Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why is racial abuse now considered acceptable?

I don't care how people feel about me. I do expect them to treat me with minimal courtesy

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On the day my beloved son was born at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech on how her kith and kin felt rather "swamped" by alien cultures and peoples. My child was branded – rejected, I felt – as he took his first breath. I never forgave the Iron Lady for inciting animosity against us.

This Wednesday the boy, now a barrister, turns 30. His Britain is dynamic, diverse and – in spite of old and new fissures – remarkably at ease with itself, as is he. Though discrimination blocks talent and top jobs still go to white, clubbable chaps, opportunities have been prised open and a meritocracy operates in many professions. There is nowhere else I would choose to live.

And yet, and yet, I see a return to some of the attitudes personified by Thatcher and Enoch Powell, cultural protectionists who wanted England to be their England and only theirs once again. There are also ominous signs that racial intolerance is breaking out, even among the usually civil middle classes. It is hugely upsetting that we blacks and Asians increasingly experience spit-in-your-face racism, even in London, the city made by strangers.

Last Monday, I was speaking at an Evening Standard/YouGovStone public debate on what we wanted from the London Mayor. We were at Cadogan Hall in smart Sloane Square. The audience– many well-heeled – was lively and keen, a good sign of political engagement. Such debates can get fiery and that makes them real and exciting. Other panellists were Michael Eboda, the ex-editor of The Voice newspaper, the prolific and weighty columnist Simon Jenkins, and Boris Johnson. All went spiffingly well until I said we needed time-limited, affirmative action in recruitment and promotion for key institutions such as the police forces.

In Northern Ireland, affirmative action has transformed the police force so it reflects the Catholic/Protestant population. Mr Eboda then directly interrogated Mr Johnson on some of his insulting assertions about black people. The Tory MP first huffed and puffed and then blew out a timid apology. Neither Mr Eboda nor I were rude or aggressive, yet we seemed to stir some pretty revolting feelings in a number of ladies and gents attending. There was much unruly shouting. I was called a "cunt" and told to go back to Uganda. Mr Eboda was also racially abused, as was anybody else, black and white, who stood up to the posh hooligans. Members of the Black Police Federation later told me they were actually afraid of the mob malevolence. Five years ago, few readers resorted to ugly, racist abuse. Now hundreds mug me via email.

Last week, the British Social Attitudes Survey found that about 30 per cent of respondents said they were racially prejudiced – an increase of 5 per cent since 2001 – and that equal opportunities "had gone too far". That is like saying justice and fairness and the defence of abused women has "gone too far".

Why such racism and why now, when the country is rich and prosperous and fairer than it ever was? Islamist extremists have devastated mutuality and trust, for sure. But there are other causes too, such as the rise of rude discourse, the cacophony of British life. Blaming and insulting each other, ringing up radio stations to blast this or that, being "unafraid" to fight against political correctnetss, speaking your bloody mind – all have coarsened society and affirmed bigotry. People are not ashamed of holding prejudices and now proudly declare them.

I don't care how people feel about me; I do expect them to treat me with minimal courtesy, even when we disagree strongly. When a society maligns incomers, it is a sign of grave and grotesque intolerance of difference, and of dissent within. Mr Eboda and I were the embodiment of the evil immigrant that raucous evening. We past and present immigrants are held responsible for generic unhappiness and fear, crimes and disorder, too, as if there was no anti-social behaviour before the Windrush came. Foolish, self-serving black and Asian politicians have encouraged these tendencies instead of standing up to them. Diane Abbott is an exception. Others are suave and "post-racial" and that gets them places.

Just don't mention race seems to be the new deal. Simon Jenkins said after the Cadogan meeting that the subject was a "bore". I guess it is for a venerated white knight. Wish I could be that blasé. When reviewing one of my books Andrew Marr noted with typical precision: "She sways from optimism of the will to pessimism of the facts." That is so true for millions of black and Asian Britons. Hopes are fulfilled, success reached but circling sharks endanger both, and fill us with fears. We have never had it so good nor so very bad – and the paradox is unsettling.


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