Bigotry makes a lot of excuses for itself but when it arrives on your street, it takes dedication to look the other way. On 15 August, I watched as police and UK Border Agency officials raided beauty stores specialising in black and Asian hair products on Kingsland High Street in east London. Kids on their way home from school held up camera phones as shop workers were led out in handcuffs and forced into the back of a van that was parked outside an Irish pub, which was adorned with a sun-faded sign promising “a hundred thousand welcomes”. We were told we had “no right to know” where police were taking our neighbours.
“You can understand how that looks a bit racist,” said a campaigner from the grassroots activist project Anti-Raids Network, arguing with one of the officers at the scene. He asked why all the new, posh coffee shops staffed by Australians seemed to have no problems with immigration.
“How is it racist if you’re arresting people who are committing offences?” replied the young constable, with that flawless logic of a jobbing PC evading a question. The law, naturally, is never racist, nor are laws ever applied in a racist way. This is why, despite the plethora of minor crimes that they commit on Kingsland High Street on an hourly basis, I have not once seen the wasted white hipster kids who spend Saturdays self-intoxicating on every spare square of pavement being marched away in handcuffs.
“This is racist – bang-on racist,” said one bystander, fiddling nervously with her phone. She was afraid to give me her name. At first, I was confused – did she actually think I might have missed the clear overtones of a bunch of white border officials muscling Asian shopkeepers into a police van on a Thursday morning? – but I shouldn’t have been. In recent months, many white people in Britain have gone to a lot of trouble to excuse and overlook creeping racism in our communities.
“I’m not racist but . . .” has ceased to be merely a polite way of letting your friends know that you’re about to say something racist and would prefer not to be held to account. It now signals something darker, a sort of violent unseeing. Redefining racism has become urgent, angry – a squabble over semantics that obscures truth rather than revealing it. It’s been a long, hot summer of lies and the worst ones have been those we’ve told ourselves about what’s going on in this country.
In July, the Home Office paid for vans with the words “Go home or face arrest” printed on them in big, ugly letters to drive around some of the most ethnically diverse areas of the capital, to the presumed delight of vacillating Tory voters who might otherwise have defected to Ukip. (For his part, Ukip’s leader, Nigel Farage, said that the language used was “nasty, unpleasant, Big Brother”.) The vans weren’t racist, though, because there was small print on the posters promising advice and help to any illegal immigrants who were seeking to return to their countries of origin. Never mind that the phrase “go home” echoes 50 years of fascist graffiti. There was some small print. So it’s not racist. So it’s fine.
Then there are the attacks on British mosques. According to the campaign group Tell Mama, since May – when a soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered by Islamist extremists in Woolwich, south-east London – there have been 28 attacks on mosques across the UK, which include firebomb and arson attacks. The latest was in Harlow, Essex.
Rigby’s murder received blanket press coverage for almost a fortnight, whereas the mosque attacks have been reported calmly, leaving space on the front pages for such urgent news as the impending birth of a panda cub at Edinburgh Zoo. Pointing out this pattern of Islamophobia, however, instantly draws a horde of angry explainers keen to point out that technically Islam, like Judaism, isn’t a race – it’s a religion. Thinking that those Muslim community centres might have had it coming is technically not racist. So it’s fine.
Then there has been the mustering of the fascist English Defence League and BNP, who have been out on the streets exploiting the anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise in popular Islamophobia following the Woolwich murder. Granted, when members of the Scottish Defence League tramped through Edinburgh on 17 August, they were mistaken for a particularly innovative Fringe show; and when the BNP attempted to march on the Cenotaph in June, it was met not only by hundreds of anti-fascists but by a large number of people in furry costumes who were very cross about the forthcoming badger cull. (Nobody had thought to check what other protests were scheduled that day. Never had the slogan “Black and white – unite and fight!” been more appropriate.)
Fascism isn’t funny but headlines such as “Far-right extremists chased through London by women dressed as badgers” made me briefly proud to be British. That feeling faded when I saw a drunk woman draped in a St George’s flag dragging an angry pitbull through the police line to scream, “I’m not racist!” in the faces of some bewildered Asian students. She was a member of an antiimmigrant, anti-Muslim gang that has been intimidating black and ethnic-minority people in deprived areas of the country for years but she was convinced that she wasn’t racist. So that was fine.
The thing about racism is that it isn’t like a parking ticket or a poor exam grade. You don’t just get out of it on a technicality. Fifty years after the civil rights marches in the US, we seem to have reached a consensus that racism is pretty awful – but rather than tackle it in our communities, we are redefining it so we don’t have to think less of ourselves.
Laurie Penny is contributing editor of the New Statesman