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Race, Class and the Myth of Postracial Britain
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Racism has no place in our society, we are told. In fact, its role is crucial but today public debate on race in Britain is constrained by a facile post-racialism. Its features are colourblind narratives, an ‘anti-antiracist’ discourse and erasure of black working class identities.

This book examines and challenges the marginalisation of critical race analysis in debates on social justice. It reconceptualises Critical Race Theory from a British standpoint, foregrounding the concept of ‘permanent racism’ and its importance in understanding race as a fully social relationship.

Highlighting the need to decolonise public debate and antiracism itself, the book provides an essential resource for academics, students and activists who wish to decolonise public debates on racism, social class, education and social policy.

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Chapter 1’s Introduction comprises an overview of contradictions between colour-coded racism and the contemporary postracial turn in Britain. This Introduction explains why this book takes Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell’s ‘racial realism’ as the starting point for critiquing Britain’s postracialism. Bell’s anti-utopian critique of liberal race equality saw struggles for racial justice embedded in a permanent cycle of progress and regression: a cycle that would not be readily relinquished. Subsequent CRT analyses have argued that one of the most effective ways of maintaining racism as a means of structuring power is through colourblind, postracial discourses and policies that allow the simultaneous disavowal of crude racism and the rearticulation of racism in more subtle forms.

This chapter discusses Britain’s attachment to facile models of postracialism and the dominant desire for the phenomenological disappearance of problems of race and racism. These have produced a contemporary state postracialism: a kind of ‘really existing postracialism’, in which ‘anything but racism’ explanations of social inequality dominate, and in which Britain’s non-racist self-image is a cover for minimising the lived experiences of communities of colour. The chapter argues that analyses of postracialism in Britain should draw upon lessons from Black Atlantic scholarship, including CRT.

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Chapter 2 asks what it means to be ‘critical’ about ‘race’. The chapter begins by exploring social theories of race and racism, examining the ways in which theorists have understood both the origins of modern ideas about race and the social reproduction of race thinking and practice. In particular, Chapter 2 unpacks the social construct thesis by considering race not only as being socially constructed, but as a fully social relationship (one that is internal to the history of modernity) and as a tool of cultural mediation.

The second half of Chapter 2 discusses leading edge approaches in contemporary critical race studies. These include CRT but also critical social theory as applied to race; race critical theory; analyses of racial capitalism; and Afropessimism. By locating CRT within wider Black Atlantic thought, this chapter argues that CRT’s insistence on the centrality of racism does not only derive from its analysis of US civil rights struggles but from a transnational body of scholarship that has understood that racism is not a decorative feature of society and that, though it is in one sense ‘unreal’, it is never merely illusory or subjective.

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Chapter 3 explores the concept of ‘permanent racism’ by returning to the work of Derrick Bell, founder of Critical Race Theory. His idea of the permanence of racism is troubling, at odds with Britain’s contemporary postracial turn. CRT’s defining quality is its stark rejection of liberal models of race equality. This chapter traces CRT’s emergence from US critical legal studies, and its revisionist critique of civil rights policy. Examining these origins enables effective understanding of CRT concepts such as ‘interest convergence’, ‘contradiction closure’, ‘colourblindness’ and the critically important stabilising role of racism. Chapter 3 also discusses Bell’s satire ‘The Space Traders’, which narrativises Bell’s social analysis. Bell’s ideas are compared with those of US peers, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and also with British scholars such as Stuart Hall and Mark Fisher, whose ideas about capitalist realism have under-discussed parallels with Bell’s ‘racial realism’. Chapter 3 traces CRT’s development across fields, through offshoots such as LatCrit and QueerCrit, and its international influence: in particular its growth in Britain, which has been contested but has been important in contemporary Black and antiracist thought. This chapter establishes CRT as a framework for examining Britain’s postracial turn.

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What does it mean to describe a society as postracial? The term ‘postracial’ is problematic because it has been used to denote differing worldviews. For some, postracial thinking requires a revolutionary shift, bringing radical incoherence to the narratives of modernity. For others, a postracial world implies, more modestly, a postracist world: a world in which racial inequalities have been removed. However, there is another putative postracialism that rests upon the claim that we have moved into a new phase in British society, wherein Britain’s approach to race equality stands as a model for the world. This facile state postracialism is shaped by an atavistic mistrust of antiracism and by a desire for ‘contradiction closure’: a conclusive end to recognition of problems of race and racism. Its ideology holds that racism has lost social salience and that consequently race is no longer a useful lens through which to understand social inequalities. This chapter examines recent UK policy and political rhetoric, marked by a drive to eliminate concepts of structural and institutional racism and by colourblind, ‘anything but racism’ accounts of why racial inequalities persist.

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Facile postracialism requires a parallel discourse that is aggressively antagonistic to antiracist movements: a kind of ‘contra-’ antiracism. Postracialism and contra-antiracism are symbiotic because if racism is supposed to have declined in social salience, then those who continue to campaign for racial justice must be treated with suspicion, as divisive voices, even as ‘reverse racists’. The ‘contra-’ position aims to delegitimise antiracism, not merely through a hopeful ‘moving on’ narrative but through a discourse of derision and, more seriously, through the machinery of the state. This ‘contra-’ discourse depicts antiracism not just as anachronistic but as actively dangerous and against fundamental British values and culture. Chapter 5 examines the ways in which, in 21st-century Britain, overtly racist and nationalistic discourses of past decades have been rearticulated in modes that are less directly racist but which aim instead to discredit belief in racial justice. In particular, this chapter focuses on the shift between pre- and post-George Floyd antagonisms. After summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, critics of antiracism and multiculturalism ‘gone-too-far’ sought new discursive spaces, urging moral panics against, for instance Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory and the Colston statue protests.

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Up until the 1980s there was still a fraction in Britain clinging to the fancy that communities of colour could literally be erased from British society. Today those dreams have been replaced by discursive erasure, comprising facile postracialism, colourblind policy approaches and virulent antagonism to antiracist voices. Another powerful dimension is the disqualification of the Black and Brown working class. Since the 2000s there has been relentless policy and media focus on Britain’s (and specifically England’s) ‘White working class’. What has this racialised reimagining of working-class identity meant for those in Black and Brown working-class communities who, in policy and public debate, have been positioned outside Britain’s class matrix. This chapter examines the discursive repositioning of Black and Brown working-class communities: not only as outside of working-class identity, but often as the cause of White working-class loss, as a legitimate grievance. It explores the persistence of neo-Powellism in debates on race, class and migration in Britain; post-industrial rearticulations of race and class; the transatlantic emergence of the discourse of the ‘left behind’; and the ‘social death’ implicit in disqualification from class identity.

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Chapter 7 concludes the book’s examination of ‘postracial’ rearticulations of race and class in Britain. It argues that, as an analytical framework, Critical Race Theory’s emphasis on racial realism contains both pragmatic and idealistic elements. CRT is often unwelcome in public debate precisely because it reveals that state postracialism does not resist racism but instead maintains racism at manageable levels. As such, state postracialism – a facile, conservative postracialism – has a critically important stabilising role and seeks to become permanent, to secure dominance. The delegitimisation of radical antiracism that parallels facile postracialism also seeks to be a permanent political feature. As such Britain’s culture wars, which have given discursive space to colourblindness, to ‘contra-’ antiracism and to the elimination of Black and Brown communities from Britain’s class matrix, should be recognised as a deadly serious political project to build and sustain conservative hegemony. New strains of Black Atlantic thought may offer spaces for an authentic and radical postracialism but, at present, we remain closer to the social world recognised by Bell and his CRT peers.

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