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How Social Justice Killed Anti-Racism

· 11 min read
How Social Justice Killed Anti-Racism
A New Black Panther Party member near the state Capitol on January 18, 2021 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

One of the early signs of trouble for the British anti-racism movement was a tweet sent by Lee Jasper in April 2013, in which he declared that black people are incapable of being racist, and offered to publicly debate anybody who disagreed. I offered to debate him, as did a number of others. I even suggested a venue: the University College London Union (UCLU), where I’d recently taken part in a debate on censorship. My offer was not taken up, and as far as I know the debate never took place.

Jasper, a British-born man of mixed African, Caribbean, and Irish origins, was one of the louder characters in the London anti-racism movement of the 1980s, which sought to oppose the racist far-Right. But he was always intensely ambitious, and skilled at using race issues as a means of self-promotion. In this respect, he was well ahead of the curve, importing Al Sharpton's brand of American race-hustling into the UK long before it became more generally fashionable.

By the 1990s, although the far-Right threat had clearly receded, the British Left (in the face of a working class stubbornly uninterested in class struggle) was switching its attention to the politics of identity. This was especially true in London and Jasper started to pop up on late-night TV chat shows. In my own social circles, which were mostly made up of people of West Indian origin, “black activists” were generally not taken too seriously. But in left-wing political circles, people like Jasper became flavour of the month. Here was a provocative spokesman of an oppressed underclass, and surely the Left—increasingly dominated by white and affluent people—needed people like him in order to stay relevant.

Lee Jasper / YouTube

On the subject of racism, the British Left had long been guilty of threat inflation. While racism was certainly widespread in the wake of waves of mass immigration—especially towards the Jamaicans and Trinidadians who arrived in the 1950s and ’60s, and Asians fleeing east African nationalism in the 1970s—Britain had never remotely resembled the United States in this regard. Britain had never been segregated, and had never been home to slaves in significant numbers. There was never a British civil rights movement, because there were no racial laws to overturn. Furthermore, the collapse of the British far-Right was largely the result of cultural movements, rather than politics. The two powerful forces that united black and white people in Britain’s urban centres were music and football. The Left is fond of recalling individual racist horrors—the murders of Kelso Cochrane in 1959 and of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 in particular. But these events were notable primarily for their rarity, as well as the enormous waves of revulsion and shame that swept through British society in their wake.

The awakening identitarian Left in the 1990s needed racism to feed its narratives, and if it had previously been guilty of exaggeration, now it turned the dial to 11. The importation of racist black nationalism from America in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder helped to undermine the unity of the anti-racism movement as a force for solidarity and cohesion. In order to build its new narrative, the Left began to ignore the British success story of racial integration. In a handful of decades, Britain had been more successful in creating a mixed-race culture than the United States had in four centuries, but this story did not fit the American racial ideology, which demanded that black people be regarded exclusively as victims.

As the political tide turned dramatically towards Labour—nationally in 1997, and in London with the election of the left-winger Ken Livingstone as Mayor in 2000—Lee Jasper’s years of positioning himself as a race and human rights activist began to pay off. In 2004, he was appointed as Livingstone’s Director for Policing and Equalities. An appearance at the mayor’s anti-racist Respect festival helped underline just how far left-wing authorities had drifted from London’s racially diverse communities. Jasper was there on Livingstone’s behalf to welcome festival-goers in a faux British-Jamaican accent (“W’happen mi bredren and sistren?”). The audience, composed largely of teenage Somalis who had turned up to see the Somali-Canadian artist K’naan, looked on in bemusement.

Jasper had an instinctive knack for the grievance business. If the London-centric Labour authorities were searching for angry black men, then he was happy to be the angriest and blackest of them all. But since its earliest days fighting fascism in the 1930s, the British anti-racism movement had always understood racism to be hatred towards any person based on their race, colour, nationality, or ethnicity. In order to prosper within that hierarchy, people like Jasper had to toe that line for a while. If Pakistanis, Jews, Poles, or Chinese people were the chief targets of racial hostility, then it was his job to stand up for them too. Which is why his tweet declaring black people to be exceptions to the rules signalled a departure, and an early warning that the anti-racist politics of the British Left was about to take a sharp change of direction.

We now know that Jasper’s tweet was sent just as a portal to Hell opened—America’s racialised identity politics was about to hit critical mass and go global and a tsunami of racism followed.

