IIs a mass-produced jerk chicken burger a symbol of cultural appropriation or a celebration of British multiculturalism? This is an old debate that resurfaces periodically and that’s how it was a couple of weeks ago when McDonald’s launched its latest festive offering.
In this case, a story that was echoed by much of the tabloid press was built on some random comments criticizing McDonald’s on social media; it was journalists who built and amplified this narrative. But occasionally others who should know better are drawn in, like the MP who got into a fight with Jamie Oliver over their jerk rice.
I’ve long thought that reducing debates about racism to frivolous questions about fast food burgers and supermarket curry kits is detrimental to the anti-racist cause. But new investigation on public attitudes towards racism by Runnymede Trust and Voice4Change England helps us understand why.
The study is much better at avoiding mass polls as the primary way to understand how the public thinks about race. Instead, the researchers conducted two hour-long conversations with 60 people from various backgrounds. What emerges is good news and bad news for those of us who care deeply about ending racism. The good news is that the weight of public thought is that racism matters, that it is something to be learned and that education has an important role to play; Furthermore, that racism is part of our national history.
The least good news is that some people buy into the idea that racism is “natural,” that we all have an affinity for people who are more like us. There is a lack of understanding about the nature of structural racism; Public thought gravitates toward the idea that racism is about individual actions and responsibilities. There is a strong sense that there is no going back and that things will inevitably get better with time.
Yet in the 20 years since the Macpherson report, blacks have gone from five to nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites. And there is a zero-sum line of thinking: the concern that addressing racial profiling will inevitably mean that majority groups drop things off.
Importantly, the researchers found that people have beliefs that would be considered warm and hostile to anti-racist campaigns: Someone may believe that racism is ingrained in human nature and will never change, but that we are progressing as a society, or that it is important that we all do something about racism and, at the same time, worry about the consequences for themselves.
The populist right is very good at activating the most hostile currents of thought by stoking this idea that if a minority benefits, the majority must lose. When Conservative MP Ben Bradley calls the education of working-class white children a Taboo subject”He implies that white working-class children have been unfairly ignored by people more interested in advancing the interests of minority children; whether they were Asian or black children, “heads would roll”He says (the lack of accountability for institutional racism at the Met suggests they wouldn’t).
By turning this into a conflict between white and non-white children, you conveniently hide the role of the class. Far from being taboo, the class achievement gap for poor children, the vast majority of whom are white, was one of the key drivers of labor education policy, which by any objective measure was far better than what followed, including conservative chancellors who cut thousands of pounds a year in tax credits from parents with low-paying jobs and conservative education reforms that have done little to address the fact that working-class children remain they are much less likely to attend a good quality school.
The intellectual underpinnings for this zero-sum thinking lie in the notions of “white identity” by scholars like Eric Kaufmann. Kaufmann argues that the rise of right-wing populism is primarily the product of opposition by white communities to increasing racial diversity. Attacks the notion that structural racism exists at all and encourages politicians to promote the need to maintain “white culture.”
But this is taking an overly simplistic and condescending view of the way white working-class communities think about race. It cannot account for all the historical examples in which a predominantly white labor movement built solidarity and common cause with campaigns for equality.
Runnymede’s research shows that there are currents of public thought that the right can activate to achieve its divisive ends. But there are also positive ways of thinking about race that anti-racist activists can connect with and build on, sometimes in the same person and certainly within the same community. In particular, anti-racist activists must find ways to explain the often counterintuitive idea that racism is not just about individuals but about systems. “We need to communicate to people that racism is something that is designed in our system, which means that we can design something better,” says Sanjiv Lingayah, lead author of the research.
But there are also pitfalls. Certain ideas run the risk of playing on the damaging idea that the interests of the white majority and minorities are directly in conflict, which anti-racist activists must challenge. Cultural appropriation often fits into that category, as do terms like “white privilege” and “white frailty.” Yes, there is a general structural advantage to being white compared to not being white, but no, it does not create solidarity to imply that if you are white, you are automatically “privileged.” Yes, the men who went to Eton may have to let go of the levers of power, but frankly, that would be good for the rest of us.
This research takes us away from static and reductionist accounts of public attitudes toward race. It shows that while there are aspects of public thought that anti-racists must challenge, there are also many positive things to work with. But being carried away by the temptation to give the impression that this is a struggle between “them” and “us” is only to serve the agenda of the populist right.
• Sonia Sodha is the Observer’s lead writer and columnist
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.