When racism is not simply a black and white issue

`People are nice and I'm nice back'
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The Independent Online
"Just call me Mr Patel," said the smiling man who was supposed to be living in fear. "Everyone calls me Mr Patel, the parents and the children - although many of the parents were just children when I first arrived."

Mr Patel has been at his newsagents' on the Brook estate in Eltham, south-east London, for nearly nine years. But it was three years before "NF" - for National Front - was daubed on his shutters.

Mr Patel was speaking yesterday morning at about the same time as Timothy Kirkhope, the Home Office minister responsible for community relations, was launching the Gov- ernment's plans to participate in the European Year Against Racism. Mr Kirkhope spoke of workshops, exhibitions, festivals, galas, and conferences all over the country.

But, like many on the Brook estate, Mr Patel thought talking-shops would be little more than a waste of time.

"Things aren't so bad if people take the trouble to get to know one another," he said. "People said this was a bad area, but it's fine now that we have become friends. It's a nice place. If I'm in the back of the shop when people come in, they just take what they want and leave the money by the till. I know the five boys named by the Daily Mail last week, but they never gave me any problems about being Indian and they were always polite.

It was on the Brook estate that the five suspects paraded their xenophobia until the day in 1993 that Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old A-level student, was stabbed and beaten to death as he waited for a bus nearby. They no longer live there.

Many residents doubted was that racists living among them would be changed by - or even take the trouble to go to - any of the planned events: the "Roots of the Future" exhibitions, or the "Camden gala and social night".

"If people are racist, then nothing like that is going to make a scrap of difference," Karen Eyre, 31, who lives on the estate, said. "It's nothing to do with this place; it's the same story across the country."