The US has got it wrong on race

You always get a better perspective of what is going on in your own country when you are living away from it. I had been living in Washington for a couple of years, for example, when I flew home and made my first stop at Sainsbury's in Holloway. The cashier was a middle-aged black woman, and there was a mix-up with the change. I pointed it out, somehow ready for a confrontation, but she smiled, looked up and said: "There you are, love."

What was so striking was that there were no racial, economic, class or gender undertones; I had subconsciously been bracing myself for how such an encounter would have gone in DC. Here, I would have been transformed into a member of a self-regarding, white minority race, mistrustful, somewhat scornful and impatient for the black woman to get on with it and just give me the right change - quick. The black woman, in turn, would probably have been fuming and resentful, exuding an unhelpful attitude towards me, but not daring to be open about it for fear of losing her job.

We would each have been acting out the role society here had thrust upon us.

That is why, finding myself listening to Today on Radio 4 over the internet last Tuesday, I could not believe the sheer ignorance of Lord Tebbit when, lecturing listeners about the British "race row", he said: "The Americans happen to have got it right." His only experience of living in the US, it turned out, was in Hawaii - where everything was just hunky-dory. I recalled Tebbit telling me aeons ago that, when he was a BOAC pilot, the places where he most disliked having to land his 707 were Nairobi or Karachi: and he didn't exactly have to spell out why, did he?

I found myself wishing that I could have made Tebbit and the rest of the smug, Britain-is-terrible-America-is-wonderful crowd stay in any of several parts of the US last month.

They would have found Cincinnati, say - not some oppressive southern town, but America's 23rd largest city, straddling the Midwest and the eastern industrial belt in the prosperous north - seething with ugly racial tension and violence that eerily recalled how cities erupted following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968: black churchmen toured slums appealing for calm; 8pm-6am curfews were imposed, during which time anybody daring to walk along the city's pavements (invariably black people) were arrested by police (invariably white); and Black Panthers clenched their fists as the coffin of Timothy Thomas, 19, was lowered into the ground - the 15th black "suspect" to be shot dead by Cincinnati police in the past six years, and the fourth since November.

Young Thomas was unarmed, and the policeman who shot him was white. Two decades ago, the US Commission on Civil Rights reported that the police department of Cincinnati (population 334,000, 43 per cent black) was riddled with racism. But nothing much changed.

Last month, in the words of Cincinnati's mayor, "gunfire went off like you might hear in Beirut"; tear gas and rubber bullets were unleashed; there were hundreds of arrests and scores of injuries requiring hospital treatment. "They keep asking me why did my son run," Thomas's weeping mother said. "If you are an African male, you will run." In the words of a Cincinnati council member: "It is a time bomb that has exploded."

Or Tebbit could have taken himself down to Birmingham, Alabama, where he could have watched the trial of a 62-year-old Ku Klux Klansman who bombed a Baptist church in 1963, killing three black girls aged 14, and one 11. From there, he could have driven west into Mississippi, where he would have found people voting to retain the state's 1894 flag with the Confederate emblem that symbolises white racism, supremacy and slavery.

And if visits to these three places failed to convince Lord Tebbit, I would have taken him for a stroll from the Washington Monument to the Capitol. We could then have turned either right or left, walked five or six blocks, and he would have seen what it is like to be a black in the US capital: we would have been in inner-city urban hell of the kind that modern Britain has never remotely seen.

I have written before how the face of America changed far more dramatically in the Nineties than people yet comprehend, and new figures just released confirm this. Whites are now a minority in most major cities. In 1990, 52 per cent of residents in the country's 100 largest cities were white; just a decade later, the figure was 44 per cent. Latinos have been pouring into American cities at an astonishing rate; the number of Hispanics in Charlotte, North Carolina, increased by 614 per cent in the past decade, and in Memphis by 334 per cent. Even in such major cities as Boston or Philadelphia, one-tenth of whites fled between 1990 and 2000.

So "the Americans happen to have got it right", have they, Norman? If you lived here a while, you would understand that the horrible cancer of slavery has flowed through this country's bloodstream for generations; it is still constantly threatening to erupt with deadly ferocity, and will probably do so for generations to come. Native Indian Americans were largely exterminated so that the modern America could be created. Blacks were repressed to the status of non-humans.

Waves of immigrants now come in and overtake them, both economically and socially; neither American blacks nor whites can escape those historically entrenched stereotypes I described.

America, I can report, most certainly has not got this one right.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, John Prescott: sinking fast