Where racism is not simply a black and white issue

On the streets where Stephen Lawrence died, Steve Boggan finds little optimism about change
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"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's has been at his newsagents shop 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 by two of the five white men accused by the Daily Mail last week of murdering the black student Stephen Lawrence.

"The newspapers said this was a scary place to be if you're Asian or black, but I've never had any trouble," he said.

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 Government'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 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.

"Okay, I had NF daubed on the shop about six years ago, but it's almost faded now. If I'd caught them doing it, I'd have given them a clip round the ear. As it is, people here are nice to me, and I'm nice to them. That's more important than little events."

It was on the Brook estate that the five suspects paraded their xenophobia until the day Stephen, 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.

Black and Asian residents have reported a high level of overt racism in the area and many have moved away. Perhaps that is why so many white people feel there isn't a problem, but those The Independent spoke to said they would be quite happy to have more blacks and Asians on the estate.

What they doubted was that the 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", or the "Ethnic monitoring and code of practice seminar".

"If people are racist, then nothing like that is going to make a scrap of difference," said Karen Eyre, 31, who lives on the estate. "It's nothing to do with this place; it's the same story across the country. Some people are racist, but most people aren't. You have to try to change those who are, but I don't think you can."

Several white men aged under 24 - the age and type usually associated with racist violence - said they believed the Brook estate was "no worse than anywhere else", and none was overtly racist. But they all doubted the fare on offer from the Government would improve race relations. A few were resentful - to the extent that they felt discriminated against - for being labelled racist in the aftermath of the Lawrence inquiry.

One 15-year-old, Mark Kearns, said: "No one can tell kids not to be racist. It wouldn't bother me if there were more blacks and Asians here - we all mix at school and the only thing is the difference in people's skin. What we're really worried about is the Chinese gangs who bully the white kids."

Mr Patel's neighbour is British-born Mr Chibber, also reluctant to give his full name, whose family hails from India. He, too, had "NF" daubed on his shutters, at Star Grocers, but that didn't frighten him off.

"I've been here 14 years and I've never had any serious trouble," he said. "Some of the kids try to give me lip by calling me `Paki' but I give as good as I get. People have to work out their own way of living together - you can't learn from a few seminars.

"Come to think of it, I did have trouble once. I was hit over the head as I locked up. But that was different. That was just for the money."