Four historic weeks in British racial history

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Within the space of a month, four important things have happened which could change the face of the politics of race in Britain. I use the term "politics of race" rather than "race relations" because I am not certain exactly what race relations are, or what the notion of relationships between "the races" means. The term speaks to me of old ideas that black people and white people cannot live together without conflict, but since that notion does not accord with my own experience I am increasingly reluctant to use a term that is so redolent of racist ideology as to be a problem in its own right. (But there is a politics of race in which, for example, Tory governments can and probably will try to use the "race card": where the ghetto and the "inner city" are codes for black people; where mugging is solely a crime committed by black men - or, more to the point, when a Commissioner of the Police can refer to mugging as black crime.

February 1997 may go down in the social and political history of Britain as the point in which the tide of misunderstanding and injustice began to be turned. When Stephen Lawrence's mother cried out in court for justice for her murdered son, her comments were noted, but largely dismissed outside of the black community. But one national newspaper, not renowned for its anti-racist perspective, took Mrs Lawrence's side and accused the men thought to have murdered Stephen on the front page. Whatever the motives of the Daily Mail, it gave a positive message to black people that the murder of a black person was seen to be as important as the murder of a white person. This was to many a monumental departure from the norm.

Previously we had seen murders and mysterious deaths ignored or excused away: Joy Gardner, Wayne Douglas, Ibrahim Sey, Clinton McCurbin, Shije Lapite. So when the Daily Mail sees the humanity of the Lawrence family and makes an issue of justice for that family it achieves much for race politics. We must acknowledge that the killers have not (yet) been brought to justice; none the less an important step has been taken that makes the lives of black people in Britain a little safer.

The second important event last month was the launch of the 1997 Reith lecture, given by Professor Patricia J Williams. For the first time a black person is giving the lectures, and her chosen subject is race. Her language is both scholarly and poetic. She speaks of her experience as an African-American woman who is forced by the society in which she lives to consider herself black even when she would rather focus on herself as a mother or a lawyer. It is rare to have a black person talking uninterruptedly about the realities of racism, and doing so in a way that will cause an audience to take note.

OK, there is the odd occasion when a black person is heard on radio or seen on TV. I have done so sometimes myself, but usually to comment on questions set by someone who is frightened of speaking about race or is hostile to black people. So, for example, there was a spate of commentary on Operation Eagle Eye and on the OJ Simpson trial; but there are few positive stories of black people in the media.

Although the initial reception to Professor Williams was largely hostile, once listeners could hear her for themselves they could draw their own conclusions. What has been most interesting about the lectures is that they are being largely ignored in terms of the content. There is to be a Reith Discussion on 1 April, but there has been little other follow- up debate about the relevance of her views to contemporary Britain. Perhaps the British media agrees with Melvin Bragg that there is no comparison to be made between the experience of black people in Britain and America. In my view it takes a particular kind of arrogance to assume that those who don't experience either kind of racism can comment on its effects. Still, the Reith lectures are prestigious and provocative, this year's no less than any other, and it is a landmark that the subject is race.

The third event of significance is the publicity surrounding the demand for the return of the Benin Bronzes. For several years, the Africa Reparations Movement has been calling for their return and that of other stolen and dubiously acquired art and artefacts from Africa. This year is the centenary of the sacking of the Oba of Benin's palace and the looting of his thrones and bronzes; and museums are worried that they may have to give back things that they know to have been stolen. After Richard Gott wrote a lengthy account of the looting in The Independent, the following week Brian Sewell in London's Evening Standard wrote in defence of hanging on to the treasures obtained by pillage and plunder. Within days I was able to reply, on behalf of The Africa Reparations Movement, and put some of the case for the return of all African art and artefacts. A real debate has begun about whether African art and heritage is best retained in Britain or where is was produced and used.

The final associated event was the discovery on the Ilfracombe coast of the cargo of HMS London, which went aground in 1796. A local amateur archaeologist found bones and manacles, which supported accounts that African slaves were on board when it sank. This finding may be the first of many such ships. It is probable that records have existed about sunken slave ships off the Liverpool and Bristol coasts, but these cities have tried so hard to ignore their past involvement with slavery that they and local archaeologists have preferred to keep its history buried.

The people of Ilfracombe and north Devon have been sympathetic and sensitive to this horrific find, and rather than act with shocked denial they have chosen to explore the past, however unpleasant. The short-term consequences have been positive for Ilfracombe, the local people who found the remains and the local museum and archaeologists, who have received attention and publicity they could not have hoped for. This could be a model for the future.

There is nothing to fear in looking at slavery. We seek nothing but the truth. And if, as we believe will be the case, Britain's role as a slave exploiting and trading nation is acknowledged, perhaps we will all be able to live together in harmony.

The lesson to be learnt from all these examples is that there will be progress on the politics of race, such that it can be rendered redundant, only when black people are allowed to speak for ourselves and when we are listened to. When others, through hatred or guilt, seek to silence black people, race will continue to be an issue that divides.

Patricia Williams's Reith lectures continue tonight on Radio 4 at 8.30pm.

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