Institutional racism is so deeply embedded in the UK that we don't see it. Of course, it isn't 'as bad' as it was in the 1970s. Instead, it has gone to ground, festering in the undergrowth of progressive society and, as a result, more pernicious. The Windrush scandal is a prime example. If there is anything positive to emerge from the killing of George Floyd, it is that despite our refusal to face up to our past, where children can attend school for 12 years without learning the true story of Britain's prowess and wealth, our splendid youth are rising up and learning themselves. Who had heard of Colston prior to protesters toppling the statue of the slave-trading 'philanthropist' and dumping him in the river?
The racial contract
Our national philosopher David Hume, in a notorious footnote, wrote that non-whites were inferior to whites. His footnote has been characterised as 'just an offhand comment': to be ignored. He gets a pass because he rejected slavery. However, in the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race
, Garrett and Sebastiani claim that Hume's footnote reflects his deeper views about the 'sciences of man'. Hume's hidden views can be connected to passages in Hume's other works, they argue, and to a broader Scottish and European intellectual and historical setting. Hume insisted on a natural inferiority of non-white people which set them apart from other races, the difference being as great, he said, as the difference between human beings and animals. What should we make of Hume's racism? Can we hold Enlightenment thinkers accountable? As they say, it's complicated.
I've been reading Charles Mills' The Racial Contract,
a classic in Philosophy and Race Studies. At the time of the colonial expansions, an understanding was reached amongst the white tribes of Europe that all non-whites would be treated differently from whites. Non-whites were to be excluded from 'the social contract', depriving them of protections afforded to white people. And Mills presents evidence that this 'racial contract' was explicitly entered into by all nations of Europe.
It cannot be argued that this was just a matter of the times they lived in. For, at the moment of the original expansions, in 1513, the Castilian crown called a commission to discuss the legitimacy of colonising the Americas. King Ferdinand knew full well the horrors committed in his name. Spanish theologians and jurists, lead by Francisco Vitoria, told him there was no basis in law or theology for such a venture. In his On The American Indians
, Vitoria made this moral, legal and theological case abundantly clear, and all of Europe heard it. If white Europe went ahead with the racial contract it was not in ignorance, but in full awareness of the indefensible nature of their project.
Sex is real
Saturday was a day like every other day: that enervating sense of mindless repetition lifted out of its torpor by the daily menu of dreadful news. Having consumed the news of the day, all bloody day, I settled down for the night in the sure knowledge that nothing else horrible was going to happen, when the tweet dropped.
On the face of it, JK Rowling's tweet and the couple following, was innocuous. She claimed, simply, that biological sex is real, and it mattered. I knew what the reaction would be but this time, possibly fuelled by pent-up lockdown rage, it was a vile onslaught. The reaction has been horrendous (I'm not repeating any of it, but you can use Google). If we lived in the era where intelligent, free-thinking women were tortured and burnt as witches, JK Rowling would be one of them. People can disagree with Rowling's view or think that it was unwise to say so in the current, high-octane climate of racism and virus. Even so, the reaction was frightening.
There's sadness too in this modern tale. Millions of young people now in their late teens and early 20s grew up with Harry Potter and revere JK Rowling. After a gig in Glasgow last year, I happened to mention that JK's husband was playing keys in the band we'd just seen. One of our group, a young woman in her early 20s erupted 'Oh My God'. She couldn't believe she'd shared a space in close proximity to Harry Potter's creator. She had spotted a woman she thought looked like her favourite author but dismissed it, as she couldn't imagine Rowling at a gig in a sweaty Glasgow basement.
For many young people, public, visceral hatred of Rowling with book-burning parties and the like, has taken something precious from them. Most young people don't understand the complexities of feminism and the ideological contortions of theorists and activists, but they do know to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
Follow the science
A few days before this unfortunate online warfare, the Scottish Government, also unwisely, re-entered the fray. Perhaps they thought it would pass unnoticed. Statutory guidance for the Gender Representation of Public Boards (Scotland) Act 2019 redefined 'women' in the most cack-handed way. I can only assume that we have been served up a camel that was supposed to be a horse, designed by some physically-distanced sub-committee on Google Hangouts. As stated in the guidance, defenders claim the redefinition is only for the purpose of the Act, but we understand how precedent works.
The new guidance has not helped defuse the conflict between feminists and trans activists. Instead, it has made matters worse. For a Government whose mantra is 'we're following the science', it is more than a little odd that they eschew well-established biological science in this particular case. If science cannot generate the values they want, the science needs debunking, it would seem.
No other issue has made me think harder and distressed me more than this. What am I missing? I've no doubt that just as there are transphobes masquerading as feminists, there are misogynists masquerading as trans allies. And I know for certain that transwomen and transmen have suffered the most appalling abuse. But I'm sure that denying biology and dehumanising the term 'women' and replacing it with 'bleeders' or 'menstruators' – what JK Rowling found objectionable – is not the answer. The solutions lie in long, painstaking, inglorious work by policymakers. I'm afraid that ship has probably well and truly sailed.