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From Common Sense to Good Sense

In the December issue of Prospect magazine Professor David Coleman, a demographer at Oxford University, makes a number of population projections based on migration and fertility trends. The main point of his article 'When Britain becomes "majority minority"' is about the changed ethnic composition of British population when the population may reach 77 million by 2051. Coleman notes that foreign born mothers have the highest fertility rates; linking that with standard net migration trends, he projects that white Britons will become a minority by 2066. In another projection, this would occur by the end of the century, when white Britons would make up 50% of the population.

Coleman says that ‘the 50% benchmark has no special significance but it would have considerable psychological and political impact’. Unless ethnicity becomes obsolete in the future, he warns that the ‘transition to a “majority minority” population, whenever it happens, would represent an enormous change to national identity – cultural, political, economic and religious’. He also expresses concerns about the impact of population increases on the environment, including the water supply and the ability of Britain to contain its carbon emissions.

Whatever the statistical merit of the analysis is, the issue here is about the way demographic changes are cast almost entirely in terms of ethnicity/race and a seeming threat to British national identity. The underlying themes of this approach will probably be familiar to many - they are both long standing and easily ‘activated’ in recent times. Thus alarm about ‘white decline’ was evident in the first early decades of the 20th Century, an imperial decline feared as much for its political and economic consequences as for any demographic ones. The link between white identities and particular conceptions of nationhood is also evident in worries about the ‘Hispanicization’ of the United States, in which it was suggested that Spanish would replace English as the main language in a few decades. Coleman’s implied view that all ‘others’ who are not white are somehow outside of British national identity (which, by implication, is conceived as coherent and unchanging) will somehow fundamentally alter the character of the nation is not that far removed from the Huntington ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis and a corresponding view that there is ‘a rest’ who stand apart from ‘the west’.

This recent piece in Prospect provides an odd contrast to Munira Mirza's 'Rethinking race' in the October 2010 issue.  If in Coleman’s view, race and ethic difference is everything, for Mirza such difference is increasingly irrelevant. For her, racism is not a ‘regular feature’ of everyday life, race is no longer a primary disadvantage and there are many mixed marriages between people of different racial and ethnic groups. But Mirza’s concern is that a decline in racism cannot be accepted for what it is and that a politics of race is utilised to further a victim perspective. There is an ‘official’ anti-racism in which institutional racism is presented as ‘floating freely…..beyond the responsibilities of any individual’, while legislation and policy requires public authorities to tackle racism, Such ‘hard pressed’ bodies employ diversity trainers and equality impact assessors to protect against being sued by their own employees, and create a climate in which informal behaviour is policed in ways that prevent people from speaking freely.

In responding to this view, one approach would be to take it at face value and show how it is inaccurate or simply wrong in so many ways and some other contributors to this site have taken that approach. Rather than adding to that, I want to make two other points. One is a simple question: who speaks for or represents the official anti-racism that Mirza decries? She begins by citing Trevor Phillips’ well known denunciation of the term institutional racism. As the head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, his position must be closer to whatever an official view is than the Guardian journalist cited in opposition to Phillips. Equally, as a cultural advisor to the Mayor of London, Mirza occupies a more official position than many of the people who have responded to the Prospects issue on race. From that role alone it should be plain that the era of race equality advisors and diversity training is in retreat at the very least, or completely marginalised.

Treating Mirza’s view as a coherent analysis, is, however   to miss the point. In saying that I don’t wish to decry or demur from the critical commentaries on this site – or to underestimate the need to tackle such views. But it might be better thought of as essentially in-coherent. It is the fact that it doesn’t make sense that makes it potentially effective because it enables anyone minded to agree to find something in it that they can identify with, without needing to worry about whether it makes sense as a whole.

Its style reminds me of Gramsci’s comments about common sense as an ensemble of contradictory ideas, despite which – or perhaps because of - it can ‘hang together’ in some way. Gramsci suggested that common sense might contain a kernel of ‘good sense’ and that the critical task is to expand the space for that. Hard as it is to extract any good sense in Munira Mirza’s approach, it does perhaps remind us (if we needed reminding) that while the politics of anti-racism is in retreat, there have been changes in the past decade and before that. Those changes are not all positive and it is still not clear that the cultural essentialist forms of anti-racism that Paul Gilroy drew attention to and criticised over two decades ago, as well as the bureaucratic anti-racism that Reena Bhavnani and others spoke of have been recognised as limited, and maybe counter-productive, strategies. So neither ‘more of the same’ or a retreat to the past is a panacea. But taking from that what works and applying and amending it for new times and new contexts is a kind of good sense that, paradoxically, Prospect magazine heralds.

Dr Karim Murji is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the Open University.