Life in the
Race, Riots And Policing: Lore and Disorder in a Multi-Racist Society by Michael Keith. UCL Press, 280 pp, 1992
Race and Racism in Britain, 2nd Edition, Revised, expanded and updated. By John Solomos. The Macmillan Press, 279 pp., 1992
Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship by Tariq Modood, Runnymede Trust and Trentham Books. 93 pp. 1992
LAST YEAR, ON SATURDAY 16 October 1991, Les Turner, a 35-year-old black police constable on duty at the Welling anti-racist march in South London, was attacked by demonstrators. Caught in a hail of bricks and missiles he was hit so hard and so often that his riot helmet split in two places and he began to fear he would be killed. ‘There was so much hate,’ he said. ‘It was white demonstrators … They singled me out as being a traitor.’
Commenting on the demonstration in the New Statesman, Steve Platt suggested that the anti-racists who chose to go to Welling rather than join the rally taking place in central London had been ‘demonised’ in advance by the police and that this led to serious misjudgments. There is undoubtedly some truth in this view. But what should also be clear, and what the near-murder of PC Turner ought to bring home to us, is that British policemen were themselves demonised long ago both by some black youths and by a significant minority of white activists.
Michael Keith is a white researcher into race-relations who acknowledges in the opening chapter of his Race, Riots and Policing that those who fraternise with police-officers in order to further their research may themselves be perceived as ‘traitors’ both by black youths and by white anti-racists. If he half accepts this charge it is because he is well aware of the degree of racialist violence which has been enacted by policemen against black Londoners over the past twenty or thirty years. He quotes from Joseph Hunte’s report, Nigger Hunting in England? published in 1966 by the Commonwealth Institute. After documenting the ready use of dogs against black people and the frequent instances of overt racialist abuse, Hunte wrote that ‘it has been confirmed from reliable sources that sergeants and constables do leave police stations with the express purpose of going nigger-hunting.’ Such allegations were, we learn from a police commander who worked in Brixton at the time of the report, ‘basically true.’
The time Michael Keith spent as a participant observer with three London police forces did not lead him to gather any more evidence of racialist violence on the part of policemen. As he writes himself, he was a somewhat obtrusive fly-on-the wall. But it does lead to some good reporting from inside the police front-lines on the problems associated with policing areas fraught with racial tension. Keith is particularly good at exposing some of the almost insuperable difficulties faced by well-intentioned senior police officers as they try to balance the demands of law enforcement against the need to maintain public order, while all the time trying to boost the morale of junior police-officers who are constantly prone to engage in ‘front line deviancy’.
The material based on what Michael Keith refers to as his ‘ethnographic work’ is certainly the best thing in the book. It helps to point up how police forces repeatedly exacerbate, and sometimes actually create the problems which they have to deal with. But in showing, at the same time, a degree of guarded sympathy for the police and for some of its senior officers, Michael Keith also advances one of the aims of his book – that of demonstrating that a police force cannot be understood ‘as a crucible of a disease called racism’ any more than Black community life can reasonably be portrayed as ‘a hotbed of criminality’. In this important respect he makes a contribution to ‘de-demonising’ the police which is potentially extremely significant.
The larger aim of Keith’s book is to offer a theoretical account of the manner in which black people have been progressively ‘criminalised’ and to illuminate ‘the genesis and reproduction of police/Black conflict as a whole’. By studying the riots which took place in three key areas of London during the 1980s – Brixton, Notting Hill and Hackney – Keith attempts to provide a solid empirical basis for this excursion into theory. Much of the factual and historical material which he offers is valuable. But some of the key issues he attempts to grapple with have already been lucidly dealt with by John Solomos in his Race and Racism in Britain (now reissued in a revised and expanded second edition). Keith seems constantly to be attempting to go beyond lucidity into formulations which implicitly claim for themselves both theoretical gravitas and profundity.
