Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: We should be proud of how far we have come

When David Bond got Blatter to accept he was wrong about racism, he reflected our nation's moral leadership


The crafty king of Fifa acts like the hapless Louis XVI. Poor Sepp Blatter. So old, so paternalistic, so disconnected from the values of the egalitarian modern world. So European. So unlike the Brits, who this week have every reason to feel mighty proud. Here Blatter was excoriated for his obscene dismissal of racism on the pitch as something easily resolvable with a handshake after the match. In other EU countries not an eyebrow was raised. They do not care.

Citizens of a continent with the most evil manifestations of racial dehumanisation still don't get it and seem disinclined to learn. They are, it's true, vigilant about anti-Semitism, but other forms of xenophobia are unattended and spread like weeds. Britain has its own ignoble history of slavery and imperial exploitation but it has always produced extraordinary resisters and, after the United States, has been at the forefront of legal sanctions against discrimination.

Good black and white people together have struggled against racial iniquity for centuries. Take Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century, enslaved at 12, who was brought to England, became a campaigner and wrote a bestseller about his life. He was supported by working-class English radicals and Granville Sharp, the Quaker abolitionist. There have been many moments of absolute integrity on race in this country. Basil D'Oliveira, the legendary cricketer who has just died, was a Cape "coloured" banned from playing in his own country under apartheid. In 1968, a major cricket tour to South Africa was cancelled because his team-mates would not go without him. British football has been transformed by determined anti-racist players, campaigners and managers. So has much else.

Racism in Britain is not over. The web delivers piles of vile racist abuse to many of us. Race played out in the recent riots – Mark Duggan, the mixed-race man shot by the police in Tottenham, was, it turns out, unarmed. Convictedrioters include a horrendously high number of black and mixed-race young people – not all innocent, but many damaged by still having to fight their corner because they are not white.

A new report by the Institute for Race Relations examined Stoke-on-Trent and found mounting racial attacks on asylum-seekers, non-white cabbies and takeaway workers and the abuse of long-time residents, especially Muslims. One reason, says Burnett, is the mainstream accommodation with the far right, including the English Defence League. Elsewhere Muslims and many Asians are punished for their identities, scarred by cultural hatred as wounding as colour hatred. But, still, look how far we have come.

Last week I went to the Arcola Theatre in north London to see Speechless. Based on a true story, written by Marjorie Wallace, the chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, the play dramatises the tragic lives of identical twin sisters, born to Caribbean post-war immigrants. The father worked for the RAF in all-white areas; their mother never found acceptance and wasn't able to understand her twins. Isolated and racially victimised, the girls turned in on themselves, refused to communicate with others, developed a lethal co-dependence and wild ways. For petty theft and arson they spent 11 years in Broadmoor.

Afterwards, Joan Bakewell, chairing a post-show discussion, asked me, almost plaintively, "Are we still like this? Is racism still this bad?" No, I said to her, there has been slow but impressive progress. 1981, when the girls were arrested, was the year of the Brixton race riots, starting a terrible decade. In his compelling new memoir, Out of the Ashes, David Lammy, the black MP for Tottenham, remembers the riots of 1985 and his fears of ending up in prison just because he was black. Today's kids can see possibilities with motivating leaders like Lammy. We have a near critical mass of highly successful black, Asian, mixed-race and Arab Britons.

That sort of leavening has not even begun in the rest of Europe. What's more, the extreme right is gaining ground there. The Chatham House report, Right Response, collates these frightening facts. Last week came revelations about the so-called "doner killings" of Turks by a neo-Nazi group which were blamed on foreigners by the police for many years. When the Norwegian fascist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people this year, what conversation did the nation have? Not why do we breed such men, but do we have too many coloured people in rich Norway?

When the BBC's David Bond finally got Blatter to accept he was wrong about racism in football, he reflected our nation's moral leadership. I know I go on about racial injustice in Britain and will again. This week though I must acknowledge that we people of colour have more rights and more indigenous friends in the UK than do those settled elsewhere in Europe. And for that, much gratitude and respect.


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