March 24, 2008

White season for racism

On the Monday following the end of BBC2’s White season it was announced that Rupert Murdoch’s new printing plant in Hertfordshire was to be opened with great ceremony. Much was made of the fact that it was now the biggest newspaper production site in the world, and it was only mentioned as a footnote that it made Wapping redundant, cutting the workforce from 600 to 200. The real news was that the print media was still alive and well.

White season is more like open season for racism.

You can tell when they fail to mention any of the economics. Murdoch’s Wapping was once a byword for bitter strikes and often violent industrial conflict. It recalls a period not so long ago when the TV news would end with a roll call of closing firms and factories, with statistics of the unemployed in different parts of the country, north to south, and the angry response of trade union leaders with familiar faces and household names.

The traumas of this recent historical period barely featured in the cynically named White season staged by BBC2 in early March. Instead, the channel set out to provoke by suggesting that something called the white working class had become an ethnic group, its survival threatened by ‘revolutionary’ socio-economic change and its voice muted by politically correct dogma. Richard Klein, the series commissioner, placed a strategic and carefully worded article in the Daily Mail just before the programmes were run. He wrote ‘In the modern world’s rush to embrace diversity and globalisation, we cannot afford to ignore the voices of any section of society which feels bewildered by the pace of change. If we don’t give everyone a voice, it may only lead to further social division.’

According to Klein, the problem was that the ‘British working-class public’ was ‘often portrayed as reactionary or backward, with opinions so outdated they can easily be dismissed.’ He suggested that this series was an effort to give ‘them’ a voice as well as to make ‘them’ visible and draw attention to ‘their’ complaints.

Using the unreliable but well proven armour of opinion polls, the series commissioners identified immigration as the constant sore that needed lancing. Trailers for the series made it clear that the word ‘White’ was intended to highlight the unspeakable topic of race. One entailed a disembodied male voice that lamented: we are the forgotten people. Another more disturbing ad showed a white man’s face inscribed with foreign languages by a succession of darker hands. His pale skin was covered with black ink until only the whites of his eyes remained. As he closed his eyes in final submission (a reference to murdered Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh?) the question appeared beneath: Is the white working class becoming invisible? The soundtrack to this chilling drama was a rendition of Jerusalem by self-proclaimed ‘progressive patriot’ Billy Bragg.

This combination of wounded, endangered masculinity, racialised as white, dominated the entire programming from beginning to end. Most insidious was the way that it supplied the affective context for the highlight of the week, a documentary on Enoch Powell’s legacy in anticipation of the fortieth anniversary of his Rivers of Blood speech. The implication was clear: the support that Powell received from dockers and other groups of workers at the time had not dissipated. Immigration remained just as divisive and unpopular as ever. The deep divisions within our society stemmed from the intrusion of countless non-white settlers who had made their homes here, taking over jobs and housing, causing crime and making the country unrecognizable to the indigenous English people.

By rehabilitating Enoch Powell and summoning an injured, nativist sensibility, the White season played a tune that amplified the chorus of authoritative voices proclaiming multiculturalism to be dead. Immigration is widely judged to be divisive, regardless of its economic or cultural benefits, and new laws limiting entry are increasingly linked to national security and surveillance - the move to provide non-nationals with ID cards first is a calculated attempt to secure consent among an apathetic population.

The week the series ran coincided with the publication of Goldsmith’s citizenship review (for OK’s discussion see here). Amongst other things, this advocated measures to make citizens feel more British in the interests of social cohesion. New Labour pundits have applauded these efforts to define and police terms like ‘belonging’ and ‘entitlement’. And under the heading ‘Baby-boomers finally see sense about immigration’, David Goodhart recently wrote that ‘Without fellow-citizen favouritism, the nation-state ceases to have much meaning. And most of the things that liberals desire - democracy, redistribution, welfare states, human rights - only work when one can assume the shared norms and solidarities of national communities.’

This last phrase, speaking of solidarities, chimes with a deep hatred of Islam, increasingly articulated as a common sense revulsion against religious fundamentalism. Some weeks ago secular feminist Joan Smith wrote a diatribe against the arrest of English teacher Gillian Gibbons by the Sudanese government under the heading ‘Islam and the modern world just don’t mix”. Previewing the one drama specially commissioned for the White season, Andrew Anthony, whose recent book was sub-titled ‘how a guilty liberal lost his innocence’, opined that Islam is a conservative and sexist religion as a categorical statement of fact. Just last week the Independent casually noted in a front page story that the UNICEF report on children’s welfare in 2007 found that British children were ‘the unhappiest in the western world because of the lack of social cohesion in the UK’. And this under the byline of the Education editor.

The last documentary of the White season focused on Barking, also known as Britain’s racist capital. This well-meaning film, oddly entitled All White in Barking, encapsulated much that was wrong with the series as the director pursued his subjects with a relentless quest to bring their racism to the fore. It was uncomfortable viewing not because he was prodding a raw nerve that required treatment, but because he was so intrusive in his desire to get people to admit their discomfort with strangers. Even the BNP member told the director to lay off the race card. Although it was clear enough that the world had come to Barking in many shapes and guises, the film was unable to offer insights into the why this is happening and how it is that so many other kinds of people are displaced and disoriented too.

There was no mention of the fate of the Dagenham Ford plant over the past decades, which would have furnished a precise anthropological example of the grinding effects of global restructuring. This was entirely consistent with the breathtaking absence during the whole week of any analysis that explored why the areas in question had been transformed. There was no attempt to look at the destruction of the trade union movement under Thatcher or examine the dismantling of whole sectors and regional industries that once gave the ‘working’ class a coherence and sense of solidarity. This focus on the ‘British working class public’ was trained exclusively on England, pathologically turning inward to avoid any engagement with the wider world.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the White season is far from over. Indeed it may have barely begun. The proliferation of discussion on polls and phone-ins, message boards and forums, all indicate that it is becoming acceptable to vent racist views in public without achieving any kind of dialogue. Terms like ‘indigenous’ are used by politicians and journalists alike, employing a new ‘common sense’ jargon that recalls Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ rhetoric of the 1970s. And now London faces the prospect of Boris Johnson as mayor, a man who uttered the Powellite word ‘picanninies’ in public speech and very few seem to mind.

While Enoch’s shadow falls over this blood-letting incited by BBC2’s calculated populism, the silent partner is undoubtedly the BNP. One of the strongest images of the whole season was a young man in Yorkshire sitting under a union jack flag with a swastika drawn in the middle. Strangely it seems to have passed without comment, as much of the so-called debate has centred on the older generations. The far right’s agenda is to direct these powerful feelings of injury and victimhood into a stream of nationalist consciousness that has long been fearful of foreigners and quick to embrace racist explanations in response to perceptions of ‘unfairness’. The BBC2 commissioners have successfully ventriloquised this xenophobia without throwing any light on the fears and frustrations that they had identified as their brief. Whatever their intentions, their patronising attempts to give voice to a marginalised class have fuelled an atavistic white racism that will not serve young British people well in their future dealings with planet earth.

Our Kingdom

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