Race and Class


HAREWOOD: I want you to begin by talking about the origins of the Institute of
Race Relations. Many people in North America and Canada are familiar with the
Race and Class and that might be their only understanding of what
the institute is. Perhaps you could tell us about the institute’s history.

Yes, the institute had a very long history. It’s the foremost race body probably
in Europe of its kind. And it had a very different politics at its inception
than it does now. It was set up in 1956 as a department of the then Royal
Institute of International Affairs, which was a sort of colonial body obviously
looking into the relationship between Britain and its colonies. Essentially,
what the institute was about at that point was researching, primarily for
businesspeople, what the kind of climates of racial tension might be in those
countries in the Third World that were getting independence from Britain, but
where they might want to invest. So it’s quite significant that in the 1950s the
money for the Institute of Race Relations and its research came from people like
BP (British Petroleum) and Shell and then later from multinationals like the
Ford Foundation, Rockefeller, Nuffield, all these big companies were putting
money into this Institute of Race Relations.

So it was a
fact-finding institute, a clearinghouse of information?

It was, but also
we were producing the only so-called “objective research” on race relations at
that time. So I do have an ambivalent attitude towards it. In one sense it was
forward looking, because no one else had seen race relations as an issue in
Britain. At another level it was intensely reactionary. In 1958 Britain had its
first so called race riots, which was actually when white fascists went to beat
up Black people living in the Notting Hill area. People suddenly realized [that]
now race relations weren’t something out there in those colonies but it was here
in Britain actually around the experiences of the people from the colonies who’d
been asked to come here to work and now were facing extreme racism. The
institute then began to research racism in Britain as well. They suddenly
realized that the chickens had come home to roost, the problem was here. But
when they looked at racism in Britain—of course racism wasn’t the word they used
then, it was race relations—it was still seen as an interpersonal problem, “How
can we help these colored immigrants,” as they were called, “to assimilate?”
After the idea of assimilation came the idea, “Well, maybe they can integrate
and maybe there is a bit of prejudice in the white population.” That’s as far as
they went. “There was no racism, there was a bit of prejudice and if we educate
them we are all reasonable people and everything will be fine.” Of course,
everything wasn’t fine and by the time I joined the institute in 1970, there was
a change in the whole debate on race and that change was focused in our

Talk about
what was happening in British society at that point and what was happening in
the world. Of course we know that the Black Panther party in the 1960s had had a
tremendous impact on people. In 1968 Enoch Powell made his famous speech in
Birmingham in which he talked about the necessity of repatriating Black people
who had come to this country. There was a lot happening. From your perspective,
what was in the air at that time?

I was at
university from 1966-69 and you couldn’t help but be affected by the politics
that was around. The one thing you left out was the impact of the Vietnam War.
The idea of the struggles in the Third World being legitimate struggles [and]
our implication in imperialism was central to everything and you didn’t have to
be political. I wasn’t particularly on the left, it was just normal to have that
consciousness, and there is absolutely no doubt that the Black movement,
particularly the American Black Power movement, was what politicized us all. We
were all reading George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, all of us. I’m
white, but that, in a funny way, was my coming to politics, maybe my coming to
feminism was through that Black struggle by proxy. It was your whole life, it
wasn’t [that] politics was a thing aside; it was central to your thinking and to
your reading and to your music appreciation. That kind of thing was part of a
whole generation.

Enoch Powell was
the central racist in this country who spoke and stoked up white working class
racist fears toward the end of the 1960s and obviously we organized as students
against that, as well as supporting the Black Power movement.

Why was he so

Because there was
no working class leadership on the issue of race. We had a very strong trade
union movement in this country but it was very workerist and it was very racist
and there was no principled articulation for working class people on the issue
of racism. They didn’t know how to relate to the Black workers on the factory
floor. Britain, unlike the rest of Europe, had an anti-fascist tradition; there
was always this thing, “We are not racist because of the side we were on in the
war.” So there is an anti-fascist tradition and the idea was almost that they
equated racism with fascism, so if you weren’t a complete fascist you couldn’t
be a racist and Powell spoke to all that. He made use of white working class
fears; the people who were in the areas into which Black workers were moving;
who thought that their areas were being taken over; who thought that their house
prices were going down; who thought that their school places were being taken,
had a senior politician now articulating that view. He made out [that] he was
reflecting what people told him.

But obviously, if
you are a central politician, you’re being peddled in the media every day; you
are doing the influencing yourself. And Powell, for that reason, was extremely
dangerous. I mean to give credit where it’s due he was sacked from the then
Conservative cabinet and in that sense he was put beyond the pale of British
politics—which is significantly different from what is happening now when we are
having a recurrence of that kind of political debate and we are not getting that
kind of decisive leadership from either the Conservatives or from the Labor
Party on the issue of race.

