Melanie McDonagh

Racism is on the rise, apparently. What do we mean by ‘racism’?

Racism is on the rise, apparently. What do we mean by ‘racism’?
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Well, how worried should we be about racism? The British Social Attitudes Survey says 3 in 10 Brits describe themselves as “a little “ or “a lot” prejudiced against people of other races. It wasn’t just white people either. This brings us back to levels in the Eighties, though to be honest it’s only five per cent above the all-time low of 25 per cent in 2001.

Not particularly surprisingly those most likely to admit to racial prejudice were male manual workers, though there was a rise in the numbers of male professionals in the category. Young people were less likely to admit to being racist – a quarter, by comparison with 36 per cent for the over-55s. Those with a degree (19 per cent) were about half as likely to describe themselves as racist as those with no qualifications (36 per cent). And – wouldn’t you just know it – Londoners were significantly less likely (16 per cent) to admit to racism than those in the West Midlands (38 per cent) – and I really should love to see the racial breakdown of the responses from Birmingham.

The interesting thing is that anyone, nowadays, admits to racial prejudice – given that in terms of social stigma there’s not much, short of pederasty, that’s more of a no-no. It’s social halitosis, though in terms of stigma it’s being given a run for its money by homophobia. The expression of racism is banned by law and punishable by the loss of employment – pace ‘The Sun has Got Its Hat On’ row – and is universally condemned by right thinking people, as in Nigel Farage and his remarks about Romanians, so I suppose we should congratulate the BSAS on getting anyone to talk about it at all.

Quite what we mean by racism is, of course, another matter. I should honestly be surprised, myself, if it were anything as crude as hostility to another skin colour. We are so heterogenous racially now that race, qua race, has simply ceased to be a matter of remark. Some kinds of prejudice, such as old fashioned white anti-Semitism – as opposed to the Islamist variety – have simply withered and died; it is, quite simply, no longer comprehensible and when you come across it in Chesterton or Buchan you think, how very, um, quaint.

Cultural racism, or if you prefer, making judgments about people’s culture is quite another thing. So, to be blunt, is hostility to Islam. So, when Mr Farage suggested – and yes, he took the remark back – that he’d be troubled if Romanians moved next door, I don’t think anyone thought for a moment that he really had a problem with someone whose surname ended in something like “escu” or who had a swarthy complexion; most of us simply assumed this was code for Roms – that, by the way is the PC term for Roma or gypsies – and it was noise and criminality he was thinking about.

And being culturally discriminatory is, I think, sometimes reasonable on the basis that not all cultures are equally meritorious – so long as one doesn’t fall for the basic prejudice of assuming that everyone from a particular background has those traits. Catholics, for instance, constitute 20 per cent of the prison population but only 10 per cent of the population. And because so many British Catholics are Irish at one remove or another, there’s probably an ethno-cultural as well as a religious component at work there. I should be quite willing to accept that there are aspects of the culture (I mean drink) and beliefs of my compatriots and co-religionists that contribute to us being more likely to end up at the wrong end of the penal system but I should be a little put out if you were to put it to me that I was personally more likely than you to be a criminal – though I wouldn’t put it past Bruce Anderson.

Paul Collier is particularly interesting about this. He’s the Oxford economist specialising in the world’s poorest countries, especially African ones, whose ground-breaking book, Exodus, has changed the way we talk about immigration. (If you haven’t read it, do.) Differences between races do not interest him; differences between cultures do. For instance he remarks as someone who visits Nigeria frequently that corruption in the country is so endemic, it is almost impossible to obtain life insurance there; when Nigerians come to other countries, some bring with them a different approach to social ethics than obtains here. And that will have an impact on the host community. I don’t think it’s racist to remark on that, so long as one doesn’t assume all individuals in the group are the same; Paul Collier is not a racist.

Yet there’s a whole new tendency – from America, obviously – which would see it as racism to distinguish between cultures, to suggest that one (the Protestant work ethic, say) is preferable to others. The fashionable Puerto Rican-American sociologist, Eduardo Bonilla Silva, in his book Racism without Race, identifies any attempt to distinguish between cultures as tending to bolster the position of whites – under the radar – and confirm the inferior status of ethnic minorities.

“This ideology”, he writes, “... explains continuing racial inequality as the outcome of non-racial dynamics...whites rationalise minorities’ status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations.”

Well of course outcomes are affected by non-racial dynamics. In Britain, for instance, Somali women are significantly less likely than white British women to work and are significantly more likely to have large families; this may make for well-adjusted children (I grew up in Ireland at a time when most mothers didn’t work) but one result is that the families are probably more likely to be dependent on benefits and reliant on social housing. That in turn affects the way the host community regards them. I wouldn’t myself call it racism to say as much but according to the new EB Silva approach, it probably does count as what he calls “colour blind racism”. (Though interestingly the whole debate about race in the US isn’t complicated by religion to the extent it is here.)

This is an awfully long way to say something very simple. When people say that they are racist, whether a lot or a little, I don’t think we really know what they mean. Only they do. Probably.