Paul Gilroy, who is professor of sociology and chairman of African American Studies at Yale, has an article in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, compares the racial disorders and neuroses of Britain and the United States and, as I read it, somehow manages to find each one worse than the other, except that Gilroy finds some hope in Britain’s de facto multiculturalism.
In Britain, writes Gilroy, loss of empire and global status has produced “fears,” “anxieties,” “melancholia,” “noxious, violent racism,” and “xenophobia,” among other problems of just getting along.
[The] continuing antipathy [of white workers] toward immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees cannot be concealed, but the idea that it has anything to do with noxious, violent racism or neo-fascist ultranationalism still seems like a shocking revelation that induces discomfort and guilt. In the grip of melancholia and xenophobia, Britain can quietly concede that it doesn’t much like aliens, blacks, foreigners, Muslims, and other interlopers, but then become uncomfortable because it doesn’t like the things it learns about itself when it gives vent to long-submerged feelings of hostility and hatred.
According to Gilroy, this
contemporary melancholia is a neurotic development that blocks the vitality of culture, diverting it instead into the morbid pleasures of military fantasy and other dead ends for which culture and identity supply the watchwords. It becomes impossible to get away from the painful and exhilarating romance of empire and to move beyond the disabling sense that the nation can only restore solidarity and promote healing when at war. Winston Churchill’s godlike presence has presided over these strange festivities, which have supplied the backdrop to the Blair government’s adventures in Iraq and help explain why the prime minister’s personal attachment to the policies of George W. Bush has been so pronounced.
Nevertheless, Gilroy claims, Britain is characterized by a new form of racial, ethnic, and cultural co-existence that he calls “conviviality.”
Civic life has been endowed with a vibrant multiculture. We Britons do not always value it, use it wisely, or celebrate it as we should. But it represents an alternative to Britain’s postcolonial melancholy and to American recipes for racial identity circulating through McWorld on the backs of hip-hop, basketball, and MTV.
Conviviality seems a better name for this alternative than multiculturalism because, in Britain, there has been no ideology of multiculturalism for at least two decades.
Compared to this new British “conviviality,” where “[s]ports, pop music, advertising, and even the House of Lords are all superficially integrated,” the U.S. comes up far short, its formerly vaunted civil rights movement an abject failure.
In the United States, despite the prominence of individuals from visible and underrepresented minority groups in the Bush administration, it would be hard to argue that the goals of the civil-rights movement have been attained or that the founding African-American experience of “double consciousness,” as outlined by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903, has been overcome or reconciled in the hawkish achievements of Condoleezza Rice and her ilk. Statistics outlining the disproportionate presence of African-Americans in prisons, racial differences in literacy rates, and significant disparities in health along racial lines need not be rehearsed here. The segregation of dwelling space and increasing inequality make the picture of failure clear and urgent.
Alas, Gilroy is in one respect right about that. Insofar as the goal of the civil rights movement was to rid American society of the noxious habit of distributing burdens and benefits on the basis of racial classifications, not only has it indeed been an abject failure but it has executed a sharp about face and marched off resolutely in the opposite direction under the banner of racial preferences.
ADDENDUM: Whites Need Not Walk
An attentive reader just sent a link to this article. I wonder if it describes what Gilroy means by the new “conviviality”?
The Lake District, England’s largest national park,
is facing mass resignations by its volunteer rangers over a decision to scrap free guided walks in the national park because they do not attract enough people from ethnic minority communities.
Ranger-led walks are among 900 Lake District events planned for 2005-06 that are to be dropped because they appeal mostly to