But ironically,
Powell became a galvanizing issue for the Black community and very few people
have actually pointed that out. There was something formed called the Black
People’s Alliance, which was a coming together of a number of different groups
made up of people who had come from different islands in the Caribbean, from
different countries in the Indian sub-continent, and from Africa. They all came
together in this Black People’s Alliance to oppose Powell and also to try and
influence Commonwealth countries and I think then it was the issue of what was
happening in what was then Rhodesia.

What happened
then? What changed the institute?

The institute in
1970 was a very large, very hierarchical, very elitist organization based in the
middle of Mayfair, the most expensive part of London. You had the marble stairs
and polished brass door handles and all this stuff. It was not [a] place that
black people would go, it was the place where people from the House of Commons
or House of Lords might go and those were the people who the institute thought
it ought to be serving at that time. I came in as a researcher.

What happened, in
a nutshell, was that many members of the staff, and obviously the ones who were
Black in particular, were becoming more and more influenced, not just by things
like the Black Power movements and Vietnam, but by everyday racism in Britain.
We were having demonstrations on the streets against police racism. Many Black
children were being put into schools for the educationally “sub-normal” just
because they were Black. Asian children were not being allowed to get into the
schools in their locale; they were being bussed out because there were
supposedly too many Asian children in their schools. Racism was rife in the
prisons [and] in all kinds of areas of society. But whenever we tried to write
about that or articulate that, we put it at a very basic level, we just said,
“We want to articulate the voices of the victims,” that was all we were saying.
Our Board of Management, which had all these big multinational corporations on
it, plus people in the government and in the House of Lords, [told us] “No, you
can’t say that. That’s not objective.” Suddenly it wasn’t objective if Black
people were talking about their experience. It was only objective when one was
giving the other point of view, their point of view. The issue came to a head
when we had a magazine then called Race Today and we put an advert in it
for an Anti-Apartheid demonstration and the management called us to account and
said, “You’ve cost this institute £10,000 in fundraising. You are not allowed to
do this. We are going to close down this journal. We are going to sack this

There was a very
famous tome of research that had come out that was called Colour and
, which had looked at the whole of race relations in Britain, and
this researcher basically said that we were doing the government work, that in
the future if Black people had a researcher knock on their door they should tell
them to “Fuck off.” He used those words in a public lecture and attacked the
research as, “Research that was not in the interest of Black people.” So the
management committee decided [that] he should be sacked [and] our magazine
should be closed down, and on those very basic issues of academic freedom and
press freedom, we then had to unite the staff against the management. When I say
we, I am not being quite honest. Most of us weren’t political at that time. Dr.
Sivanandan, [who is] known as Siva, was then the librarian at the institute and
he’d already begun to write quite significant things about racism in Britain and
it was through his political acumen that we began to understand how to organize;
that there was something to organize; that there was a fight to transform the

We unified the
staff and then our whole membership—because we were a membership-based
organization—and a whole lot of community organizations that then understood
there was this battle going on about the nature of what an institute of race
relations ought to be. We were basically saying we wanted it to be an institute
against racism. There is nothing objective about race relations. There is
something called racism and it’s got to be combated and you can’t hide anymore
within these sort of academic orthodoxies that they kept peddling about
objectivity. So there was a long struggle with our management council that took
about two years and that is what politicized me. Because the people who owned
the institute, owned the press. I mean they literally owned the newspapers.

So how did you

It was a lot of
work. I gave up any pretense of doing anything else other than organizing to
transform the institute for about a year, and I wasn’t the only one, all of us
would be doing this. We went through the press cuttings that came in all the
time. We circulated them to maybe 200 people all across the world. People were
sending in telegrams of support to the governing board and explaining why they
wanted to support our position. Journalists were writing things, ultimately we
managed to get our position in, and they were writing articles that were
sympathetic to us. But an awful lot of other ploys were being taken all the time
to try and divide the staff. The Ford Foundation came in and tried to offer
bribes to different people to take different bits of research away, or, “We’ll
publish your book if you’ll go into retirement.” I think it made people in the
Black community actually think they could trust some of these people up in this
elitist organization, because why should they have trusted us before.

