Race: Changing society and the Churches

by
02 November 2006

SPCK £14.99 (0-281-05653-6); Church Times Bookshop £13.50

It's not race, it's group dynamics: And some of these dragons aren't real, says David Martin

WHAT can I say positively about a book with which I disagree fundamentally, keeping in mind that I do not want to incur the moral abuse and social excommunication of those who insist on mishearing everything? Happily, quite a lot.

Kenneth Leech has spent a lifetime thinking about and confronting the dragons vividly portrayed in his book. The text is clearly written and scholarly; it gives a succinct account of the various stages that race relations have gone through in Britain; it sets out the legislative framework; and it establishes the idea of race as a moral error built on false biology.

In these pages you can learn much about changing perceptions, from the time of our first English innocence in the 1950s; about the slowly changing reaction of the Churches; and about our shifting and shifty vocabulary.

I also have some areas of substantive agreement with the book. There is no doubt that "race" (or whatever) is mixed up with issues of status and power. I sympathise with Leech when he complains about middle-class liberals who have no experience of an immediate problem that excoriates those in the black, Asian, and white communities who have.

He and I share an admiration for the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, in particular for his The Sociological Imagination (1958), in which he attacks "abstracted liberalism". Moral condemnation without concrete analysis is self-indulgence. Where we part company emerges when Leech admiringly quotes his mentor Ruth Glass. She wrote contemptuously in 1968 that the course of events in race relations was "predictable". Of course it was predictable, and not in the main because the purveyors of higher wisdom were not heeded. Those events simply followed from the average collective tendencies of ethnic groups.

The admirable Ms Alibai-Brown has said she would top herself if getting along together were impossible. Well, it is not impossible, but, given the likely economic, sexual, and other tensions in the areas where ethnic groups congregate, it is not very likely.

Trevor Phillips may complain of the creation of ghettos and the rarity of friendships across the divides, but it is terribly human, on all sides. Birds of a feather flock together. When the numbers of those in this or that group reach a certain point, locally or nationally, in relation to other groups, a spark may set everything alight.

This process is evident everywhere, not just in the capitalist West; and one might note that the United States has done relatively well recently: there may even be a black woman President in 2008. All religions, all colours, and all social systems are affected.

If the liberal Dutch have discovered the limits of multiculturalism, particularly where Islam is concerned, there really is naught for our comfort. And Leech is right to hint at the damage done by the dismantling of our own history and identity. If the culture of others enriches us beyond food and modestly colourful dress, is it really likely that our own is so little worth preserving?

On the other hand, Leech also quotes a characteristic piece of victim-speak to the effect that "we" did not want "them" for themselves. I dare say not. Did they want us for ourselves? Does Qatar want high-tech doctors "for themselves", any more than the NHS wants doctors from anywhere for their culture and persons?

The much abused capitalist system is notoriously rational in its indifference to colour and culture, but the problem of group dynamics is universal, whether race is part of the mix or not.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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