The Sunday Telegraph noted 'the profile built up by the police of youngsters to whom ordinary standards of social behaviour have no meaning . . . It is a picture of man stripped of all civilising concepts of love, pity, conscience'.
At first sight, this debate looks suspiciously similar to previous panics about black crime. There is a long history of media and police campaigns attempting to associate crime with black youth.
The most infamous was the 'mugging' scare of the early Eighties, when the Metropolitan Police invented a category of crime specifically to propagate the idea that young blacks were disproportionately associated with street crime. Such panics had the effect of criminalising the black community and reinforcing the idea that black people did not really belong in Britain.
The current debate about Yardies has a somewhat different tenor. It distinguishes not so much between black and white as between respectable blacks and an 'underclass' outside 'civilised' society, composed of black and white, whose values and morals seem very different from those of the rest of us. As one black south London resident put it: 'Whether they're black or white, they're a different people. You can't tell them anything, you can't sit down and reason with them, you can't talk to them.'
Contrast this discussion with the debate about the treatment meted out to PC Les Turner by anti-racist demonstrators. Mr Turner was the black policeman hospitalised after suffering what he called a 'racist attack' by demonstrators on the Anti-Nazi League march in south London two weeks ago.
'I wore the Queen's crown,' he said, 'and I was the wrong symbol of authority to them.' At first he 'couldn't understand why there were so few black people on the march'; then he realised that 'decent black folk would not come to a march like this'.
This story has several themes. It emphasises the idea that black people are not only an integral part of British society, but that they are now also in the front line, defending the authority of the Crown. It implies that defence of the Crown includes the defence of equal rights for black people. And it helps to emphasise the distinction between decent black folk (who would no more take part in such a march than they would take crack) and those who are criminals.
Enter John Patten. If decent black folk do not take part in violent marches, deal in crack or shoot policemen, then decent white folk do not vote for the British National Party or riot in Rotterdam. That was the Education Secretary's message when he tried to reclaim the Union Jack from racists and yobbos.
Nationalism was only safe, it was suggested, in the hands of the right kind of people. Middle-class flag-waving, as at the Tory conference, is respectable; but if the national flag is placed in the hands of a working-class lout, its message becomes abhorrent.
Underlying all this is the idea that the racist is a product of the white underclass: a young working-class man with cropped hair, tattoos and DMs, someone who is ignorant and driven by blind prejudice - certainly too stupid to understand that racism is morally abhorrent.
According to popular myth, such people are not simply racist, but responsible for most other vices in society, too. The BNP's ranks, one newspaper has observed, 'are full of drug pushers, gunrunners, thugs, murderers, child molesters'. They are not like us, is the message. White yobbos, like black Yardies, are not part of civilised society. Morally, socially and intellectually, the underclass, black and white, is inferior to the rest of us.
At first sight, this recasting of the notion of inferiority in moral terms seems positive. After all, it implies that biological differences are not important; that the real distinctions arise from our behaviour, values and morals. But worrying consequences stem from these ideas.
First, they obscure the oppression of black people, by attaching racism to an 'underclass' rather than a society that treats black people as second- class citizens. It is easy to blame white yobbos for racial violence; much harder to confront the deep-seated structural causes of black inequality. We should always be wary of easy explanations.
Second, by giving notions of inferiority and superiority a moral rather than biological guise, such ideas are rendered more acceptable.
Arguments such as these not only fail to undermine racist ideas, they also provide the basis for a new form of racism. Talk of Yardies or yobbos being a 'different people' may be simply rhetorical, but it leads to the assumption that divisions in society are permanent or unbridgeable, even if they are not biological.
Victorian society castigated the 'undeserving poor' in terms remarkably similar to many contemporary descriptions of the Nineties underclass. The relationship between 'outcast England' and 'respectable society' provided the model for understanding the relationship between 'civilised' Europe and 'savage' Africa, and laid the basis for racial thinking. We should be wary of treading this path a second time.
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