Eventually in
April 1972 the management was forced to take the idea of closing down our
magazine and sacking these people to an annual general meeting of the membership
and they hadn’t realized that by then we had actually begun to change the
membership. We had a very different membership base with people who were
conversant with what was going on in the country, and they got defeated. So that
was a magnificent meeting, looking back on it. And it was a Pyrrhic victory
because as soon as they were defeated they took away all the support of the
institute. They were the ones who had raised the money. They were the ones who
could now bad-mouth us everywhere, not just in the private sector world but also
with the trusts and foundations from which we had been getting money. So we were
left with a library and information service with a lot of support and no money.
We had to start again in 1972 to re-think, re-orientate the institute. We didn’t
want to do that long-term kind of research that had been done before, which just
served the academics and not the communities we were supposed to be serving. So
we’d say that we would do the research that gathered ammunition that other
people could then use in their fights against racism. That’s the kind of
research that we do, ad hoc research that collates experiences, which tries to
show there are patterns and there are trends—give people the wherewithal to

Even the Race
and Class
magazine started life very differently. There was a very academic
journal called RACE that used to be produced here. We inherited this
magazine and we looked at the mailing list and there were about 50 people who
paid and everybody else had been getting complimentary copies and they had been
sitting in universities and they had been doing nothing. Nobody wanted to read
this very arid journal. So we took this thing called RACE and everybody
said you can’t turn it into something to serve the Third World and we did. We
changed RACE to Race and Class: Journal for Black and Third World

You have
talked about the kind of international work that the institute was involved in
but the Institute of Race Relations played a very important role in Britain in
terms of struggles in education, struggles in prison. Talk about that kind of
work that you were engaged in.

We used to say
the slogan for Race and Class was that, “We think in order to do.” I
think the clearest example of this was in the work we did on education. Because
multiculturalism became the kind of fad in Britain—that you must teach children
about each other’s cultures and everything is going to be all right in schools.
After a while out of the analysis [that] we’d been doing about the extent of
racism in Britain, we were saying, “The problem is not cultural
misunderstanding, it’s racism.” We realized that kids needed something more than
just a cultural prop to each others’ lives, as it were, and we started a whole
program of what we called anti-racist education. We produced for young people a
set of four pamphlets that explained the history of racism from the pre-colonial
period onwards, across the world, but particularly the parts of the world that
Britain had been connected to through colonial experience. We did these two
books called Roots, and Patterns of Racism and then we also did a
cartoon book, which had never been done before for a much younger age group, to
make the thing look fun but also understandable.

We began to
retrieve the Black history of Britain. So anti-racist education was important,
but we were also trying to say, going back to what I said about the trade union
movement being racist, that Black people were always written out of history in
this country as if they had never been here. They were [even] written out of a
radical history. So we began to try and retrieve the contributions, the
histories of struggle that Black people had done since at least World War II and
Siva’s work was very important on that. So he produced something called From
Resistance to Rebellion,
which was the history of what Black people had
done, and by Black we meant people from the Caribbean, Asia, and Africa who had
had a joint experience of colonialism and also of British racism. From that
history we’ve had a lot of spin-offs. So we did an exhibition of images from
those struggles and going back into the newspapers of those times and even the
leaflets and stuff that was put out. We did a very big exhibition and then a
book from the exhibition and more recently we have produced a CD-ROM.

Homebeats, an award winning CD-ROM.

Yes. We have also
produced two smaller books on different Black communities in Britain. We have
also produced four films. But again, we are trying to say that Black people have
made contributions in the struggle of creating the cities of Britain and it’s
taken a long time to push that line. There are other areas in which we’ve tried
to do pioneering work. One was the issue of policing—the way that Black people
not just feel, but are policed, has been completely racist from way back and the
riots that we are seeing now of Asian youths in northern towns in Britain is
just a continuation of the kind of riots that were going on 20 years ago in
mainly African-Caribbean communities. We’ve done two major studies of racist
policing. I’d say we look at the aspects of racism that are the harsher the
cruder types of racism. We’ve looked at the deaths in custody that take place
for Black people where they are differentially treated than white people—that’s
the custody of the police prisons and also mental hospitals in this country.
That’s an ongoing piece of research that we are monitoring all the time and also
the levels of racial violence and the number of people who lose their lives in
racial attacks, which is now again on the increase.

I think it
would be safe to say that since 1972 the Institute of Race Relations has been a
radical organization. Although the institute has produced first class
intellectual work it has always maintained a real connection to the community, a
connection to the activities going on on the streets of England on the streets
of Brixton, Detroit, Los Angeles, or wherever you were covering whatever you
were doing. How has the institute managed to deal with that kind of tension,
internal tension that might have existed within the organization?

First of all, I
don’t know quite which came first, but we have a distrust of academics. I’m not
saying all academics, but academics for academia’s sake, as it were. Very soon
after we transformed the institute we found there were academics that had been
very happy to help us to get rid of the businesspeople, but now they wanted to
tell us exactly how we ought to be doing research and they became a
contradiction. The same thing happened when we took over this journal RACE
and turned it into Race and Class and the staff asked Siva to be our
director and edit the journal. These academics on the board turned around and
said, “What? This man. He’s not an academic. How can he edit a journal? We are
the academics.” So I think we learned a lesson then that we had to take control
of our products and also that we had to be much more conscious about how we did
our research. It’s quite interesting that very often when we go for money to
funders and we say we want to do this and we want to produce a report, they say
well, “Who is going to read it? Who are you going to influence?” And we say,
“No, that is not where we start. We say who are we speaking from, not who are we
speaking to.”


