“If you want a nigger as a neighbour…”

“…vote Labour!” So ran the Tories’ infamous, but nevertheless successful, election slogan in Smethwick in 1964. Conventional wisdom has it that outrageous electioneering of this kind could never happen now, and that that fact indicates just how far we’ve come in the intervening 45 years. Equally, you’d never now see signs advertising rooms for let that specify “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” as was once common, and this is in turn evidence that the Race Relations Acts have done their work. Seems that you can still pursue a policy of “no gays” if you’re running a bed & breakfast in your own home, and you’re taking your lead from the Conservative shadow Home Secretary, but we’ll let that pass to avoid further embarrassment. But the general view seems to be that overt racism is now the exclusive preserve of extremists, and that, in Nick Clegg’s phrase in yesterday’s leaders’ debate, homophobes are now safely quarantined in the group labelled “nutters”. It’s the race aspect of all this that I’m addressing here, so beyond noting that it seems to be religion that is the only “legitimate” defence against a charge of homophobia, and goodness knows what the defence for the nutters label might be, I’ll leave the issues of sexuality and mental illness for another time.

But what exactly is the distance on race that we’ve travelled in the last 45 years? Officially, and in theory, that distance is a very long way indeed. We have a clear and robust legal framework covering both the public and private arenas. Indeed, race equality legislation is seen as the “gold standard” to which other strands in equality law should aspire, and the current equality legislation is intended to do just that. But in race as in every other sphere in which legal guarantees are clearly expressed, that expression does not in itself tell us much about the prevalence of those things the law is intended to prevent. Tell the thousands of battered women that domestic violence is against the law, and see if it makes them feel any better. But it would be wrong to suggest that all we’ve done is to outlaw racism whilst leaving the reality untouched. There is a genuine revulsion about racism amongst large numbers of people, and their disgust is not simply about being law-abiding. There are many young people who’ve grown up in racially mixed neighbourhoods and whose friendships span racial divides virtually without conscious awareness. This is progress, and it’s not to be sniffed at.

Despite these good things, I remain largely pessimistic about the state of race relations in this country. My pessimism is fuelled not only by my concerns about where we currently are in all this, but by my fears for the immediate future. We know that economically we’re entering into a dark period such as we’ve never seen in the years since the mass immigration of black people in the 1950s, not even in the recessions of the 1970s or 1990s. Economic pressure stresses social relations generally, and the fault lines of race are always weak points at the best of times. The fabled “melting pot” of cultures is just that – a fable. Notwithstanding all the myriad social relationships that cross racial boundaries – at school, at work, at church (sometimes), on the street – it never ceases to surprise me how racially bounded most people’s friendship groups are. Even in the most cosmopolitan of cities, certainly outside the commercial and cultural centre, the day-to-day associations that most people enjoy (in both senses) are within their own racial group. It’s not even as simple as black, or Asian, or white. Within black communities, the African and Caribbean worlds are indeed worlds apart. Within the Caribbean community, small and large islanders frequently do not go to the same clubs or dances. Ask my Guyanese wife which group’s behaviour and norms most irritate her, and she’s quite likely to tell you it’s Jamaicans! What white people glibly dismiss as a single entity, “Asian”, encompasses groups with little in common beyond the historic experience of British colonialism.

These fragmentations within the non-white segment of British society are not just neutral, intriguing differences: they are frequently also contentious and conflicted. Equally, we now have a non-homogeneous white segment that goes beyond the “traditional” division between British and Irish. It seems to me that intra-white distinctions are now largely coincident with language. I sense very little antagonism towards Australians or New Zealanders, but the same can’t be said for relations with Poles and other Eastern Europeans. But this is, I suspect, truly a coincidence. Language may serve to symbolise cultural distance in both a practical and audible sense, but underpinning these various fragmentations and divisions are in fact economic drivers. Eastern Europeans are generally coming from poorer economic circumstances, as did their non-white predecessors, and are thus seen by their hosts to be a means by which their living standards can be driven down.

The current government has talked a lot about “social cohesion”. Unfortunately there is very little evidence that they’ve been very successful in achieving any. This goes beyond racial and cultural boundaries, and lack of social cohesion between rich and poor is at least as urgent a problem as that between black and white. In fact, it is economics that is the ultimate driver for all these social stresses. We may no longer accept “no niggers” as a legitimate way of talking in the formal context, but it takes very little indeed to pull back the thin veneer of compliance with our new social mores. When my wife is in her car and remonstrates with a fellow driver who’s just cut her up, there’s a very real likelihood that she’ll be told, yet again, to “fuck off, you black bitch”. This is not just the language of Nazi thugs from the BNP. But it’s not remotely surprising that the BNP’s support is almost exclusively generated from the ranks of the poor, white working class. Although the more successful strata of our society have generally been more assiduous in learning the ropes of “equal opportunity”, at least in public, if that success should be stripped from them in the economic chill to come, don’t bet against them re-discovering past prejudices.

