An obituary of sorts: Professor John Rex
A journalist called Christopher Hitchens, who died a few days ago, has received thousands of column inches in his praise largely because, in addition to a good prose style, he chose to take controversial positions. One of Britain’s greatest sociologists, Professor John Rex, who died on Tuesday at the age of 86, will gain few column inches, perhaps because he chose excellence, rigour and consistency in all his work.
It seems a shame that the works of a serious socialist thinker and researcher like John Rex are likely to remain consigned to the backshelves of secondhand book shops, while the entertaining but ultimately frivolous offerings of Christopher Hitchens go off for further reprints.
In 1968, in a typcially forthright piece The Race Relations Catastrophe, Rex predicted what would happen in British inner cities, and urged politicians to take decisive action:
We have just about ten years to break down our ghettoes and to see to it that all men have the same opportunities in education and employment…The difficulties we face do not arise from our ignorance about how the problem should be tackled. They arise from a lack of will or from opportunist electoral fear. Yet trying to placate the electorate with semi-racialist policies, or keeping quite in the hope that you won’t be called a nigger-lover hasn’t paid off, while a deliberate assault on the ghettoes with a view to clearing them would eliminate one of the most important of all the secondary causes of racialism.
The politicians did not act, and in 1981 race riots took place across the country. For another 30 years, politicians continued to pander to opportunist electoral considerations. In 2011 rioting took place again - though the intervening years had changed some of the specifically racial characterstics in the ghettoes, and some of the ghettoes had been relocated to outer estates. Most of those involved think further riots will take place soon, and the police are drawing up their plans.
Rex is probably best known in the academic community for his key works Key Problems of Sociological Theory (1964), Race Relations in Sociological Theory (1970), Race and Ethnicity (1986). However, it is his groundbreaking and meticulous 1967 study (with Robert Moore) Race, Community, and Conflict: A Study of Sparkbrook which really mark him out for members of the non-academic-but-politically-engaged community that I like to thing I belong to.
In this, he set out with great precision the overtly racist policies being enacted by local and central government in Birmingham, and the legacy of discrimination it was creating, which would in turn create the conditions for much of the urban conflict we see today.
Rex founded the Sociology Department at Warwick University in 1970, when Warwick was very much a new ‘red brick’, not the institution with the world-class reputation it has now earned. He stayed with Warwick for most of his career.
I emailed him a year or two ago when I discovered his work – at the back of a secondhand bookshop - seeking his advice. I got an automatic reply saying that he was in hospital and that he’d reply on return. Sadly, he was never able to. I wish I’d read his stuff earlier.
I hope this little obituary note will at least persuade one or two others to look up his work. He had, and still has through his published a lot to say that is relevant to where we are now.
As I set out here, better late than never to act on his advice.