Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why must some guilt be collective?

When I hear of a vicious crime, the first thing I think is please don't let it be a Muslim, or a black, Arab, or Asian. Black and Asian Britons provoke extra opprobrium
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According to reports, the House of Lords Standards and Privileges Committee will this week suspend and fine three peers for abusing the expenses system. The committee is chaired by the formidable Baroness Manningham-Buller, the erstwhile head of MI5. If, as reports suggest, the charges are proved, it is absolutely right that the individuals concerned should face punitive consequences. Two of them are Labour peers and one a "people's peer", not a party nominee but somebody who applied to get into the Lords.

The first question is: "What makes social democrats act so greedily?" Then follows dismay, as once again principles appear to be discarded by some people when they join the Establishment. Britons of colour will experience further grief because these three are British Asians, people who got into the palace of high honour, once a citadel only for white folk with serious money and/or clout.

Why should we, who did nothing wrong, feel so culpable, you might ask? Because that is how it just is, or just feels, every time one of "us" does wrong. It is a common reaction among people from groups who have had to fight for rights and a fair deal. Society is still unequal and unfair whatever the protestations of highly influential, vocal deniers – just read the excellent, detailed report published last week by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which described the impaired life chances of too many citizens in this country.

When systematically excluded men and women do gain entry, expectations of them extend far beyond their own individual actions. What they do has consequences for the groups they are affiliated to, the struggle, big and small politics. My mum, Jena, and her friends used to want their children to aim high but always warned that if any of us did get up there, we were to make sure we never brought shame on the family, mosque or temple, or our various communities.

A beloved uncle warned me just before he died a few years ago: "Success is nothing without responsibility. It doesn't matter how much money you make or if you are in Buckingham Palace and on TV. Be very careful. Behave right or they will curse all of us." If these peers fall, we fall with them in the eyes of the public. Lord Taylor of Warwick, black and once a Tory, is due to explain his expenses in January, having pleaded not guilty. Again, if his claims are found to be unacceptable, black Britons will wear the cloak of guilt by biological and cultural association.

The most obvious example of this burden of representation is Barack Obama. Africans, Muslims, African-Americans, black and Asian Britons rejoiced at his election, claiming his victory as their own. I look back at my own foolish and excessive emotions the day he went into the White House, the tears and songs of praise that rose in my throat, as if this President was divinely blessed and heralded by God and the angels. How can he possibly live up to these expectations? How will we cope when our ecstasy turns to agony? This is the terrible dilemma: we feel obliged to defend Obama when he is attacked by racists but still hold him to impossibly high standards because of his race.

Race, you see, still matters. I know and respect Baroness Uddin and Lord Bhatia and am acquainted with Lord Paul, too. If they face censure, they will understand, I hope, that they have let down much more than just themselves. Agreed, this is iniquitous, but it is reality. They are admired for being good role models, and will be judged harshly when they are not.

The same double standards apply to those who do not hold themselves up as race heroes. Every time I hear of a vicious crime, the first thing I think is please don't let it be a Muslim, or a black, Arab or Asian. Black and Asian Britons behaving badly provoke extra opprobrium – from both the wider society and their own people. When there is a gang rape by young black men, cases of lethal domestic violence by Asian men, even white-collar crimes, the blame spreads beyond the specifics, an unpreventable infection. The miscreants are seen as reflecting their tribes. Tim Wise wrote a perceptive article on this tendency in LiP, an iconoclastic online magazine. White deviants and criminals, he says, "are allowed the privilege of individualisation ... allowed to be 'just bad persons', unlike non-whites who come to be seen collectively as 'bad people'." Call it the "ethnic" payback if you like. To make it worse, some crimes are ethnically profiled while others, particularly those committed mostly by white people, are just seen as, well, crimes. Jewish people know the generic stain all too well. Their whole story is one of collective blame.

Since the big banks collapsed, how many times have I heard people saying: "It was the Jews, you know, can't trust them." Jewish friends of mine battle against the slurs and yet themselves feel unexpressed (in public) anger and anxiety that one bad Jew allows people to justify anti-Semitism. It happens to women, too. Last week, there was a shrill catfight between the female contestants on The Apprentice, cleverly managed for our entertainment. The women were put into a team and performed abysmally. Then they turned on each other. This will now be used as evidence against feminism and gender equality. As a woman, I have to confess I found myself screaming inside, hating the women for being stupidly unaware of the antipathy they were arousing in people who never believed women could do it all.

That then is my quandary. I hate it that some people are more harshly judged than others and forced to carry the weight of history. In a perfect world nobody would expect those who face discrimination to be only saintly and good – they would be entitled to be bad and ugly too. But yet, I do feel as my uncle did – that as inequality still breaks and excludes people, those who do gain access have an absolute duty not to let the side down. And then I think but that is grossly unfair. And so I go round and round in circles, like a demented dog chasing its own tail. Help!