Race: stir it up

Less than 40 years ago, many British landlords routinely refused black lodgers and tenants, placing notices in their windows that bluntly stipulated "no coloureds". Astonishing as it may now seem, most universities (which then allocated students to lodgings) endorsed this practice, asking landlords in advance to place a cross in a box if they were unwilling to accept black students. The argument for the defence was that it was best for all concerned if blacks - who then mostly came to university here from overseas - were kept away from those who would display racial prejudice, particularly where house-owners themselves lived on the premises, perhaps sharing meals, lounges and bathrooms with their student guests. Since there were easily enough landlords who were prepared to treat non-whites kindly, it was said, what was the point of stirring things up?

If this behaviour now seems unthinkable, it is thanks to those who dismissed that defence for the convoluted humbug it was, and agitated for changes that ultimately made outright discrimination unlawful. The battle against racism has been a long and hard one, as Darcus Howe recalls on page 35. At every stage, quite plausible arguments have been advanced against further action: there would be infringements of free speech, encroachments on people's rights to have whomever they liked in their own homes, inhibitions on police capacity to fight crime, and so on. Now we are asked to believe that the Commission for Racial Equality's "election compact" - a pledge of non-racist behaviour which prospective candidates have been asked to sign - would prevent proper electoral debate.

The great triumph of the recent past is that we have considerably narrowed the areas in which it is socially acceptable to express racist sentiments. This has involved, along the way, some apparently trivial and absurd arguments about golliwogs and black sheep, and the like. Such episodes have frequently exasperated the white majority (and many in the ethnic minorities) and seemed to risk stirring up racism rather than suppressing it. Yet the overall result is that more people, more often, take care to avoid giving offence in either word or deed, even while grumbling under their breaths about the "political correctness" that restrains them.

The trouble is that racism hasn't gone away. No amount of politeness, no number of anti-racist pledges, multicultural festivals and public notices in Urdu should blind us to the truth: that many people don't get jobs because they are black. As the NS reported last month, black and Asian graduates are three times as likely as white graduates to be unemployed after university, even when they have the same grades in the same subjects. A high probability of being stopped by the police while going about perfectly lawful business is a fact of life for most black people; and, if convicted of an offence, a black is more likely to go to prison, and for longer, than a similarly convicted white. Moreover, "asylum-seekers", bogus or not, are simply politicians' and journalists' code for non-whites, rather as immigrants once were. Everybody involved - employers, police, blacks, politicians - will vehemently deny any racist intentions, and profess horror and offence (sometimes perfectly genuine) that any are alleged. Denial is another barrier that anti-racism has always had to overcome ("I'm not prejudiced; it's just that they bring down the price of houses"), and that is why institutional racism and unintentional racism have emerged as useful terms; they are not, in reality, much more than polite alternatives for calling people racist bastards, but it is wise for the anti-racists to show that they can mind their language, too.

So is the CRE's election compact a good thing? The answer must be a qualified "yes". There is, to be sure, something anti-liberal in demanding that people sign compacts that they themselves have had no oppor-tunity to help draft. And like all declarations from bureaucratic bodies, the compact is too long and wordy. But parliamentary candidates subscribe to election manifestos that are longer and wordier, often without even reading them. Indeed, signing up to things that they only dimly understand - from early day motions to finance bills - is what MPs do for a living. Politics is about gestures and symbols. And gestures designed to persuade election campaigners to narrow yet further the acceptability of racist sentiments should be welcomed, particularly when police records suggest that provocative speeches by politicians lead to an increase in physical attacks on minorities.

We should not delude ourselves, however, that gestures are more than gestures. America is one of the most scrupulous societies in the world about avoiding offence to minorities. It is also, in practice, still one of the most racist societies in the world where, as we saw in Florida last November, some blacks cannot be sure of casting their votes freely. Britain - and, for that matter, any other western society - has a long road to travel before it eradicates racism where it really matters: in employment practice, in policing, in the distribution of power. This is an issue that should always be stirred up.

In defense of Fawlty

The verdict of the new Lonely Planet guide - that the spirit of Fawlty Towers still pervades British hotels - should occasion no surprise. The British are not natural hoteliers and never will be. This is because they have no tradition of hospitality, and rightly so. It is all very well for the French, the Australians, the North Americans and the like: they have big countries, where people live at a decent distance from one another. The British are a nation of day-trippers; almost everywhere in the country is too easily accessible from everywhere else. If we were to encourage visitors in our homes, they would be forever dropping in, disrupting mealtimes, complicating sleeping arrangements, interfering with our favourite television programmes, molesting our spouses. So our native hoteliers, inexperienced in making people feel welcome, react to guests with a mixture of panic and incompetence. An Englishman's home has to be his castle; otherwise, half the country might come to stay.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How new Labour wrestled with a world it never made