We must stop ignoring the roots of racism

I'm just as concerned about the ignorance, inarticulacy, resentment and anger of those police recruits
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The Independent Online

If one wants to look on the bright side, one can at least take solace in the fact that the opprobrium heaped on the racist police recruits caught on camera by the BBC has been universal. To suggest that someone is racist now is considered one of the most heinous of slurs. A step forward, surely, from a couple of decades ago, when many people were openly racist without giving it a second thought.

Now, all decent people understand that an accusation of racism is extremely serious. Indeed, the reaction of the police when confronted with proof that raw, unvarnished race hate still exists is to move quickly to emphasise that "there is no room in the British police service for anyone with racist attitudes".

The great worry now among chief police officers is that all policemen will be tarred with the same brush as the trainees that Mark Daly exposed so incontrovertibly in his documentary, "The Secret Policeman." Even Tony Blair yesterday assured the country that "most police officers are thoroughly decent and want to do their best for their communities".

But the very fact that he feels he has to state something that we should all be able to take for granted is part of the problem. The first reaction to David Blunkett, when told of the allegations the BBC had made, is part of the problem too. So keen was he to avoid facing the issue before him head-on that he resorted to that most ancient of ploys, an attempt to shot the messenger.

Mr Blunkett, even if he isn't ready to admit it in public, must surely realise now that his suggestion that it was the BBC's business to report the news instead of "creating" it was a knee-jerk reaction of the most cowardly kind. The BBC did not "create" this "news". They just filmed it.

Look at any set of statistics on policing, from records on stop and search to the proportion of ethnic minorities who end up in prison for crimes that whites receive non-custodial sentences for, and the truth becomes clear. It is not just the police who are "institutionally racist", it is the entire criminal justice system. If the politicians, the police, the magistrates, the judges and the juries were able to accept this record for what it is, then there would have been no need for Mark Daly to go to the extremes he did to get the country to confront what is staring it in the face.

The Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence was supposed to have been a call to reform the police, but the phrase "institutionally racist", at the centre of the report's conclusions, is itself a cowardly form of denial, the legacy of the failure of the report to engage with the idea that any single policeman could be racist, and instead to suggest that racism is a sin of omission rather than commission, committed inadvertently rather than deliberately.

Not that I can't understand why it was that the Macpherson report pulled its punches. The slur of racism is perceived now as so damaging that the smallest taint-by-association is avoided. Simply suggesting that some group of people may have people with racist beliefs among them is considered too damaging a slander to bandy around.

Is this really such a good thing? Or is it a form of mass hypocrisy, encouraging us to mask racism rather than honestly debating it? I think it is the latter - verging on hysterical, and counter-productive. Maybe if the public stigma was not quite so powerful, the private tolerance wouldn't be quite so pervasive.

I'm happy to believe that most policemen are decent. But I also contend that even decent people - not just policemen - in Britain nowadays prefer to keep their heads down instead of kicking up a stink about ethnic discrimination, because they know that all sense of context goes out of the window when the cry of "racist" is uttered. Rightly or wrongly, people think it is unfair that an accusation of racism ruins a career and a reputation, when even concerns about "inappropriate anger" are greeted with a degree of sympathy and offers of help.

Yes, racism is a serious allegation. But a good example of how out-of-proportion the punishment is to the crime came about during the trial of the talent competition winner Cheryl Tweedy. This young lady is a member of the pop group Girls Aloud, and recently made the headlines when she attacked and punched a lavatory attendant after helping herself to a handful of the lollipops the attendant was selling.

Ms Tweedy was charged with actual bodily harm and with racially aggravated bodily harm, when the woman she attacked, Sophie Amogbopa, reported to the police that Ms Tweedy had hurled racial epithets at her as well as violent fists. The singer was found guilty on the first count and not guilty on the second, which came as a great relief to her, her fellow band members, and her record company.

Ms Tweedy herself said after the trial: "I'm pleased the trial is over and thankful that the jury has accepted that this incident had nothing to do with race." A spokesman for her record company went further and announced: "We are pleased Cheryl has been found not guilty of the main charge against her."

I find these attitudes absolutely incredible. "Main charge"? Isn't this splitting hairs a bit? Racism is a serious charge, of course. But isn't beating someone up equally serious? Apparently not. Ms Tweedy's cohorts and her management clearly don't mind being associated with someone who directs violent rage against those she sees as subordinate to her wishes. They may have been more keen to distance themselves if the motive for her violent abuse had been specifically labelled as racist.

But actually, racist behaviour is not a unique, incurable pathology, more sinister and dangerous than any of the other antisocial behaviours - such as resorting to violence for other reasons - that human beings sometimes commit. It is a particularly insidious problem, because the social consequences of racism are devastating. But the "zero tolerance" attitude to racism in isolation that so many anti-racism campaigners advocate risks obscuring the problems that Britain faces instead of confronting them. Racist attitudes can be challenged. Racist attitudes in Britain have been changed.

But racist attitudes are usually a manifestation of an individual's more fundamental problems. Look at the young men caught on camera by Mark Daly. Yes, they were racist. But they were also ignorant, inarticulate, resentful and angry. Using the Cheryl Tweedy test, all these other personality problems were as nothing compared with, and nothing to do with, the singular failing of racism.

But I'm just as concerned about the ignorance, inarticulacy, resentment and anger. All these, as well as their racism, ought to prevent these young men from being acceptable as police officers. But instead it is not this range of nasty characteristics that is seen as the problem, but the particular outlet that has been found for them.

The problem with the police is not only that they don't face up to racism in their ranks. It is that they have become focused on the idea that racism is the only problem they've got. But racism isn't some aberration that operates in a vacuum, more evil and less explicable than any other prejudice. It's part and parcel of a fearful, ignorant and paranoid culture, inside the police force and outside it. And until we face up to the wider climate in which racism operates, we'll never be rid of its blight.