There is now in
this country a whole kind of, if you like, a whole race relations industry full
of people who want to promote equal opportunities, implement the race relations
act and all the rest of it. There is nothing wrong with that, except that it has
become very much part of management and personnel-speak; but, it’s not the level
of racism that we are engaged in trying to combat. The other thing is that all
of us don’t walk into the Institute of Race Relations as a job or as a career.
All of us have been in different struggles and still are, whether it’s through
feminism or anti-fascist movement, or the Campaign Against Racism Fascism
(CARF), or work that I have done on Palestine. We have always been grounded by
our external activities, as it were, so this is an extension of our politics as
well as our livelihoods.

Next year is
going to be 30 years. What are some of the challenges that you think the
institute faces in this new era, particularly in terms of young people coming up
and participating in the work of the organization?

There are a lot
of things changing we’ve become aware of just in the way we service people. It
sounds a bit boring, but we’ve bragged about this magnificent library that we
have got here that we have built up since the 1960s and suddenly we realized
that people are not using libraries in the way that they were and the requests
that we are getting for help and information are all coming on-line. So what we
have tried to do is not just produce Homebeats but put stuff out on our
website, communicate with people electronically. We are just about to launch the
first anti-racist news service on-line, probably the first one in Europe. We’ve
just got money to do that. Because we see the whole use of the electronic medium
is going to be the way forward, it’s the way that students are being taught to
do their research and it’s how people are receiving their information.

For better or
for worse?

I just feel my
age. I’ve had to learn. I’ve had to be educated. All of us have had to be
educated in this. And also in the terms of Race and Class journal we’ve
recently gone into partnership with Sage Publications, which is a commercial
publishing house, because we realize that they could make it electronically
available and we couldn’t have done that ourselves. So if we are still producing
a hard copy format of it, it was a way for us to get into the new market. So I
think we are realizing that the ways in which we work or the way we deliver our
information has got to change a lot.

The other thing
about young people is something, to be honest that worries me—we are not having
the resonance within say the student community that there was even ten years ago
when every beginning of the year students would have a thing here called
Fair and they would ask people to speak on different
subjects. We would also be going out to speak about racism. They’re not asking

Why do you
think that is? Has the institute become an anachronism?

No, it has
nothing to do with us. It has to do with the economy. Students are worried about
jobs and Thatcherism destroyed education and Margaret Thatcher’s impact is still
there in our new labor government. For example, we helped to set up a whole race
and culture module at one of the universities, the first of its kind. It’s been
running for about three years. We helped develop the curriculum. It’s just been
axed. All the staff have been made redundant, because they say there are not
enough students enrolling and the reasons students aren’t enrolling for that
kind of thing is because they want to go into something where they know they are
going to have a job at the end of it and if you do race and cultural studies
you’re not going to have a job. So there is also a de-politicization going on
amongst young people that our new labor government is helping with. We’ve got a
downturn within politics and it does worry me when I look around our institute,
because the other thing is we have always relied on having a lot of volunteers.
We love having volunteers in and they are usually young people and they are
usually fantastic and many of them go on to become part of our staff or our
council of management. Now we find the people who are writing in, emailing in
that they want to be volunteers, they just want something on their resume. They
haven’t got the commitment that drove most of us into this kind of work and it’s
actually quite hard, therefore, to give them a space here.

You’ve been
involved in the institute for a long time. What are the lessons that you think
as an organization you have learned over these last 30 years that other
organizations can learn from?

Well, first of
all I don’t think that any of us thought that we could transform an organization
and keep it going for 30 years. I don’t think we thought we could take on the
power that those people had on our management committee and win. So that is very
important. We had to be strategic. I hadn’t understood about strategies and
tactics until we had to overthrow people. I’m not saying that you water down any
of your principles but you have to be strategic. You have to know how to win
people over. When we fought the institute battle we didn’t become ultra-leftists
or anything like that. We just said, “This is freedom of speech. This is
academic freedom.” We managed to win a whole lot of people with us on that and
then politicized them in the process. You don’t sort of start and say you know,
“We’re going to have the revolution tomorrow.”

Siva’s got a
phrase that is very useful, “On our own we move a pebble but maybe that pebble
will start an avalanche.” And that’s the way we do things. But always to know
there is a possibility, always to know you can move that pebble.

And that
change is possible.

Yes. That change
is possible, and then you become changed. I mean, I personally learned. I came
in as a researcher as a sociologist. I learned that I could do a whole of other
things that I never personally thought I could do.

We’ve all been
transformed personally and then created something out of that transformation
that’s probably had an impact on people.                    Z