The stories of black resistance to racism are legion. We have always resisted – and trade unions are the key, says ROGER McKENZIE
I REMEMBER back in the late 1970s, I was walking along a dimly lit subway trying to return home to Walsall from a nearby Black Country town. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see a number of people dressed in white pillow cases chasing after me calling me the N word. Luckily, I was fast and got away.
Lately, I have been recalling several such incidents of racism experienced around that time and how some white people had no hesitation in calling you whatever racist names they felt like to your face or to imitate that so-called comedian who used to make a great deal of money out of supposedly sounding like a Jamaican black man.
We even still had large numbers of white people telling us to our face that “Enoch was right!”
I guess that I have been recalling these incidents more lately because it feels like we have gone back to those times again — the time of National Front assaults on our communities and also the more in-your-face daily racism that was a fact of life and even often encouraged by some politicians for electoral gain.
The trade union and labour movement must also hold its hands up because it was far too slow, with some honourable exceptions, to deal with the racism within its own ranks. That’s why there was a huge surge of black self-organisation within trade unions as well as the Labour Party during the 1980s.
This is all sounding a bit too familiar and it’s a scary time now just as it was back in the day. A time when politicians are again pandering to racism and some in the trade union and labour movement are struggling to address difficult issues in a way that takes into account all of its membership — both black and white.
The stories of black resistance to racism are legion. We have never just sat back and allowed things to happen to us. We have always resisted. In the US — where the excellent Black Lives Matter movement can now expect to be targeted by the incoming Trump administration — they have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. We could see similar deadly treatment of Black Lives Matter activists as the Panthers experienced in their time.
Britain too has our own rich black radical tradition. Inspired by anti-colonial activists and freedom fighters, learning from the US Panthers and the civil rights movement led by Dr King as well as from the militancy of the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. Our tradition of black resistance to racism has its own roots and united people of African and Asian descent under the term Black — not as a description of the colour of our skin but rather as an attitude and a unifying of our politics.
We need to reforge that unity again as we are trapped in labels that define us by our various religions and drowned in terms such as “black and minority ethnic.”
We, black people, must return to the basic principle of defining our world view and of naming ourselves. I am not and never will be a minority because as an internationalist I take a world view. I choose to call myself black if ever my heritage or the colour of my skin is in any way an issue.
So how do we go about developing this new unity? I say we do it on our own terms and away from those individuals who have somehow elected themselves as our spokespeople and leaders.
We do it by recognising our religious and cultural diversity as a strength and not something that should divide us. We should do it as a way of ensuring that when we come to seek support from white allies that we speak with clarity for and on behalf of each other. That to me spells out the vital importance of the trade union movement as an organising base.
I think the new challenges that we face against racism are, as I have already indicated, not so far removed from the ones that we have faced before. What we have now are a whole lot of lessons for us to reflect on about what to do and what not to do to build a genuine resistance to the racism we face today.
However the bottom line is that while it’s good for us who are already engaged in the anti-racist struggle to meet and support each other, we actually have to talk to people who don’t yet agree with us. It’s going to take good old-fashioned organising to make a difference.
I have nothing against the plethora of very well-attended public rallies that have taken place throughout the country. I support them and have spoken at many and will do the same if invited in the future. But on its own, it won’t butter the bread. We have to go out and organise.
As always, given a chance, I want to make the case for black self-organisation as a key part of this urgently needed organising push. It has always been part of our black radical tradition in Britain and, if it can stay clear of the messiah tendency, will, I believe, make a massive contribution in the future.
But white comrades have to engage in this too and listen to what black people, the folks at the sharp end of the current wave of hatred, are saying. Never again should we be in a position where a Halal shop, not 200 yards from where I was born and reared, is petrol-bombed by racists and there is essentially a zero trade union and labour movement response.
That’s the sort of thing that increases the black alienation from our movement. An alienation that is often forgotten amid the discussions about the challenges facing the white working class. Support for the trade union and labour movement is not ever guaranteed so should never be taken for granted. We have to go out and earn it.
So the challenges we face to stem the current tide of racism are great but so is our movement. We have great committed organisers who can and do make a difference. We have to build our anti-racist activist base, both black and white, if we are to have a genuine rather than a rhetorical impact. We have work to do!
Roger McKenzie is assistant general secretary of Unison.