By Nasar Meer, Anoop Nayak and Raksha Pande
Ideas of race seem as salient today as they have ever been, even when we are not directly talking about issues of race. In our new themed section on The Matter of Race, and with contributions from Les Back, Paul Bagguley, Daniel Burdsey, Sarah Burton, Bridget Byrne, Yasmin Hussein and Maggie Tate, we show that because of the slippery fashion in which ideas of race have shifted, transmuted and pluralised, race continues to matter even if it is presented as non-race concern. What we describe might be understood as a trend in new directions in racial formation. As Paul Gilroy (2004: 111) accepted over a decade ago, ‘it is impossible to deny that we are living through a profound transformation in the way the idea of ‘race’ is understood and acted upon’. We can see this if we reflect for moment on how debates about the European Union and sovereignty proceed with a firm view of the ‘migrant’ in mind, or how debates about ‘British values’ quickly become entrenched in ethnic hierarchies, or indeed how race is more broadly translated into a mode of ‘resentment as 'a political idea'’ (Ware, 2008). Each of these moves a little beyond Atlantocentric (black-white) notions of race, something that is further illustrated in issue of Islamophobia, antisemitism and anti-Roma discourse.
In our themed section the papers by Daniel Burdsey, and Paul Bagguley and Yasmin Hussein respectively, take up this focus to span issues of representation and sport, and the ways in which ethnicities encounter crisis, diversity and re-composition in post-imperial settings. Burdsey focuses on a case study of England cricketer Moeen Ali in order to explore how race, religion and citizenship are configured in the sporting arena and made sense of in the wider popular press and national media. The implications are that we might ‘think differently about the relationship between sport, politics and the sporting hero, and to reconsider conventional analyses of agency, activism and the use of sport as a platform from which to “speak” in the public sphere’ (Burdsey, themed section). Bagguley and Hussein meanwhile present an analysis of how people present and negotiate their ethnicity reflexively in relation to nation, citizenship and processes of racialization. Using qualitative interview study (N=140) on how different ethnic groups in West Yorkshire were affected the 7/7 London bombings, they show how these different forms of reflexivity – meta-reflexivity, autonomous reflexivity, communicative reflexivity and fractured reflexivity – become operable amongst different ethnic groups. ‘The re-composition of ethnicised identity claims, and increased reflexivity of identity that this is demanding of people’, they maintain, ‘is seen to be rooted in the political and identity crises generated by Britain’s role in and response to the war on terror’. In their analysis these differentiated expressions are rooted in the specific politics and histories of migration and racialization in relation to dominant discourses of whiteness and the state.
In her contribution meanwhile, Bridget Byrne shows how campaigns around citizenship rights in Britain rely on the production of whiteness in a way that has profound implications for ideas of citizens and non-citizens in Britain, whilst also highlighting the need for a complex range of vocabularies to enable the analysis of different exclusions, not least through intersectional registers. These different exclusions are, in her account, ‘clustered around these imaginations are notions of integration, language and love which rely on shared and interwoven assumptions about race, gender and religion as well as class and sexuality’ (Byrne, themed section).
These sets of argument may however encounter the charge that we are witnessing a ‘growing culture of racial equivalence’ (Song, 2014: 109). In this view ‘the concept of racism has suffered from conceptual inflation, resulting in the declining utility of this important concept’ (ibid. 108). While the recognition of racism’s plural character (and its many possible incarnations) is not unequivocally welcomed, it remains necessary if we are to capture the changing status of race concept over a longue durée, and grasp ‘what race does and what is done in the name of race’ (Murji and Solomos, 2-15: 276).
The challenge for the discipline of Sociology is that race presents a paradox that sociologists constantly grapple with. Many tend to portray the term under erasure by presenting it in inverted commas so as to indicate that we are referring to a socially constructed category, based upon a problematic idea, instead of something that is self-evidently real in the world. Even those who do not repeat this practice agree with the thrust of the argument. Perhaps the simplest way to frame this is to say that sociologists tend to be interested in the dynamic and relational properties of race as both a historical idea and social category. Yet is this insufficient?
Virdee (2012: 1144), for example, reminds us that sociology did not stand outside a racialised modernity that ‘endowed some Europeans with privilege along with the power to occupy the centre of world history, and shape it according to its own image’. The objective of this complaint is not to devalue British sociology. On the contrary. it is to make the argument for sociology, for ‘self scrutiny rather than sheer defensiveness’ (McLennan, 2006: 97), to encourage ‘without guarantees’ (Hall, 1986) inquiry on the ways in which race and sociology are already deeply implicated. Sociologies of race therefore require ‘being attentive to the specificities of the current situation but also historical linkages through time’ (Back, personal correspondence with authors). This means going beyond surface level reconstructions, and challenging sociologists to reflect on how their discipline is organised across sociology departments, ‘just as sociologists have criticized other disciplines on these matters’ (Murji, 2007: 853). As Claire Alexander (2011) has put it: