Zombies, again

The Privilege Denying Dude
The Privilege Denying Dude

This piece, co-written with Gavan Titley, was published on the Muslim Council of Britain’s website in response to Prospect Magazine’s ‘Rethinking Race’ feature, edited by Munira Mirza.

As reluctant connoisseurs of multicultural clichés, we were somewhat disappointed that Munira Mirza’s essay forgot to report how Birmingham City Council killed Christmas and replaced it with Winterval. As several contributors have noted, her largely anecdotal essay presents a set of arguments that could have been assembled anytime over the last twenty years. Furthermore, it remains mired in the either/or logics it sets out to critique; displays no sense of the motility and changing nature of racisms; depends on the active forgetting of how ‘cultural racism’ has shifted in the ‘war on terror’ era to coded discourses of values, compatibility and loyalty; and refuses to engage with how, as Soumaya Ghannoushi (2006) argued, the perennial trope of the ‘multiculturalism problem’ has become a euphemism for ‘the Muslim problem’. As Gargi Bhattacharyya noted, the article is not really about multiculturalism, but proposes a familiar attack ‘on the claim that racism exists and shapes social outcomes’.

There is little point in repeating the many excellent critiques collected so far in this dossier. Instead, our starting point is to take seriously this fairly insipid essay as a certain kind of media event. In other words, why, given the limited, frayed and disjointed set of policies that might be gathered messily under the label ‘multiculturalism’, launch a full–frontal attack that would have been exaggerated a decade ago? Why, after a decade in which multiculturalism has been loudly denounced as a bad thing by a rota of New Labour Ministers, media commentators and mandarins from liberal-left to right, pretend that there is a pressing taboo to be broken in a new political era?

Multiculturalism, as almost everybody recognizes, is a slippery, fluid term, retaining a fairly useful if limited descriptive sense in postcolonial, migration societies, but also skittering off to index normative debates, real and imagined policies, mainstream political rhetorics, consumerist desires, and resistant political appropriations. But it is also, in western Europe more generally, something of a ‘zombie category’, in two senses. The first, as intended by Ulrich Beck, is that of a social category or idea that is ‘dead but still alive’. The second is more ritualistic, as it is also an idea that can be revived and made to walk amongst and haunt the living. Over the last decade, in countries where limited multicultural provisions have been done away with, and even in countries where nothing called ‘multiculturalism’ can be discerned, multiculturalism has functioned as a ritual object. Its slipperiness allows it to become the space in which debates on race, immigration, citizenship, belonging and legitimacy are conducted. Frequently understood as an experiment, or era, or project, or unitary ‘philosophy’, it is ritually revived merely in order to be publicly disavowed. We tried our best, they asked for this, it didn’t work, and now we need to get back to a state of integration, of common values, of shared culture.

If we maintain this broader focus for the time being, it is clear that the zombie of multiculturalism is central to the justification of assimilative integrationism and neo-nationalist politics in contemporary Europe. Blamed for everything from ‘parallel societies’ to gendered horror to the incubation of terrorism, the litany of multicultural failure allows for disturbing political developments to be presented as nothing more than rehabilitative action. The most obvious recent example of this is Angela Merkel’s declaration in October that ‘multiculturalism has ‘failed, failed utterly in Germany’. Under pressure from the right of the CDU as it sought to siphon off populist fairy dust from Thilo Sarrazin, Merkel’s appeal to the undead was particularly cheeky. It is not just the indecent haste with which she moved on from celebrating the youthful multiculturalism of Germany’s football team, but also the fact that it is only a decade since Germany reformed its exclusionary nationality laws. An aspirational rhetoric of multikulti has long done battle with concerted attempts to define a Leitkultur and to specify – both from conservative and liberal positions – deutsche Werteordnung for all the dis-integrated ‘migrants’ to sign up to. But pointing out the obvious empirical lack of a multiculturalism that failed is to miss how it functions euphemistically. As per the convention, complex social problems and political-economic disjunctures can be blamed on ‘migrants’, and the solution, handily enough in a neoliberal era, located in an increased individual responsibility to become compatible. The range of processes of social dissolution and varieties of anomie that multiculturalism is still held responsible for is scarcely credible. However, as Sneja Gunew put it astutely, ‘multiculturalism has been developed as a concept by nations and other aspirants to geopolitical cohesiveness who are trying to represent themselves as transcendentally homogenous in spite of their heterogeneity’ (2004: 16). As, for a variety of reasons to do with migration and neoliberal globalization, a sense of transcendental homogeneity gets harder to represent, rejecting rather than embracing ‘multiculturalism’ becomes central to renewed attempts at transcendence.

