Review: Radicals Against Race

I’ve just finished reading Radicals Against Race (Oxford: Berg, 2002) a very interesting book by Brian Alleyne, a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College. Alleyne’s book explores the history and politics of what he terms the ‘New Beacon Circle’ (the collective of activists around what is now the George Padmore Institute) from a (relative) insider’s perspective; the book is based on the ethnographic fieldwork he conducted for his PhD, which included time spent volunteering in the Institute / bookshop and long hours interviewing John la Rose.

Alleyne’s book is fascinating as a model for thinking about how we research the use of history as a resource in a political context. This is a fundamental issue in thinking about evaluating the impact of community archives. Indeed, he refers to history as an ‘important resource and terrain of imagination and action’ (p.179) for the circle and elaborates a useful dialogical model of the role of historical narrative subject construction:

In producing historical and biographical narratives they [the members of the New Beacon Circle] bring a political subject into being; in turn, that new political subject, which exists in the identities and sense of community that the circle construct in their activist work, facilitates the continued production of historical and biographical narratives. (p.2)

One aspect of what, following Eyerman & Jamison (Social Movements: A Cognitive Approach, Cambridge: Polity, 1991) he terms the activists’ ‘cognitive praxis’ (or in other words, reflexive practice geared towards the construction of meanings, specifically, revised self-understandings accounting for the impact of colonialism) was the management of information, both through computer systems and in the archive. Indeed, one section of chapter three focuses specifically on the archive project and includes interesting insights into the suspicion with which many (but not all) professional archivists treated the GPI’s ‘DIY’ archive (p.102) and the importance of retaining control over the material: as he cites John la Rose, ‘You should not depend on an establishment with which you are at times in conflict for the validation of your history and culture’ (p.124). He also confirms one of our own provisional findings, which is that committed activists – whether focused on heritage or any other sector – often pay a price for their engagement, such as ‘following relatively precarious occupations’ or ‘subordinating career development’ (p.171).

Whilst there are some areas in which Alleyne’s research supports our own his book and other articles (e.g. ‘An idea of community and its discontents: towards a more reflexive sense of belonging in multicultural Britain’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 25.4 (2002), pp.607-627) really force us to confront the assumptions underlying our research design. The challenge to our thinking can be divided into two fairly fundamental areas: community and identity.

1) Community

The crux of Alleyne’s argument is the view that the concept of ‘community’, when applied to BME ‘communities’ reproduces ‘historically and theoretically untenable notions of immutable difference’ (‘An idea’: 609). He supports this view with reference to the historical development of the concept of ‘community’ in Anthropology and Sociology, both of which disciplines historically placed ‘communities’ before Western society on a scale of evolutionary progress: ‘community’ is therefore intrinsically the property of the ‘exotic’ other, distanced either in time (sociology) or space (anthropology). Whilst I agree with his argument in so far as it relates to a mode of academic discourse and its reproduction in public policy (where to be white is often to be first and foremost a member of society, rather than a ‘community’ – for example on the census) I think we can justify our use of the term by noting that the interest in ‘community’ archives comes not out of the language of public policy but out of a more grassroots movements. The ‘communities’ that hold archives are by no means necessarily non-white – often quite the opposite. The ‘community’ in the phrase ‘BME community archives’ is must more firmly articulated with archives rather than ‘BME’: i.e we are looking at the ‘community archives’ of BME groups not the ‘archives’ of BME ‘communities’. But this is a subtle and hard-to-maintain distinction. Carrying the language of community over into the world of black subjectivities may have more serious ramifications than we had at first imagined.

For what its worth, Alleyne does not entirely dismiss the idea of community but rather notes that it needs to be reconceptualized in ‘more fluid terms’ (‘An idea’ p.619). One of the examples he cites is Miller and Slater’s work on the Internet in Trinidad, in which ‘community’ is reconstructed in ways that transcend the classic imaginings of social scientists. Archives, as an alternative locus of information exchange, could perhaps also facilitate this reimagining, rather than reinforcing old prejudices.

2) Identity

Alleyne begins his book with an epigraph that sets up a direct confrontation with our research ontology. Citing the French sociologist Alain Touraine (Can we live together? Equality and difference. Cambridge: Polity, 2000) he states, ‘we can live together only if we lose our identity.’ Coming as I do from a background in French Studies I find this citation deeply problematic; I don’t know the precise context of Touraine’s statement but nine times out of ten, what underlies such views when voiced in France is a model of assimilation: some people – particularly those who are not white and/or not Catholic – tend to be seen as having a lot more losing of identity to do than those who are… However, I am symathetic to Alleyne’s personal positioning, which he also sees as that of the New Beacon Circle: a non-identitarian critical humanism. When the New Beacon Circle have explicity positioned themselves within black politics (e.g. in setting up the Black Parents Movement) this is neither because of any perceived essential difference, nor indeed out of subservience for an ideology of black power; rather, it is a form of ‘tactical essentialism’, focusing on the prejudices that underpin inequality. Overall, however, ‘against the grain in much contemporary Black identity politics, the circle turn their backs on the allure of race, to borrow Gilroy’s (2000) phrase’ (p.180). The ultimate goal is the construction of inclusive, transracial, transcultural social identities. ‘Black was the means to an end, not the end in itself’ (‘An idea’ 2002 p.620).

Mary

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