About Black Britain

Currently reading:

There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack

by Paul Gilroy


280 pages | 6 halftones | 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 | © 1987, 1991

Gilroy demonstrates the enormous complexity of racial politics in England today. Exploring the relationships among race, class, and nation as they have evolved over the past twenty years, he highlights racist attitudes that transcend the left-right political divide. He challenges current sociological approaches to racism as wel
l as the ethnocentric bias of British cultural studies. 

"Gilroy demonstrates effectively that cultural traditions are not static, but develop, grow and indeed mutate, as they influence and are influenced by the other changing traditions around them."—David Edgar, Listener Review of Books

"A fascinating analysis of the discourses that have accompanied black settlement in Britain. . . . An important addition to the stock of critical works on race and culture."—David Okuefuna, Chicago Tribune


Text witten by Ulrich Gdhler on Amazon.co.uk:

Paul Gilroy is the author of the seminal work “Black Atlantic” (1993) and the leading exponent of black diaspora studies. Paul Gilroy was born as East Londoner with Caribbean and English parents. He is currently a Professor at Kings College London and taught Sociology at the London School of Economics and Yale before. He studied at the Birmingham Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack” appeared 1987 and reflects Gilroy’s PhD at Birmingham. Gilroy had worked on the famous CCCS “The Empire Strikes Back” project before. Gilroy wants to link the homely cultural studies of Richard Hoggart and E.P. Thompson with the thoughts of radical black thinkers.

Gilroy’s position on race is anti-essentialist

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “One is not born a woman, but becomes one”. Gilroy defends a similar position towards race. “Race” is a political category that can accommodate different meanings which are determined by struggle. In the hierarchy of dimension of inequality “race” should be accorded an equivalent place to class and gender. Gilroy believes structural transformations have reduced the homogeneity and political weight of the working class and the Left should move away from blaming modern social movements of not corresponding to the models written in the 19th century. Gilroy criticizes the idea of an English patriotism of the Left fostered by Tony Benn, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson. “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack” is implicitly also a contribution to the debate about the peculiarities of the development and the weakness of Marxist tradition in England.

The book starts with an overview of theories about the relationship between “race” and “class”. Gilroy justifies his search for the distinctive, particular characteristics of race and racism in Britain with a critique of the different Marxist approaches of Ambalavener Silvanandan, Robert Miles and Ernesto Laclau.

“Race” and “Racism” is historically particular. The new racism sees race as a cultural issue and not primarily as a biological category. British racists such as Enough Powell understand race with the metaphor of a foreign invasion of Britain. Black criminality is an essential aspect of the race discussions. Gilroy introduces the findings of the CCCS study on “Mugging” and Social Panics. There is an identification of the law with national interests and of criminality with non-English qualities. In 1976 mugging is conceived as a racial crime and legality is the pre-eminent symbol of national culture. “Race” is not an essential biological category. There is a process of “race” formation. The antagonisms between the blacks and the police shaped black settlers in Britain into a political community.

The second part of the voluminous book examines variants of anti-Racism. Gilroy portrays the “Rock against Racism” movement of the late 1970s and the anti-racism campaign of the Greater London Council under Livingston in the 1980s. The GLC’s municipal Anti-Racism appears to endorse the idea that racial groups are real in the sense of being fixed and exclusive. But races are political collectives, not ahistorical essences. The essentialism of the GLC leads to a campaign which detaches issues of “race” and “prejudice” from the concrete social and political conflicts.

After this critique of essentialism Gilroy introduces the concept of the “Black Diaspora”. In the last part of the book Gilroy analyses the relationship between blacks and whites in the leisure institutions of urban Britain. 

Because of the influence of black styles, music, dress, dance, fashion and language, youth cultures became repositories of anti-racist feelings. The extensive chapter on black music in Jamaica, the US and Britain, provides elements of a history of black Soul and Rock music and is worth reading for those interested in understanding the relationship between Rock music and youth rebellion.

Gilroy manages to portray the dialectics of a particular modern British version of “race” and Racism. Unfortunately Gilroy does not show how the defeat of the English labour movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s shaped the relationship between “class” and “race”.

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