No problem here?

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

In the second of two articles for Black History Month, my friend and colleague, Tony Adams reviews No Problem Here: Understanding Racism in Scotland (Luath, 2018) Neil Davidson, Minna Liinpaa, Maureen McBride and Satnam Virdee (eds.). This article originally appeared in The Scottish Left Review (Issue 106 July/August 2018).

Racism in Scotland is often relegated to the back burner. Even when the issue of racism is broached by anti-racists campaigners the stock responses they are met with is that ‘Things aren’t as bad as all that, you exaggerate; you’re indulging in special pleading or you must be paranoid’. Little wonder there is this widely held view both by politicians and academics that ‘there is no problem here’. Ethnic minorities are congratulated for integrating better and there is a welcoming attitude towards refugees and migrants.

Meanwhile research into the historical record and contemporary reality tells a different story. The racialized outsider faces discrimination in education, jobs, housing and at the hands of the police and criminal justice system. Racism in Scotland is, therefore, not a side issue and it is not peripheral either. It is central to the way things work. The question of racism in Scotland and the interplay, of race class, nationalism and other intersecting issues are very focal to this edited book. It brings together the views of academics, activists and anti-racism campaigners who argue that it is vital that the issue of racism be brought into public discourse.

In contrast to England, there has been relatively little public discussion about the historical or contemporaneous structuring power of racism in Scotland. ‘We wish to dig beneath the ‘race
blind’ narrative that Scotland and its elites have crafted for many years, to perhaps unsettle them a little, so that we might begin to open up space for writing a historical sociology of racism in Scotland’ the book says. Its contributors ‘contend that the narrative of an absent racism in Scottish history and that the Scots are more egalitarian, more likely to place an emphasis on collectivism over individualism and on government intervention over self-reliance reinforces the myth that Scotland does not have a serious racism problem’. Instrumental to the consolidation of this powerful myth that ‘there is no problem here’ is that memorable Scottish phrase, ‘We’re a’ Jock Tamsin’s bairns’.

Such myth making has the effect of deflecting attention away from the disproportionate role that Scots actually played in the British Empire. It occludes any discussion of racisms in the country. Empire is central to the union. TheAct of Union, 1707, opened up English colonial markets to Scottish merchants and made it possible for Scots to play
a role in the construction of the British Empire. But when we think of the British Empire our minds often drift to England rather than to Scotland. Yet Scotland was complicit in the slave trade and had colonies predating the joining of the union. It is significant to note here that slavery or the slave mode of production was central to early capital and racism became its justification. Thus racism has evolved entwined with capitalism over the last three centuries.

There is a level of amnesia that clouds the history of empire. Glasgow was the second city of the empire and, by the end of the Victorian era, Scots firms had attained a controlling position in key sectors of the economy of British India. Rather than sanitizing its past in order to re-imagine a post-union future, perhaps we need to look back at Scotland’s imperial history and connect it to a broader understanding of the British empire and Britain’s colonial past.

This perception that Scotland has less of a problem with racism than other areas of the UK is not borne out by the statistics either. In 2013-14 there were 4,807 racist incidents recorded by police
in Scotland, the equivalent of 92 incidents a week without accounting for the many cases that go unreported. And lest we forget that there has been racist murders here many of which have still not been formally acknowledge as racist – Nuer Mohamed, Hector Smith, Shamsie Din Mohamed, Imran Khan, Sanjit Singh Choker and Sheku Bayoh to name a few. The growth of far right parties and the rise of Islamophobia across Europe and the US has to be challenged and driven back. Scotland is not immune from this.

The book explores the different modalities of racism in Scotland and the ways in which cultural racism has become central to the experiences of particular social groups. It also seeks
to locate the contemporary debates on racialization and racism in their appropriate context in Scottish history. As the late historian E H Carr once put it: ‘There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write’. No Problem Here is a welcomed and important starting contribution that will invigorate the debate of what kind of Scotland we live in and what kind of Scotland we want it to be.

Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal.