Between colour lines

Mindfield - Hate Thy Neighbour
March 12, 1999

In this book, the contributors are professional race experts, some from Asian and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, but all working in Britain. The status of black British citizens remains probationary in a cultural sense despite formal legal guarantees of racial equality. The book offers a plethora of opinions, including a non-judgemental interview with a British National Party member unashamed of his xenophobic conservatism. Perhaps "racism" is actually a rational way of pursuing communal self-interest. The editor decides to leave judgement to the individual experts.

It is axiomatic that the fight against racism is not a fight against cultural difference but against racial inequality. Communities wish to be separate but equal. "Multiracial" is a description of modern Britain; "multi-culturalism" is a demand on government policy to address minority needs in the attempt to achieve equality for all citizens in our potentially mature democracy.

Some of the contributors highlight the plight of the British working class, where to be working is already a privilege. The youth despair: "Work is something fathers do, or did." There is a piece on the Irish, the black men of the west, often portrayed with a simian appearance in cartoons. One writer argues that the British, worried by Catholicism, have dismissed the Irish as a people "untroubled by aesthetics and learning", a race for whom "Jane Austen is a motor car".

As for the visible minorities, it is thought, correctly, that things are improving. While complete racial equality remains a futurist fantasy, at least we do not have, as the United States does, an undeclared civil war between the races. Chris Myant of the Commission for Racial Equality notes that the 1997 general election was the least affected by a negative exploitation of racial concerns. The current Labour government has shown practical sympathy for the minorities. Gone are the days when (the late) Enoch Powell could deny the very existence of the black British community. Gone are the days when Asians and Afro-Caribbeans were, in one contributor's words, "a disposable proletariat". Between an inarticulate anger and subsequent rioting on the streets, there now intervenes a spoken political solidarity that lasts long enough to give policy-makers a chance to avert racial crises.

There are contributors who unwisely wish to avoid the term "racist" altogether: inter-ethnic quarrels over scarce resources are merely part of a selfishness that is natural and universal. We call ourselves Homo sapiens , but we are not wise; nor should we condone racist behaviour by calling it natural. Never forget that Hitler thought that the evil of certain races was so occult as to be inexplicable - hence the necessity of genocide.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is angry and disappointed with the liberal anti-racists. "Those who have never suffered," she complains, "have the most to say on victimhood." But how much has she suffered? She was educated in Uganda followed by the crowning glory of Oxford - hardly the experience or the privilege of the people she defends. At Oxford, her peers were proud to be ignorant of other cultures. Alibhai-Brown successfully reminds them of her "tri-cultural" background, but I think she has some difficulty believing that no one can make you feel inferior without your help. With Asian intellectuals from wealthy backgrounds, the motivation for anti-racism is sometimes not so much love of the suffering crowd as a dislike of the ruling few.

There is an implied flattery in Alibhai-Brown's assessment of liberalism as a noble ideology whose worshippers fell from grace. I wonder what is so admirable about people whose chief obsession is the extension of the range of vulgarity in art. Alibhai-Brown is typical of the new black radical who once placed total and uncritical trust in the white liberal lobby, felt elated by their praise and depressed by their displeasure. She is joined in her current protest by the more detached, academic - and therefore in this context irrelevant - voice of Tariq Modood, a child of the European Enlightenment. A. Sivanandan, one of the few genuine race radicals left, shows a quarrelsome contempt for other activists in the field. He is tempted to mistake his alienated loneliness for a new political position; but at least he has been spared the illusions of liberalism.

There is no discussion of the national distribution of the race problem. Living in the south of England, as all of the Asian contributors do, they meet only ritualistic liberals who sacrifice the human encounter with blacks for the abstract liberal passion expressed in journal articles. Only the gesture matters; and they make sure that someone notices it. One has to live among the people one claims to serve in order to be disabused of such vanity.

Along with some of the contributors, including Sivanandan, I think race relations should be seen as a wholly political issue. In the past it was, especially in the US, a moral concern in a Stoic sense: a good man was magnanimous towards other men, including black men. But racial justice is too weighty a concern to be left to the charity of individuals; and there has always been a shortage of magnanimous men.

Shabbir Akhtar lives in Bradford, where he worked for the Bradford Racial Equality Council from 1988 to 1991. He is writing a biography of St Paul.

Mindfield - Hate Thy Neighbour: The Dividing Lines of Race and Culture

Editor - Susan Greenberg
ISBN - 0 948191 52 3
Publisher - Camden
Price - £9.95
Pages - 128

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