Don't lock up young racists

Britain's new generation of racists are learning their prejudices around the family dinner table
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The Independent Culture
BRITAIN IS breeding a generation of Fascists. Research by the Home Office, investigating the extension of the Crime and Disorder Bill that aims to curb racism, has uncovered a nation of under-teens for whom Seventies-style prejudice - embodied by pejorative epithets such as "wop" and "chink" and xenophobic taunts - is in vogue.

Kids between the ages of four and ten are bringing terms such as "nigger" and "Paki" to school, along with their sports kit and packed lunches, and exercising a form of racial exclusion when it comes to group games and class seating arrangements. The predictable old suggestions that foreigners swim home, or take their smelly selves to the other end of the playground, are coming out of mouths that should, by now, be well accustomed to munching on a samosa and pronouncing non-English words. In any case, the children are far too young to have formulated any complex form of racial dislike.

Of course, these kids do not really feel that "dirty immigrants" are seizing jobs that should go to English people, are polluting English genes by intermarriage, and corrupting Christian ethics with heathen religions. They certainly do not lament the lost days of the Empire. They've learnt their hatred by overhearing their families talking at the dinner table; and they pass it on to their peers without understanding what it means.

Although it has been established that parental influence is the root cause of such manifestations of prejudice in people so young, the proposed solutions display a laughable lack of understanding of race, young people and class. The Home Office is suggesting a restriction of kids' movements, increased parental vigilance over their offspring and enforced residence at home during certain times.

How could this possibly work? It would exacerbate the problem by breeding a culture of resentment. Youths would be even more exposed to the prejudices of their families, and grow up hating not only non-Caucasians but also the Government, "their jailers". As soon as they were unleashed, right at the beginning of their teens, they'd be cruising to administer a bruising.

To compound the problem, the chaps at Westminster - mostly white, all at least middle-class - seem to think that racism is displayed only in the form of a modish Tarantino movie. Their vision of a torn Britain is a montage of cliches: fierce young people, divided along lines of national origin, stalking the streets, disaffected, unreachable and out of control.

In their eyes, the young perpetrators of racial abuse are school bullies turned street vigilantes, drop-outs turned renegades, underachievers trying to exert some control on their lives by spreading terror in the immediate vicinity.

That is not the case. Racists are not all stupid people, and although racism may manifest itself in different forms, depending on social and economic factors, it certainly does not beg a clamp-down upon the liberty of young people's movements. Indeed, there is no relationship between that and the "spread" of prejudice.

The opposite approach - sending people into the world and expanding their understanding of how, in many cases, various nationalities have successfully fused - might be far more enlightening for them. There is no guarantee, however, that even that would work. Racists do not need to be taught that we are living in a multicultural country. They know it, and they fear and hate it. They fear difference, and change, and they do not want to face the difficulties of coming to terms with, or seeking to understand, unfamiliar new influences.

That fear shows itself in different ways, and racism is sophisticated enough to adapt to all classes and social background. A child in one type of school may cry "Paki go home", but that is no different morally from a child in a "better" school telling his friends about his strange, silent, brown-skinned nanny.

One child picks fights with outsiders; another ignores them because he has not seen them before, except as servants. When I first went to university I was shocked by the way that I simply was "not seen" by my peers. I did not exist.

They were bright youngsters, civilised and generally friendly, liberal culturally, if not in voting habits. They had ethnic rugs in their rooms and ate post-rugby curries, but it was clear that I was "other", not an option for friendship. It was clear how these people would grow up: liberal hypocrites, monocultured but secure in their social position.

I don't know which is worse: a disaffected boy from the "inner city" (that old cliche) shouting obscenities, or a refined gent whose narrow- mindedness is concealed by an armour of confident social supremacy.