What is ‘Institutional Racism’?5 min read

Graphics: Kristina Völk

-James Billot-

In the past two weeks, Britain’s two major parties have been accused of institutional racism by its members, current and former.

Earlier this month, a former Tory minister accused the Conservative Party of ‘institutional Islamophobia’ while Britain’s human rights watchdog said last week that it is formally investigating anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

To label a party ‘institutionally’ racist as opposed to plain racist is neither academic nor a question of semantics. It delves far deeper. There is a finality attached to the term ‘institutionalised;’ a suggestion that the cancer is so metastasised that it cannot be cured. Such allegations should be treated with sensitivity, as well as caution.

Institutional discrimination does not take the same form today as it did in previous centuries. It will not be found in the statute books or in a constitution that says that one human being is legally equivalent to three-fifths of another. By the same token, people searching for a ‘No Jews allowed’ sign hanging off the door of the Labour Party headquarters are likely the same people expecting another Hitler or Stalin to emerge out of the populist rubble in 2019. For every generation, evil wears a new mask and while the era of legal discrimination is over, other forms are not.

Baroness Warsi, a former chairwoman of the Conservative Party, has tirelessly tried to draw her party’s attention to Islamophobia in their ranks. Recently, Facebook users who were part of a group called ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg: Supporters’ Group’ were suspended from the Party for commenting that all Muslims should be ‘turfed out’ of public office and that the Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who is of Pakistani descent, was a ‘Trojan horse.’

In previous years, Baroness Warsi has suggested that Islamophobia passes the ‘dinner table test’ where prejudiced comments against Muslims are deemed permissible.

Consider George Orwell in 1949:

In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend anti-Semitism.”

Indeed societal attitudes have evolved, but who can truthfully say they would have the moral courage to defend against Islamophobia at dinner if it was, as it is so often cloaked, in jest?

Dog days aren’t over

Historically, prejudiced views that were once de rigueur become, over time, taboo. In the US, when African-Americans were enfranchised in 1964-5, bare-faced racism gradually became politically unacceptable. So Bob Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, used racially coded language, known as dog whistling, to attract support from the South during the campaign. Instead of segregation, the campaign focused on states’ rights and law and order. As Haldeman later said: “The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

In the 2016 London mayoral election, Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith devised a similar system against his opponent, the current Mayor Sadiq Khan. During his campaign, Goldsmith inferred that a Muslim mayor would not be equipped to handle Islamic terrorism in the capital. He was lampooned by not only Labour, but members of his own party, including Baroness Warsi. Then in some perverse mea culpa, Goldsmith shifted his Islamophobic dog whistling to anti-Semitic dog-whistling, by linking Khan to his predecessor Ken Livingstone.

The extent to which anti-Semitism passes the dinner table test depends on whose dinner you attend. As Ben Judah writes, anti-Semitism is ‘like the flu: uncomfortable, sickly, occasionally deadly, but constantly with us’ and inside the Labour Party, it has reared its ugly head. In the space of 10 months (April 2018-February 2019), Labour has received 673 anti-Semitism complaints about acts of anti-Semitism by its members, resulting in 96 suspensions and 12 expulsions.

In a party of around 500,000 members, supporters of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn protest that 673 complaints, equivalent to roughly 0.8% of the membership, does not amount to ‘institutional racism.’ They also argue that MPs like Luciana Berger suffered anti-Semitism at the hands of right-wing extremists, not Labour members (three out of the four people jailed for abusing Ms Berger were from the far right). They are right, broadly, on both counts.

But where the cognitive dissonance arises among the Corbynites is that the handling of these 673 complaints (and others) has been astonishingly inept. Imagine if this figure was 6,073, or more? If Corbyn is sincere about his desire to keep Labour a ‘broad church,’ he must cure his Party of this deleterious flu.

A new meaning

The term ‘institutional racism’ arrived on Britain’s doorstep in the aftermath of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993. A subsequent inquiry into Lawrence’s death, the Macpherson report found that the teenager was murdered because he was black and that this affected the police’s handling of the case too. In determining that the Met (Metropolitan Police Service) was ‘institutionally racist,’ Macpherson gave the term a new meaning for the 21st century (underlined for emphasis):

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The reality is that the Labour Party and the Conservative Party have both collectively failed to address the discrimination in their own parties. Jeremy Corbyn’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in his party has been, at best, equivocal and, at worst, obstinate. On the Conservative side, Theresa May has been silent. Against the backdrop of a 40 per cent rise in hate crimes between 2016-2017 to 2017-2018 (the number of offences targeted at Muslims or Jews was far greater than their respective proportions in the UK), the leadership of both parties has wholly failed these communities.

Edmund Burke, the Irish statesman widely regarded to be the founder of modern conservatism, once wrote that institutions were built ‘on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age, and account of those from whom they are descended.’ In other words, we rely on our institutions for the generations of accumulated experience they provide. They are in place to curb man’s worst excesses and the chaos of the day, whether it be the French Revolution in 1789 or Brexit today. If the Labour and Conservative parties can weather the chaos of Brexit and withstand the immeasurable shortcomings of its leaders; their focus must turn to restoring the trust of communities they have now lost. Shorn of nine and three MPs already, this will be no small feat.

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