Inside the Black Box of White Backlash: Letters of Support to Enoch Powell

Olivier Esteves, the author of the recently published Inside the Black Box of White Backlash: Letters of Support to Enoch Powell asked me to contribute a preface to the book. Looking at letters written to Enoch Powell, the grand majority of which supported his opposition to immigrants is instructive from our vantage point today. We can see how Powellism and the reaction to it since his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech has shaped the discourse on what we think racism, and ‘not racism’, are. You can read my prefect below.

‘When the “silent” and beleaguered majorities – the great underclasses, the great, silent “British public” – are made to “speak” through the ventriloquism of its public articulators, it is not surprising that it “speaks” with the unmistakeable accent of a thoroughly home-grown racism.’

Stuart Hall (2017[1978]: 151)

Stuart Hall, addressing the nature of the homegrown British racism that developed in three phases from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, places Powellism at the summit. Powellism stands for ‘the formation of an ‘official’ racist policy at the heart of British political culture’ that solidifies after Enoch Powell’s infamous pronouncements on the Black ‘Enemy Within’ of 1968 and 1969 (ibid. 150). Olivier Esteves’ meticulous cataloguing and analysis of 10,000 out of the over 100,000 letters written to the Conservative MP from Wolverhampton gives us a fascinating insight into the manufacture of (racist) consent that Powell’s speeches had a significant hand in. As Arun Kundnani notes, Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in particular ‘offered a template for a new form of anti-immigrant, populist politics that is today found across Europe and the United States’ (Kundnani 2018). Therefore, assessing his reception by members of the public, spurred into letter-writing by this elitist in populist clothing, is a clear sign of his undoubted success in giving a name to the heretofore ‘nameless’ ‘cuckoo in the nest… excrement in the letterbox’ (Hall 2017: 150) said to be responsible for real ‘popular fears and anxieties’ (ibid.: 154).

In one sense the book you are about to read reveals no hidden secrets. When I began to read what I experienced as the relentless litany of blunt racism contained in many of the letters extracted in the book, I was struck by its repetitive familiarity. The language used to express what Powell so deftly and durably conjured up as ‘genuine fears’ (Barker 1981) can be read in any number of newspaper columns, political speeches and twitter threads, not only in Britain but far beyond today and in all the intervening years since 1968. Powell excelled at the performance of ‘giving voice’ to the ‘ordinary man and woman’, one which continues to be the leitmotif of racist expression in these columns and threads over fifty years later. Powell, an elite figure whose own lived reality was very far removed from that of the ‘everyman’ he claimed to represent, paved the way for a whole industry carefully constructed around the figure of the beleaguered ‘indigenous’ English plain speaker. He also ‘gave back’ to his audience by bequeathing race as the ‘lens through which people come to perceive that a crisis is developing’ (Hall 2017: 152). As Hall puts it, ‘if racism had not existed as a plausible way in which the underclasses of society could have “lived through” the crisis of the British social formation in the 1970s, it would surely have had to be invented then’ (ibid.). 

The public rehabilitation of Enoch Powell began in earnest in the mid 2000s while the last nail was being driven into the coffin of multiculturalism, an era defined by twin and cross-cutting hysterias about Muslims and ‘bogus asylum seekers’ in the British public’s midst. As Gavan Titley and I note in The Crises of Multiculturalism, a key agent in the attack on multiculturalism, the writer David Goodhart, was explicitly likened to a left Enoch Powell, as the Conservative MP’s forewarnings about the excesses of immigration were folded into commonsensical intonations about the limitations of diversity and the need for greater ‘community cohesion’ (Lentin and Titley 2011). Media events such as the BBC’s 2008 White Season, and its documentary on Powell, ‘Rivers of Blood’, served to establish him as a misunderstood figure whose prescient warnings, if heeded, would have stopped Britain from becoming a society ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, as Trevor Phillips famously put it in 2005. But in a sense, the resuscitation of Powell, including the broadcasting of his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in full on BBC Radio 4 on its 50th anniversary in 2018, shocked only a liberal audience for whom events such as this served to unsettle the comforting tale that progress had prevailed and that a postracial society, if not quite here, was just on the horizon. Nevertheless, tracking changing approaches to Enoch Powell, demonstrates the extent to which Powellism became a key feature of racism well before the man was no longer seen as a bug in the system of liberal democracy. 

