Sunday Review: There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, by Paul Gilroy

by Anthony Painter

If the riots hadn’t spread beyond Tottenham, there is little doubt that we would now be having a far more heated discussion about “race” and British urban culture, rather than a generalised moral moan. The book that many would turn to would be Paul Gilroy’s 1987 classic: “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”. In it, Gilroy outlines “race” as an agent of historical change alongside “class” or “gender” (note the inverted commas). And after riots in the early and mid-1980s that were more political in their nature than those we have just seen – in the sense that there was a deliberate political point being made – Gilroy’s theory of “race” as historical agent of mobilisation was forceful. But then things went a different way.

What marks out the latest edition of the book, is its introduction. Gilroy has substantially revised his approach. In fact, he declares that race is now “ordinary”. It has blended with poverty, material deprivation and inequality as a complex interplay of power, injustice and exclusion. Like other motivating social forces such as class, race has been shattered.

The “rise of identity politics, corporate multi-culture, and an imploded, narcissistic obsession with the minutiae of ethnicity” have fragmented “political blackness”. Bonds of solidarity have weakened. Rather than huddling together, the oppressed and excluded are wandering alone, facing the cold and the rain without protection. Where “blackness” was a motivating political force a quarter of a century ago, it no longer fulfils that role.

In the conclusion to the book Gilroy quotes a young black man speaking after the Handsworth riots:

“It’s not just unemployment. We’re regarded as third class citizens and we’re not prepared to be treated like that any longer”.

Many of those who took part in those riots show that they were not just historical agents “in themselves” but they were also “for themselves”: they were conscious of the political statements they were looking to make. It is not for nothing that what is generally referred to as the “Toxteth riots” is instead referred to by many of those involved or sympathetic as the “Liverpool 8 uprising“.

That wasn’t all there was to the 1980s riots. Gilroy also quotes research into riots in Bristol St Paul’s. Participants describe how: “it was lovely, I felt free”; “people were so warm”; and “it was really joyful, that’s what they [the media] all leave out, the joy”. He notes that:

“An atmosphere of carnival engendered by spontaneous feelings of joy has been noted by many observers in different riots”.

Community, belonging, freedom and joy are not words that we would instantly associate with riots. What is striking, is the similarity between these emotions and what a young kid who was isolated and in despair may get from gang membership. What is equally note-worthy is the very different form that the riots in the 1980s took compared with what we have seen this time around.

Only at the start were this year’s riots about race and racism, and they rapidly morphed into something else. They were not consciously political; there didn’t seem to be a coming together or sense of belonging. There was a thrill impulse, for sure, but it wasn’t an expression of joy and belonging. Gilroy’s book alerts us to the difference between now and then.

Cultural dynamics, a social research company, has used its British values survey to analyse the value-sets that would have influenced the behaviour of the rioters. They have asked specific questions about whether someone would like to be involved in a riot, look to exploit another’s weakness, be excited by social disorder, and if slighted whether they don’t get mad, they get even. Some of the hottest values sets for those who would engage in riot and social disorder are defined as “material wealth”, “power”, “control others” and “asocial”. You find a lot of bankers in these categories too.

We are talking about status here. But before anyone gets too moralistic about it, most people pass through this value set at some point in their lives before they hit their mid-30s; though, of course, most aren’t likely to engage in rioting. The riots in the 1980s mixed reckless “joy” and political action. These riots mixed a Nietzschean will to power with social networking and designer¬†gear’s logoed outward status. A moralising message will fall on deaf ears (though it may make middle England feel good). Any attempt to mobilise social forces in the service of political change will fall like grains of sand through the fingers of an open hand.

To the extent that the solutions are political, rather than through the criminal justice system, familial or community-led, they should be focused on supporting interventions. Solutions that will establish a greater sense of worth and status of the urban dislocated: and those things must be linked to positive behaviours such as work, creativity, raising a family, or making a contribution.

There is a reverberating melancholy to Paul Gilroy’s updated work. We live in a nation where the slogan “ain’t no black in the Union Jack” is neither a threatening racist chant nor an embracing anti-racist retort. It is, instead, a nation where nifty design replaces political expression as in the artist who decided to add a little black to the Union Jack. This work is still powerful, almost a quarter of century on. It is a reminder of a more political time. It challenges us with the reality that racism is far from gone in our society. Instead it’s brushed over, re-designed and commercialised.

Gilroy is still angry, but sorrowful too. His core theory couldn’t keep up with the shifting reality of exclusion, social fragmentation, and political impotence. The urban social movements of change he longed for and prophesised never materialised. That doesn’t mean Gilroy can be discarded. He is an important and essential voice. And one that we would do well to give a hearing.

Anthony Painter is an author and critic.

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5 Responses to “Sunday Review: There ain’t no black in the Union Jack, by Paul Gilroy”

  1. paul barker says:

    Or perhaps it was all a fantasy, projecting all the old 19th Century ideas about The Working Class onto “Black” Men. I lived in Brixton during the Riots of the mid ,80s & the Liberation was only for the In-group, for everyone else there was only fear.

    When you talk of the present as “less political” what you mean is less of your politics, & good riddance.

  2. Colin says:

    This is dire stuff. Gilroy sought to project his own political fantasies onto apolitical black rioters whose anger was bratty and childish in character, although savage in expression. They were habitual criminals who resented the police for preventing them breaking the law. Funny how other ethnic groups never had half as much bother from the police, isn’t it?

    Now, his predictions having come to naught, Gilroy is despondent. His supposed agents of political transformation are more interested in Nike trainers and Samsung plasma TVs than overthrowing capitalism.

  3. Paul- you do know this is a review don’t you? When you say ‘my politics’, what on earth do you mean? If you mean that Paul Gilroy and I share the same politics then I’m afraid you are quite a distance from the reality.

  4. Paul Gilroy says:

    What a funny, imploded non-discussion.
    If Paul Barker thinks my antedeluvian musings are about projecting nineteenth century politics then obviously he hasn’t actually read what I wrote–no surprises there then. Whatever our differences Anthony, thanks for your generosity to my old work here.

  5. Rachael says:

    I am currently reading The Black Atlantic and Between camps I think they are interesting books to read alongside the riots that happened recently and the idea that nationalism and cultural insiderism is the root cause of too many problems in the UK.

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