openDemocracyUK

With our history – casual racism is not an option

Racism in Britain is deep and structural. And too often, we don't see it. With our history, we should know better - and we should notice how we are treating Roma people.

Alastair Sloan
5 December 2013

I used to live in Brixton. It’s a model of London gentrification and throws into stark contrast, no pun intended, the racial divisions in economic inequality that typify our good capital. It has its own currency, proud local shops, pubs which spill out onto the street in summer and stay open until the small hours, clubs to match, a true twenty four hour town. It is no coincidence that Lambeth Council, whose headquarters are in Brixton, was the first nationally to be run as a co-operative. There are marches and demonstrations near weekly.

It’s a place your nose picks up a distantly-smoked spliff, on your way to pick up the newspapers on a Sunday morning, an environ where you’re rarely out of earshot from reggae or microphone-wielding Christian preachers. You can see accountants and lawyers in suits pile out of the Tube at rush hour, then wander past at 3am and see crack addicts and prostitutes replacing them.

Brixton has fiercely stubborn fresh food traders struggling against the arrival of two Sainsburys branches yards away from each other. House prices are going up to match the nearby middle class enclaves – Herne Hill, Dulwich, Clapham, Balham. In a single year, the rent on our property went up by 15%.

The local market, Brixton Village, is now a gourmet foodie spot and not the hotchpotch of Carribean and African food localism people knew it for. The social tensions are palpable – Foxton’s estate agent opened a branch on the high street and was almost immediately vandalised with graffiti – “Yuppie Scum.” Brixton is to be the next testing ground in the UK for races living one amongst each other, for the arrival of the new young families from Clapham, the young professional flat-sharers, making their way into the predominantly West African and Carribean neighbourhood.

I’d catch the bus right outside Brixton prison each morning, at the top of Brixton Hill. It’s there that you get an almost perfect presentation of the economics of this gentrification.

As the bus started to pull off each morning, I could see the racially mixed community reflected in the faces looking back at me – black faces, white faces. I could also overhear conversations in three or four different languages, from Africa or the Caribbean, as well as English. It was a stimulating environment to commute in – if sometimes a bit alien. But that’s London.

When the bus reached the high street, where the Underground station stands, the racial mix of the bus passengers abruptly changed. 95% of the white passengers would get off, and 95% of the black passengers would stay on. Why?

The bus is half the price of the tube.

In 2009, the Wealth and Assets Survey found that the ‘average white household’ had roughly £221,000 in assets, black Caribbean households had about £76,000, Bangladeshi households £21,000 and black African households £15,000.

We now know that if you go to a typical London lettings agent and ask them to let your house, you can ask the letting agent to find you white tenants and there should be no issue. Racial imbalances and prejudice are alive, well and corrosive and they collectively have a huge impact on relative economic wealth and inequality. Prejudice is a big, economic problem.

Ex-offenders often comment “The worst thing about prison isn’t the sentence, it’s what happens after.” The prejudices you face after release.

Racism is the same as prison. We released the slaves long ago, but the prejudices still go on, long after the ships are scrapped and the cotton fields are emptied.

It takes so long for prejudice to be erased, long after the worst, legalised excesses have been abolished.

That’s why we need to be so careful about how we talk about race – and that’s why we, as a colonial nation, should be especially sensitive.

As it happens, there are enough black (and Asian) voters however to now make equality for most racial minority groups a policy priority. The last election saw the largest number of ethnic minority MPs elected to Parliament in history. Some estimate that by 2050, one in five citizens will be from an ethnic minority. The struggle to rectify decades of racial discrimination against black and Asian voters will take generations – there will be setbacks, but equality will eventually arrive.

There are ethnic minorities however who are of less economic or political importance, whose journey towards political equality has not yet even begun. They don’t fit the democratic mould. They go against how we want to organise our society, they go against the historical narrative of British or American success, our supposed moral supremacy in world affairs. Persecution of these racial groups goes largely unchecked, and is endorsed implicitly and explicitly by the words of our politicians, newspaper editors and news channel executives, on an almost constant basis. There is a real concern that these groups are a release valve for our racist tendencies.

