The conversations on racism that are rising to the surface
My talk from the online Stand Up To Racism event at the Labour Party online Conference fringe 2020
I am honoured to be on this platform representing the 'Jewish Socialists’ Group', and also as a grassroots Labour Party member. I am very fortunate that my MP is an outstanding fighter against all forms of racism and bigotry, in our constituency, across the country, and internationally: his name is Jeremy Corbyn. But I worry that, while the issues around racism have become sharper since he is no longer leader, the party has become more distant from the movements on the ground, especially 'Black Lives Matter!' and movements actively supporting asylum seekers.
In the 'Jewish Socialists’ Group' we are proud of our international links. After George Floyd was murdered and we were preparing a statement, we listened to what our sister organisations in America were saying. We incorporated the powerful words of the 'Boston Jewish Workers’ Circle' within it.
They said “We are full of grief and outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and all black lives lost to police brutality and white supremacy. As a multi-racial Jewish community committed to racial justice and a better world for all, we mourn together, we protest together, and we recommit ourselves to work together for racial justice within ourselves, our communities, and our country.”
When people here saw what happened in America, they wanted to show solidarity. But the strength of feeling shown in gatherings and protests across the whole country testified to the depth of daily racism, institutional racism, and state racism experienced by Black people and other minorities here.
Our media much prefer to focus on random hate crimes against various targets than expose systemic state racism. But the ;'Black Lives Matter!' movement has started to re-balance and re-politicise discussion about racism in our country. We need to fight both against systemic daily racism, and hate crimes against Jews, Muslims and LGBT people.
When slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol was dumped in the River Avon, it made a splash well beyond Bristol. As he sank to the bottom, what rose to the surface was a long overdue conversation about statues that grace (or rather disgrace) our towns and cities, that reinforce a dominant class and race history of oppression. And this has prompted a further conversation about decolonising our schools, our institutions, our public spaces.
Should statues be replaced? I can think of several exceptional individuals from working-class and marginalised communities who should be memorialised. But I still react instinctively against monuments that invite us to look up to what Maya Angelou describes as “our heroes and she-roes.” I prefer monuments to collective struggle such as the Cable Street mural, the International Brigades statue, or the mural close to where the Grunwick factory stood, where Jayaben Desai led a courageous battle by female Asian workers in the late 1970s against super-exploitative employers.
So where are we today? Still in the middle of the COVID Crisis. I have hope, but not necessarily faith, that we will emerge from it. But it will be straight into a huge economic recession. Racists and fascists are already rehearsing arguments to blame immigrants, refugees, Muslims and other groups they define as not fully English, for that crisis. That blame culture will produce increasing violence against minorities. We must be part of the resistance.
The fascists cannot credibly blame other poor people for running the economic and political system. So they revive conspiracy theories against wealthy figures, who happen to be Jewish, like Rothschilds, Goldman Sachs, and George Soros. These arguments are finding a new audience among the thousands of COVID deniers/anti-Vaxxers who hang on the words of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists such as David Icke.
The threat of new fascist forces emerging must be taken seriously. One of our challenges is to integrate struggles against state racism and institutional racism with anti-fascist politics, and with the fight for jobs and public services. Ironically Donald Trump understands this. When he described 'Black Lives Matter!' protesters in America as “looters, thugs, Radical Left… Lowlife & Scum”, he specifically name-checked Antifa.
The current positioning of the Labour Party on racism and fascism worries me deeply. The MPs on this platform always make strong statements, but not the party leaders. In the last five years we knew that Labour was on the side of victims of racism, on the side of refugees, of victims of the Hostile Environment. What we see now from the top is equivocation and a renewed obsession with patriotism.
As a Jewish Labour member I am really angry that the debate within Labour around anti-semitism became so overlaid with factional agendas that the Party has failed to articulate the most obvious points:
that anti-semitism in British society is growing alongside other racism and bigotries;
that it has increased year on year on the watch of the the party of the Hostile Environment – the Tory Party;
that it is growing alongside Islamophobia, especially in countries with extreme right-wing governments such as Poland, Hungary, and the US, with which the Tories are very friendly.
I want to finish by bringing us back to tackling racism in the COVID era. Ironically the new realities and restrictions imposed have made our movement do something that we badly needed to do – that is to resist the urge to keep having symbolic action mainly in city centres and really focus instead on the local, working at building inclusive alliances to cement anti-racist and anti-fascist majorities in our neighbourhoods, in our localities. In the long run that will turn us into a much more powerful vehicle for change.
This article first appeared on David Rosenberg's blog. Reproduced with permission