to concealing the extent and nature of racial discrimination and prejudice in society.

Above all, it is a strategy to be carried out from above, by politicians in parliament and the council chamber, by media professionals and educationalists. It is more liberal than Tebbit’s cricket test, but useless as a means of achieving black liberation. Like its political counterpart, reformism, it has no place for the struggle against racism from below, least of all by working class black people themselves.

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