For Roma, their political fate is not equality. It is being kicked between the jackboots of the EDL, UKIP and BNP. Their fate is being denigrated as criminals by top-tier politicians, smeared collectively, treated as second class citizens.

Twitter is bursting with racist criticism of Roma, which goes unchecked. This is in notable contrast to racist tweets directed against black or Asian minorities, which have led to many arrests. To show you some examples, based on a recent trawl.

UK. Vote #UKIP. Return, to common sense. Mainstream Lab/Con, will NEVER end the #EU madness. Allowing Roma SCUM to come, will FINISH the UK.

— Average Joe (@Averagejoe64) November 22, 2013

 

 

Advice guide for Roma Scum heading to UK #DoNotShitInTheStreet http://t.co/eWcq9J1R8F

— EDL Unplugged (@EDLUnplugged) November 21, 2013

 

Lots of well qualified Romanian doctors expected to come to UK. They are welcome. We don’t want #Roma criminal scum

— IvorSawbottom (@ivorsawbottom) November 18, 2013

 

@UKIP Just let the govt know these rodent roma will be driven out they are not wanted our people are sick of coming 2nd to the worlds scum

— dave p the real one (@leeds9east) November 19, 2013

 

Just been me mates and he took a picture today of all the Roma shite that’s coming to Bolton…fuck off we don’t want yer…#scum

— BooHa (@boynat) November 18, 2013

At its worst, the Roma are considered culturally criminal by default – simply having a blonde and blue-eyed child can be enough for judges in Ireland or Greece to sign an arrest warrant. Aidan McGarry in openDemocracy noted

Crucial to the media commentary was how a white child could live in such abject poverty, in such squalid conditions, and how dirty Maria was. Certainly, no child should live in such conditions but once her Romani ethnicity was confirmed it became acceptable for her to live in squalid conditions, because living in poverty is understandable for Roma, in the way it would not be for us.

Editors also made an effort to emphasise the Roma identity of the accused kidnappers- with all outlets choosing to include the word Roma in their headlines.

Nick Clegg has been one of many senior politicians content to casually smear the Roma people. He casually wrote them off as “sometimes offensive and intimidating.”

He prefaced with "I’m not a racist but,” – a phrase which, as Gary Young excellently points out in The Guardian, still means he is indeed a racist.

A seasoned politico, David Blunkett knew that making risqué comments about the Roma in his Sheffield constituency would bring him headlines and controversy. But he calculated that there would be enough racist voters in Sheffield to make his career risk negligible.

UKIP were caught off guard by Blunkett's forthright statement, with Farage quickly scrambling to support the sentiment, calling Blunkett “brave,” and complaining that if he himself had aired these views he would have been branded “racist.”

And rightly so Farage, it would also have been racist for you to say those things.

I’m surprised he resisted. When a Question Time audience members agrees with his prejudiced views, is Nigel Farage visibly sexually excited? He looks aroused, like a bloodhound who’s found the scent.  Is racism exciting to him? Questions I try not to ask too often, but every time I see those eyes beaming out of the TV – it does cross my mind.

Janice Atkinson, a UKIP MEP candidate, tried to capitalise on the Blunkett comments by casually conflating “Roma” and “Romanians,” in this follow-up piece for Politics.co.uk. She writes frequently on immigration, but is clearly no expert on the matter. Or just playing fast and loose with the truth.

In a world where political correctness is supposedly going mad, the anomaly is the Roma.

Every continent colonised by Europe has its racial bogeyman, who is exempt from our advancing thinking on race and prejudice. Across the pond, it is the Native Americans assigned to play the miserable role of the “racism anomaly.” (although it should also be mentioned that a million mistreated Roma also live in USA).