One reason why this attempt fails is that Keith appears to share the common post-modern assumption that theory can only be properly formulated and communicated by abandoning ordinary usage and substituting instead an abstract, theoretical-sounding language. We thus find ourselves reading of how ‘the social relations of conflict between the police and local Black communities were sedimented through time in particular places, lending these locations distinctive senses of “spatiality”’ (p.154). A moment later we read of how, as a result of repeated encounters with policemen, ‘the police-policed relation is reproduced, reinforced or even, in the process of structuration, redefined’ (p.155). Again and again the theoretical argument which Keith attempts to construct collapses as he tries to express it through the medium of reified abstractions, and spurious pseudo-metaphysical statements about ‘space’, ‘time’ and ‘structure’. Meanwhile key terms like ‘racialisation’, ‘racialism’, and ‘criminalisation’ are waved like conceptual flags without ever being adequately defined or characterised.
This kind of straining after theoretical altitude is an intermittent rather than a constant feature of Keith’s book. But its negative effect is compounded by the fact that his conception of his role as an ‘ethnographer’ is often narrow and one-dimensional. At one point he remarks that the entire outlook of some young blacks is ‘ordered by the Rastafarian faith’ and by ‘Rasta reasoning’. Yet no attempt is made to explain this faith or this reasoning. The concepts and beliefs in terms of which many young blacks estimate their own value and order their lives are implicitly dismissed as valueless or without significance by a sociologist who would, in all probability, be mortified were his own intellectual and ideological beliefs treated in the same way.
One of the great virtues of the essays and reviews collected in Tariq Modood’s Not Easy Being British is that they help to explain how it is that the black communities referred to in Keith’s study have come to be swept clean of their own culture, their own beliefs and their own sources of collective pride, by a sociologist who clearly thinks that he is espousing their cause. Modood is able to solve this mystery because he is one of that increasingly rare species – a political theorist who genuinely understands the role of theory and who knows that this is not to intimidate or impress, or even to liberate, but to explain.
In his essay ‘Being Somebody and Being Oppressed’, having noted the complete inability of ‘available theories of race’ to explain a phenomenon like the Rushdie affair, he carefully takes these theories apart in order to probe their inadequacies. He argues trenchantly against the tendency of orthodox sociologists to define groups who are oppressed in terms of their ‘mode of oppression’ while simultaneously ignoring their ethnicity or their ‘mode of being’. For as Modood notes, wherever such theories hold sway, they lead to an impoverished form of social analysis in which ‘the only forms of culture relevant to race relations are those which directly contribute to imposing or resisting racial inequality ... Racial minority groups become shadows, for by becoming all race and no ethnicity, their very existence as a group depends on white people perceiving them.’
In terms of its length – a mere ninety pages – Modood’s Not Easy Being British is a slight book, too slight perhaps for its own good. But, if it is judged by the quality of its insights and of the questioning intelligence which Modood brings to bear on the issues and orthodoxies he examines, it weighs in a great deal heavier than many bulkier monographs. His review of Dervla Murphy’s Tales from Two Cities, is reprinted here from the Asian Herald. It begins with these words:
Intelligence. A practical judgment which is able to hold its own against dogma and political myth-making. A perseverance happily combined with a breadth of character which together, despite all conceivable obstacles, is able to engage with the humanity of others.
These, combined with ‘honesty and the courage it takes to broadcast unpopular truths’, are among the qualities which Modood finds on virtually every page of Dervla Murphy’s profound and undervalued book about race relations in Bradford and Birmingham. They are also, one suspects, the qualities which he seeks to embody in his own work. My only quarrel with him is when he describes these qualities as ‘outstanding’, implying that they are rare. I would suggest on the contrary that they are widespread and that they are shown by significant numbers of individuals in every town, in every village, in every large workplace, in every urban estate and in every ghetto. What is rare is to find them embodied – or even admired – by academic theorists. In this respect Tariq Modood is exceptional. As a result his essays, collected here and published by the Runnymede Trust and Trentham Books, frequently have an unusual resonance and an unusual value.
Political Quarterly, 1992
© Richard Webster, 2002