When surface is depth

While this sense of homogeneity does not easily apply to the UK, several observations translate from this wider context to a discussion of Mirza’s essay. The first is that most media frenzy debates on multiculturalism are assembled from fragments of what Nasar Meer, in his response, termed the ‘ascendence of MII knowledge’ – generalised, anecodotal ideas that suit the blog, tweet, political soundbite and short commentary form. Most recently, Steve Vertovec and Suzanne Wessendorf have examined this as the transnational circulation of multicultural ‘crisis idioms’ that constructs multiculturalism as a single doctrine that has fostered separateness, stifled debate, refused common values and denied problems, while facilitating reprehensible cultural practices and providing a fecund habitat for terrorists (Vertovec and Wessendorf 2009: 13-19). Thus what commentators here have noted as the passé, dated and unsubstantiated character of Mirza’s essay is actually the horizon of its existence. The assembly of clichés, the cyclical claim to be breaking taboos and the subsequent feeling of déjà vu is the point of the exercise.

Secondly, this rolling rejection of multiculturalism is not a rejection of ‘labelling’ or culturalism, but rather a reworking of it. In Merkel’s case, it is bound up in the complex articulation of ‘Germanness’ in a field of intensive conflict over this process. In Mirza’s case, not only does she proceed on the assumption that people in the UK actually live their lives in concert with the managerial categories of multiculturalism, she neglects some interesting instances of how multiculturalist thinking has been central to the backlash against multiculturalism. All commentators here agree with her that labelling people according to ethnicity is reductive. Yet why does the essay not deal with the most obvious recent examples of this reductiveness? The horrible irony of the governmental rejection of multiculturalism that took a particular form post-Cantle Report is that it produced the pernicious labels of ‘The Muslim community’ and ‘The White Working Class’. Multiculturalism, apparently, emboldened the former and neglected the latter, but in rejecting it New Labour simultaneously tightened the parallelism it was so anxious to tackle while ethnicising and patronising the post-industrial population it had presumed it no longer needed electorally. None of this recent politics filters its way into the essay, instead it is populated by brittle stereotypes bridling that nobody gets their jokes and ‘innocent remarks’.

Political correctness gone mad, again

For all the entreaties to dispense with political correctness that occur in this genre of argument, it needs to be remembered that attacking multiculturalism is itself a form of political correctness, a way of talking about race, and saying coded things about minorities in a ‘post-racial’ era. So when Mirza concludes with an injunction to ‘speak openly about these issues’ we should recognise openness also as a form of code. Of course, we could choose to take these recycled arguments at face value, reading her as actually wringing her hands about the sorry state of Britain’s approach to tackling racism, an approach which, as she rightly points out, may in some ways have contributed to the entrenchment of racism rather than to its alleviation. We could choose to puzzle over her confusion of anti-racism with the politics of multiculturalism and diversity and the facile interchangeability of the terms ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’, or ‘race’ and ‘diversity’. White liberals may nod solemnly when she invokes ethnic labeling to point out that none of the authors ‘is white and therefore cannot be easily dismissed as ignorant, naïve, or unwittingly prejudiced.’ However to do so would be to ignore how these arguments play a central role in the rewriting of the agenda around race and racism which is at least as old as the antiracist movement itself. Where there are attempts to tackle racism there are those willing to claim either that there is no problem, or that the problem is not what it is claimed to be – that it isn’t because ‘I is black’.

