‘Racism’ or ‘Racist incident,’ what’s the difference?

This article was published in openDemocracy, 7 June 2011

“Racism” or “Racist incident”, what’s the difference? UCU and the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism

Is it good to pretend that racism can be identified simply with reference to the victim’s perception of racism? The Macpherson report into the conduct of the police in investigating the killing of Stephen Lawrence is being mis-read.The decision of the Universities and College Union’s congress at the end of May to ban use of the European Union Monitoring Centre’s ‘working definition’ of antisemitism greatly angered a variety of groups and individuals —Jews and non-Jews—who believe the UCU is soft on Jew-hatred.

Proponents of the ban argued that ‘the EUMC definition confuses criticism of Israeli government policy and actions with genuine antisemitism, and is being used to silence debate about Israel and Palestine on campus’. Opponents countered by claiming that the UCU refuses to take members’ complaints of antisemitism in the organization seriously, that union members who earlier at congress had voted for a boycott of Israeli academia are motivated by antisemitism and that banning use of the EUMC definition is tantamount to denying that antisemitism exists, because it leaves the union without any definition at all. Although the resolution adopted does not say that the UCU must now ignore instances of antisemitism and in fact it acknowledges that ‘genuine antisemitism’ must be fought, critics argue that the UCU is ‘institutionally racist’, according to the definition of institutional racism in the 1999 Macpherson Report produced by the panel that conducted an inquiry into the 1993 murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

In a highly significant development, these critics have gone even further and argue that the congress’s decision means that the UCU has rejected the Macpherson Report’s definition of racism. And that this justifies attacking the UCU for denying Jews the Macpherson-conferred right to be the sole arbiters of what is and what is not antisemitism. This was already anticipated before the debate. In the Jewish Chronicle on 26 May, Martin Bright wrote:

Senior figures in the Jewish leadership have voiced concerns [about the UCU motion on the EUMC ‘working definition’] to Trevor Phillips, chair of the EHRC. A letter has been sent from the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust, urging the body to make a stand on the issue.

The Jewish organisations have suggested that Mr Phillips re-emphasise the recommendations of the Macpherson Report into the murder of the south London teenager Stephen Lawrence.

This defined a racist incident as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’, and is now the definition used by police when antisemitic attacks are reported.

The Board, the JLC and the CST have also written to UCU general secretary Sally Hunt and TUC general secretary Brendan Barber to ask them to sign up to the Macpherson definition of racism.

Among those commenting since the vote, a similar and perhaps even identical strategy is being advocated. For example, Adam Langleben, writing on the Left Foot Forward website, says:

[The ‘working definition’s] widespread adoption would appear to be in line with the recommendations of the MacPherson Inquiry, whose report following the death of Stephen Lawrence stated that an incident is racist if: ‘… it is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.’

Langleben then goes on to quote the Macpherson Report’s definition of institutional racism and states: ‘This seems to be exactly what has occurred in the UCU.’ He concludes:

Jewish organisations are now calling for an EHRC formal inquiry, a demand supported by John Mann MP. For the UCU, not only to ignore the concerns of its Jewish academics and community members – but to actively vote to dismiss them out of hand – disgraces the Left.

If ‘disgrace’ accrues to anyone in this debate, I’m afraid it’s to those arguing in this fashion.

If by ‘definition of racism’ what is meant is a comprehensive definition of the term, the fact is that the Macpherson Report did not provide any such thing. It had a lot to say on the subject, because the failures in the police investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder were largely due to conscious or unconscious racism. But Macpherson gave only two definitions in relation to racism. The first appears in the Report as follows:


12. That the definition should be:

‘A racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’.

13. That the term ‘racist incident’ must be understood to include crimes and non-crimes in policing terms. Both must be reported, recorded and investigated with equal commitment.

The second is a definition of institutional racism:

The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.

It’s surely obvious that neither separately nor taken together do these definitions comprise a comprehensive definition of racism. However, they are both used to attack the UCU.

As far as whether the UCU is institutionally racist, since it is an institution, it’s theoretically possible that it is racist. Macpherson did not intend the concept to apply to the police force alone, but to any institution. I’m not a member of the UCU and while I’m partially familiar with some of the accusations against the UCU in relation to Jewish members expressing their concerns about antisemitism, I’m not in a position to make a judgement.

However, I do know that the UCU held a series of three all-day events last year, in Brighton, the University of Northumbria and at the UCU central office in London, under the heading ‘The Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, The Holocaust and Resistance, Yesterday and Today’. This was in fulfilment of a resolution passed at the UCU 2009 conference to begin a campaign against antisemitism. The presenters were not only knowledgeable about the subject, but also represented a range of views on the issue of the relationship between criticism of Israel and antisemitism. They included Philip Spencer, Robert Fine, Brian Klug, David Hirsh, Gilbert Achcar, Mary Davis, Tom Hickey, John Rose. Sally Hunt chaired the Brighton event. The union produced an excellent educational wall poster on the Holocaust and subsequently a publication ‘The Legacy of Hope: Resistance, Yesterday and Today.’