Like many Londoners who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was used to existing in a white-minority environment, and I had long been aware that black people were no less racist than any other demographic. But racism against whites, Asians, and Jews had always been spoken softly, out of the earshot of most British people. It was not a serious problem, but something that existed in the background. The British anti-racism movement had certainly never pretended that one form of racism was worse than another: racism in any form was, ipso facto, corrosive to communities and opposed on that basis. It just seemed self-evident that hatred from one group would provoke a rise in hatred on the other side. So, British activism was focussed on creating opportunities for greater community cohesion and integration. The most famous upshot was the Notting Hill Carnival, an event founded following the 1959 race riots and intended to bring West London’s divided black and white communities together around a celebration of Trinidadian culture.

Most people—black or white—were unaware of ethno-nationalism in the black British community, which was far less marked than in the United States. In the new century, some commentators did begin to discuss the problem openly. For example, in 2004, the outspoken British-Trinidadian activist and commentator Darcus Howe wrote about racism towards Somali immigrants within black communities. Similarly, there have long been tensions between some black and Asian communities. But, generally, those in the political and journalistic classes were either unaware of such issues or reluctant to broach them in public. So, although people raised in parts of London with large black populations, or those in mixed relationships, experienced such bigotry first-hand, the problem was seldom acknowledged.

This all changed post-2010 for at least three reasons. First, the meteoric rise of Facebook and Twitter provided people with an unprecedented ability to share their unfiltered thoughts out loud. Second, the new “antiracist” ideology (I will refer to American antiracism without a hyphen to distinguish it from the universalist British kind) made this racism acceptable, because (as Lee Jasper’s tweet indicated) it wasn’t seen as racism at all. Third, white people on the Left, many of whom rarely socialised with non-whites in real life, provided cover for this development by explaining to other whites that all this new hostility was justified by societal inequity, white privilege, and the colonial crimes of their ancestors. This precipitated a profound fracture in British culture: a belief that bigotry could never be acceptable was replaced with a new idea that, yes, sometimes it could be. Suddenly, racism was everywhere and antiracists refused to condemn it.

An antiracist protestor in Brooklyn, 2020. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Many black people were appalled and embarrassed by the newly exposed mentality, which did not just target whites but also Indians, Chinese people, and Jews. At least three friends recounted how they had tried to oppose the anti-white sentiment they encountered in black-only forums. But each of them was viciously attacked, labelled an Uncle Tom, a race traitor, an Oreo, or a coconut, and retreated rapidly. The resistance died quickly: under the new ideologies, racism was now not only acceptable but also laudable. New terms bubbled up: anti-racism was replaced by pro-blackness. Among progressives, this was widely deemed to be a good thing, but it was just ethno-nationalism. Black love was also promoted to applause from white progressives and liberals, but this was simply an expression of hostility towards mixed relationships. The question “Is it pro-black to marry a white person?” became the subject of countless videos, articles, and threads. Few of us in 2010 predicted that open opposition to miscegenation was about to mount a comeback, or that it would be tolerated by people calling themselves antiracist. And now that racism had been made socially acceptable, it proliferated.

Countless stories suddenly emerged of white people being attacked for having the wrong hairstyle, wearing the wrong clothes, or cooking the wrong food. I had heard about such things from time to time before 2010, but now it was white people on the Left and in the liberal media who were policing and justifying these new norms and standards.

The birth of the American Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, and its arrival in the UK following the death of Eric Garner in 2015, made all of this an order of magnitude worse. The BLM movement, which openly espoused black nationalism, was cleverly branded in a way that made universalist opposition to racism effectively impossible. Because racism by black people was now memory-holed the moment it happened, it was allowed to spread unresisted. Occasionally, incidents were reported—for example, in 2017, there was a nasty verbal attack on a mixed couple eating in a black restaurant, in which the aggressor referred to whites as inferior beings. But even when media outlets covered such things, social media largely did not. To even talk about this kind of racism came to be seen as anti-black rather than anti-racist. One of the telling things about this particular video was that it was recorded and shared by the perpetrator, which suggested a belief that he had the moral high ground. Such was the effect of the narrative shift towards pro-blackness.

