Louise Casey’s common (non)sense and the illogic of racism

Arzu Merali argues that years of reports have done little but push the UK further towards Victorian victim shaming and ever widening socio-economic divides*

There was that time Louise Casey did her report into homelessness. Remember that? Maybe not. Or her foray into crime and punishment? Or troubled families or anti-social behaviour?

Maybe, or maybe not still, but you see the pattern of employment forming: there’s no social issue big enough to deter our Louise, and successive governments have devolved the task of reviewing and (at least suggesting) reforming them to her.

It is unfair to lambast Louise Casey solely for the reprehensible racist discourse that permeates her so-called review into “opportunity” and “integration”.

It’s been dealt with with brilliantly elsewhere – from the voices of Muslim women who know they are denied integration and opportunity by the state and its perpetuation of discriminatory social mores to its at-best-lackadaisical and at worst Islamophobic focus on Muslims.

She is sought out, it can be argued, because of the climate created around her. Her specialisation, it seems, is the perpetuation of “common sense” ideas that absolve governments of responsibility for social problems and the need to find solutions for them by putting some or all of the blame on victims and those who advocate for them.

Casey’s role in this realignment of public values is overlooked and deserves attention as emblematic of the huge shift in mores we have witnessed within perhaps less than 20 years – a shift that Mrs Thatcher and all her ideological diatribes against the idea of society herself could not have foreseen.

Social evils to social problems

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation explains its own mission – but also the shift from a Victorian understanding to a current one – as a shift from seeing things like poverty as social evils that simply exist and cannot be avoided to social problems which can be overcome.

Thatcher and Norman Tebbit (her one-time employment secretary) in their day, created the idea that where hardship existed, you needed to “get on your bike” and get out of it

It’s the shift that brought us the National Health Service, and it’s the slide back that will see it taken away from us. All the while, we have been socialised to the process by a blame culture that excoriates those suffering and those that would help or, worse still, demand that the state help.

Those who suffer are deemed to be part of that evil, whether overtly or implicitly. Somehow, the narrative suggests, they asked for this. Thatcher and Norman Tebbit (her one-time employment secretary) in their day, created the idea that where hardship existed, you needed to “get on your bike” and get out of it.

Superficially, that is what Casey demands when she claims in her recent review that the various pathologisations she paints the Muslim communities with are what is holding Muslim women in particular, but Muslims as a whole back.

It is not racism and discrimination that keeps them out of work, despite previous academically rigorous studies’ claims to the contrary. For Casey, it is a lack of integration on the part of Muslims that prevents them from escaping the social evils of unemployment and racism, for which no one it seems, except maybe themselves, are responsible.

And yes, that didn’t make sense, even though it’s a rhetoric that appeals to the “common sense” of some of the most extreme voices in society. It should have been the report’s biggest indictment that its most vociferous plaudits came from UKIP.

But there is little connection of these dots today. UKIP’s response is quoted as if there is nothing extraordinary.

How did we get here?

Reports and reviews like Casey’s contribute to cycles of demonisation that lead not just to a shift in values, but to the reimagining of the state, its role, and, more importantly, the policies to tackle –  or not tackle – poverty, discrimination, health crises, crime, violence against women and beyond.

By turning that punitive spotlight on deviancy, Casey inadvertently implies that the British values she speaks of are informed by or imbue that regressiveness and sit opposed to all who suffer from any of the above.

Remember when Casey was head of the Rough Sleeping Unit? She claimed that charities encouraged homeless people to stay on the streets and serviced the problem: “With soup runs and other kinds of charity help, well-meaning people are spending money servicing the problem on the streets and keeping it there.”

She took The Big Issue, hitherto held up as a model of helping individual homeless people (remember the focus is on deviant individuals, not the social problems that create homelessness) to task.

Back in 2002 on the BBC News page asking for responses to Casey’s comments on homelessness charities, there were reasoned, nuanced but overwhelmingly critical statements on Casey’s thoughts. Scroll down and you will find one that stands apart from the rest:

“Homeless people who clog up honest law-abiding citizens’ doorways are a nuisance. They should be clamped like illegally parked cars and only let free if they pay a fine. We have a pilot scheme here in Philadelphia to do just this, and it has cleared 90 percent of homeless off the streets within a few weeks.”

Scroll forward to 2016 and homeless spikes abound in our town centres, “unclogging” our shop entrances and shared public spaces.  That horror and assured, measured and critical response to Casey’s remarks is now vilified as the anti-thesis to “common sense” thinking.

This common sense appellation applied by no less than the Telegraph when Casey was moved to the issue of crime, where some of her recommendations stated that offenders should be made to wear high visibility tabards marked “offender” and be named and shamed on posters.  Highlight, spotlight and penalise.

This week’s review, a supposed castigation of failed integration by immigrant (read Muslim) communities does just that. Everyone marked as a Muslim “other” now wears (if they didn’t already) a high visibility tabard marked “offender”.

When winning is losing

Casey didn’t start this and is certainly not the sole facilitator. But her illogical common sense, has turned right-wing rhetoric and extreme narratives into policy speak in an age in which even the High Pay Commission echoes the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that pay gaps and living standards are reverting to Victorian levels of inequality.

All the while our common sense focus is steered to “deviant” communities (Muslims, migrants, homeless, criminals) that need “solving” for the well-being of the majority.

Back in 2015, Asim Qureishi of Muslim advocacy organisation Cage became the focus of sustained media attacks based on statements to do with so-called “Jihadi John”. Remember that? Maybe not. Such attacks are two a penny these days – these long days of derision dressed as investigation, be it from the media or government.

The Daily Mail added to its list of vilifications with a piece that “exposed” Qureishi as living “a very middle-class existence”. Literally. That’s it. Qureishi defies all of Casey’s pathologies. According to the Daily Mail, he lives in his own house, went to a private school, his father was a pharmacist and his uncle trialled for Fulham FC to boot. He is the Thatcher success story.

He and his family got on their bikes and they are here – escaped from the joblessness and segregation Casey’s review blames on those from minorities who endure such. Yet, they still fail. And that’s the crux of it: as a deviant other, in this case a Muslim, you cannot win.

You are cast out. Everything you endure is your own fault. Every attempt at liberation, even using the most capitalist, neo-liberal friendly model, marks your deviance ever more, even when it contradicts the narrative of pathologisation. That’s the illogic of racism.

The hidden push for change

In an attempt, maybe, to obviate the ongoing negative representation, and the fetish, come this time of year for “Christmas (tree) hating Muslims” stories, some editorial spaces have been opened up this year for stories about a Muslim restauranteur providing free meals on Christmas Day to the homeless “so no-one eats alone”. As it happens, this is not a new or single example.

Initiatives have been going on like this for years in the Muslim community, with soup kitchens operating all year round, including the festive season. It’s Muslims, whether as individuals, community groups or NGOs, filling the space increasingly vacated by local and national government.

It’s what happens up and down the country amongst faith and non-faith groups. It’s what sprang up during the Victorian era. It’s what pushed for a change in social mores.

Yet every Casey-style review will hide both the real social problems and the means by which people up and down the country are trying to tackle them as the welfare state is rolled back.

No matter what Casey says, it’s not just those otherised by “race” that suffer the effects.

– Arzu Merali co-authored the six volumes of the British Muslim Expectations of the Government series. She is one of the co-founders of the Islamic Human Rights Commission. You can follow her on Twitter @arzumerali.

*This article was first published on Middle Easy Eye, here.

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