Darcus Howe goes before a magistrate

Even our judges are more open-minded about race than our politicians

It has been a couple of weeks of public appearances. I have been speaking to audiences that ranged from the politically enthused to asylum-seekers now confirmed as residents, and finally to a hall in Torquay packed with Devon magistrates.

Fringe meetings sponsored by the New Statesman and the Police Federation in Bournemouth and Brighton posed the question: "Are the police racist?" In Bournemouth, members of the Police Federation outnumbered Liberal Democrat Party members. But there was a surprise in store. Mark Oaten MP, the Lib Dems' front-bench spokesman on home affairs, with whom I shared that platform, was shockingly illiberal. He seemed to know little, if anything, about the passionate intensity that police racism has generated within the black community.

"The British police are the best in the world," he bragged, a cliche that I have not heard for decades. It was pure imperial pomp, from quite an unexpected quarter.

Brighton was another kettle of fish. It was a packed audience. This time Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, was on the platform. Later I learned that she is in line for a senior position in Tony Blair's post-election team. I was taken aback, because there was hardly a political thought in her address. From Blears, it was all bureaucrat-speak, a litany of arrangements to be managed from above. Black Brixton does not exist in her mind; nor does Moss Side, or Tower Hamlets, or Hackney.

The real world surfaced at Aylesbury. It was Diversity Day for the local housing association. I had been invited to speak on the contribution of immigrants to British society. I identified the black and Asian working classes - the undifferentiated mass - as the major source of our contribution. Our tiny black and Asian middle classes, whose migration from our communities has weakened us, came in for a justifiably severe spanking.

And finally to Torquay. It was the first time I have ever appeared before magistrates without having to enter a plea; 120 of them attended as part of their training on race. They were almost as one in recognising that racism is a debilitating disease that pollutes the criminal justice system, and they seemed eager for change. It was a far cry from October 1970, when I first appeared before a magistrate in Britain; I faced charges of making an affray and inciting members of the public to kill police officers. Some things are changing here.

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 11 October 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The gambler