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Gary Younge The banal and the brazen: Black history, racial literacy, and class solidarity

The journalist’s latest book Dispatches from the Diaspora dives into a 30-year journalistic career journeying from Nelson Mandela’s first election campaign to Black Lives Matter.

Gary Younge
YouTube screenshot/Channel 4 News

Can you tell me about your new book Dispatches from the Diaspora?

Dispatches from the Diaspora is a collection of my work over the last 28 years that relates to the Black diaspora. So, issues of race and racism, interviews with Black people, reportage, analysis, commentary from the Caribbean, from Britain, from Europe, America, and from Africa. We start with the piece that got me my job, which was covering Nelson Mandela's first election in 1994. And the last few pieces take in the explosion around Black Lives Matter. In the middle, there are interviews with Maya Angelou, Bishop Tutu, Stormzy, Angela Davis and a few others.

I was interested in your thoughts about Black history as a discipline and specifically diaspora history because I feel like it functions in a different way to white history or Western history. How do you feel like you've interacted with the overlaps and junctures between the two?

Black diaspora and Black history exist in relationship to other diasporas and other histories. And so there is an intersectionality in that too – we all too often understand these things as distinct and separate, as opposed to distinct and connected. In that sense, I think that there is an awful lot of overlap.

While there is a Black diaspora in terms of people of African descent in particular, there are occasions when it almost has to be willed into being - that's why we have an African consciousness and so on. It's not like there is necessarily an immediate and reflexive sense of belonging between African Americans, Black Britons, Caribbeans, and Africans. Work has to be done to make those connections and there are moments historically where that work is more evident than others. During the 60s when African Americans were fighting for civil rights, and the rest of the Black diaspora was in a spate of anti-colonial struggles, we see a clear connection in that moment. During the Second World War when people were fighting for freedoms that they don't enjoy, both colonial soldiers and African American soldiers, we see plenty of connection. I think during Black Lives Matter, we saw a point of connection.

How do you feel racial literacy has changed over the course of your career?

I think it's changed quite a lot. If we go back to the piece I wrote about the McPherson report, which was about institutional racism – the introduction of that into mainstream British discourse was a bit like teenagers discovering sex. It’s something that has been around but they've just discovered it, and they can't get enough of it, but they don't know what to do with it.

I can’t remember the precise number, it's something like 40% of British people have heard of institutional democracy and a third know what it means, something like that. The Metropolitan Police are actually quite a good example of where racial literacy has clearly shifted. Our understanding of institutional racism as far as how to understand what's going on in the Metropolitan Police has now been established and actually added to that has been sex discrimination, homophobia as well. But sometimes the problem isn't with the understanding, it's with the practice. And so, while the racial literacy has shifted, we have proven our capacity over these years to clear political space, but not necessarily to build on it. We are still dealing with many of not the same, but similar problems that blighted the investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder, we're still dealing with many of those things, even if our understanding of what the problem is may be clear, that in itself doesn't solve the problem.

It can often seem that the political class will often repeat the same kind of discussions, whether that’s railing against critical race theory or being woke, topics that become moral panics. When it seems like the political class is setting the agenda of discussion, how can resistance to that manifest?

I don't necessarily agree that a political class is setting the agenda there. I feel like the political class has its own agenda. And a section of the political class bangs on about critical race theory. Actually, I don't hear an awful lot of people talk about critical race theory, actually, one way or the other. Even in lefty circles, I don't hear many people describe themselves as woke or not woke.

It is a moral panic that they've tried to unleash, but I don't think it worked. I was intrigued, in a way, at the failure of the Sewell report to actually set a different agenda. That was the idea, right? That they're going to set hearts racing and really confuse and interrupt the conversations that we were having, but it didn't really work.

I think that the media class works with the political class quite well at times. Not all the time, but at times. They can sometimes do well in interrupting the conversation. And then confusing the conversation, but I don't think they're very good at leading it. Not for want of trying.

There is a more democratised approach to what constitutes news now, and there are more incidents being recorded when the police stop somebody, or kill somebody, or some other terror is shown for all to see. How do you think that having that kind of abuse and terror shown publicly plays out, than if it had stayed in its community?

George Floyd was a good example of that, but not the only example. One of the intriguing things in this moment is that, say, in America, there aren't more people being shot dead by the police. We're just more aware because the capacity to amplify and distribute and record these things has been dispersed. Anyone with a smartphone could do it. And that makes some claims undeniable. If you look at the first press release after George Floyd's murder, the Minneapolis Police effectively said, ‘yeah, there was an incident, something happened, we're looking into it.’ Normally, that would have been it.

When I was at journalism school we would share phrases, and one was: ‘When a dog bites a man that's not a story. When a man bites a dog, that's the story’. But what we've seen with the proliferation of means of recording, distribution, amplification through new technology, is that sometimes actually, you have to ask yourself, well, who owns these dogs? And why do they keep biting people?

Stop and search, the police shootings, deaths, are not news in the sense that they are new things. They are news in the sense that they can no longer be denied. They are new to the people who consider themselves responsible for the news. But Black people have been living with these things for a long time. Now, there's real power in that, and it made us able to shift the agenda and to force a reckoning with more mainstream news organisations.

One of the challenges is that people might then mistake these recordings for racism, pure and simple. That’s one of the things I was trying to get through in the piece on COVID which came out during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The murder of George Floyd was the most brutal and brazen manifestation of racism. But if we look at the disproportionate numbers of Black people and brown people who were dying of COVID, because of where they work, because of their housing situation, because of their different healthcare situations, that actually far more people are dying through the institutional systemic racism, of which the murder of George Floyd is just the the most brutal expression.

Because they happened around the same time there was an opportunity to say, look, there's the banal, and there's the brazen, and they both operate together. Because those things aren't caught. You don't have poor housing on camera in the same way that you don't catch economic disadvantages in the same way. It's not an event.

I wanted to ask you about class solidarity. We've talked about racial literacy over the course of your career, what have you seen in terms of class solidarity and connections between different types of struggles?

It becomes harder, certainly, as the international working class diversifies. To be working class and British is a very different experience to being working class and Indian or working class and Jamaican, or whatever. And, arguably, it always has been. But to make those connections with neoliberal globalisation being what it is, I think it becomes harder, but it’s still possible in certain moments, and then even within that context, to make the connections across lines of race or gender, it becomes a challenge.

But it's also a kind of easily conveyable reality, certainly within, say, the British context or the Western context, to illustrate the ways in which they connect. We can see the danger in making the connections between race and class for our enemies, because they're always trying to confuse it and interrupt it and say, ‘well, what about poor white people?’ Anything that benefits Black people as a community will benefit poor white people. Anything that benefits the poor will benefit Black people. The people who evoke the white working-class boy against discourses of racism have no interest in that white working-class boy. They're not going to invest any money in him.

That makes it more and more important that we frame our demands, our rhetoric, our orientation in a way that doesn't leave us hostages to fortune, that doesn't allow for false equivalencies to be drawn. That's where the challenges of evoking and leveraging identity and politics come in. Not that there's a problem with identities in politics, whether we like it or not. It's in all politics. The question is, whether we are smart about how we employ it in a way that makes sense for us, and therefore the world.

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