A majority of blacks say: racism is on its last legs

Here in these pages, I have bitterly criticised those who insist that there has been little or no progress in British race relations. My detractors have pointed to a series of emotionally charged incidents to illustrate their argument that racism is on the increase. I received a personal letter from one who could not sign his name for "security reasons" but who referred to me as a "turbulent intellectual". He challenged me for an abuse of factual detail in making the generalisation that "racism is on its last legs".

It seems to me that those who live by race are determined not to recognise the devastating blows that we have wielded against this dangerous social phenomenon. We blacks seem trapped in the vicious circle of being the perpetual victims.

Here are some facts about London, carefully researched in an ICM poll for the Evening Standard and London Weekend Television. Most black and Asian Londoners believe that race relations have improved over the past 10 years and will continue to improve. And, in the words of that esteemed commentator Peter Kellner, "the figures show that where discrimination is seen to persist it is an aberration, not a blight that afflicts life in London as a whole". I will return to these figures in a while.

But let me now recall how, at the age of 17, I arrived at Southampton on a cold spring day to be abused racially within hours at Waterloo Station. For years thereafter I accepted that 75 per cent of the inner city was out of bounds for blacks during the day, 95 per cent at night. Nobody then talked of a racial attack. It was just a plain good kicking and I received my first, at the Swiss Cottage Odeon, for failing to stand for the national anthem. A good kicking was had by very many, if not by all; we on the receiving end thought that it was a routine hazard. It was also par for the course in Notting Hill and Harrow Road police stations that questioning of the suspect began only after one's head was flushed face down in a urine-filled toilet. No one kept statistics or lodged complaints because it was not seen as anything out of the ordinary. The term police brutality had not yet been coined. There were no ICM polls, nor records to be had from a Police Complaints Authority.

London Underground, the Post Office and other places where blacks were employed in large numbers boasted the most highly educated sections of the British working classes. Indians with medical degrees, West Indians and Nigerians with chains and chains of O- and A-levels were then the norm.

All this changed when we changed, inspired by the strong wind of revolt that was blowing across the Atlantic. We weren't guided out of those base forms of existence by a generously disposed liberal establishment. We formed our own organisations to campaign and force out of the government the Race Relations Act, from which the Commission for Racial Equality draws sustenance. I was a Panther. We paid weekly dues, held social functions, published a weekly newspaper which I edited. Not a single council grant, not a CRE subsidy (it was the CRC then) was available. Now, the most vocal of anti-racist organisations is financed by a white philanthropist.

Back to the figures. Even though ICM found that 53 per cent of blacks think that the police discriminate against their racial group, only 17 per cent said they had personally suffered such discrimination during the past two or three years. Less than one black Londoner in five thinks local white people are generally racist.

We haven't created a paradise, but we have swept away so much trash, assisted by whites in such organisations as the trade unions and the Anti-Nazi League. Racism is not yet dead and it may recover in unpredictable ways; but if we keep crying wolf then Red Riding Hoods we shall all become.

I offered the following advice to my 33-year-old daughter as part of her birthday gift. Use the term "racism" very sparingly, I said, and never without accompanying the charge with action of the most drastic kind. Never whinge, I warned her.

Darcus Howe is an outspoken writer, broadcaster and social commentator. His TV work includes ‘White Tribe’ in which he put Anglo-Saxon Britain under the spotlight. He also fronted a series called Devil’s Advocate.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians