As we reflect on Martin Luther King's legacy, it is tempting to see issues of race as far from solved, but at least clear: black/white; justice/injustice; equality/inequality. Here, official documents regularly confirm consensual aspiration to a fairer, more equal society. The Scottish government's well-constructed race equality framework seeks to ensure that minority ethnic communities 'realise their potential.' What's not to like in its call to 'affirmative action,' the removal of inequalities in health, education, housing, employment and criminal justice?
But race is never unproblematic. 'Race', 'colour', 'ethnic minority' are not synonyms. The traditional black/white binary paradigm is anachronistic, if indeed it was ever true in a world where exploitation and migration have been more customary than we admit. The widespread reality of mixed heritages needs to be taken on board, and policy-makers in Scotland should seek further contemporary evidence. Leeds, Kent, and Manchester universities, among others, are at the forefront of this field, exploring how mixed heritages are profoundly important in public policy-making. And, as Glasgow University's Mengxi Pang has pointed out, our national narrative of Scotland being 'civic and inclusive' in comparison to England, may be an over-optimistic one.
Our language is off the pace. The 2011 census identified 90% of the Scottish population as 'White Scottish' or 'White British.' Neither of these is a satisfactory label, and the very categories reflect historically asymmetric power relations just as much as the racialising effect of the term 'black'. In fact, we should hesitate to recognise even 'Scottish' as unproblematic. While a psychosocial or geographical category, signifying exclusion/ inclusion, it is certainly neither an ethnic, nor religious, nor linguistic, nor even an unambiguous cultural definition. Shared cultural experiences are often mythical, and have been long undermined by a globalised world and technology.
Perhaps our common cultural nationhood was always 90% presumed. Edwin Muir, 80 years ago, wrote of 'these various Scotlands,' 'a confusing conglomeration,' as his peregrinations revealed Highland and Lowland as 'temperamentally incompatible.' And his Scotland was far less diverse than ours.
A census is just a snapshot, but the intersections of identity will become increasingly difficult to map, other than through long conversations. The future will only serve to further complicate. All assumptions should be off the table. However we configure our constitutions or tailor our treaties, large groups of people will move. Geo-politics, economic imbalance, cyclical change, as well as refugee crises consequent on resource depletion, conflict and climate change, will lead many to seek opportunity or just plain safety in new lands.
In this era of identity politics, we need to understand, even embrace (in a suitably Presbyterian way) the fluidities of race. Just as gender and class can't be ignored, neither should race. No way are we a 'post-racial' society. Over and above the half million here who were born in the rest of the UK, the 21st century has witnessed a rising proportion of UK residents not born in the UK. 2016 figures showed 3.6m EU nationals resident in the UK, with a further 2.4m non-EU foreign nationals. This is confirmation, if any were needed, that we need immigrant labour now as always.
But these populations are distributed very unevenly. Within Scotland, the Scottish-born dominate some areas – the populations of Coatbridge and Parkhead, for instance, are 96% Scottish-born – while other areas reflect greater inward migration from across the UK and beyond. And, while the 86,000 Poles, 16,000 Indians, and growing numbers from other groups, are pretty well spread, nevertheless there is no doubting the concentration of indigenous Scots in urban fastnesses. Is this a major faultline – a self-referential, heavily-populated west central belt Scotland dominated by the indigenous, with small pockets of urban immigrant groups, as against a more diverse east and hinterland? And how representative a version of Scotland does it generate in our culture?
So yes, we do need to see race. Those 'White Scottish' and 'White British' are not homogeneous, any more than 'Eastern Europeans' are. And we need to be much more sophisticated in our terminology. As Afua Hirsch says, 'The problem is, there is still race, and there is still racism. Denying it does not solve the problem.'