A friend who teaches at an old-fashioned Sussex boarding school has a zero-tolerance approach to racism. The moment he hears one of the foreign boys claiming to be a victim of it, that’s them chucked out of the class for the rest of the lesson. ‘Well I’m sorry,’ says my friend Duncan, quite unapologetically. ‘But they’re bright kids and they’re enjoying the best education money can buy in a multi-ethnic school where racism just isn’t an issue. I think it’s an absolute bloody outrage that they should try that line…’
Had he been working in the state sector, of course, he would be out of his job by now. Which is an awful pity because people of Duncan’s courage and robust convictions are what the world sorely needs. That overused ‘r’ word has done more to stifle open political debate and poison social cohesion than perhaps any other word in the English language. It’s time we stamped on it and stamped on it hard. But how? To appreciate the scale of the problem, you only had to observe the way an incident involving attacks by locals on over 100 Romanians in Belfast was reported last week. What wasn’t at all clear from any of the initial reports — neither in the BBC, nor, more surprisingly in the right-leaning newspapers — was what had brought the natives of Belfast to this unfortunate pass. Other than their disgusting, abominable and thoroughly to-be-condemned racism, that is.
I first heard the story myself on the Today programme. In the news report, the victims were all carefully described as Romanians, with no clue offered as to their ethno-cultural identity. But then, a Belfast race-relations worker interviewed by the BBC let the cat out of the bag by referring to them more accurately as ‘Roma’. At which point, I swore a lot at my radio then blogged about it for the Daily Telegraph. My main complaint was that we listeners were being treated here like children: children who could not be trusted to be told the whole truth lest they reach the ‘wrong’ conclusions.
Sure, I argued, it is no more excusable to persecute someone because they belong to a gypsy group than it is to persecute them for their nationality, religion or skin colour. (Or indeed, their educational background or social class). But it is up to us as grown-ups to form a view on these issues; not for the BBC — and all the (in this case) similarly squeamish and PC print media outlets — to try to decide our moral position for us by withholding key facts.
Like it or not, the fact that these persecuted victims were Roma rather than Romanians was extremely germane to the story. Not only — as any non-Roma Romanian could tell you — are the two groups quite distinct. But the Roma do have a Europe-wide reputation for being not quite as enchanting as the picturesque, caravan-dwelling, fortune-telling folk you meet in Rupert Bear annuals. How merited this unfortunate reputation is I’m not, happily, in a position to judge. But you do have to wonder, if they’re as perfectly delightful and blameless as last week’s news reports seemed to imply, why it is that in a survey a year ago no fewer than 68 per cent of Italians wanted to see all 150,000 of the country’s Roma expelled. Pure naked racism again, presumably.
What does it actually mean, though, this word ‘racism’? I know what it ought to mean: hating someone specifically because of their ethnic background or the colour of their skin. That’s the Rod Liddle definition and I like it because it limits the problem to a hard core of genuine bigots, nutters and Nazi-like racial supremacists. It means the term certainly doesn’t apply to me — and probably not to you either. Most of us are just too polite, too cosmopolitan, too comfortable in our skin and too intelligent to dismiss a fellow human being in so crassly reductive a way.
This is what so puts me off the BNP (apart from their disgusting left-wingness) — the idea that, if you’re black, they actually bar you from membership. How crazy is that? Obviously, I can see a certain sense in it, theirs being a proper racist party designed for proper racists and all that. But if I thought that way, it would mean not liking Austine, the wonderful tennis teacher who enabled my kids to overcome their dodgy genes and develop decent ground strokes; it would mean not being able to enjoy reading columns by brilliant black conservatives like Thomas Sowell; or appear on the radio with one of the cleverest, liveliest talk-show hosts in the business, C4 of Baltimore’s WBAL.
Indeed, call me a bit racist for saying so, but I think I have a greater respect for black conservatives than I do for white ones. Take C4, whose real name is Clarence Mitchell IV and who comes from a long line of black Maryland Democrat politicians but is now a libertarian conservative who regularly challenges his audience with his uncompromisingly low-tax, small-state, pro-freedom views. We think alike on many things, but my politics are the fairly obvious conclusion of my class, education and upbringing. For a card-carrying black liberal to have come over to the dark side, on the other hand, must have required a great deal of balls — not to mention counterintuitive intelligence.
And this isn’t whitey being patronising here, this is unfortunate fact: we live in a world where there are many more incentives for a ‘person of colour’ to get on by playing the race card than by deciding: ‘Damn it. Enough of this liberal bullshit! I don’t want to be treated like some semi-civilised sub-species which can only advance with the help of government handouts and “affirmative action”. I find that insulting! I want to be judged on my own merits, not on my race or my religion or the colour of my skin.’
This is why I so loathe racism. I mean, racism in its much more commonly used sense of ‘being white and saying something that a “person of colour” and/or a white liberal chooses to find offensive.’ What is particularly insidious and evil about this version of racism is that has been cunningly elided with proper racism. So, for example, when you write a Telegraph blog about how maddening it is that news reports are being evasive about identifying a racially persecuted group in Belfast, you’re absolutely guaranteed to get one or two comments like this (from a man called ChrisL): ‘Disgraceful. The vilest, sickest blog I’ve ever read.’
‘What? Really that bad, ChrisL?’ you want to say. ‘Worse than if I’d advocated putting all the world’s babies in a giant microwave? Or ramming the Galapagos Islands with a supertanker? Or spraying the whole of New Zealand with agent orange as a punishment for being so verdant?’ Except, of course, you don’t because these people’s mindset is far beyond the reach of humour or logic. You’re talking about race, ergo you’re a racist.
If people like ChrisL belonged to the crackpot fringes, it wouldn’t matter. But they are, unfortunately, representative of a cultural mainstream which, in Britain, the US and elsewhere, extends right across the media and academe and pretty much every government institution large and small. Damn it, though, we need to talk about race. (And immigration and assimilation and cultural identity.) It’s a big issue. It affects us all. And the solution is not to bury our heads in a bucket of sand marked ‘racism’ and hope it all goes away. It won’t.