The Event: How Racist Are You? Channel 4
Science's Last Taboo, Channel 4

Channel 4's Race strand shed light on why 3,000 people joined the BNP after Nick Griffin's appearance on 'Question Time'

It's been quite a time for the BNP of late, hasn't it? In the aftermath of a first appearance on BBC1's Question Time 10 days ago came the party's remarkable claim that 3,000 people had joined it during or after the broadcast. Presumably they weren't won over by Nick Griffin's nervous laughter or slimy squirming out of denying he had denied the Holocaust. So what was it that drove this unprecedented surge (assuming the claim is true)?

One answer that presents itself is that those joining agreed with the odious Griffin when he afterwards complained that he had been ganged up on and barracked unfairly by the panel, not to mention the whooping audience. Assuming those new members are white (of course, anyone can join now), this would prove in practice the theory that retired teacher Jane Elliott has been putting forward for 40 years, which lies at the heart of Channel 4's The Event: How Racist Are You?: that the hegemonic white populace (who make up 85.7 per cent of those living in the UK, according to the 2001 census) can't stand to see other white people being criticised.

Elliott is quite the controversial figure herself. Calling herself "the bitch", she has presided over the same psychological exercise for four decades now, first among her class of eight-year-olds in Iowa in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King. Splitting the group – here, 30 adult British volunteers – into "blue eyes" (invariably white) and "brown eyes" (mostly black and Asian), she aims to simulate an apartheid regime based on eye colour, using segregation, rigged intelligence tests, a refusal to listen to arguments and downright rudeness, to reveal, to the abused blues, the insidious silent racism she believes is at the core of white society.

Where the "blue" kids in her original class became cowed by the deliberate bullying, the British response proves rather more robust. Before the experiment even begins properly, one "brown" (notably a white man) takes himself out of the exercise, complaining that Elliott is damning these people as racists who need to be re-educated without giving them a chance. Elliott doesn't care: for her, the point is that black and Asian people aren't given a chance on account of their skin colour, and white people need to know what that feels like.

But it is interesting that this objector – as well as another who follows him out of the door – is young. For what Elliott fails to take into consideration, when claiming that anyone who has been educated to high-school level in a predominantly white country is inculcated in the myth of white superiority, is that people have moved on in the past 40 years. Have we not learnt from the example of Rosa Parks? Are we not aware of theories of Otherness? Have we not picked something up from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man? Well, perhaps not. Excuse me as I climb out of my liberal-media ivory tower, look around and sadly note that those 3,000 people did decide to join the BNP. Maybe Elliott is right and we do, as a society, need to be bullied out of our complacency – even if her exercise does get up the noses of those of us who have moved beyond laughing at racist jokes when their butt isn't there.

Also part of last week's Channel 4 Race strand was a programme fronted by the journalist Rageh Omaar investigating Science's Last Taboo, the idea that race and IQ are linked. Following numerous warnings (really, too many) that this is dangerous territory, "so radioactive, it's usually a question raised in public only by racists", Omaar gets into the meat of the subject, recounting the history of IQ tests – designed in 1904 in France to predict which children needed remedial classes, but, disturbingly and saliently, translated into English as a centrepiece for eugenics – and investigating the claims of various highly acclaimed scientists through the years that a gap between the races does exist.

The conclusion that the programme comes to is that the culture in which we are brought up, which can prepare us for the kinds of questions that are set in IQ tests, has more to do with our "intelligence quotient" than any genetic factor. But whether the head-in-the-sand supporters of the BNP would be swayed by the argument is quite another matter.

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