Newcomers and old prejudices

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Immigration, Ethnicity and Racism in Britain 1815-1945, By Panikos Panayi Manchester University Press #163;29.99, 0 7190 3698 4.

The subject of this book is of more than just scholarly interest. Having said that, it is one of those unfortunate books that manages to make a vital and fascinating subject seem dull.

Panikos Panayi's starting-point is a good one - that the history of minority groups in Britain needs to move beyond regarding them simply as the helpless victims of native prejudice and discrimination. The best sections are those that deal with the "internal" history of Britain's minority communities, their demographic structure, economic status and the ways in which cultural identification ("ethnicity") was maintained.

Much of this draws heavily on other recent work, such as Rosemary Ashton's book on the German community in 19th-century London, but as a summary of the current state of research it is of value. A few illustrative documents are included at the end, but one wishes that Panayi had included more anecdotal or narrative material in order to bring the book to life.

Partly, of course, this is a matter of space. This is a 140-page text on a very large subject. But Panayi does not help matters by needless repetition. Not only is each chapter relentlessly summarised, but even the summaries are summarised at the end.

Instead of an attempt to convey a flavour of the experiences of immigrants, we find a constant anxiety to find a "model" into which these diverse experiences will fit. And of course they don't, or if they do, the model is so bland and vague as to lose any explanatory power.

The biggest problems arise in the final chapter, "Racism". Panayi states that he is using the word "in the post-1945 sociological and public opinion sense of the word", by which is meant that "racist" is applied to any expression of hostility to any foreign or minority group. Thus anti-German feeling during World War I is lumped together with religiously based anti-semitism and quasi-scientific theories of negro inferiority.

On the basis of this capricious definition, Panayi can confidently assert that "all minorities in British history have endured racism", that "public opinion is fundamentally racist" and that "Britain has always been a racist state". These would be important and controversial claims were it not that for Panayi "all states are racist." If all states are racist, there is not much point in expending energy on explaining why Britain is racist.

The dead hand of political correctness can be felt all over this section,a kind of bureaucratic approach to intellectual enquiry that forbids it from going beyond the most banal simplicities. It is also misleading. To take one example, the extreme racists Robert Knox and James Hunt are picked out as though they were representative of Victorian anthropology. They were not, though as George Stocking has shown in his recent book on the subject, the mainstream Darwinian "cultural evolutionists" were just as prejudiced in their own way.

In general, the final 30 pages are so sloppily argued and weak in historical understanding that one wonders how the editors of this new series (aimed at sixth-formers and undergraduates) allowed them into print.

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