Stripped of 98% of their property by a quasi-military occupation, Native Americans enjoy poverty rates of one in four, and life expectancies which can be ten years shorter than the national average (this is especially true in Republican leaning states such as New Mexico, South Dakota and Montana, whereas in California, for example, their life expectancy is far longer than the national average). This ethnic cleansing and mass genocide, hard-wired into the history of America, has been excluded from textbooks. If you call it a genocide – you are looked at as if there might be something wrong with you.

But in Canada, a senior Archbishop recently called “bad treatment of Aboriginals the most serious issue facing Canadians.” The UN is being lobbied to classify several acts by the Canadian government as genocide, with a strong case in particular being put against Canadian civil servant named Duncan Campbell Scott. A vile man, he once wrote that it was desirable to ‘kill the Indian in the child’ and suggested higher disease rates in residential schools were a ‘final solution of our Indian problem.’

To this day – the ghettoisation that is maintained through Native American reserves is lethal.

Native Indians living on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota face a life expectancy of just 47 years. This is amongst the shortest life expectancies of any group in the Western Hemisphere. The infant mortality rate is five times the United States national average, and the adolescent suicide rate is four times the  national average.

Alcoholism is so rampant that one in four children are born with alcohol-related birth defects. Children are also being born as alcoholics, such is the frequency of intoxication while pregnant mothers wait for their birth. It is estimated that 85% of households are affected by alcohol problems. There are no jobs, no trading economy – and violent crime is killing off the population.

It could be said that living on these reservations is not mandated – however America is a country where racism is structural and the white man rules supreme, once you leave the reservation gates. 51% of citizens explicitly express a prejudice against those with black skin, according to research conducted by Stanford University last month. The number that implicitly do is significantly higher, according to techniques the university created to assess whether someone was a touch more racist than they admitted to.

It would be fascinating to see this kind of research performed on Nigel Farage, David Blunkett or Dominic Grieve.

“That [prejudice] has very real circumstances in the way people are treated by police, the way kids are treated by teachers, the way home seekers are treated by landlords and real estate agents,” commented Alan Jenkins, Assistant Solicitor General under the Clinton Administration. He is describing the practical implications of having a racist society – how that impacts on every aspect of an ethnic minority’s existence – from their economic prosperity to their health to their physical safety. Many of his comments will also apply to the Roma, and how they are treated here in the UK.

The effects of the recession are always felt most keenly by non-white Americans. The Economic Policy Institute showed last month that if employment drops by one or two percent for the white Americans, it will typically drop by three or four percent for the black, hispanic and Native American communities.

But the problem of prejudice is especially acute for Native Americans, who are also twice as likely to be victims of violent crime, with 60% of their attackers being white.

The American aboriginals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do they “integrate,” legitimise the occupation and genocide of their people and give in – facing prejudice and hatred as they do,  or do they live on reservations where alcoholism, 80% unemployment and acute health problems will kill them ten years earlier than if they lived “on the outside".

Aaron Huey, a human rights campaigner, describes the situation with tragic poignancy.

The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ”My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.

In the context of Huey’s dark prognosis for the future of reservation-bound Native Americans, the ongoing furore over whether “Redskins” is a racist name for a football team seems trivial. Change the name, obviously.

In Australia, of course we see the same pattern emerging. White British and other Europeans arrived, declare the land is theirs and start killing locals en masse.

As colonial society develops and human rights become more of a going concern, bloodlust sobers and disappears, but decades of racial prejudice have already been enshrined into the culture of the country.

In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid is everywhere – in the same way that the legacy of slavery is still visible on my bus in Brixton but much, much worse. A poem entitled “Nothing’s Changed” is taught in our English GCSE syllabus. It’s by a black South African named Tatamkhulu Afrika.

District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes. … No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

South Africa has the most unequal incomes distribution in the world. Sadly, much of this is driven by race – years after Apartheid supposedly ended.

There is clearly a criminal element in the Roma, in Native Americans, in Aboriginal communities. But there is a criminal element in all communities. And we have criminal laws to deal with this.