The holding of these events does not in and of itself acquit the UCU of any accusations that might be made against it of institutional antisemitism, but it certainly makes such accusations rather difficult to stand up. And it’s curious to say the least, that in all the ire and threats directed at the UCU by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council, Engage and so on, the fact that these events were held is, as far as I can tell, never mentioned.

But far more important is the use made of the first definition: of a racist incident. This is because it has been widely interpreted as laying down a general rule as to who and who is not entitled to define the racism experienced by a particular minority or ethnic group. We can see this in the speech Ronnie Fraser gaveduring the UCU debate on the motion to distance the union from the EUMC definition:

Congress, Imagine how it feels when you say that you are experiencing racism, and your union responds: ‘Stop lying, stop trying to play the antisemitism card.’

You, a group of mainly white, non-Jewish trade unionists, do not have the right to tell me, a Jew, what feels like antisemitism and what does not.

Macpherson tells us that when somebody says they have been a victim of racism, then institutions should begin by believing them. This motion mandates the union to do the opposite.

What Fraser implies here and what is stated and implied very broadly, for example by the Union of Jewish Students I believe, Israeli politicians and representatives of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, is that only the group that experiences racism is entitled to define what that racism consists of. In other words, only Jews can define what antisemitism is because they are the ones who experience it. So from a specific instruction to the police that the victim’s perception of the motive for an attack is what the police must record as the motive for the attack, we move to a general rule that only the victim can define the racism he or she experiences.

That this elision is highly problematic was in fact recognised by the Community Security Trust. Its Antisemitic Discourse Report 2009 states:

The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry definition of a racist incident has significantly influenced societal interpretations of what does and does not constitute racism, with the victim’s perception assuming paramount importance. CST, however, ultimately defines incidents against Jews as being antisemitic only where it can be objectively shown to be the case[emphasis added],and this may not always match the victim’s perception as called for by the Lawrence Inquiry. CST takes a similar approach to the highly complex issue of antisemitic discourse, and notes the multiplicity of opinions within and beyond the Jewish community concerning this often controversial subject.

Clearly, the CST has sympathy for the principle that the victim’s experience must be heard and taken into account, but that ultimately judging what constitutes antisemitism must be determined objectively. It cannot rest solely with the victim.

This is a commendable statement and an important reservation concerning the Macpherson definition of a racial incident. But it brings us back to what the Macpherson Report was setting out to achieve by framing the definition of a racist incident in this way. This is not by any means difficult to establish. It was conscious or unconscious racism that fatally affected the ability of the police to conduct a professional investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The report goes into this in great depth. Most of the recommendations therefore relate to reforming and improving police behaviour. And the definition of a racist incident was clearly meant as a very simple and very direct way of doing that: insisting that police must not only keep accurate records of racist incidents, but that they must record that an incident is racist if the victim says it is. At no point does the report move from that very specific and narrow point to a generalisation that racism is what the victim says it is. And I am certain that neither Macpherson nor his fellow inquiry members ever intended that readers of his report and recommendations should understand that this what what they meant.

There are therefore absolutely no grounds for attacking the UCU for rejecting the Macpherson definition of racism. It did no such thing; there is no such definition.

This turns the spotlight back on the organizations, groups, activists, bloggers and so on who are using this as a tactic to attack the UCU for its decision to distance itself from the EUMC ‘working definition’ of antisemitism. Sadly, it’s once again a sign of the appalling leadership being offered to the Jewish community by the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the CST,the Zionist Federation, the Union of Jewish Students and other groups. Their egos are being massaged by people like Adam Langleben who writes on Left Foot Forward that the EUMC ‘working definition’ is ‘the definition that the democratically elected representative bodies of the Jewish community broadly agree on’ – that is ‘democratically elected’ as in ‘mostly self-appointed’ and ‘representative’ as in ‘representative of a minority, and mostly a tiny minority: namely ourselves’. And they’re aided and abetted by websites like Simply Jewsthat write hyperbolically about ‘the extent this teachers union will go to bury its inherent single minded racism against its Jewish members’ and laughably excoriate Jewish leaders for offering no ‘viable leadership to combat manifestations of modern antisemitism’ – when it sometimes seems Jewish leadership thinks it’s doing nothing else.

They really must stop and think again. If they don’t listen to me, they should read Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s 2 June op-ed article in the Jewish Chronicle.‘Don’t let antisemitism take over our narrative’ he pleads.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are the dominant concerns of British Jewish life today. And anyone who engages at the challenging frontiers between Islam and Judaism, Israelis and Palestinians, may fear short shrift. . . . Our story, and our telling of it, is becoming strident.

He states clearly that ‘vigilance is necessary’ but goes on:

Yet, without relinquishing such vigilance, I believe it is important to uphold a narrative of greater imagination and tolerance. ‘Either you’re for us or you’re totally against us’ expresses an oversimplified, often bigoted world-view. It’s easy to brand others as antisemites, hard to engage at the borders between ourselves and those who don’t see the world as we do.

‘My point is that we shouldn’t make “the world hates us” our motto,’ Rabbi Wittenberg writes. This is precisely what Jewish leaders are doing in their intemperate and deeply misguided response to the UCU vote.

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