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5 March 1999

Thought control is not the answer

Peregrine Worsthorne examines the roots of his generation's racist beliefs

By Peregrine Worsthorne

Like so many Britons of my generation, I am both racist and anti-racist, the former prejudice feeding, indeed causing, the latter. It is because I am so aware of my racism that I feel obliged to be fiercely anti-racist. My racism is kept well under control by my anti-racism; more than under control, positively overwhelmed, as much in my private thoughts as in public utterances.

How did my racism develop in the first place? Let me explain what race relations were in the recent past. In the interwar years, when I was growing up, it was in the air one breathed. Darwin had taught us that survival was the well-earned privilege of the fittest. In the heyday of European imperialism and with the map painted mostly red, the white Anglo-Saxon race, judged by Darwin’s test, was the fittest of all.

The better-educated among us were aware that the brown and yellow races had enjoyed glorious civilisations in the past. But manifestly they had all fallen by the wayside, to be overtaken by the whites. As for the blacks, they had – as far as we could see – never been in the running: no literature, little art, no political institutions worthy of the name, past or present.

Accordingly, it was the duty of the whites to take charge of human progress; and if this required white domination of the lesser breeds – even their extinction in the case of the Maoris, the Aboriginals and Red Indians – then so be it. Even Trollope, that most genial of liberal Victorian novelists, was quite explicit on this point. At the end of a travel book about Australia he concluded that it was probably a kindness to let the Aboriginals drink themselves to death since they could have no acceptable future in the modern world.

In short, we were taught that racism and progress went hand in hand. Eventually the non-white races, under white tuition, would be rendered fit enough to rejoin the great human ascent, but in the meantime there was no responsible way the white races could avoid taking up the burden and soldiering on.

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So much for the roots of my racism; as for the roots of my anti-racism, they are more difficult to identify. With the case of anti-Semitism it was the Holocaust; with the browns, probably Nehru and the success of democratic India; and with the yellows, the amazing triumph of the postwar Japanese economy. With the blacks, however, it was more personal and I can pinpoint the moment. About five years ago I wanted to put up a second- generation black immigrant friend for a London club. Previously the only black men I had known were servants in southern Africa or would-be revolutionaries, with none of whom had there been any personal relationship remotely powerful enough to affect my assumptions of white racial superiority. But with this black friend it was different and the thought that his candidature for the club in question was being questioned because of the colour of his skin set me furiously to think. Laughable you will say, but there it is.

Another incident followed. I watched a London taxi driver reject an eminently respectable-looking black lawyer in favour of a group of white soccer louts. More grist to my anti-racist mill came from spending a richly entertaining month making a television programme about race with that quintessential Englishman – cricketer, NS columnist and Shakespeare fan – Darcus Howe, in which he came out as much more optimistic about the state of race relations in this country than I did. Finally, there was Nelson Mandela.

I confess to these somewhat insubstantial anti-racist roots only to make the point that if I, an Oxbridge undergraduate etc, was so deeply affected by the racist assumptions of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has only come to abandon them by a series of experiences more to do with class than race, then some measure of toleration is owed to less fortunate white citizens, from lower down the educational ladder, whose inherited and deeply ingrained racial prejudices, instead of being mitigated through friendships with black immigrants – as mine were – have been exacerbated through competition with them for jobs and houses.

Which brings me to the problem of racism in the police force. According to the Macpherson report into the Stephen Lawrence case, the police tend to treat black citizens with notably less sensitivity than they treat white citizens. But until about 25 years ago this was how the police treated working-class citizens – that is, with notably less sensitivity than they treated middle- or upper-class citizens. There must be many working-class families who remember getting the same kind of treatment as that meted out to the Lawrence family. One law for the rich; one for the poor.

But nobody then recommended new thought-control laws to change these attitudes. The very idea would have chilled the blood. But as classes became increasingly indistinguishable, attitudes did change and in my view, as more and more blacks become recognisably middle class, so attitudes to them will change as well, as they are already beginning to do. Believe it or not, a few days ago I saw a white London taxi driver reject a white lawyer fare for a black one, and another black friend has just been elected to the Beefsteak club.

Extreme situations, like a murder inquiry, will be the last to experience these changes. Under that kind of intense strain, the police will go on stereotyping blacks as criminals and blacks will go on stereotyping the police as pigs. But these situations are not representative and it is madness, in a hysterical response to the Lawrence case, to react as if they were. Yet this is what the government is doing. Serious consideration is being given to the introduction of new laws to prohibit not only racist actions but also racist thoughts, on the grounds that such unprecedentedly repressive measures are needed to drive out what Macpherson calls institutional racism.

Nothing could be more certain, in my view, to put back the clock with a vengeance, and I can already feel the dying embers of my own racism beginning to flare up again.

For if racism is bad, attempts at thought control would be far, far worse and were it now officially accepted that the only way to realise the ideal of a multiracial Britain would be to install Big Brother, then I, for one, would be sorely tempted to return to the roots out of which, in every sense, my racism grew.

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