There is also a strong argument for integration – for a small degree of averaging out for ethnic diversity. Each community group should make some compromises in order to net out at a happy social norm.. The integration or “community cohesion” argument is often cited as morally absolute, as if that is the only way to go.

I agree. But the inconsistency with which British people, white Europeans and colonial descendants choose to apply the argument is far from absolute. Everything, when you have the benefit of being a rich, white person, is relative. Especially morality.

Who should integrate with who? Should Muslims adapt to Christians (there are more of them) or should Christians integrate into British Islam (because we are supposedly a “Christian” nation)? Is it the person who arrived first entitled to that particular patch of land? UKIP, the BNP or the EDL certainly seem to think so.

But then, what about the Native Americans or Aborigines? What about the Dutch settlers who established Apartheid as if some God-given right. Our precedent when we transport our values abroad is not so impressive.

What about the numerical superiority of a group, does that allow you to say who integrates into who? Well there are perhaps three hundred thousand Roma in the UK. There are a million in the US. That’s far more than many other ethnic minorities who don’t face the same extreme measures to persecute them, who aren’t so routinely defiled in the press.

Recently, we were warning that Christianity could be extinct. Since 2001, one in ten Christians have left the Church. One in ten Muslims under the age of twenty five. Christianity is still, by far, the largest declared religious group in the UK, but if the trend continues – will there still be a democratic case for us being a Christian nation?

Is it about the strangeness of their beliefs? How radical they are? Well, no again. The Mormons, Amish, pagan druids and Scientologists are strange people, by Western standards. They live according to a very different set of beliefs, worship in a completely different way. And they are allowed to have their own insular communities –  greatly segregated from the outside world. We don’t call those “ghettos” or accuse them of not integrating.

These groups are, notably, white. Their activities are allowed. Mocked but not despised. If you want to start a quirky cultural clique with strange customs that are at times incompatible with your host societies, then the best advice that can be given to you is – be European, be white. Then hopefully, your counter-culture way of life won’t be targeted by the establishment or by society.

If you are European, or are racially white, you can be as freaky as you wish. You can believe electricity is evil. You can think that Jesus lived in America. You can marry several wives. You can believe that white Africans are genetically superior to black Africans. You can preach that aliens are infesting our souls. You want to live on a canal boat instead of a house? Be white, it’s OK – we’ll call you “artistic.” Be Roma, and everyone will think you nicked the boat.

Be Roma- and you will be used as a scapegoat for many crimes that you have not committed. We will label you as outcasts, we will loosen the rules on racial criticism just to ensure that a challenge to white European supremacy is not successful.

Them’s the rules.

The discrimination shown by the highest powers in this land towards the Roma, the generosity with which these racist views are received by the public, the dangerous precedent set by North America, Australia and South Africa when we allow the notion of white European supremacy to go unchecked, the genocides that ensue as a result, is reason enough for negative portrayal of the Roma by politicians and mainstream media headline writers to be questioned vigorously.

A campaigner against the death penalty in America (where southern states are three times more likely to execute a criminal if he is black) discussed with a German expert why the death penalty was not applied there. “With our history, it wouldn’t be possible.”

With our history of racism, of racially motivated genocide, we should also not be so generous to casual racism.

For those who are congratulating David Blunkett for making such irresponsible comments, including Nigel Farage, be clear that you are implictly endorsing the same views that led to Apartheid, that allow racism to go unchecked in South Africa to this day, that have led to tens of millions of Native Americans and indigenous Australians being slaughtered, that have seen indigenous Australians become second class citizens even today. You are not being responsible and you’re continuing to stride on using an image of Britishness that is born out of Empire, cruelty and genocide.

I’m British, I don’t want anything to do with a future that might even slightly imply our inclination towards those kinds of terrible crimes, that harks back to Empire. We should feel a collective guilt for that time in our history, and be honest about it. And where ugly racism rears itself is going on, we should use the same logic of the Germans – “With our history, racism is not an option.”

Alastair Sloan blogs about inequality and solutions at www.uneualmeasures.com

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