Above all, Powell was a principal inaugurator of the tried-and-tested formulation, ‘I’m not racist, but…’ The knowingness contained within that disclaimer provides the rhetorical genius and enables racist speech to flow and morph into what I have called ‘not racism’ (Lentin 2020). ‘Not racism’ is a form of discursive racist violence that goes beyond the denial of racism. ‘Not racism’ redefines racism from a perspective of supposed white objectivity on the basis that those concerned cannot know its true essence because they are emotionally overinvested in it. This form of racist expression emerges out of the dominant conceptualisation of racism itself which, as Hall writes, views it as ‘an “external” problem that has been foisted to some extent on English society from the outside’ (ibid. 143). The dominant view of racism as primarily a problem of individual immorality, or wrongheadedness, the stuff of attitudes, beliefs and values rather than structures, policies and technologies of racial rule lends itself to the disowning of racism that ‘not racism’ permits. If being a racist is the worst that one can be, then individuals with a self-perception as upstanding and morally worthy members of society cannot possibly be racist. It is obvious from reading through the thematised chapters of Inside the Black Box of White Backlash that the overriding concern not to be called racist runs throughout what Esteves calls ‘postbag Powellism’. 

The existence of what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls ‘racism without racists’ is well-known (Bonilla-Silva 2018). By all accounts no one is a racist and neither is anyone’s bones. The care that must be taken to avoid charging someone with racism can be seen in the ubiquity of euphemisms such as ‘racially tinged’ and ‘racially charged’ that became a classic of Trump era both-sidesism. What the rummage through ‘postbag Powellism’ reveals is that not to be called racist is a longstanding white demand. Powell’s white correspondents did not hide their racism under the guise of being mere concerned citizens. Rather, many actively denied their racism, wishing to secure, even from their champion, an endorsement that their concerns had no ‘racial undertones’. It is this performance of ‘not racism’ that I find fascinating, and which beyond all else endures in Powell’s legacy as I read it. The centrality of ‘not racism’ is doubly significant because it is the cornerstone both of right opposition to immigration, multiculturalism and antiracist accommodations, and of white left concerns about the excesses of race politics.

On the right, ‘not racism’ is a touchstone of the ‘limits of tolerance’ discourse. This central motif of crisis racism paints a picture of a beleaguered and gullible native population which, as Esteves neatly shows, sees itself as unjustly shamed having given migrants jobs ‘out of the goodness of their hearts’ as Stuart Hall quips (Hall 2017: 143). In this version of events, racism is painted as an unfair, and indeed dangerous, accusation. As the right-wing political scientist Eric Kaufmann argued in a 2017 report authored for The Policy Exchange, ‘Racial Self-Interest is Not Racism’, condemning those who voted for Brexit in the UK or for Trump in the US as racist is defamatory and unempirical. Mobilising ‘not racism’, Kaufmann and David Goodhart, for whose thinktank the report was written, set racism up as based exclusively on individual ‘fear, hatred, or disparagement of outgroups’, rejecting systemic racism (Kaufmann 2017: 2). Kaufmann contrasts this to what he calls ‘racial self-interest’ which legitimises opposition to immigration as the expression of a white identity politics, or what he terms ‘white Christian ethnotraditionalism’ (Kaufmann 2018). This allows Goodhart to warn that the tendency to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people seeking to conserve a British way of life against the incursion of rootless ‘anywhere people’ makes racism subject to ‘mission creep’ (Goodhart 2017a, 2017b). Goodhart claims that ‘the normal definition of racism’ – ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group’ – has been completely subsumed under what Kaufmann calls a ‘hegemonic left moralist agenda’ to cast everyone from the ‘ethnic majority’ as racist (Goodhart 2017b; Kaufmann 2018). The ‘feelings of shame, guilt and injustice’ that ‘the national suicide of the British’ (p. 22), swamped by unwanted Black migration provoked, as Powell claimed, are replayed in Kaufmann and Goodhart’s emphasis on the unfairness of being accused of racism. 

In fact, Kaufmann explicitly mentions Powell who he sees as giving expression to ‘genuine majority grievances.’ Powell was merely pointing out that ‘the cultural impact of immigration is perceived as negative by most whites in reception areas’ (Kaufmann 2918: 319). However, as Robbie Shilliam points out, Powell, although warning against the impacts of excessive immigration on ‘ordinary’ British people’s access to hospital beds and school places, did nothing himself as an MP to increase this access because he opposed the Welfare State. Rather, as a proponent of what later became neoliberalism (Kundnani 2018), he was concerned with the impact of equalities legislation on ‘the free will of the citizen and their ability to “discriminate in the management of [their] own affairs’ (Schofield 2015: 2013, cited in Shilliam 2018). In this, Powell was an early exponent of the right’s mobilisation of the concerns of ‘ordinary’ white citizens as little more than a rhetorical device whose success does not seem to be diminished by the existence of foodbanks and fuel poverty. The durability of Powellism can be seen in the ability to shift the blame for the effects of austerity capitalism onto undeserving migrants and away from the state. As Shilliam puts it, the figure of the ‘left behind white working class’ which was put to work with such effect in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum can be found in Powell’s English majority ‘made strangers in their own country’ (Shilliam 2018: 134). 

