The man who said I had a funny name is not, of course, a racist

I'm amazed by the number of intelligent people who fail to grasp that you can be a racist without knowing it

THE YOUNG man next door is letting his flat. For some complicated reason this led his father, a retired man from Guildford, to contact us concerning insurance. When he phoned he spoke to my partner, who had to give him both our surnames. "Aaronovitch?" he immediately queried. "I'm surprised he hasn't changed his name." My partner was taken aback. "What did he mean?" she asked me later.

Yes, what did he mean? What were the assumptions that underlay his strange assertion? Maybe Mr Guildford had had many Jewish friends who, fearing prejudice, anglicised their surnames - and so he was merely a bit surprised at my family's courage. Possibly, but I don't think so. No, I think it more likely that he just assumed that Jews generally changed their names so that they could assimilate in public, while retaining their separateness in private. It was what the conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity) did in Spain during the Middle Ages, which was why the Inquisition burned so many of them. With us crafty (though brilliant) Levantines such deception is something of a habit.

We had never met, never spoken, never corresponded, Mr Guildford and I. And yet he presumed it perfectly acceptable to speak like this to my partner. And I suddenly smelled the rancid whiff of the golf club committee: "Of course, chairman," says the membership secretary, "his name is really Goldfarb. He changed it to Gordon." With one impertinent observation, Mr Guildford made me feel like an interloper in my own bloody house.

He didn't mean to, of course - they rarely do, not even the big ones. In Simon Heffer's exceptional biography of Enoch Powell, Like The Roman, Heffer allows that, after Powell's 1968 Birmingham speech, many black communities were "pitched intoterror". But that, says Heffer, "was certainly not Powell's intention." Later Margaret Thatcher told Heffer that Powell was, in her opinion, "not a racist". Tony Benn, too, has never believed Powell was a racist. A TV trial of Powell last year produced a clear acquittal on the charge of racism.

Yet here, cited by Heffer, is Powell on his return from a visit to the US in 1967, just as Martin Luther King reached his zenith. "Integration of races of totally disparate origins and culture," wrote Powell, "is one of the great myths of our time. It has never worked through history." Except, of course, when it has. And here again is Powell in the same year, writing to Edward Heath. In this letter the aspect of race relations that bothers the non-racist Powell is "not discrimination by white against coloured, but of insolence by coloured towards white". My, but what a telling word that "insolence" is! Children are insolent towards adults, privates are insolent towards captains, and "coloureds" are insolent towards whites. Yet Maggie says that he was an honourable man.

As are they all honourable men. In the wake of the Macpherson report, with its definition of institutionalised racism and uncomfortable conclusions, sympathy for the Lawrences has been replaced as the dominant theme by something else.

Let two letters in yesterday's press stand for all. CR Howe from Hambledon in Hampshire (who has lived abroad and respects the traditions of others) wrote that: "It is a tragedy that, in this country, the politically correct left-wing lobby is bent on making native, white Britons ashamed of our history and Christian culture on the pretext of not causing offence to ethnic minorities."

And Ann M Johnston from Dunstable asked: "Can we be sure that the vandalism of the Stephen Lawrence memorial was the work of a white racist? Might it not have been someone from one or the other ethnic minority out to cause further problems for the police?" The Chinese perhaps. Or maybe a cop-hating Vanuatuan.

They are pretty typical. And they are not, of course, racists. Racists wear pointy hats and sheets and say "nigger" and deface memorials (unless, of course, the fiendishly clever Somalis get there first). Consequently the ordinary non-racists will accept no definition of racism that suits them. The cap never, ever fits. Which is why they and their mouthpieces have been so offended by the recommendations and definitions in the Macpherson report.

There are some hostages to fortune in there. Critics of the report have zoomed in on some of the recommendations that changes in the law be reviewed, in particular concerning racism in private and the exceptional application of double jeopardy. I would just remind readers that Macpherson is very tentative here, suggesting only "that consideration should be given" to this, to that and to the other.

But the real quarry is Sir William's definition of racism. For some reason it evokes anger and denial among Britons of all classes and outlooks. Racism is held to be "conduct or words or practices which advantage or disadvantage people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. In its more subtle form it is as damaging as in its overt form."

To get to this conclusion Macpherson asked himself what psychology could have given rise to the treatment experienced by Duwayne Brooks and the Lawrences. In other words, he took the effects and worked backwards, rather than beginning and ending with intent. He concluded that an absence of an active desire to harm people is not an absolution when people are indeed harmed by your actions and attitudes.

So, can you be a racist without knowing it? Yes. Of course. It doesn't make you a member of the Ku Klux Klan, or even a bad person. But it does mean that, with a bit of thought, you might behave more admirably and more fairly. In some cases this will make little life-or-death difference, but in, say, the police force it is crucial. It is certainly something to think about if you are inclined to shower journalistic awards on the likes of Richard Littlejohn and Gary Bushell, or to excuse Bernard Manning.

This week I have been astonished by the number of intelligent folk who cannot grasp this, or who see it as a first move towards planting microchip monitors in their heads. True, it is a more sophisticated argument than the one we had back in the late Sixties. I believe that we can cope with the complexity precisely because we have progressed since then, and we are a more tolerant nation. However, we still have work to do. In Eltham, in 1993, there was a lynching and the sheriff didn't catch the killers, and we can do a whole lot better.

Mr Guildford, I reiterate, didn't know the first thing about me. But the second he heard my name a picture began to assemble itself in his brain; the foreign moniker triggered an assumption. It made me uncomfortable, but it doesn't matter too much. That's because (a) I don't wear my name on a placard everywhere I go; (b) he's not a policeman; and (c) my son has not just been stabbed in the heart while waiting for the bus.

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