I saw and personally experienced this kind of behaviour on numerous occasions. I was able to stand my ground better than others, because I had long experience as an anti-racism activist, and little fear of being attacked for my white privilege. But it turned out that my previous activism, my mixed family, and my Jewish origins afforded me no protection—instead, they were used against me. I eventually ended my participation in black political and music forums (especially hip-hop ones) because they became hotbeds of black nationalism, riddled with anti-white and anti-Jewish sentiment. White participants were required to acknowledge their responsibility for racism and declare themselves subordinate “allies” rather than equals. Racial equality was no longer considered a valid objective: the Left now demanded equity. Many others suffered worse abuse than I did. In response to the new identity politics, a white British rapper named Alex Dutty created a powerfully emotive video with a universalist, anti-racist message. But he provocatively (and unwisely, in hindsight) named it “Proud to Be White.” He was viciously attacked by other rappers and music journalists (most of whom had presumably not watched the video), and cancelled by the UK hip-hop community.

In the past few years, black nationalism has surged in popularity, protected by the shield of Black Lives Matter and ignored or played down by a liberal press anxious not to find itself on the wrong side of the racism debate. Violent (and sometimes deadly) antisemitic attacks, perpetrated by black people on both sides of the Atlantic, have been largely ignored, even as the cultural mainstream continues to insist that racism cannot be tolerated. In the past few days, the latest in a series of assaults on Jews in London by black men has been reported. In 2018, the head of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, an outspoken antisemite and one of America’s most influential hate preachers, made an album with stars including Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Snoop Dogg, and Common. Alice Walker, Nick Cannon, and other leading lights in the African American establishment have made antisemitic remarks. Even Whoopi Goldberg blundered into trouble as she clumsily navigated the new discourse on race. In the UK, there has been a rallying of support for Wiley, a well-known music artist, following a series of antisemitic outbursts over the past couple of years.

Jews have not been the only target. Violent attacks against East Asians—disproportionately carried out by black people—have recently spiked in America, a foreseeable consequence of a decade’s worth of antiracist agitprop that blamed white, Jewish, and Asian privilege for black oppression. The progressive response to this development has been to blame white supremacy. The antiracist narrative is so far through the looking glass that white people are now held entirely to blame for the worst behaviours of a small minority of black people. This denial of agency and moral responsibility is not just deeply patronising—a soft bigotry of low expectations—but it also amounts to a kind of incitement, as white progressives line up as apologists for racial violence.

White people have also become targets for black nationalists, a development even less likely to be publicly acknowledged than black attacks on Jews. The murderous attack on a Christmas parade in Wisconsin, which killed six and injured 62, was almost certainly racially motivated. The attacker had previously posted black nationalist sentiments, but the New York Times hastened to declare that the motive was unclear. This was a departure for a newspaper that in recent years has been quick to offer racial explanations for almost everything. A Black Lives Matter activist declared the Wisconsin attack to be the start of the revolution.

The antiracism establishment has crumpled before this ideological onslaught. When the Southern Poverty Law Center reported a steep rise in black nationalist extremism in 2018, its report was couched in almost apologetic language: the rise in black nationalism was (of course) the fault of Donald Trump’s alleged promotion of white supremacists. The report, which did not explicitly point out that black nationalism had risen far more than white nationalism, quoted arch-racist Louis Farrakhan. The SPLC also went to great lengths to absolve Black Lives Matter: “... these black nationalist groups should not be confused with activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and others that work for civil rights and to eliminate systemic racism.” This SPLC positioning comes despite attacks on synagogues and other antisemitic events that have taken place during BLM protests. In Toronto, a leading BLM activist labelled whites as genetic defects (an old belief of the Nation of Islam). When racists are redescribed as antiracists by the media and political class, there is no room for anti-racism.

The official response to the rising influence of racist black nationalism has been to ignore it. Today, the SPLC site no longer lists black nationalist groups separately, instead choosing to include them under the inane heading of General Hate, which is by far its largest category, and appears to be dominated by black nationalists. FBI hate crime statistics also suggest that, per capita, more hate crimes are committed by black people than any other group. In 2019, 23.9 percent of recorded US hate crimes were committed by black people who make up just 12.1 percent of the population. Whites, meanwhile, committed 52.5 percent of hate crimes while making up 57.8 percent of the population.

It is, of course, important to point out that hate crimes are committed by only a tiny proportion of any demographic group. But the bottom line of the past decade is this: while the media and antiracism community have focused increasingly on white people (and, implicitly, Jews and Asians) as the root of all racist evil, a disproportionately large and increasing amount of racial hatred is emanating from black nationalist movements. The failure of the mass media and antiracism establishment to discuss this dismal development honestly is a scandal.

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