We no longer believe old men's myths

In the past fortnight or so, a very old man, startled by an interviewer, blurted out: "It is very easy to sit here in this room (amidst the cobwebs at Cambridge University) and say racism is horrible. But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day."

These are the words of George Steiner, a 79-year-old Jewish Cambridge professor possessed of "vast scholarship", we are told in an excellent article in the Guardian of 5 September.

Simultaneously, issues of race and immigration are at large in the national press. A group of MPs has stated that the UK will be overwhelmed with non-EU immigrants in a few years' time. They insist a cap should be placed on the numbers that continue to arrive. "Send them back after a four-year stint," say the parliamentarians. Otherwise, they insist, this tiny island state will be swamped by people of dark skin.

Some 50 years ago, vast numbers of Caribbean men and women responded to Britain's desperate need for immigrant labour and settled in the inner cities of the UK to revive and extend the service and manufacturing industries.

In an atmosphere of palpable ignorance, the myth developed that we played music all day and all night when we were not fucking white women or breeding like rabbits. The 1958 race riots in Notting Hill went hand in hand with these outpourings of racism. Steiner must have been a young man then. His mind is stuck in those early days of mass immigration.

He is joined in the mire by Max Hastings, the bow-tied scribe who recalled in the Daily Mail, only days after Steiner's remarks were published, the life of Elsie the family cleaner, who had to emigrate to Australia because she was hemmed in on both sides of her home in Hammersmith, as "Jamaican neighbours played music full-blast through the night, every night".

It never occurs to Max and George that West Indians (Jamaicans to them) clocked on and off from sunup to sundown at London Transport, post offices, the Peek Freans factory, and every other factory around our capital city.

It is all myth and lies in the tradition of Enoch Powell, who in his bitter anti-immigrant speech in 1968, manufactured an old Englishwoman whom he claimed had been persecuted by grinning piccaninnies at her home in the Midlands.

The oldies are at it again, only now, they cannot muster support in the general population. A new generation of white, inner-city, working-class youth, though its members may stumble and fall on the blade, appears free of the imperial disease that is racism.

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 15 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Iran