When the Black Lives Matter movement gained further worldwide attention and support during the international George Floyd protests in 2020, conversations that ethnic minorities had been having about racism for years had just begun on a globally collective scale. And there were mixed feelings about what change this would bring to racist attitudes in the West and if it would even bring a change at all. But we were all hopeful that a revolution was brewing.
Two years on, and despite employers making diversity and inclusion a priority in the workplace, big brands brushing up on their visual representation, and everyone suddenly becoming social media activists, racism is only on the rise. According to Stop Hate UK, racially motivated Hate Crimes are the highest reported type of Hate Crime in the UK. The Home Office recorded a total of 85,268 racially aggravated offences in 2020/2021 – up 12% on the 76,158 in 2019/2020. According to Victim Support, race and nationality Hate Crimes rose by a shocking 73% in 2021.
Why is racism still so prevalent in our society, despite the widespread recognition of its wrongs?
Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee argue that this is no accident. In their new book, Race to the Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism, they refute the myth that racism can be eradicated by those at the top and that, in actual fact, the prevailing forces behind capitalism have long attacked progressive movements and hindered social change. But most importantly, they demonstrate the power of grassroots anti-racism and how organising from below is the answer.
On the evening of Monday 27th June, Partisan Collective in Salford, alongside STRIKE MCR! and The Northern Police Monitoring Project, hosted a book launch in an intimate setting with the authors. Zara from NPMP excellently facilitated the discussion, diving into urgent issues and pulling out fresh, comprehensive solutions from the writers, as did the audience during the closing Q&A session; I’ve put together a few of the key points from the discussion.
From left to right: Zara (NPMP), Ilyas Nagdee, Azfar Shafi. Copyright: Speaker Newspaper.
As radical grassroots Black community leaders are removed from the community and placed into formal positions of representation, what do we need to say to people who think that’s a win?
“The first step is to be more independent in organising; that means independency from funding and dependency in terms of political patronism,” answers Azfar.
“Our organisations and politics shouldn’t be dependent on having a good councillor in position, it shouldn’t be dependent on having one of ‘our own’ in a councillor position, and it shouldn’t be dependent on grant funding necessarily. In a democratic fashion, I think often we kind of skip over the question of what anti-racism politics looks like nowadays, what is presented in true anti-racism where people who have experienced racism, and are also endowed with the ability to speak on racism as experts. And experiences are important but this embeds experience within a sort of political framework…if you don’t understand how racism comes about in a structural sense and in a political sense, then I don’t think you can really speak on racism or anti-racism.”
How have we found over time that NGOs have led themselves to disarming movements over the years, that you’ve looked at in the book?
“NGOs emerged in the period where we saw the decline of social movements and the vacating of social movements space by trade unions and others, and it has meant even over the last few years, increasingly, the only way that people can look at the political horizon and imagine things getting less worse is through a combination of NGO-led insider advocacy, judicial reviews, a massive over-reliance on the courts, and increasingly more and more people having, as part of their political strategy conversations and lobbying, unelected members of the House of Lords,” Ilyas explains.
“This is a completely unsustainable mechanism for social transformation. And that’s indeed part of the point; we’re trapped in a vicious cycle.”
Social Media Activism
How has social media supported the growth of the movement? And how can we use it as a tool that isn’t performative?
“Indeed, over the last 12 to 24 months, we’ve seen the way in which policing has been brought forth to people’s eyes, through video capturing and the way in which anti-raids mobilisation and stopping immigration officers coming and taking our neighbours has happened at the incident of a click of a tweet and people attending,” says Ilyas. “But we also challenge some of the truth, or the supposed truths, that have been spread around social media.”
Ilyas went on to read out an extract from his and Azfar’s new book to expand on this point, which I thought was important to capture. Many of us use social media as our main tool (if not our sole tool) in the fight against racism, and this extract is a good starting point for us to utilise it more effectively by understanding how we can sometimes cause more harm than good and therefore becoming more mindful of how we use it:
“Over the past decade, much has been written about the supposed ability of social media to democratise movements, giving the public equal opportunity to partake in strategizing, and of course, to coordinate demonstrations at lightning speed. And yet the much-vaunted claim of social media being able to generate solidarity and activist basis has proved tenuous at best. While social media has done wonders to bridge geographical divides, it has done little to narrow the social gulfs opened up over the past few decades. As a medium of collective organising it has more often than not served to reproduce the very social alienation it purports to heal by concentrating the hostility and caprices of wider society.
“In terms of anti-racist organising, one of the things social media has done is shifted the focus of attention towards endless battles with opportunists and bad take mongers online, whilst producing an imagined proximity to meaningful struggle. The online sphere thrives on the fire and light of Twitter storms, pile-ons and condemnatory communications but allows little space for the slow burn process of building solidarity.
“…social media has enabled a culture of mutual surveillance whereby solidarity in particular is seemingly coerced rather than cultivated. This reaches its absurd heights with the surveillance of one another’s silence – has a prominent user condemned the latest outrage or should that silence be read as complicity? And when it comes to the issue of unpleasant historic posts being unearthed, the cycle runs anew – has the user issued an apology? Is the apology sufficiently sincere? And so forth.
“In order to disrupt organising, today’s spy cops need not don a uniform and infiltrate community centres, they need only make a Twitter account. Through this dynamic solidarity has come to be treated more as a transactional commodity to be exchanged rather than a transformative relationship to build collective strength. And at its most grim social media becomes an arbiter of worth being used to determine whose struggles deserve support and whether someone by virtue of their ethnic or social group has or has not earned the right to solidarity for all of its promise, and perhaps also, partial success of creating online communities today, in which to develop bonds of togetherness, social media does not so much help overcome the atomisation and alienation of our times as it does traffic within it. There’s a pressing need to replace solidari-tweets with solidarity.”
Although I have not yet read Race to the Bottom myself, I left the discussion feeling re-energised and therefore confident that this book is for the activists who have grown disillusioned with the power structure. It’s a great starting point for anti-racism organisers to grasp the history of their own country, as well as the basis for a clear and coherent fight back against destructive neoliberalism, brutality and domination.
The days of seeking outside support for our movements are behind us. Our communities should have their own institutions, organisations and resources that speak directly to the issues affecting us. We no longer need to rely on powers outside of our community to aid in this fight. As we speak out against the violence done by police, as we fight against gentrification, as we demand housing and jobs, as we support small business owners, and as we establish new cultural centres within our communities, the authors argue that we will do so primarily with fellow community members.
At a time in which the fight for real racial justice is too often ceded to the market – with calls for charity donations, ‘facilitated discussions’ and feel-good initiatives, Race to the Bottom might seem at first like a book of ideas from another era. But this reclamation of the spirit of struggle should be required reading in a period that offers new possibilities as well as new challenges. It’s a book that will help us think through how we might remake our movements.
Race to the Bottom is vital for any activist who is serious about building a political movement capable of ending the social injustice that stalks our society. The alternative is to keep accepting scraps from the tables of those in power, or worse – to become collaborators with the oppressive systems we are told to accept. The case made by the authors is not just about history, it’s about our future and the struggles ahead of us.
You can buy a copy of Race to The Bottom: Reclaiming Antiracism by Azfar Shafi and Ilyas Nagdee from Pluto Press: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745344676/race-to-the-bottom/
About Hate Crime: Racism in the UK – Stop Hate UK: https://www.stophateuk.org/about-hate-crime/racism-in-the-uk/