The argument that institutional intervention into the alleviation of racism through, for example, equalities legislation, the sanctioning of institutional racism or the implementation of diversity initiatives is counterproductive is clearly not novel. It is counterproductive, the argument goes, both because it sees racism everywhere – an extension of the ‘political correctness gone mad’ argument – and because it is patronising to black people and ethnic minorities who do not need a ‘leg up’ to get ahead. Once again this is a form of discursive transposition, this time of a position popularised in the United States by public figures of colour such as African American Republican Ward Connerly, founder of the American Civil Rights Institute, set up to militate against affirmative action, or The End of Racism author, Dinesh D’Souza whose latest offering, The Roots of Obama’s Rage has had Glenn Beck gushing ‘yes, thank you, yes, somebody really gets it, and has a better handle on it than I think anybody else out there.’ The British context is of course radically different to the US-American one, and the sub-debate in these contributions on the problems of conceptual transposition is an important one. However it is crucial to ask who benefits from depicting racism as a thing of the past, institutional racism as largely fictitious and the redressing of Eurocentric bias as irrelevant and patronising.

Is it those who actually face racism, who Mirza recognises still exist? Or is it those commentators, including public figures of Black and Ethnic Minority backgrounds, who ‘courageously’ go out on a limb to object to the antiracist ‘status quo’, aware that occupying this putatively contrarian position pays significant dividends in a political climate in which the racialized’s demands for justice and equality are treated as spurious precisely because the notion that racism is a thing of the past has become the orthodoxy? In fact, the current framing of the ‘race problem’ as a crisis of ‘too much diversity’ – as Prospect’s editor David Goodhart put it in 2004 – is underpinned by the yarn that Britain is straitjacketed by an antiracist morality that not only damages ‘race relations’ but gives succour to the far right. In other words, those who face racism are not only being held responsible for, as Mirza puts it, creating ‘a climate of suspicion and anxiety’, but also for ensuring that the BNP has ‘gained support because of’ multicultural policies. Other contributions have noted the unsubstantiated nature of that argument, and the assumption that racism will be rationally dispelled by policy change. What is also important is the way in which Mirza insists, like all the other recent high profile opponents of multiculturalism, on fully conflating multiculturalism with antiracism.

In so doing, they conflate the struggle of the racialized against the systemic injustices of the state with an institutionalized, managerial, ‘multicultural’ response, ostensibly to racism. This response has always failed to deal with the legacies of race-thinking, as they supplant it with essentialist explanations of minorities as either culturally weak or excessively cultural. Secondly, they concur with the orthodoxy that views multiculturalism as a minority demand for recognition, obscuring the less convenient truth that treating the racialized as culturally distinct and communally divided has weakened and depoliticised the antiracist movement since the 1980s. The ‘official antiracism’ that Mirza identifies as requiring radical criticism is not even antiracist in name since the dissolution of the Commission for Racial Equality. It has been supplanted by a diversity agenda that conforms with the ‘Bennettonization’ of the fight for greater equality. We agree with Mirza’s implicit questioning of a ‘diversity industry’ and of New Labour’s themed multiculturalism as part of the Britain TM moment. However Sara Ahmed has previously nailed the strange assumption that the presence of mediated, cost-free multicultural aspirations is some kind of true reflection of lived realities, particularly when it leads to the argument ‘how can you say you experience racism when we are committed to diversity?’ Continuing to refer to largely ineffectual measures such as diversity training as ‘antiracist’ plays into the hands of a postracial agenda not only by assuming that racism has largely been overcome. It also implicitly contends that it is the racialized that are responsible for any bad feeling against them that may persist, and that residual ‘prejudice’ proves that racism is an individual rather than a societal problem.

Given this latest rehearsal of familiar themes, it is the responsibility of those of us who remain committed to overturning racism to ask who is served when racism is denied. It is not the exploited migrant workers or the asylum seekers living off vouchers, it is not the children detained for months on end in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, it is not the wife of Jimmy Mubenga who died aboard BA flight 77 while being forcibly deported to Angola on October 15, it is not Hicham Yezza, jailed on unfounded terrorist charges and it is not the third generation black and Asian Britons who continue to face ‘heavy handed’ policing, deaths in custody and incarceration at a rate that far exceeds their numbers among the population. As long as there are stories such as these and the countless others that remain unheard and untold, the arguments that editorially frame a publication such as Rethinking Race are corrosive precisely because of their banality.

Alana Lentin (Sussex University) and Gavan Titley (National University of Ireland, Maynooth) are the authors of ‘The Crises of Multiculturalism? Racism in a Neoliberal Era’ forthcoming from Zed Books in 2011.


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