In the past few months, and with much greater intensity now that the general election campaign is in full swing, the big economic question has been about whether the contenders are prepared to be honest about how severe the looming economic storm is likely to be. I’m more worried about whether they’ve given any thought to how they might mitigate the social and racial effects. Labour and Tory governments of the last 30 years have generally taken the view that it doesn’t matter how much richer the rich get just as long as there’s a safety net for the poorest. Whether or not you find that morally repugnant, it’s not a view that can survive the new economic conditions. The purely economic consequences may well pale before the social and, specifically, the racial ones.

5 thoughts on ““If you want a nigger as a neighbour…”

  1. Interesting! I currently live in Edinburgh where the racial homogeneity is quite scary, meaning you can sometimes walk around for a whole week without ever seeing a non-white face. Why that is I cannot say – I find it most peculiar, and somewhat creepy. Concomitantly, people here seem to be baffled by anything and anybody that does not sound or look Scottish. Talk in a different language on the bus – stares. Have an English accent – stares. The whole thing adds up to a slightly claustrophobic, and certainly provincial feel. There is,however, a huge white underclass (for want of a more neutral term) an eager pool for Scottish nationalism recruits. Plenty of obese white people with saltire t-shirts and evil-looking dogs. Economically, these epeople are disenfranchised, but politically, they may yet find their role. Scary.

    • I’d like to know why this sort of behaviour isn’t imitated around the world…poor, desperate underclass – you could say that was the case for places in Africa, South America, Far East… yet instead of extremism and hostility from these people when a white man visits, you get friendliness and curiosity. Even the nationalist education in China has not made its kids hostile towards whites.

      The same can’t be said over here – underclass or otherwise!

  2. There is a lot of discussion among American church leadership regarding the seemingly inpenetrable segregation among congregations in the southern US. Congregations tend to worship with their own race whether Black, White, Hisptanic, Korean, etc. It is uncomfortable to attend the congregation of another race – we have culturally driven worship styles which are hindered by an outsider. I’m uneasy discussing but I’m sort of testing the idea that allowing ourselves to worship separately is a form of anti-racism. We aren’t worshiping separately because we don’t like each other but because we have different styles. Embracing your culture or allowing someone else to embrace their own may be a form of progress because we aren’t doing it out of force. Next step may be to develop a level of comfort with who we are culturally to the extent that we aren’t challenged by including someone who doesn’t validate us by being just like us.

    This isn’t the only area of segregation in the US but I’m not blogging – this just happens to be one area that has had a lot of discussion in the last several years and one I’ve discussed with others. Church leadership can see the segregation that is taking place – but they don’t know what to do about it. I’m not sure they should do anything.

    One more thing, about a month ago, I walked into the kitchen at work and noticed everyone was segregated by race. We have 3 tables and everyone was at their own table – Black, White, Hispanic. My heart dropped because I thought we were more comfortable with each other than that. They noticed the look on my face and asked what was wrong. I have no filters on my mouth so I just asked them if they realized they were separated by race. Everyone looked around and reasons were given. I decided they just liked being with their own kind and that was ok because everyone was relaxing and when you’re relaxing you want to be with someone who validates you. That is not to say that we don’t need to be vigilant to make sure that doesn’t translate into the same attitude being applied in work relations…which I fear it does.

    Thanks for discussing these difficult topics – you’re going down a path I only go in my own private contemplations because discussing can create friction but I do sometimes wish I had someone with whom I felt safe discussing this topic. There are certain situations I’m not sure how to handle – such as work. Right now, I just watch.

    • Many thanks for your comment. It’s fascinating to hear an American perspective on this fraught issue. And you’re right – this is not a topic that it’s easy to explore because it easily creates more heat than light!

  3. I was just explaining to my 14 yr old what the politics of the BNP are. I wonder though whether there is a subtle discrimination towards anyone that isn’t of British birth. It is subtle but I notice it particularly when it comes to employment. There’s this understanding that somehow my experience is limited because it is not local, despite the fact that I have worked with many large multinationals.

    It makes me feel so sad and embarrassed to hear of your wife still being harrassed by obnoxious comments, in this day and age!

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