Clearly, if anyone could benefit from a horizon-expanding trip out of his “natural surroundings” it would be John Cherry, a Tory councillor for Chichester in West Sussex. His comments to the Mail On Sunday, objecting to a proposed boarding school for inner-city kids in his constituency, scored a full house in racist nonsense bingo. Stereotypes about the Asian work ethic? Check. Language which reduces black people to the status of animals? Check. General air of a patronising, colonialist throwback? Check and check. For good measure he also threw in some fevered speculation about what might happen if the pupils “escape into the forest”. No, I don’t know what a “sexual volcano” is either, but presumably it’s where inner-city kids go to sacrifice missionaries and dance suggestively in honour of their primitive gods.
The incident was very easy for the Conservative Party to resolve. Too easy. A spokesman described the comments as “ totally unacceptable” and said “they do not reflect the views of the Conservative Party”. Cherry resigned from the party and apologised for his “thoughtless and extremely foolish” remarks – which does seem a restrained understatement from the man responsible for conjuring up that richly redolent “sex volcano” image. It’s also notable that neither the repentant Cherry nor his party saw fit to comment on Labour's description of his remarks as (what they so obviously were)racist.
We’ve reached a strange plateau en route to equality (that is where we all want to go, right?). It is considered progress of sorts that almost no one would be happy to be called racist, but if all that amounts to is the obligation to preface racist statements with “I’m not a racist, but…”, what kind of progress is this? The prospect of being labelled with the r-word is apparently so offensive that it makes people more uncomfortable than the reality of racism itself.
That’s why the existence in rural England of a 73-year-old Tory councillor with racist views is not only not shocking; it’s perversely reassuring. He’s the British equivalent of the Deep South redneck in Hollywood movies; a convenient stereotype which allows us to safely locate “racism” outside of ourselves and move on.
We know what “a racist” is. That’s easy. What’s more complicated is the insidious nature of institutional racism and our complicity in it. Neither the Conservative Party, nor anyone else should excuse themselves from the duty to confront these questions. Why hasn’t the Metropolitan Police changed fundamentally in the 20 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered? How did divisive anti-immigration rhetoric become the default for all three main parties? And if you’re not a racist and I’m not a racist, why do all these racist things keep happening?