Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Ethnicity and racism: contradictions and realities I picked up a claim the other day that the standard survey question (eg in the Place Survey) "to which of these groups do you consider you belong...?" obliges people to classify themselves in racist terms. I think this may be as much about instinctive resistance to being pigeonholed (a sentiment with which I have much sympathy) as it is about confusion between ethnic categorisation and racism. But I could be wrong. Racism is crackling away in this country as our politicians (well, some of them) grapple with unfamiliar pre-election tensions, amid predictions of extremist opportunism in the gloomy economic climate. I've just started a piece of work helping my colleague Alison Gilchrist prepare a literature review on 'race inequalities,' which concentrates the mind thoroughly. The volume of practice-related material published in the last few years suggests that the problem hasn't gone away, and may indeed have got worse. Then yesterday I was in Luton on a study visit, and a woman stood up and said how delighted she had been to come to a country where there is so much tolerance, acceptance and understanding of diversity. She had come to England as a refugee from Bosnia in 1992. The discussion dwelt for a moment on the claim of emerging extremism in white nationalist and muslim groups, and she was asked whether she felt that a conflict comparable to the Bosnian war could break out here. The day before war broke out, she said, it would never have occurred to her or her family that it might. The eruption of 'irrational' violence may have its prominent history in the region, but I suspect it's natural to live in denial of that, and terrifying to find suddenly that your neighbour wants to kill you for reasons that are rational to them but not to you.
Do unto others: on the appropriation of citizen empowerment I posted some musings last month about the way empowerment has become an industry: its recognition as an issue in policy is welcome but its neutralising assimilation distasteful. Meanwhile I've been watching as that well-known authority on local activism, the RSA, plans to follow up on its idea for a 'new community development qualification' by toying with notions of 'citizen power' as if it were a conceptual plaything. I was invited to the launch of this project recently, but I still haven't understood why a local project required a London 'launch' with Triffickly Important People speaking. The invitation noted: 'With political disengagement on the rise and public services feeling the squeeze, it has never been more important to realise the potential of people to affect change at a local level by shaping the identity and direction of the places and public services they use.' OK, I'm with you so far, how you gonna do that? 'The potential of people': any particular people? 'This pioneering project led by the RSA in partnership with Peterborough City Council and Arts Council England East, will experiment with different ‘models of social change’ across a range of spheres including civic behaviour, education, local enterprise, rehabilitation and treatment services.' Ah I see, not led by local people then. But experimenting with their lives and their place, how thoughtful. Well you wouldn't want to risk increasing political disengagement, would you? The text went on to explain the RSA's belief that 'the goals of individual fulfilment and social progress require an ambitious model of citizenship'... It has to be a model, because the wealthy elite like to play with things and then go off and do something else, leaving ordinary people to, er, well tidy up and make do afterwards I suppose. David Wilcox has been trying to inject some sense of responsibility and offered a couple of comments here, with a gentle irony that seems either too subtle, or too late, or both: 'I know that there's a strong theoretical commitment to citizen engagement, empowerment etc. But isn't there a slight danger that without some evidence of citzens at the heart of the project this will look like social architecture designed in John Adam Street?' The rhetoric ('We do want to involve people in all aspects of the project') isn't hard to find but sounds as hollow as always. When I started to wonder about the '.co.uk' url, it struck me that not only is this an audacious attempt by wonkdom to appropriate, govern and direct citizen empowerment from the top-down; it also implies it can be turned into a project of social entrepreneurship. It may seem trivial to be pricking the RSA's pomposity (although they seem to work hard at it). But I'm more concerned with a growing suspicion that one of the legacies of new Labour will be the erosion of the validity of radicalism by treating it as intellectually fashionable and appropriating its language. If you do unto others and call it empowerment, what...

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