Just as the ‘ordinary’ man and woman are made to play a role for the right, so too they loom large in some leftist rhetoric. The response to the rightward political march by the ‘white left’ also has ‘ordinaries’ as main characters (Sparrow 2018). Here, too much attention to race is seen as playing into the hands of the right and gifting it a justification for embittering the lives of working people. For example, the German left economic sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck has bemoaned the rise of identity politics, which he has failed to ‘warm up to’ (O’Brien 2019) for the dishonouring of the working class in the US (Streeck 2017). In his vision of things, it is unsurprising that those ‘left behind’ by globalisation voted in large numbers for Trump because their status has been diminished by the cosmopolitan elite’s insistence on foisting multiculturalism on them. Leaving aside the fact that it has been shown that it was not the working class vote that drove Trump’s success in 2016 (Carnes and Lupu 2020), it is clear that Streeck’s vision of workers does not include those most exploited under capitalism, the working poor, an overwhelming number of whom are Black, Latino and of migrant origin in the US. 

Nevertheless, on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly after 2016, the white left directed its anger for its political losses against an antiracist moralism that placed too much emphasis on race to the detriment of class. Just as the same themes broached by Powellism endure on the right, the same artificial separation between class and race – and we could add gender – continue to frame white leftism. It was in 1980 that Stuart Hall wrote of the experience of Black workers in Britain that ‘race is the modality in which class is lived’ (Hall 1980: 340). Yet, the myth that ‘making it about race’ is what disunites the working class lives on, segueing into and merging with Powellist revery for the ‘ordinary’ citizen whose implicit whiteness does not have to be named. Thus, a figure like former fire-fighter and Labour party member, Paul Embery gains kudos for claiming that the ‘woke’ left ‘despises’ the British working class.[1] In fact, Embery used his Twitter account to promote the aforementioned BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech: ‘“Archive on 4”, about Enoch Powell, was insightful, sensitive, analytical and balanced. The idea, peddled by the usual self-appointed censors, that it would persuade hordes of Radio 4 listeners to become violent racists was always preposterous,’ tweeted Embery. His suggestion, in line with the right, that it is ‘not racist’ to warn against the impact of immigration on Britain is refuted by Esteves’ careful assessment of Powellite letters that indeed shows that, under the guise of being ‘not racist’, antiblack, anti-migrant sentiment nonetheless flowed freely from the pen. 

What does ‘postbag Powellism’ and its contemporary evocations have to say about antiracism? It is depressing and telling that only 10% of the letters sent to Enoch Powell disagreed with him. Almost all these letters’ authors were white from what can be gleaned and, Esteves notes that many of the writers only put pen to paper after much had been made publicly about the massive volume of the support Powell had received. Therefore, at least some of the 800 who wrote were motivated by ‘not racism’, in other words by distancing themselves from the perception that all white British people agreed with Powell. I found the chapter entitled ‘Against’  almost the most interesting because, although some writers stressed Britain’s imperial history as the reason for greater Black presence, for many the motivation seems to have been ‘not-in-my-name’ (p. 169). This finds particular expression in the contrast drawn with the United States, a theme that comes up among Powell’ supporters also. From the other side, the warnings from an America mired in ‘racial chaos’ is what should make the British people wary of following Powell. Therefore, the dominant expression of racism as extrinsic to British culture and politics motivates antiracists (with some exceptions) and racists alike, both committed to a ‘not racism’ in which a British white supremacy born of Empire is denied, its history repressed (Hall 2017: 143). 

As Olivier Esteves remarks on the opening page of the book which you are about to begin, what Powell said over fifty years ago and how his words were received are important because of the red thread that connects the ‘Rivers of Blood’ to today’s less metaphoric invocation of ‘white genocide’ and the ‘Great Replacement’, ideologies that have spurred massacres in recent years. And so, how so-called ‘ordinary’ white people responded to Powell is indicative at least in part of what we might expect today. Despite the power of movements such as the Movement for Black Lives, the ‘all lives matter’ response is an expression of ‘not racism’ writ large. The response of many in the public arena is to insist on the debatability of racism (Titley 2020) in a way that was actually unacceptable after Powell’s pronouncements in 1968. However, while the show of disgust at Powellite ‘racialism’ more or less united the political class in 1968, as Martin Barker has shown so importantly, his argument from ‘genuine fears’ became a staple of political rhetoric underpinning the onward march of structural racism despite a veneer of multicultural accommodationism which too has long since gone by the wayside (Barker 1981). In effect, much of the postbag Powellism looks quaint alongside the extremism of even mainstream discourse on race today, and not only in Britain but across the ‘global North’. Then as now the fight against what Powell stood for which, as Hall so crucially reminds us, echoed actual state policy, comes from the anticolonialist, antiracist movement. Inside the Black Box of White Backlash gives us clear insight, if we didn’t know already, into what it is up against. 

[1] It is unsurprising that much of Embery’s social media commentary in 2022 concerns transgender women who have become the bête noire of the spokespeople for the ‘ordinaries’. Tweet by @PaulEmbery accessed 24 March 2022

Alana Lentin